From The Education Digest, January, 1999, pp. 4-10.
The Awful Alliance of the Media and Public-School Critics
By David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle
We think that, too frequently, a story is found interesting to news reporters only if it is critical of public schools or has some scent of blood about it. in news lingo, "If it bleeds, it leads." We also believe that most editorial opinions from the so-called liberal press are, in fact, quite conservative. Thus, to us, the newspapers have become a natural ally of those believing public education has failed.
The critics believe that public schooling should be abandoned or should reform itself to find some way of returning to those halcyon days of yesterday, a time better described as the halcyon haze of yesterday-much better recalled from memory than actually lived.
We will not explore in depth the problem of who speaks for education to the press. We note only, for example, that some of those who write op-ed articles and are widely quoted are not necessarily objective and have something to gain from, say, approval of vouchers that could be used at nonpublic schools. It serves their interests to promote the belief that public education is a failure and that privatization is the only sensible solution. Why, when they write or talk, aren't they identified as individuals who may be compromised in their objectivity?
Others who criticize public schools hold strong fundamentalist religious beliefs that lead them to want their children segregated from those in secular schools. They seek vouchers to fund such schools, and by attacking public schools, come a little closer to their goals. Critics with such strong views or with pecuniary interests should be identified by the press when their comments are reported, just as are representatives from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
It appears to be great sport to draw blood when reporting the unseemly, the negative, and the absurdities that necessarily occur in a system with nearly three million public-school teachers in about 100,000 public schools. But schools are about something bigger than the public-relations nightmares that inevitably occur.
Public schooling is really about ordinary people trying to make reasonable decisions in the best interests of their communities-decisions that will help their young people grow to be knowledgeable, economically productive, decent citizens. Those noble intentions are commonly ignored. Missing from the reporting is a modicum of caring, sympathy, and understanding about what the schools were trying to accomplish, even though they appeared to have bungled it.
Public perceptions, particularly student perceptions, are shaped by the media through the respect or derision they display for different groups. Can the routine and undiscriminating ridicule of school teachers and administrators be good for the nation? Could the press not find the absurdities of individual educators newsworthy-subject to criticism, laughter, or outrage-and find ways to preserve the dignity of a few million other professional educators who work so hard for the good of the nation?
In our opinion, the press, on educational issues:
- Is biased and covers the negative side of news stories much more diligently than the positive side;
- Presents too simplistic and in-complete a view of the educational problems and issues they are reporting;
- Is more critical of the schools in its editorial policies than it is complimentary;
- Has editorial policies that are biased against public schools, school change, and, in particular, schools that serve the poor;
- Displays a lack of understanding of the complexity of school life in contemporary America;
- Shows an appalling lack of understanding of statistics and social science research, without which reporters cannot properly interpret the huge amount of data that the educational system produces; and
- Shows an ignorance of the role of poverty as a root cause of many of the difficulties in our schools.
The press seems either too scared, too controlled, or too uninformed to raise what we consider the most basic issue confronting education in the United States-achieving a fair distribution of opportunities to succeed. This issue, however, is a close relative of issues associated with redistribution of wealth in our society, a topic the mainstream press too often avoids.
Over the past few years, we have kept some files about the news reports that have shaped our perceptions. We will use one major recent news event to illustrate why we feel as we do. Then we note further problems with the coverage of education stories.
The TIMSS Study
Extensive news coverage of TIMSS-the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-followed the first public release of test data in November 1996. We read more than 100 news stories to get a feel for how the press handles a contemporary, important education story.
The objective facts are clear: In a well-run, 41-nation study of seventh- and eighth-graders, the United States ranked about average, with Singapore a runaway winner and other Asian nations outscoring us. (The recently released twelfth-grade data painted a more negative picture of our performance. But that data is quite difficult to interpret and needs further debate.)
Data on achievement in eighth-grade math and science was presented by TIMSS researchers as three statistically homogeneous groups of nations-those ahead of the U.S., those tied with us, and those behind us. More interesting to the education profession was the data about curriculum and instruction for each nation. But, as expected, more press coverage went to the multi-nation horse race in science and math, a search for winners and losers.
The New York Times, along with many other newspapers, provided perfectly sensible stories based on the release of the data. The Times story was thorough and in our estimation its headline was accurate and descriptive: "Americans Straddle the Average Mark in Math and Science."
But others had different approaches to reporting the same data, provided at the same press conference called to announce the results of the study. For example, the San Diego Union-Tribune actually found cause to celebrate, announcing: "Global Test of Pupils Shows U.S. Improving." This interpretation was an accurate one, but apparently not worth featuring in any other report we could find.
The St. Petersburg Times coverage was less positive but thought-provoking nevertheless. It proclaimed: "Science, Math Study Renews Calls for Reform." And that is true, too. There is much of interest in the study that can guide our school improvement efforts.
The Chicago Sun-Times, however, created a much harsher and unsubstantiated headline to report the same story: "U.S. Schools in Crisis; So What Else Is New?" Most of the reporting was closer to the negativism expressed by the Sun-Times than to the single positive and the few thoughtful responses to the study generated by the press.
As we read these stories, we no-ticed quickly that nobody liked to be average, including Education Secretary Richard Riley, quoted in the Orange County Register as saying that "for U.S. students, average is just not good enough." No reporter or government official noted the inevitability of some nations having to be about average.
Moreover, that position in an international comparison of educational achievement almost always will go to one of the more heterogeneous nations, say a country like the United States, which provides for the study a random sample from 15,700 designed-to-be-different school systems. These school systems operate independently. They receive support through vastly different funding formulas that yield great disparities in per-pupil support. They have created different curricula, use different texts, and serve families heavily segregated by social class and ethnicity.
Under conditions such as these, if a fair sample is drawn, it should be obvious that it will combine both the excellent performance of children in superb school districts and the abysmal performance of children in awful school districts. A nation such as the United States inevitably will be described by its central characteristics-losing its ability to showcase its pockets of excellence, although hiding as well its genuine disasters.
The Tampa Tribune, however, was not dealing with this subtlety, apparently not even understanding the basic meaning of average, since it proclaimed in a headline: "U.S. Eighth-Graders Far Back in Math." The San Francisco Chronicle said: "American Eighth-Graders Are Average, at Best." It added the little zinger at the end to be sure that a negative tone was attached to the headline. The San Diego Union-Tribune carried an article by a state legislator noting that such terribly low scores on tests like these are old news. All this negativism was associated with being average in mathematics-a position that statistically tied us with such equally inadequate and equally average countries as Thailand, Israel, Germany, New Zealand, England, Norway, Denmark, Scotland, Spain, and Iceland.
Good Company Unnoted
In science, being about average statistically tied us with the inadequate likes of England, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Thailand, Israel, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Scotland. It also tied us with the Russian Federation. That was the awesome economic and military competitor that, 40 years ago, Admiral Hyman Rickover predicted would bury us because Russian schools taught rigorous science courses whereas our schools were too lenient. No reports we saw noted the remarkably good company that we were in with "merely" an average score. Apparently, it is the dream of the American press and the American people to have children like those in the Lake Wobegon schools-all above average.
The most obvious distortion of the TIMSS data, however, was offered to the public by the Orange County Register. Since the nations were placed into three statistically homogeneous groups-above us, tied with us, and below us-this newspaper could honestly say to its readers that "the United States scored in the second lowest group," not even calling it the middle group. The Register took a cheap shot in this regard. It is like the description of an Olympic footrace in which all but two runners drop out. The winner could then be described as coming in next to last, and the second fastest runner could be described as coming in dead last!
Scrap the Medals
Rankings were used by most reporters to describe the TIMSS data. But none of the reporters noted any analogy to an Olympic running competition. That is, no one thought that you can be a very competitive racer at the Olympics, come in a few seconds behind the winner of the 10-kilometer race, and rank twenty-fourth, though perhaps only a few seconds off a world record. So another way the data from TIMSS might have been looked at was to ask how the United States actually scored, not how the country ranked in the race to mathematics and science gold medals.
When that is done in mathematics for the twenty-eighth-ranked United States, eighth-graders are seen to have correctly answered 53% of the math items, which placed them within 10% of 30 other nations. Only six nations achieved scores higher than those in the United States by 10% or more. Newsweek reported this as "finishing way out of the money" in an article describing the mediocrity of the American educational system.
Actually, mediocrity was a word used a lot during the week the TIMSS eighth-grade data report was released, and it was technically used correctly, since mediocre has the same root as median. But we think this adjective was chosen less for technical appropriateness and more for its connotation of failure, which is easier to attach to the rankings but much less convincing if anyone chose to look at the actual scores achieved by the various nations.
The science test showed a similar pattern. U.S. students answered an average of 58% of the items correct. Thirty-three other nations had scores within 10% of what American students attained, and only one scored more than 10% above the U.S. In rank, the U.S. was seventeenth, a long way out of the money. Nevertheless, only one country exceeded the American average science score by more than 10%, suggesting that the U.S. ran a pretty good race alter all. These kinds of interpretations were lacking in the reports we read.
All that mediocrity on the TIMSS tests led citizens and news reporters to propose solutions. An editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune suggested that students should use rulers to make every mathematical problem neat and ensure all the equal signs were lined up perfectly. The logic was that if students used the rulers in this way, they would slow down and think more about the mathematics problems they were doing.
On the other hand, the Los Angeles Times reported that American students needed to be speeded up, developing the facility to do simple multiplication problems in their heads in eight-tenths of a second or less. The Orange County Register claimed the TIMSS study provided empirical evidence that the new math standards and teaching methods were a total failure. But the St. Petersburg Times reported correctly that the TIMSS data supported the use of the new mathematics standards and teaching methods.
Slowing them down or speeding them up, throwing out the standards or putting them in, seems to be a sad kind of search for magic bullets and Holy Grails, a search to assure parents that their children's test scores will be high and competitive with those of other nations. But a little study of the previous international mathematics survey, reported less than a decade ago, reveals most of what we need to know about the causes of high and low U.S. math performance.
What We Learned
We learned, in the international mathematics study of 1991-1992, that public school children in such states as Iowa, South Dakota, and Minnesota proved they were the equal of their Asian counterparts who scored so well on average when taking a comparable math test. American public school children of middle- and high-income families also were competitive with students in the highest-achieving nations in the world. The average math performance of white children in the U.S. was quite high, as well.
Added to this, and a bit amusing, was that students of Asian origin in American public schools scored above the average of Asian students in the Asian nations that participated in that study. So we know that the American public system of education, as diverse and incoherent as it is, can turn out world-class young mathematicians if they are raised in certain states, are of a certain income level, and are of a certain ethnicity. But the average performance was low in that study because some students in the United States were not achieving well at all.
Who were these low performers? Poor children in general, Hispanic and African-American children in particular, and the children living in some of the poorest states in the country, particularly Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. In our estimation, there is only one major difference between the schools and students that score well and those that score poorly in the U.S.-the wealth and social conditions that characterize the families, the neighborhoods, and the districts involved.
We saw little evidence that report-ers knew any of the history of testing achievement across nations, and no TIMSS report we saw even hinted at the fact that poverty might be the single greatest barrier to high achievement in American public schools.
We also are concerned about the problems when an uncritical press promotes myths that serve to demonize youth. Examples of this include distortions about sexual activity of teenagers and their high pregnancy rate. Almost all early sexual activity and ensuing pregnancies of young females is the result of predatory, fully adult males, often family members. It Is not necessarily female teenage sexual morals that are our national problem but rather adult male morality to which we need to attend. But one would never know it from the news coverage.
Moreover, the well-publicized violence of youth is almost fully explained by the poverty of youth in the U.S. America is the undisputed leader in the industrialized world in percentage of youth in poverty. It is the pernicious effects of this poverty and the easy availability of weapons, not the uncontrollable hormones of puberty, that result in youth violence. But one would never know It from newspapers, because few reporters know how correlations and other statistics really work.
The great youth drug culture is another myth promulgated widely. Yet 99% of the illegal drug deaths recorded in the U.S. In 1993 were of adults; teenagers accounted for only 1%. All these deaths are tragic, but it Is hardly a teenage drug problem the nation faces.
What the Harm Is
What harm is there in demonizing youth? We think it does more than sell papers. Either by implication or sometimes quite directly, the schools are held to blame for our youths' alleged licentiousness, violence, and drug use. Those schools are thus deemed unworthy of support. Demonizing teenagers through lurid headlines and vivid prose results in a loss of confidence in the public schools and helps those who promote privatization.
We think it is inappropriate to expect a democratic free press to be anything but highly critical of the society in which it exists. That is one of its functions. But it is not inappropriate to ask for balance. And we do not think we have that. It seems to us that democracy depends just as much on a free and efficient public school system as it does on a free press.
It would be ironic, as well as tragic, if the imbalance in the reporting that exists were to lead to the abandonment of public schools and a dramatic rise in private-school enrollment. We are sure this would result in greater privilege for a few and less chance for success in life for the many. And when those circumstances occur, the press is always captured by the power of the few, and no longer can claim to be totally free. We may be well on the way to that sad state now, as recent critics contend.
By continuing the unfair, unremitting negative characterization of the nation's schools and youth, by searching for the blood and too often avoiding the more reasonable interpretations that are possible, and by failing to describe the magnificent achievements that also characterize public education, the nation's free press may ultimately become less free.
The natural alliance between the media and public school critics could destroy both the free press and the free public educational system that we now enjoy in this nation. It may be in the interest of those in the press to ponder this line of reasoning and think about providing more balance in educational reporting-not just because it is justified, but because it is in their own self-interest.
*********************************************** * Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org