Paul Thomas has been writing thoughtfully about the defects of education journalism for the past several months. He is obviously frustrated that there is so little investigative reporting, that so many writers rely on press releases, that they seem unable to interpret research, and that education writers all too often know so little about the history of education.


In his latest article on the subject, he offers as an example the misreporting of “grit,” which became a media sensation because of a bestseller (How Children Succeed) by Paul Tough, citing the research of Angela Duckworth. Suddenly, “grit” was everywhere, the secret of success. And now the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the nation’s report card) will be assessing grit, even though there is no common definition of what it is and a very thin research base for its importance. We don’t even know that “grit” can be taught. Angela Duckworth wrote an op-ed for The New York Times opposing the testing of grit, and Paul Tough says in his new book Helping Children Succeed that he doubts that grit can be taught. (I will review it in the next few weeks.) Thomas complains that journalists did not question “grit,” they simply reported on it, found examples of it, celebrated it, recycled claims without evidence.


Thomas lists 12 ways in which education journalism fails, but each of those criticisms contains a suggestion about how education journalism might succeed.


For example, Thomas warns against the common practice of finding “miracle schools,” which are feel-good stories that often turn out to be false.


He warns against the danger of presenting”education research and science in simplistic terms and failing to couch any one study in the context of the broader body of research or against unbiased reviews of that study. Especially since mainstream media are contracting, edujournalism is even more susceptible to press-release journalism—simply restating what aggressive researchers and think tanks send to the media without regard for whether or not that research is credible (thus, above, the overstating by both Duckworth and media coverage).”


He warns against the danger of “remaining trapped in rankings and state-to-state or international comparisons. Not only are rankings and comparisons mostly misleading, in many cases, the rankings are fabricated (seeking ways to force a ranking instead of admitting that the objects ranked are essentially the same), and comparisons are made at superficial levels that ignore significant differences in what is being compared.

He warns about “uncritically embracing crisis discourse about education that ignores historical patterns involving education, poverty, and racism. Current “crisis” education stories about “bad” schools, “bad” teachers, and “kids today” have been recycled in the U.S. since at least the mid-1800s. The “crisis” label allows edujournalists, politicians, and the public to ignore social and policy causes for the consequences being identified as the “crisis….”



Thinking without an ounce of imagination. Accountability, standardized testing, grades, grade levels—these and dozens of “normal” and “traditional” practices are never realistically challenged in edujournalism; no consideration is given to things could be otherwise. A failure of imagination is seeking out and believing in new tests and new standards; imagination allows us to rethink a better school system without tests and without standards.


Read on to see the other fallacies and errors into which journalists may slip if not wary. Each of them points the way to better, more thoughtful, more skeptical reporting.