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On the Inside Looking Out: What to Think When Education's in the News

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Context is everything. Especially when it comes to news.

Every day I run through our city's paper, at least the website, and then there are the trades and the blogs. A couple of times a week I get an email blast from the National Association of Independent Schools with the subject line "Education in the News."

Education is always in the news. Often this is a good thing, although other times it can be just depressing. Maybe the best news I get every day is the Fritzwire listing of legislative action, hearings, conferences, and open positions--several screen-feet of this, daily; but it's all "just the facts." I never have to sigh or moan at much more than the length of the post.

Sometimes it's easy to know how to respond to the news. A city or state decrees that more testing is in order for its children (boo!) or folks somewhere are boycotting state tests (hooray!). Yet another heretofore-trusted individual who happens to work in a school has been caught in some kind of sexual misconduct, often involving children (serious boo!). The local paper in the area where I grew up happily reported that more towns passed overrides in the special elections last month than defeated them (stand up for a rousing three cheers!).

At other times, I don't know what to think. For example, yesterday's news in Boston featured the tale of a suburban music teacher's reassignment, with passionate citizen response firmly opposed. The school board and department had no comment except to say that the transfer was in accordance with the teacher's preferences. The teacher was not quoted, except indirectly by parents who inferred that the move was not her preference. A crowd of parents and students seem ready to stand up and protest the transfer.

As a reader who happens to work in schools, I couldn't figure this one out. I don't live in the town where this occurred, where for all I know everyone knows some juicy back-story and has a theory. The angry anti-transfer crowd suspects but does not quite come out and make direct accusations of skullduggery. Officials stick to their story. The teacher is mum. So what's actually going on? Punishment? A coup in the orchestra department? A beloved teacher really trying to change responsibilities? Something so Byzantine that it defines explanation even by the minions of one of our better-educated communities or exposition by the reporters of a Pulitzer-prize winning newspaper? And how will it play out? Is the issue "final," as the town claims, or will there be more, perhaps shocking, revelations and upheavals.

I was trying to imagine what it would be like to read this story as a "civilian," outside of the business. And then I wondered what it would be like to read some of the sex abuse stories that have emanated in their tragic foulness from the independent school world this year. Or even the great stories--awards won, grants granted, and even test results improved. I know how to respond as an educator, but I have no clue how the general readership feels. Do people ignore these stories, or scratch their heads? Are they outraged? Pleased?

Thinking about all this makes me realize how many assumptions I carry around. Some are deeply ingrained, living down deep as my moral code, created or absorbed or adopted or adapted; these assumptions are about right and wrong, good and bad.

Then there are the other assumptions, the ones I make based on experience and on what I am often ignorant enough to call wisdom. Yet, what do I know about the high school orchestra in Wellesley or its teacher? What do I know about the inner workings of the school board there? And: Why does the Boston Globe even think that sharing this story will accomplish; what exactly is the kernel of news that this story contains? Do even they have an idea?

In the same way I've sometimes wondered what the New York Times accomplished with "The Choice" blog on college admissions (R.I.P., as of the other day)? Was it more informative or more stress-inducing for its parent and student readers? Did it, in the end, help?

But then, I live my life among school people--teachers, kids, parents--and I have to be attuned to their needs and dreams. Strange or lurid stories about schools have their contexts, whether we know them or not, and as outsiders our assumptions affect only ourselves unless we forget that they are only half-informed assumptions and bruit them about as expert analysis and fact. For lots of readers the Times' "Choice" blog probably "demystified" things, even if it sometimes only made things seem murkier to me because I have been living in daily contact with the actual ambiguities and opacities of college admissions.

And so we stumble forward, trying to make sense even out of things that seem to make sense. But I still don't know what to think about that music teacher.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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