Monday, December 7, 2009

Everything that’s wrong with us, Part Two.

Everybody and their mother has been bemoaning the decline of education journalism, with their eye trained on the journalists themselves. (Almost always the reporters. But of course my natural instinct leads elsewhere: blame editors! Reporters know national context is important; they are dying to cover the beat with breadth and depth. You think they are begging to cover Obama’s speech or a lunchroom brawl?) Anyway, we get it. Journalism is in bad shape. Ergo, education journalism is too.

But guess what? The biggest barrier to excellent education journalism has nothing to do with the institutional weaknesses of that clunky old mainstream media. Rather, it lies within the schoolhouse doors. And the boardroom doors. And the superintendent’s office doors.

Educators operate in a culture of fear. Schools bar access to reporters, and that is a problem. Always has been. Worse, though, is the paranoia that prevents anyone, from the top on down, from speaking honestly about what works and doesn’t in education, what policy might look like (or does look like) in action. If I were a principal and politicians were visiting my school, I would show them the worst things in the building, so they could see our challenges. I would allow my teachers to speak with the press, without prepackaged messages to deliver. I would be starkly frank with my own bosses. But these days, there is no incentive for such honesty. (Except for “what’s best for the children”—whatever happened to that?)

So teachers only tell their principals what they want to hear, principals tell their superintendents what they want to hear, superintendents tell their boards what they want to hear, all the way up to the national policy makers. Given that calculus, of course, the truth that makes its way to the vast majority of journalists is varnished to a glow.

Education is a secretive world. (Not convinced? Think about the fact that we have built an entire system around the results of tests that in most states nobody outside the classroom is allowed to see.) But with access and honesty comes greater understanding. For ages, the Washington Post had so little access to D.C. schools that they only covered the district as the inept bureaucracy it largely was. Any problem with any student? Blame the system. Obviously, reality is far more complex, which was why I was thrilled to see a piece in the paper in 2007 that finally reflected that complexity. “Will Jonathan Graduate?” did not exonerate the system, but it showed that the problems inside one high school were not the bureaucrats’ alone. There was blame enough for everyone: central office, school administrators, parents, Jonathan himself.  That deeper kind of understanding benefits us all (protective bureaucrats and educators too)—and it can only be had through HONESTY and ACCESS.

Policy makers have advocacy organizations doing a great job to spread their message. Superintendents tell me that because they can control their own message through electronic media, they don’t “need” journalists anymore. That scares the crap out of me, and it should scare you too.


  1. I used the term "nobody" too loosely. Certainly I did not mean to imply that the people who wrote the test did not see the test.

    What do I want to see? What a few, but not enough, states share: every question from every past test, with aggregated student results. Parents and policy makers and school board members and journalists and everyone else should be able to see which standards are tested and which aren't, how questions are asked, how they vary from year to year, and so on. To say that we can't do this because of test security is absurd, since the group of people who would be able to cheat because they know the questions -- teachers -- already see them when they proctor the tests, and in many of those places the tests change little from year to year.

    No, I don't want to see Susie Jones's scores or what questions she in particular got wrong. But shouldn't her teachers? School-based educators, the ones who are supposed to be able to make use of this data, often get so little information (usually in the name of validity) that they cannot effectively base instruction on results. For example, in Maryland (I think this is still the case; it was a couple of years ago), the elementary school reading exams only yield scores for "general reading processes," "comprehension of literary text" and "comprehension of informational text." Did a teacher's students understand main idea? Vocabulary? Multiple meaning words? Did they simply run out of time? Those data give her no way of knowing.

  2. “Educators operate in a culture of fear....

    So teachers only tell their principals what they want to hear, principals tell their superintendents what they want to hear, superintendents tell their boards what they want to hear, all the way up to the national policy makers. Given that calculus, of course, the truth that makes its way to the vast majority of journalists is varnished to a glow.

    Education is a secretive world. ...”

    Exactly right!
    Entering public schools at the age of forty, I quickly discovered the two primary rules, don’t let the patient die on your operating table, and take care of PR. But when I insinuated myself into administrative politics and reforms, I was surprised by two other things. The oldtimers did not disagree with my characterization of the field and they were not ashamed by it. They were proud to be protecting public education by maintaining secrecy.
    In our district’s case, the villain was a newspaper - the Daily Oklahoman. No honest information could be allowed upstairs or outside, lest it become evidence for frontpage editorials that public schools are communistic and atheistic.
    A lot of this is a culture of powerlessness. But a lot of the culture of compliance was the desire to protect public education from real enemies. Ironically, the Daily Disappointment got an award-winning editor (I forgot his name but you’ll recall him. I think he was from Tennessee) and officially the series that brought him down was like the wonderful Post series you cited. Journalists who had been itching for a real assignment captured the inner city middle school that was one block from my houses. The series was brilliant but from all quarters, it was condemned.
    And our inability to talk about race, class, and parenting also makes schooling a touchy subject.

    I’ve never understood how NCLB supporters thought that the law’s accountability system could improve education’s “culture of compliance.” I don’t want to sound cynical. We educators are no different than anyone else. And too many of us are too comfortable being isolated within the four walls of the classroom.

    To me, education is about conversation. So, education reform has to be about conversation.

    By the way, when reporters get together at parties, I wouldn’t be surprised if they blamed editors. As a former historian, I remember when I loved to do the same with academic editors. When we teachers bunch up together at parties, I know how weird we seem to the rest of the adults. After a while though, we at least learn to keep our mouths shut about school in most polite company and also around our spouses.

  3. "...and the award for the best blog post by a non-teacher goes to: Linda Perlstein, for Everything that’s wrong with us, Part Two!"

    Linda gets to so much good stuff here it's heard to know where to start, but rather than just dispense with "atta boys" I'll add one observation. There is a profound irony in the fact that ed reporters want access to what's going on in classrooms and can't get it, while lots of insiders have access, but don't want it. Just show me the data, is their mindset. But to truly understand the data, you need to immerse yourself in the day-to-day of what children actually spend their time doing, most particularly, what's the curriculum? What's the pedagogical practice. The disconnect is that these are very often not driven by the teacher, but directed from above.

    If we had a detailed picture of the day-to-day, hour-by-hour realities of schools -- especially inner city schools -- the following picture would almost certainly emerge: the schools to which schools we send our poorest children are a cognitive wasteland, filled with dull and repetitive reading and writing "strategy" lessons and tedious test prep, and far too little caloric content in history, science and the arts. The teachers we wish to hold ultimately accountable for student performance have been poorly trained, and have virtually no control over what they teach their students, or even how. The feedback they receive from adminstrators is almost exclusively focused on visible indicators from bulletin boards to paperwork, and assessments have morphed from something designed to assess the student and drive instruction to something designed to assess the teacher.

    And all of this is aimed at delivering a product -- not an educated child, but a test score -- that is high enough to buy another year of being ignored by anyone with capacity to make one's life harder than it already is.

    Do I paint a grim picture? Yes. But tell me it's not so.

  4. Having worked both sides of the fence for many years, I'd quickly concede that school folks are pretty paranoid about education reporters. They mostly live in a culture where any public evidence of vulnerability or imperfection is a disaster. Of course the same is true in other fields -- your average corporate world, for example.

    To be fair, we need to keep in mind that many educators have been burned by lazy and uninformed reporting and editing -- the easy knee-jerk story playing off the latest fear meme. Both sides have a right to expect that they'll be working with competent professionals -- educators and journalists alike.

    In my experience on the journalism side, you have to earn the trust of teachers, principals and central office players by demonstrating your grasp of the complexities of their work. And you should expect to earn it. Once you do, access increases, sources develop, and some truth begins to surface.

  5. Interesting comment --

    To ceolaf I would like to see the scores of each teacher's classroom and the value added component of those students so you can see how effective a teacher is year in and year out with each group of students. Only way I know how to begin to see teacher effectiveness. Not the unimportant junk they are judged on by their principals.

    To George Schmidt -- thank you!! Reporters need to understand the topic they are covering - be it the education or financial world, etc. Reporters do not begin to understand the complexity of the financial system but that ignorance coupled with their editors knowledge of how to craft sensational headlines lead to tons of misinformation. Fortunately that is now changing and the reports are coming out by skilled members of the craft on what actually did happen and by whom.

    We need more quality reporters that can really dig, accumulate, follow and report on the facts in the field of education. We need reporters willing to explore the whole issue --poverty, ineffective parenting, ineffective teachers, weak administrators, poor schools of education (these should be abolished), etc. really putting these issues out to the public.

    To the educators -- what I have never understood is why in the world do you continue to work in the environment in which you do? So many of you are not viewed as professionals. In so many cases you have no time to teach because you babysit. Why do you and your peers keep allowing schools to take on the responsibility of parenting, doctor/nurse, social worker, etc. This is not the purpose of education -- its sole purpose is to teach reading and writing and 'rithmatic. Please stick to the basics and demand that your employer do so too...oh...maybe there is too much money in the non-educational stuff to actually do this...

    Education reporters...what do you think?

    To Robert Pondisco -- thanks for mentioning this blog --

  6. George's and the rest of this thread should be a reminder of why we need tenure, and why it is shameful that educators do not fight for the 1st amendment in public schools. No, we can't have the same protection for freedom of speech in a public school classroom as in higher education, but I personally am embarrassed that I don't voice these sentiments in my local district. To say that teachers should defend tenure in order to defend the right to oppose policies that we think are wrong, would just get me marginalized.

    We have a teacher who is going to the State Supreme Court in a shameful termination case. The trial judge was stunned when the principal testified that the teacher had been the best teacher she had ever seen, but "this is a new day." The judge was stunned that the teacher was charged with deviating from his lesson plans, after finding an admittedly appropriate book and DVD at Barnes and Noble and making a last minute change to his lesson plan. But for reasons that I understand, it would be suicide to make a stand in these types of cases based on the Bill of Rights.

    And George is right about another thing. I'm very impressed with working journalists, but I'm dismayed by the contempt of the editorial depatments of great newspapers towards the rule of law, including 1st amendment rights of teachers - rights that would be completely destroyed by "reformers."