Uninformed, Irresponsible Journalism Is Killing Needed Education Reform

Uninformed, Irresponsible Journalism Is Killing Needed Education Reform
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In this Jan. 6, 2016 photo, the newsstand originally was named '€œRead All About It' and is now named for its location First & Pike News in Seattle. Print is not dead. Not at the corner of First and Pike, where the city'€™s most prominent newsstand has been since 1979. First & Pike News carries publications from Arabic to Yiddish from Middle East lifestyle magazine Sayidaty, printed in Dubai, to the New York City newspaper Yiddish Daily Forward. (Alan Berner/The Seattle Times via AP)

RCEd Commentary

There’s an anti-reform narrative that has taken hold, where published articles and blog posts have become so similar, they start to blur, reading like a greatest hits of talking points, an amalgamation of all the myths spewed forth against education reformers.

These pieces, typically written by people like Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, or Jeff Bryant in Salon, parrot political propaganda as nuanced as a jackhammer drilling into concrete. But it is truly troubling when what is arguably America’s premier magazine tasks its film critic David Denby, someone lacking experience in education reportage save for a shallow profile of Diane Ravitch published in 2012, to pen a hollow critique—sans data or any kind of reliable evidence—of education reform that reads less like a work of journalism than that of a dog-eared playbook.

This tells you a lot about the state of education journalism. And it’s not good.

It’s a field where all too often, baseless assertions dominate, articles are void of data, and correlation implies causation. That The New Yorker, long renowned for the rigor of its fact checking, could resort to such practices shows how low journalistic standards have fallen—and how endemic the problem has become.

Those of us who identify as education reformers probably utter familiar groans when we come across these articles, so often do they repeat the same sound bites.

1. Education reformers disrespect teachers.

2. Reformers solely blame teachers for educational failure.

3. Poverty goes unacknowledged by reformers.

4. Public education is fine. Reformers are hysterical.

5. Charter schools privatize public education.

6. Reformers reflexively hate unions.

Many of us working in this space can write these pieces on autopilot. They are derivative when we are in dire need of well reported, factually reliable, and original journalism that tells us what we don’t already know and doesn’t consist of hoary canards.

Instead, what we are getting are screeds masked as journalism.

Education reporting has to be more ambitious -- and occasionally it is, as shown by the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones in her reporting on school segregation. While our opponents believe we prefer to live in an echo chamber, we would much rather have our work analyzed—even challenged—thoughtfully and without an obvious agenda.

Ambitious, valuable journalism means not using tired phrases such as “corporate reform” or coming to pat conclusions such as “the real problem is persistent poverty.” It does not sneer at data.

It acknowledges the modern wave of the education reform movement cannot possibly be responsible for policies and practices that have been in place for decades. Good journalism is not caricature and it does not look for easy villains and heroes.

Why is this kind of journalism not more common? In concert with the very uncertain future of the industry, it is no secret that education reporting is afforded less respect than other beats.

When The New Yorker allows its film critic to deliver a poorly informed rant, that gives you an indication of the esteem in which education reporting is held.

More responsible journalism would result if reporters diversified their sources instead of reaching out to the same talking heads such as Diane Ravitch or Julian Vasquez Heilig. They would do well to talk to people at the Department of Education, particularly those working in the Office of Civil Rights. They could visit charter schools and see for themselves what kinds of places they are. Above all, reporters should become more data and research literate rather than being deferential to papers posing as rigorous academic research.

It’s bad enough that meaningful, factually based discussion of education is being given short shrift during this election cycle. That this sad state of affairs is reproduced in some of our best publications should give us all pause.

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