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Don't Know Much About...Education Journalism

For several years--in the Clinton-Riley administration-- United State Department of Education employees volunteered to become informal partners with State Teachers of the Year, exchanging information and viewpoints. The idea was two-way communication: teachers could provide on-the-ground feedback on proposed policy change, and USDOE folks offered insight into federal goals and initiatives often misunderstood or ignored by those in the field.

Teachermag.jpgMy partner was a late-20s woman who taught for a couple of years, then got a graduate degree in public policy before going to work for the Department. In one of our first exchanges--by phone--we shared our favorite books and periodicals about education. I told her my favorite ed periodical was Teacher (really). The education media market at the time consisted largely of colorful, lightweight make-and-take magazines with lesson plan ideas and read-alouds. Teacher featured substantive stories tying critical issues to actual teachers and schools--plus book reviews, opinion columns and research findings in digestible form.

My partner said she found Teacher "too anecdotal"--and mentioned several scholarly journals, plus Education Week, as her must-reads--prompting me to get my first subscription to EdWeek. But I argued with her about the significance and value of an anecdotal magazine for teachers. Teaching is, after all, an anecdotal profession. In teaching, a powerful story is worth its weight in statistics. Even die-hard economists and statisticians want their children's instructors to understand and teach them as individuals.

The nature of education in America makes it a prime target for mushy, judgmental journalism. It's a cliche' to note that everyone thinks they can define good schooling, because everyone has been to school--but I am consistently amazed by writers who are locked into one mental model of Good Teacher, Quality School and What Works. Millions of people post opinionated, self-assured comments on blogs and news stories about schools. And some confident bloviation passes as journalism.

Lately, the discourse on public schools has been pretty depressing, akin to discussing a patient with a mysterious, possibly terminal, disease who nonetheless has good days. Occasionally, someone drops in to say that the situation is dire and only a drastic cure will have an impact. For example: The Key to Saving American Education: We Must Fire Bad Teachers.

Even respected journalists have a tendency to turn ordinary, flawed educators into heroes--and villains. Sometimes, this is factual narrative, supplemented by the right questions. Sometimes, the temptation to turn an interview into a sermon is too great. Occasionally, a story is so off-base that it can't be considered journalism--reporting the news--by a long stretch.

I've had my patty slapped a couple of times while critiquing mainstream publications that make assumptions about schools--most recently by ace Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk. I admire Sawchuk greatly--and agree that Education Week is the gold standard for solid education journalism. But I stand by my contention that schooling is far too complex and diverse to make sweeping generalizations without a lot of caveats--and lots of education pieces in popular periodicals reflect the authors' subtle biases and beliefs more than just the facts.

John Dewey believed that journalism should not be centered strictly on what happened, but should focus on situations, choices and consequences, without the need to determine winners and losers. He understood that civic conversation about the news would generate new knowledge and new perspectives--changing mere reportage into something else. He was also certain (unlike Walter Lippmann) that raw news did not need to be boiled down and interpreted for less-educated folks. I think of Dewey and Lippman every time I hear another cliche': everyone knows that the public schools are terrible, but the vast majority of parents believe the school that their children attend is pretty good.

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The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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