Notes from “No Reader Left Behind”

My Notes on the Brookings Institute report
“No reader left behind: Improving media coverage of education”

Read the report

In December 2009 the Brookings Institution issued a report called “Invisible: 1.4 percent coverage for education is not enough.” The report concludes that during the first 9 months of 2009 education coverage constituted only 1.4 percent of national news reporting. To launch the report a panel was convened to discuss education in the media, in terms of quantity of coverage and quality of reporting.

Russ Whitehurst, former head of the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Dept. of Education: Within education reporting, school finances and budget got the most coverage. Politics in education and swine flu followed.  Technology in the schools, charter schools, and education research all received less than 2 percent of education coverage. “Much of the educational coverage has to do with things that aren’t about the core business of schools. It would be like reading reviews of restaurants that talk about the economics of the restaurant business and how you get to be trained to be a chef, but never talk about food itself.”

E. J. Dionne, syndicated columnist for the Washington Post:  One of the central and, in some ways, positive findings of the study: “Local [news] outlets are more likely to cover the substance of school policy than national media . . .  At one level, it’s not surprising that local education is more complete than national coverage. Education is dealt with in principle as a national issue and a national problem, but most of the power to affect it exists at the state and local levels. So much of the coverage is necessarily about the state and local level, and much of it is necessarily balkanized. We don’t do enough, I think, to link the problems faced by our local elementary schools or high schools or middle schools or community colleges or universities to national policy. The journalistic systems we have, or at least have had up to this point, tends to make doing so difficult.

“There is also a great bias toward covering ideological and partisan issues that often have only a marginal impact on what teachers do in the classroom day after day, and what students learn in those classrooms day after day.

Darrell West, Governance Studies, Brookings Institution: Community colleges educate 6.7 million students compared to 11.2 million who are educated through colleges and universities. But when you look at the national news coverage, community colleges only get one-tenth the national news coverage of colleges and universities. . . . Relatively little media coverage of education relates to the actual school policy, school reform, education research, or ways to improve the curriculum or learning processes.

Richard Colvin, Hechinger Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University:  The coin of the realm here is stories, compelling stories that people are going to read just because they’re good stories.

Andrew Rotherham, The Education Sector: I get frustrated when certain issues are completed, settled, in the social science literature, for instance, or settled in the research literature, and instead we have these raging debates about them in education. … Someone will say that the Earth or the moon is made of rock, and someone else will put out a study and say, no, the Earth is made of green cheese. You can count on a lot of reporters, unfortunately, to write the story that the debate over the lunar surface continues with two new studies. We have to get past that as a field, and that comes to this issue of training.

Dale Mezzacappa, Education Writers Association: Training reporters is very important .. the other thing is just the time. I mean you can get reporters who have developed a pretty good expertise of how to observe a classroom, and know good research from bad research and everything. But the way newspapers are structured today, reporters don’t get to spend the time to really do in-depth stories that advance the issues and inform the public. They get pulled off for the daily stories, which are not unimportant, but which prevent the longer-term projects.

Russ Whitehurst: We did a survey of superintendents to figure out what they thought of media coverage, and they said, Well, it’s marginally okay. Then we asked them, How much time do you spend explaining education issues to reporters when they call? And they said, Oh, you know, 15 minutes a week.  I’ve said this to many superintendents over the years: You’re an educator. You have to educate the press the same way you educate your parents directly, your students, about what’s going on. You can’t say, on one hand, The coverage isn’t all that helpful, and then not help improve that coverage by making yourself available and by reaching out to journalists when you have time.

The coverage of colleges, whether they be community colleges or four-year schools, has little to do with the pressing policy issues that the nation is facing in higher education. For example, escalating costs, specialization issues, whether there’s going to be a digital revolution and whether the current industry is going to be substantially changed. We spend more per student than any other nation in the world and generally produce mediocre results in terms of graduation rates. Those stories, which are pressing stories for the nation’s interest, are hardly covered.

Mezzacappa: [Even] the people who do know what charter schools are don’t know a good charter school from a bad charter school. I think one of the things that reporters should do is help them figure that out, so that they can make informed choices.

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