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How the Media Creates a 'Perception Gap' on Schools

This is the third of a four-part conversation on how teaching and the media intersect.

Flora Lerenman

War and crisis photos blanketed newspapers last summer when, by a fluke of bad timing, I visited several countries featured in these same news stories. As I received alarmed emails from friends and family during my travels, I realized that the media activates a saliency bias in its viewers. In most of the areas I visited, one would never know that that there was conflict going on in a nearby region. Such is the power of a mass media that magnifies negative stories that are "newsworthy" and pushes the positive stories happening simultaneously into the background.

I don't mean to downplay the significance of major political turmoil in foreign countries. My point is that news coverage is overly focused on conflict, and as a result, underrepresents the day-to-day lives of people. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that overall violence levels are steadily declining, but the saliency effect of popular news coverage of violent events skews public perceptions.

I see a similar amplification trend in education news. Media stories on teachers often isolate and amplify scandalous events to such a degree that an outside audience might perceive a war-like educational landscape. When the media is filled with stories of teachers cheating, engaging in inappropriate behavior with students, or wasting away in rubber rooms, it's easy to lose track of the many great things that are going on in classrooms around the country.

I teach at one of the District of Columbia's lowest-performing schools. But test scores alone do not tell the whole story. Teachers in my building authentically assess students, collaboratively analyze student data, and make informed decisions about how to meet a wide variety of student needs. They hone in on targeted skills specific to each child. Yet a perception gap persists between external and internal observations.

Perhaps a solution to fixing this perception gap lies in making systematic improvements to our schools. In his book Better, the surgeon-author Atul Gawande found that even the best doctors and nurses had postoperative patients who suffered from preventable infections. Gawande discovered that weaknesses in hospital systems were the root cause of patient suffering, not bad doctors or nurses.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell also examined the importance of systems, looking into why so many Korean Airlines crashes occurred despite well-trained pilots. Gladwell found that systemic problems contributed to the above-average number of crashes. As with the infection-inducing hospitals, the solution to increasing flight safety for Korean Airlines was in improving systems for the entire operation. It's not just about the individual parts and players: Systems matter.

Are there schools in our country failing to prepare our students, suspending them at prison-to-pipeline rates, and contributing to widening achievement gaps? Of course, and they need to be fixed. But can we conclude that each failing school employs only bad educators? Or, alternatively, can we approach these schools with a solutions-oriented, systems-thinking perspective? If it's easy for us to accept that hospitals and airlines need systemic help and the individual professionals are not primarily to blame, then why is it so difficult to accept that teachers may not be the sole cause of failing schools?

Dedicated educators need to combat not only the media's saliency bias but also the societal teacher-perception gap. With media like Twitter and blogs, teachers today have a unique opportunity to actively shape perceptions of themselves and their profession. A critical mass of media-savvy educators shouting their positive results from the proverbial rooftops can echo far and wide. So let's elevate teacher voices!

For every bad teacher in the news, there are hundreds of thousands of effective educators exceeding expectations, working tirelessly to provide effective and engaging instruction, fueled by coffee, innovative ideas, and hopes for their students. We need to find sustainable ways to leverage this network of great teachers and make their everyday stories known to the world.

Flora Lerenman (@FloraLerenmanis an elementary school ESL and special education teacher in the District of Columbia school district. She also sits on the Office of the State Superintendent of Education's Title III State Advisory Committee's Language Acquisition Policy team. Lerenman is currently an America Achieves Fellow and a Learning Differences Fellow through Teach For All. In 2013, she was awarded Teach For America's Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching. 

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