Are education journalists making “The Grade”?

Are education journalists making “The Grade”?

The Grade


Alexander Russo, who Ed Week referred to as “peripatetic and highly opinionated education blogger” (I had to look up peripatetic and settled on this definition “moving or traveling from place to place” though not sure if that was the intention! I believe that Alexander moved at least once while I helped him write for his blog, This Week in Education, and he certainly has had experience in a variety of metropolitan cities in the US.), started a new blog this month, “The Grade” over at Washington Monthly.

Getting a little nostalgic over Alexander and blogging, thinking back to when he recruited me to help him collect the morning news, attend and report back on education events in DC and occasionally write a piece of my own. I went to find my earliest emails with Alexander and they were in an even more previous email account than my current oldest one. I’ve known Alexander longer than probably anyone else I know in the education sphere. I was collecting news clips for Alexander before I really knew anything about national education issues and TWIE will always be my go-to news education blog. However, I digress.

In Alexander’s introductory post, he writes:

Think of it as NPR’s “On The Media” for education news, or as a public editor or ombudsman for national K-12 news coverage.

There’s a ton of education news being pumped out every day, but what’s particularly good (or bad) about the coverage that’s being provided — and what if anything can be done to make it even better?

That’s the goal: to take a steady look at how education news gets created and see how to make it as accurate, complete, and interesting as possible.

Ed Week reports on the support for “The Grade”:

Still, besides accepting support from Washington Monthly, Russo says there are two other “starting funders”: the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union, and Education Post, a Chicago-based organization run by former Arne Duncan spokesman Peter Cunningham.

“Most days it might not seem like these two organizations [AFT and Education Post] would agree on much, but their leaders have stepped up to support this effort out of a desire for smart education coverage (and agreed to give me room to write whatever seems most important on any given day),” Russo writes.

He added in his email to me that “the AFT and Education Post won’t necessarily like what I write about every day of the week, but they’ll benefit from there being a place where media quality is being discussed.”

I found this to still be a little confusing so I asked Alexander over email myself if he would still be willing to challenge AFT or Education Post if the need arose?

He responded, “I would, and have in the past, criticized them both, and will do so again, though the focus of the new blog is mostly taking a hard look at what education journalists are doing as opposed to what advocates are doing.”

Then I asked if he’d be doing any work to decipher think tank research, which nowadays seems like it is often leaning in a subjective direction vs. remaining objective to it’s funding sources. Often times funders aren’t disclosed until well after the funder has touted the research as fact all day long already. Alexander replied, “yeah, i’ll get into some of that — wrote a piece last week about journos’ over-use of think tank research, for example.” He was referring to this piece which I generally agree with: Decoding Think Tank-Fueled Education Journalism. I really appreciate the tips he mentions at the end of the post:

In terms of reviewing at the research being produced by think tanks, look not only to funding sources and ideological issues but also to see if the organization has any track record of producing research whose conclusions don’t match funders’ advocacy positions. For me, demonstrated autonomy from funders’ immediate interests is the best single measure of credibility (besides doing good, methodologically sound work).

When reading education journalism, pay careful attention to how journalists use and identify think tank reports and experts in their stories, and be skeptical about claims being made that don’t seem to have been verified or vetted.   If you look closely you can sometimes find a think tank report that might have inspired a story or an expert whose views seem to go unchallenged. The think tank’s role usually isn’t presented at the top of a piece or in a straightforward way, but rather slipped into an overview/summary section or given a juicy quote or stat at the end of a piece.

For education journalists, it’s important to present caveats and opposing views and to be clear with readers about the limitations and views of the think tank/expert whose views are being expressed, and who funded the study.  Often it can be helpful to find an academic expert to look at a think tank report. Sometimes you can learn a lot by asking what if any of the report’s findings match or conflict with the funders’ views.

My personal view is that exclusives, embargoes, and other hidden arrangements between journalists and think tanks should be indicated to readers who otherwise have no idea where a story came from, but I’m in the definite minority on that front.

I’ve made attempts to work towards these perspectives and offer the public tips and advice about decoding the media including: Don’t be fooled by marketing,  Look Deeper Than the Title & Make your own choices about what to believe.

Ed Week received feedback from both AFT & Education Post about their support:

Asked by me about the support for the venture, AFT President Randi Weingarten said via email, “There are fewer and fewer reporters covering the education beat, and we need to do what we can to help those who are interested in balanced reporting find that balance. That’s why we supported Alexander’s venture at this reputable publication.”

Michael Vaughn, the communications director for Education Post, said via email: “We respect Alexander’s voice and think that education journalism and commentary deserve thoughtful scrutiny. At the end of the day, we can’t have a better conversation if we can’t agree on certain basic truths. People say a lot of unsupported things, and it can get very confusing for readers. Our hope is that it makes all of us more careful, and we fully expect to be challenged by him sometimes.”


Make your own choices about what to believe

Much of the work of this blog is to do just that – encourage folks to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions, hopefully having done a little bit of research. So much of what is said and written is wrong, or misguided, or lacks factual and supporting evidence. Two prior blogs I wrote talk specifically to this theme: Don’t be fooled by marketing & Look Deeper Than the Title.

This theme is essentially what I took from Rishawn Biddle’s post: LET PUBLIC EDUCATION’S FAILED LEGACIES DIE.  He makes mention of a variety of items written in the last few months that are unworthy and Biddle argues may the editor would have taken another look had it not been Nov/Dec. This reinforces the concept that you must read for yourself, research for yourself and make your own choices about what to believe.

Here are some of the points I took to heart:

The last two months of every year is what your editor calls silly season, when otherwise-sensible people end up writing less-than-sensible things. This is why your editor won’t devote many words to the latest defense of overusing out-of-school suspensions and other harsh traditional school discipline by Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli. Doing so means giving the data-free claptrap more credence than the unserious piece deserves. Considering that I have tornapart Petrilli’s earlier arguments about the issue somanytimes before — and has cited decades of evidence to boot — another point-by-point response would just heap on more embarrassment for him.

I, too, took Michael Petrilli to task about the current post he is referencing in my post: Don’t leave school discipline up to Mr. Petrilli.

Yet Petrilli, Loveless, and Hess, through their respective polemics and advocacy for traditionalist thinking, raise an important question: Why do traditionalists and even more-sensible reformers advocate for replicating the failed polices and practices of American public Education’s past and present when we must do better for all of our children?

Biddle’s post reinvigorated me to write this post as well, referencing a list of things to re-evaluate from our current system that were designed in the past. What would you add to this list of antiquated elements of today’s schools?

One of the enduring conflicts, both in the battle over reforming American public education as well as within the school reform movement itself, is that there are some outdated ideas that damage the futures of kids to which some hold on to with dear life. Considering the data on how woeful American public education remains — including 33 percent of all fourth-graders in 2013 were functionally illiterate (along with another 33 percent reading at basic levels of literacy) — and that one out of every two dropouts and high school grads without higher ed training aren’t in the workforce, you would think it would be hard to justify holding on to nearly every policy, practice, and institution within it.

Yet as Petrilli, Loveless, and Hess demonstrate in their rhetoric, there are some reformers who are as keen on preserving the worst traditionalist thinking as those opposed to systemic reform.  Same also goes for centrist and liberal reformers who still oppose expanding vouchers and other forms of school choice. And like most traditionalists, they fight vigorously to preserve institutions and practices ultimately because they believe such policies and practices are worth keeping.

What is clear, in short, is that American public education cannot continue to exist in its current form. This doesn’t mean abandoning the concept of public education, at least as the system of financing high-quality opportunities for children of all backgrounds so that their geniuses are nurtured in order for them to choose their own paths to success and happiness. What it does mean is that the failed policies, practices, and institutions within public education shouldn’t be preserved.