Paul Thomas spent many years as a high school teacher in rural South Carolina before becoming a professor at Furman University. As those of you who have followed his writings know, Thomas is a powerful social critic.
He has recently written a series of articles criticizing the mainstream media for swallowing the corporate reform line about “the crisis in our schools.” He points out that the media have been complaining about our “terrible” schools for over a hundred years and predicting that the schools will ruin our economy (which has never happened).
In his first post on this topic, he cites the article by Motoko Rich in the New York Times about a high school in South Carolina that has rising graduation rates but less-than-stellar test scores. The point of the article is that graduation rates are rising because standards are falling. The article was followed up by an editorial lamenting the crisis in our schools and calling for more testing and more of the reforms that have failed for the past 15 years.
Here, then, let me offer a few keys to moving beyond the reductive crisis-meme-as-education-journalism:
Public education has never been and is not now in crisis. “Crisis” is the wrong metaphor for entrenched patterns that have existed over a century. A jet plane crash landing into the Hudson River is a crisis; public education suffers under forces far more complicated than a crisis.
Metrics such as high-stakes test scores and graduation rates have always and currently tell us more about the conditions of children’s lives than to what degree public schools are effective.
Short-hand terms such as “college and career ready” and “grade-level reading” are little more than hokum; they are the inadequate verbal versions of the metrics noted above.
The nebulous relationship between the quality of education in the U.S. and the fragility of the U.S. economy simply has never existed. Throughout the past century, no one has ever found any direct or clear positive correlation between measures of educational quality in the U.S. and the strength of the U.S. economy.
Yes, racial and class segregation is on the rise in the U.S., and so-called majority-minority schools as well as high-poverty schools are quickly becoming the norm of public education. While demographics of race and class remain strongly correlated with the metrics we use to label schools as failing, the problem lies in the data (high-stakes tests remain race, class, and gender biased), not necessarily the students, teachers, or administrators.
However, historically and currently, public education’s great failures are two-fold: (1) public schools reflect the staggering social inequities of the U.S. culture, and (2) public schools too often perpetuate those same inequities (for example, tracking and disciplinary policies).
The mainstream media’s meat grinder of crisis-only reporting on public education achieves some extremely powerful and corrosive consequences.
First, the public remains grossly misinformed about public schools as a foundational institution in a democracy.
Next, that misleading and inaccurate crisis narrative fuels the political myopia behind remaining within the same education policy paradigm that has never addressed the real problems and never achieved the promises attached to each new policy (see from NCLB to ESSA).
And finally, this fact remains: Political and public will in the U.S. has failed public education; it has not failed us.
Paul Thomas received a few complaints on Twitter about his post and he returned with a second post, in which he notes that journalists who write about education seldom seek comments from teachers, principals, and informed education scholars. Instead, they quote think-tank spokesmen, economists, political scientists, statisticians, business leaders, and others who have little or no understanding of the reality of schooling. By bypassing those who actually have experience in education, journalists recycle the “crisis” narrative while ignoring the genuine problems in education and society (e.g., resegregation, inequitable resources, the pernicious effects of high-stakes testing) that should be changed.
My argument is that since most political leaders and political appointees governing education as well as most journalists covering education are without educational experience or expertise, these compelling but false narratives are simply recycled endlessly, digging the hole deeper and deeper….
And on the rare occasion that I am interviewed by a journalist, I can predict what will happen: the journalist is always stunned by what I offer, typically challenging evidence-based claims because they go against the compelling but false narratives.
No, there is no positive correlation between educational quality and any country’s economy.
No, teacher quality is actually dwarfed by out-of-school factors in terms of student achievement.
No, charter and private schools are not superior to public schools.
No, school choice has not worked, except to re-segregate schools.
No, merit pay does not work, and is something teachers do not want. Teachers are far more concerned about their autonomy and working conditions.
No, standards do not work—never have—and high-stakes testing is mostly a reflection of children’s lives, not their teachers or their schools.
This list could go on, but I think I have made my point.
When one of the journalists tweeted that she knows how to be a journalist, “It is my profession,” Thomas felt compelled to write yet a third post on the failures of education journalists in writing about education. Basically, he replies that if journalists expect to be respected as professionals, why don’t they treat teachers as professionals?
To be perfectly honest, education journalism has significantly failed to extend respect to educators—for decades.
The entire accountability era is built on the premise that schools are not effective because teachers simply do not try hard enough, that education lacks the proper incentives (usually negative) to demand the hard work needed for schools to excel.
The “bad teacher” mantra that has risen during the Obama presidency, and the increase of calls for and uses of value-added methods (VAM) to evaluate teachers both further de-professionalize and demonize teachers—and the great majority of education journalism has embraced, not refuted, these.
And as I have already noted, the favorite meme of education journalism remains (for over 150 years) that education is in crisis.
How would journalists feel if “journalism is in crisis” was the primary and initial given about their field, for a century and a half? Does that honor your professionalism? Especially if you have little or no power over your field, especially if your voice is nearly muted from the discussion?….
What does it say to teachers when mainstream education journalists are quoting one think tank leader with no experience in education (and a degree in a field that is not education) more than all the quoting of classroom teachers combined?
Anthony Cody read Paul Thomas’s posts about the media and suggested that his ideas should open up a wider debate about whose voices get heard in the public debates about education.
Cody was especially disturbed that the Education Writers Association, which had awarded prizes to his work in the past, would no longer give full membership to bloggers like Anthony Cody, Paul Thomas, and Mercedes Schneider (or me, for that matter). None of them will ever be eligible for prizes for their writing and investigative work. Cody received an explanation from EWA staff saying that the work of bloggers did not meet their high standards for independent journalism. “Among many factors, we look for is the media outlet’s independence from what is covered, institutional verifications, and editorial processes.”
This is almost comical: Are education journalists subsidized and/or employed by Eli Broad, Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, the Walton family, and Michael Bloomberg more independent than bloggers who are paid by no one at all? Should all the education journalists at the Los Angeles Times be excluded from EWA since Eli Broad and a few other billionaires are underwriting education reporting there? What assurance does the public have that they are allowed to criticize Broad, who wants to control the city’s public schools? As between bloggers like Anthony Cody or Paul Thomas and reporters who work for a publisher who loves corporate reform ideas, who do you think would be more independent?
Cody suggests that EWA would do well to revise its bylaws and open its full membership to bloggers, because many are current or former classroom teachers and could add different perspectives, different experiences, and expertise to the other members of EWA.