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The Atlantic on the Reason Behind 'Boring' Education Reporting

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An article on The Atlantic's online education channel contends that much education reporting is "boring" because the field and much of the journalism about it is dominated by indecipherable jargon and acronyms.

"Edu-speak—the incomprehensible babble used to describe what are often relatively straightforward teaching methods, learning styles, and classroom designs—is plaguing the country's schools," Alia Wong, The Atlantic's education editor, writes in the Jan. 14 piece, "Why Education Reporting Is So Boring."

"Intended to help people understand education reform, edu-speak often ends up doing the exact opposite: It muddles those reform strategies and, left unchecked, it could end up making positive change a lot more difficult to achieve."

But Wong got anything but a boring reaction from some of her fellow education journalists with her assertion that "much of the education reporting Americans read today takes the wrong approach to covering the controversies and minutiae in the field."

Wong asserts that there is a lack of balance in education reporting between jargon-laded policy stories and "less-wonky stuff," such as stories about "off-the-wall" college courses or a story about why a gay teacher might not come out to his students.

"Policy, reform, and—dare I say it—pedagogy discussions are integral to understanding and improving the activities that shape kids' learning," Wong concludes. "But so are discussions about the tangible, real-world stuff: things that don't make the average Joe's eyes glaze over, topics that resonate even with the people who don't have kids, who don't teach kids, and who aren't kids (or young adults) themselves."

On the listserv of the Education Writers Association, Wong's story provoked a lively debate. (As an EWA member, I treat the listserv as an off-the-record discussion among journalists, but I sometimes ask reporters for permission to quote their posts. I have done that with the comments that follow.)

Betsy Hammond, an education reporter with The Oregonian in Portland, Ore., wrote that Wong's piece "accurately characterizes the way many educators speak as loaded with jargon and therefore often imprecise, sometimes to the point of meaningless."

But Hammond took issue with Wong's assertion that education reporting is boring because reporters adopt edu-speak as their own.

"Really? I read a heck of a lot of education reporting, from stuff in national publications to that of tiny weekly papers, and I think of virtually no examples of any education reporters writing like that," Hammond wrote. 

Charles Lussier, an education reporter with The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., wrote that "We are in a field awash in obfuscation and abstraction in its official language, but the actual doing of education, when one can get close enough to it, can be very interesting indeed. Our job is to bring out the latter and translate the former. We succeed some days, fail others. It's not for lack of trying. We're no different from other specialized fields that way."

Lussier added that "oversimplification, prompted by writers and editors who are allergic to complexity and nuance can produce very bad journalism on its own."

EWA's Emily Richmond, who started the discussion string, said reporters should reject the premise that jargon is unavoidable.

"If an educator seems to be speaking a different language, confront him/her on it," Richmond wrote. But she also had some issue with Wong's premise that education reporting is full of jargon.

"I wasn't able to think of a recent example of a beat reporter writing a jargon-laden education story," Richmond added. "It's certainly something I've more commonly seen in work by 'stakeholders' and 'policymakers' and analysts."

I reached out to Wong for a response but didn't hear back.

My own view is that Wong took an interesting premise about "edu-speak" in the field and stretched it a bit too far in terms of sweeping assertions about such jargon dominating education reporting, at least without backing it up with more examples.

Another issue with Wong's piece is that she contends that "the advent of edu-speak dates back to the Bush initiative of No Child Left Behind."¬†Some of us might be able to remind the youngish Wong that edu-speak probably dates to the Progressive era in education, if not earlier. But that might make us come off as old—and boring.

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