Public education not as simple as A, B and C

Don’t believe everything you read or watch about the public schools in America’s media, journalist Paul Farhi warns. In the American Journalism Review article linked below, Farhi makes good arguments that the “sky is falling” style of education reporting in some news outlets is overblown, misinformed and, intentionally or not, promotes the goals of selfstyled educational “experts” whose main interest in the public schools is how to squeeze them for profit.

Although many news people are quick to use phrases such as “failing schools,” overuse and misuse the word, “reform,” and blame bad teachers for a “crisis” in public education, Farhi notes that “by many important measures…America’s educational attainment has never been higher.”

Those measures, he says, include high school completion rates, college enrollment and overall performance on standardized tests. Writing about the country as a whole, not individual states, he notes that American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995 and are now within a few percentage points of the world leaders. The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared from 10 percent in 1940 to 56 percent today, even as the country’s population has tripled and become more diverse.

Are there still problems? Of course, Farhi points out, notably among poor children and nonEnglish speakers. (And, he could have added, inadequate and inequitable funding in some states, including Texas. )But, Farhi believes, the impact of poverty and cultural differences on educational attainment is all too often overlooked or underreported in favor of broaderbrush stories about “failing schools” and “ineffective teachers” and stories promoting vouchers, charter schools, merit pay for teachers or standardized tests as magical solutions.

In truth, few studies have linked merit pay to increased student performance, charters – on the whole – are no better than traditional public schools, vouchers siphon tax dollars from public school classrooms to help support private schools and the main beneficiaries of standardized tests are the educational entrepreneurs who design and peddle them.

Farhi, a reporter for the Washington Post, levels particular criticism at NBCTV and its “Education Nation” summit – and the potential conflicts of interests it has with sponsors who are part of the school reformforprofit movement.

He acknowledges that some reporters understand the complexities of public education and try to tell the whole story but are hampered by local school district policies limiting their access to classrooms or teachers. “That means journalists don’t get to see the very thing they’re reporting about,” Farhi writes. “Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally.”

I encourage you to read the whole story – it’s fairly lengthy – at the link below. I would add a couple of things about Texas journalists (I used to be one). Some are fair and pretty thorough in their coverage of public education issues. Others aren’t, although not necessarily by design. There would be more of the former were it not for the significant cutbacks Texas newspapers and other media outlets have made in their reporting staffs in recent years, leaving the reporters who are left spread very thin.

Incomplete and misleading reporting of educational issues also is encouraged by elected public officials, including the Texas governor and legislative majority, who find it easier to use teachers and students as scapegoats than face up to their own responsibilities for providing adequate financial and political support for the public schools.


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