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.