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With Students' Media Illiteracy In Mind, State Legislatures Taking Action


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A series of proposals aimed at improving media literacy in schools have been introduced in states across the country, as lawmakers focus on honing students' ability to separate fact from opinion and outright fiction.

One such piece of legislation has been introduced in South Carolina, where state Rep. Seth Rose's bill would direct the South Carolina Department of Education to create an advisory panel to study how best to introduce media literacy into K-12 schools. The proposal is working its way through the statehouse now. 

"It's certainly a relevant time for us to be teaching our children both the dangers of social media, how to differentiate a fact from an opinion, and to not just take for granted what you see and read on the internet," said Rose, a Democrat.

Some legislation, like Rose's bill and another in Missouri, is modeled on a legislative template created by Media Literacy Now, a national media literacy advocacy organization.

That template calls for creating an advisory council within the state's department of education to issue guidance on how to build media literacy into K-12 curriculums. An adapted version of the template is also pending in Hawaii.

Rose said that the growing interest in media literacy in other states influenced his decision to draft the legislation.

"It was persuasive to me when I realized we're not reinventing the wheel here," he said. "It's been done elsewhere, but we'd still be one of the states on the forefront." 

Other pieces of state legislation take different approaches to promoting media literacy.

Some states are considering measures that would tackle media literacy by making changes to curriculums.

  • A bill in New York, for instance, would require two hours a week of media literacy education for all K-12 students, while Pennsylvania proposal would require the department of education to create a media literacy curriculum.
  • In Washington state, a bill would create a grant program aimed at supporting media literacy in English, social studies, or health classes.
  • Legislation introduced in Illinois would create a standard definition of media literacy education and allows schools to include a unit of study on that topic. Schools would not be required to take that step.
  • A proposal in Minnesota takes a different approach, creating a grant program to support students' increased access to library/media specialists.
  • And in Massachusettsthe legislature is considering an all-purpose bill to support media literacy education. It includes provisions to develop media literacy standards, survey how teachers are already incorporating media literacy into classrooms, and provide professional development in the area. 

Nationwide, there's broad concern about K-12 students' inability to think critically about information found online.

The Stanford History Education Group in 2016 published a study calling the results of almost 8,000 students' performance on tests of their ability to reason about online information "bleak." Over 80 percent of students, for instance, were unable to identify an article on Slate's homepage labelled "sponsored content" as advertising rather than news.  

Recent research has demonstrated, though, that education in media literacy, even in small doses, can have measurable results. A report from the Reboot Foundation found that test participants who read an article or watched a short video on differentiating between real and fake news were better at spotting fake news, providing an encouraging theoretical basis for teaching media literacy in schools.  

"Waving the Red Flag" 

Washington state led the way on media literacy education, passing in 2016 the first bill of its kind, which identified media literacy as one of the state's main goals in public education. Since then, 12 states have enacted media literacy laws, in addition to the nine now pending.

In South Carolina, the legislation was championed by Frank Baker, a media education consultant and the South Carolina chapter leader of Media Literacy Now.

"We have very weak standards, and we're not even testing media literacy knowledge," Baker said. "I'm just waving the red flag. I'm saying, 'People, we need to pay attention.'" 

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