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Russo's Column

What's the biggest problem in U.S. education?? Journalists.
I'm not kidding.

Joey Getthestory Sleeps<br />
Joey Getthestory Sleeps

The real problem facing American education isn’t poverty, poor instruction, or administrative waste. It isn’t corruption, inequitable tax revenues, lack of funding, or computer-addled students. Journalism is ruining American education.
Yes, journalism. Not blogging. Mainstream journalism: newspapers, magazines (except this one), newscasts.

The coverage of education by the mainstream press is so bad that even if things were going really well, few would know it. And when things are going badly, well, journalists rarely figure it out in time to make much of a difference.

All of journalism has serious problems. But these problems are particularly notable on the education beat.
You want examples?

First, news outlets told readers that No Child Left Behind was the best thing since sliced bread. Then they said it was the root of all evil. Same for small schools, reduced class size, and­—soon, I predict—performance pay.

Even more annoying, journalists insist on writing about isolated examples: desegregation in Wake County, peer review in Toledo (oops!), small schools in Harlem—as if these successes can be easily replicated nationwide. If so, it would have happened by now.

This is no big journalistic secret: “There are today very few journalists with the knowledge and experience to write authoritatively for national, non-specialist audiences,” wrote former US News & World Report reporter Tom Toch.
Why is education reporting so bad? Some main factors:

Too much classroom observation. Over and over, education reporters are told by their professors and editors that they need to spend more time in the classroom. However, reporters have too little time and extremely little chance of being able to tell whether instruction is good or bad. As a result, observation gets used as filler, or to make unfair conclusions about a school or district.

Too much talking to teachers. Reporters often get too much information from teachers. Most teachers only know what’s going on in the classroom, not what’s best for an entire school or district. Instead, reporters should talk to administrators, clerks, or even parents to get a sense of what’s going on. But they don’t.

Over-reliance on personal experience. Worse than relying on teachers’ accounts is reporters’ tendency to base stories on their own experience or middle-class expectations. Everybody does this—lawmakers, judges, bail bondsmen, you name it—but in a reporter’s hands, a bad childhood experience with dodgeball or being forced to memorize a poem can quickly turn into a twisted newspaper feature.

Turnover. Few journalists aspire to cover school board meetings. And few media outlets think education is all that important a beat. As a result, not many reporters cover education all that long. Or want to. So there’s a regular stream of newbies who, like any new job holder, may get things wrong or leave things out.

So how can you protect yourself against this scourge?
Keeping reporters out of the building only makes them curious. It’s like a dare. Sending press releases touting questionable accomplishments doesn’t work, either.

Some savvy educators try to befriend reporters covering them, but reporters don’t have friends. They have sources. They’re trained from birth to burn you in order to please their editors and “serve the public good.”

If I could pull it off, I’d require that any reporter covering my school or district watched all five seasons of the HBO series The Wire. Even though it’s not really about schools, that show will tell a reporter more about how bureaucracies work than any journalism class or classroom observation. I’m just not sure how to make that requirement stick.

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