Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Nobody is writing about learning.

I was asked the other day if many reporters come to me about stories on reading. My primary job at EWA is directly working with journalists; the topics they want help on make for a pretty reliable indicator of what’s being written about. Since the beginning of 2010, I have fielded 210 requests for help in coverage from preschool through college—and none of them were about reading. Over the previous two years, four of 450 requests addressed reading.

Are you shocked yet? Let’s broaden the inquiry to all stories about learning and delivery of instruction—curriculum, textbooks, teaching methods, the merit of various interventions, cognition and so on. There have been just 20 of those over two and a half years. If I am generous and include class size, book banning and other topics that might reasonably touch on teaching and learning (but often do not), that comprises 5 percent of requests.

The share of stories about teaching and learning was greater when I started than it is now. Not surprisingly, people are writing about teacher quality a lot this year—but not actual teaching. Reporters want to know about merit pay, about unions, about teaching colleges, about pensions. They’re writing about charters: politics, test scores, facilities, funding, teacher burnout. But they are not writing about how exactly teachers teach and how students learn.

Why not? Is it boring? Irrelevant? Difficult? Elizabeth Green’s notable New York Times Magazine piece  shows that you can write about the act of teaching—rather than the politics of it—and get people talking. The problem is even worse in higher ed coverage, almost none of which addresses instruction. I’m not surprised at the trend, but I do find the actual numbers—or dearth of them—startling.


  1. So true. It was nowhere near as in depth as Elizabeth Green's piece, but I thought Trip Gabriel did a nice job providing glimpses of the way instruction looks at two different charters in his NYT piece in early May. I also think my former colleague Alan Borsuk from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a lot more than your average education reporter about the nitty-gritty of teaching and learning, including a long series on different approaches to teaching math.

  2. I suspect Green's piece may only have generated interested because it was more broadly about improving teacher quality.

    It seems to me, this is just like any other profession. If there were a big hubbub about the quality of engineers in this country, journalists would write about engineering schools, standards of the profession, and the quality of the products. But nobody would write about what an engineer actually does. I think most people just assume that (along with real pedagogy) is for the textbooks. And I suspect most people outside the profession would be largely uninterested, many because they'd be lost in the jargon.

    This type of specialized journalism requires specialized readers, no?

  3. The issue is like the "coverage of policy" for DC.

    Some things are hard and require expertise. There are other -- more generic things -- that people (reporter and writers both) feel that can easily get a grip on.

    Those harder things cannot easily be covered in that kind of short pieces that we see so often in on education. So, instead we see horse race and the application of ideas from outside education as the material at the focus on reporters work.

    But journalism at its best actually serves and educational purpose for the reader. It should not just explain details, but rather should actually enlighten. That kind of journalism is harder to do because it takes more knowledge, yes. But it also takes more skill. And more patience from editors to allow the reporters to get it right. And it takes guts, too. That is, reporters need to write as though their audience might not actually understand something, and some in the audience might take offense because they don't want their ideas challenged.

    Why don't see it? In short, we don't see it because it is hard.

  4. I don't think it's any harder to explain, say, what Open Court looks like in the classroom than it is to explain how value-added works. Though you have to actually leave your desk to do the former and not the latter.

  5. I think there is this assumption that teachers are well-prepared in college to address the needs of their students in their particular subject (or all subjects, in the case of elementary education teachers).