Friday, December 11, 2009

Which part of “PUBLIC schools” don’t you understand?

Major-league kudos to Michael Miner at the Chicago Reader, who writes about the culture of fear in that city’s school system that shuts out reporters—and, by virtue, the public. Reporters around the country tell me it has gotten worse for them, nowhere moreso than in districts led by big-shot reformers. There is no justification for filtering every single contact between journalists and educators through PR people, or creating a climate in which nobody feels free to talk about ... anything.

Miner writes that the head flack at Chicago schools “spoke of the value of having ‘everybody on the same page.’” Ack. I could rant pretty thoroughly about how creepy and unproductive it is to want everyone in a massive organization to be on the same page—and foray into my loathing of how “being a team player,” which principals say all the time, has come to mean “not questioning anything”—but perhaps today is the day I should start trying to blog shorter.

I’ll just say two things:

1. The “same page” climate means that only the crankiest, most out-there gadflies have the guts to question or criticize, which is not as productive as an honest dialogue among everyone.

2. Reporters should write forthrightly, in the stories themselves or on their blogs, about every roadblock they face in this regard.


  1. In a time of technological development that makes transparency so easy, it is interesting to see the 'age of accountability' in education coupled with less access for the media. How perfectly contradictory.

  2. Having spent much of my adult life as a flack, I don't understand why reporters are stymied by them. The coin of the realm is access. The reporter willingly dispenses with some editorial control in exchange for access (an interview, the ability to be a fly on the wall to get some color, an interview with a big shot, etc). From this adversarial dynamic, something of value ostensibly comes. But if the reporter isn't getting access, what's the quid for the quo?

    Linda's suggestion is a good one. Every reporter who is stuggling to get access to public schools should keep a running record on his or her blog. Here are the requests I made for interviews, access to schools, phone calls I made to administrators, etc. And here's the responses I got. Or didn't get. It would make for fascinating reading.

  3. Anonymous,

    Remember the continuity between the Wire's critique of education, the press, data-driven policing, the drug war, and the way people respond to deindistrializing etc. There is continuity because we're all made out of the same imperfect clay.

  4. Yes, that is an excellent point, and of course what made the show great. The drug dealers and gang members never seemed so bad and the cops, media and teachers never seemed quite that good. And all of the groups were with their flaws.

    I was just pointing out that although I am for free exchange of ideas and information in open and honest ways, I find it hard to blame people for locking out the media. What has the media done to earn educators' trust?

  5. One could argue the reverse just as easily: What has education done to earn the media's trust?

    I know this is an antique notion, but if you're earning your livelihood on the public's dime, the public is entitled to know what they're getting for their money. I don't think schools should have an open door policy, but the bar ought to be pretty high for denying a legitimate reporter access to schools.

  6. I guess what I see is a severe lack of "legitimate reporters." Even when there are legitimate reporters, editors and publishers might rework a story for ratings and attention. (Again see Season 5 of The Wire.)

    How does a principal or teacher know that being honest and open about the complexities of running schools, teaching and learning won't cost them their job when the story gets reworked and the media frenzy starts?

    I am not saying schools should not be honest and open, I am just saying I find it hard to blame people for not trusting or working with the media.

  7. I don't think every education reporter is terrific. But I do think the vast majority are well-intentioned and competent, and an awful lot are plenty reflective and educated. Those who aren't will never get there if nobody talks to them. As for The Wire, I love that show as much as anyone, but even David Simon would tell you there is a difference between thinking that its scenes and lines and characters powerfully reflect some elements of society and speaking of them as if they really happened.

  8. A relationship between a reporter and a source is like any relationship: it has to be allowed to grow and develop organically. There is zero chance of a fair, accurate and professional relationship--a relationship that is in the public's clear interest--developing in the absence of openness and access.

  9. After I left a 17-year career in the newspaper business (the longest stretch, 12 years, as a copy editor for the San Jose Mercury News, in both news and features), I became an urban public-school parent, volunteer and advocate. And I'm married to a 33-year San Francisco Chronicle reporter, now displaced in the Chronicle's near-collapse.

    From my perspective as a public-school advocate, I have been periodically horrified by the behavior, ethics and professional standards of some of my former colleagues, though there are many for whom I still have the highest respect.

    The initial dash of cold water was the 2001 controversy over Edison Schools in San Francisco. Edison Schools is the now-mostly-fizzled for-profit charter school operation once hailed (including by the enthusiastic mainstream media) as the savior and future of public education. When the San Francisco school board moved to investigate issues with the one Edison charter school here, which at the time was the lowest-scoring school in our district, Edison somehow managed to rally the national and even international (the Economist) press in its behalf for a mass bashing of SFUSD -- largely from afar and by outlets that knew nothing about our district. How Edison did that, I still don't know -- can anyone enlighten me? The Chronicle did lots of the bashing itself, and as an insider I'm well aware that the editorial-writing bashers were commuters from wealthy suburbs who would NEVER in a trillion years have let their own kids inside an Edison school and who really were, and are, clueless about urban public-school issues.

    Frankly, after watching that, if I were an educator I would never talk to the press myself.

    The New York Times coverage of this issue was intriguing. The Times did a Page 1 story in March 2001 just on this one little controversy. I was already a known Edison critic, and I and another parent activist had lunch with Times reporter Ed Wyatt for an interview -- since his point of view was clear, it was a tense lunch (so much so that I was seriously nauseated and trying not to puke on the table). And Wyatt did indeed write a very pro-Edison piece that made our district sound like it was jealous of success and made us critics sound like nut jobs who put our anti-privatization ideology ahead of the success of low-income children of color.

    And then somehow Jacques Steinberg took over the beat at the Times and the coverage just changed. Steinberg took some dispassionate looks at the methodology by which Edison was making success claims that the press en masse had previously been parroting without question. He found that when that methodology was applied to the badly struggling Cleveland school system, its schools showed more "success" than Edison's. Edison's former cheerleaders started to pretend they had never heard of it. I was left wondering what all that was about. I still wonder.

    Anyway, can anyone REALLY wonder why after watching that kind of thing, school district insiders might be wary of the press?

  10. Oh, and here's a key point that I think media insiders don't get.

    The readers and the potential sources don't really separate the editorial opinion from the news coverage. A respected education reporter for one of the nation's highest-profile newspapers said something to me like "Oh, well, the editorial board..." -- metaphorically rolling his eyes.

    But when the editorial board is doing its magical-thinking cheerleading for charter schools and privatization, bashing public schools, teachers and teachers' unions, and the like, that's "the newspaper" to the public. Your potential sources will indeed think of you as hostile and not to be trusted. I don't know what the solution to that is; it's an institutional problem.

  11. There are lots more anecdotes where that came from, I'm dismayed to say.

    I also want to add that I'm sure that (though I'm a minivan-driving, middle-age, middle-class PTA mommy) I'm easily dismissed -- by the press, that is -- as one of the "crankiest, most out-there gadflies." But I maintain that's because it does muck up the nice tidy story of a promising new miracle solution to have someone asking tough questions about it. Easier to dismiss the serious questioner as a cranky, out-there gadfly.