AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
What kind of national media coverage of public education do we need?
The Brookings Institution recently published the report “Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough” about the paltry coverage of education by national news organizations. The report, written by Darrell West, Russ Whitehurst, and E. J. Dionne and developed through a grant from the Gates Foundation, shows how little education figures in coverage by national media outlets – and, when it does, how it is “episodic, reactive, and focused on major events.” (Through four city case studies, the report also shows how local coverage is more detailed and more nuanced than national coverage, an unsurprising finding given our system of local control of education.)
Over the last three years, national news outlets gave consistently more attention to lifestyle and sports coverage and coverage of the media itself than to education. The authors lament that “there was little emphasis in national news reporting on education policy, curricular issues, teacher training, or school reform.” And in their analysis of Associated Press wire service reports, the authors conclude that “a striking feature of wire service education coverage is how much of it focuses on stories that have nothing to do with education itself” (emphasis included in original). Instead, wire service reports and national education coverage, in general, consist primarily of stories about accidents, budget woes, crimes, and scandals in schools.
So, assuming that good local coverage alone is not enough, what would good national coverage of education look like? The Brookings authors suggest that national reporters proactively cover long-term trends and utilize education research in the ways that medical reporters draw on health research. They also suggest that young people and forms of new media (such as blogs) could be sources of information that could be used to inform policy, perhaps in ways that we have not imagined yet.
These are good ideas. But in a recent Education Week commentary Thomas Hatch, Associate Professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia, makes it clear that more attention in the national media to current policy debates would not necessarily address key concerns. Hatch argues that current federal policy fundamentally misrepresents the challenges of education reform and he describes “Four Flawed Assumptions” of those policies, paraphrased here:
- We know what we need to do to improve education, we just need incentives to do it.
- Reaching accountability targets signals that schools have the capacity to maintain that performance over time.
- Competition for students will lead to innovation and improved performance.
- We can scale up education successes to other schools and communities.
Some of the details of Hatch’s argument can be quibbled with, but his overall point is important. Current policy, and perhaps policy inherently, oversimplifies and distorts the challenges of education reform. In the Annenberg Institute’s work with schools, districts, and communities, we emphasize that education reform requires the sustained involvement of all the stakeholders to develop a shared vision of good schooling, as unwieldy as that might seem. It means creating environments where students want to go to school and teachers want to teach and parents feel that their voices are heard, both collectively and individually. It means ongoing and sometimes painstaking review and revision not just of policies, but also of the ways that school and district employees work and the relationships they develop (or do not).
As Carolyn Akers, executive director of the Mobile Area Education Foundation, likes to say, “School reform isn't rocket science. It's political science.” It's also technical, cultural, and social science. If our federal education policy fails to take into account this complexity, national education reporters and others interested in these issues do not just need to be better informed and more proactive, they also need to question the foundational assumptions of reform efforts. Stories that do that would help to make key education issues truly visible.
- Hatch, Thomas. 2009. “Four Flawed Assumptions of School Reform and What Can Be Done about Them,” Education Week Online (December 4), Commentary.
- West, Darrell, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, and E. J. Dionne, Jr. 2009. “Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough” Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.