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Jeanne Allen

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Education Reporting in Crisis

Posted: 04/ 2/11 01:18 PM ET

"Americans want more coverage of teacher performance and student achievement," says a Brookings Institution report. The public opinion poll which is its underpinning reveals that Americans have an appetite for more information on K-12 issues and in particular, on the issues real education reformers care about the most -- academic performance, teacher quality, curricula and more.

Despite our digitally obsessed age, the most common source Americans use for their education info -- after family and friends -- is the traditional news media. We're not surprised. Long before the Brookings findings were released, we had our fingers on the pulse of the education media. We launched The Media Bullpen this year, after a two-year long examination of how the media influences the public and consequently, public policy. The Bullpen, the first-of-its-kind virtual newsroom, is designed to respond, react and critique the media in real time, providing not just a service to reporters who often are misled or misinformed by a cadre of difficult to navigate groups, alliances and interests, but also as a service to the public, which has uneven access to meaningful reporting on education.

While the reasons for that may vary, the result does not: Our citizens are under-informed about the pressing issues of education, and they know it. Brookings found that while most Americans still rely on traditional media, they know they are missing stories about critical issues. From student achievement to news about reform, they want more than the typical school board budget hearing reported, or why a principal is leaving X elementary school.

Indeed when The Bullpen opened its doors this year on February 14, we were struck by how many news outlets covered the common, the mundane, the academically irrelevant stories. Clearly the changes in media economics means fewer fully focused beat reporters, and that was borne out by veteran education writer Caroline Hendrie at the Brookings media report release. Not only are education stories often lacking context, they take whatever is said at face value, never digging below the surface. Class size being raised and teachers protest? Must mean awful education for kids! Budget cuts lurking? No doubt the school will slash the arts. Asking why this would occur and where the evidence is to back up the conclusions of the local school person on-record rarely occurs.

Readers want more news about teacher quality, as they should. Yet in story after story across the nation this March as legislators challenged conventional union rules and pension benefits that were bankrupting their state, few reporters stopped to even ask if quality was a factor in how teachers were hired, compensated, or if they were ever able to be dismissed for lagging student achievement.

The role of the media in education is not to prioritize what we read, but to give us news to read that encompasses the whole of the debate -- the depth, complexity, controversy and honest concerns that plague our policymaking. And it's to give us access to people with whom we may not normally be in contact, from parents wanting more options to teachers wanting more pay, to policymakers wanting more change, to employers needing better workers.

Having reviewed more than 2,000 articles to date, state level reporting on education issues is coming though with an average reliability rating of only 41 percent. On major national coverage, the reliability is slightly better, hovering around 50 percent.

The issue is no longer whether we have a crisis. Though a few people in their association offices persist in saying things have never been better, the reality is we've never been worse. We just didn't know the repercussions on our nation and on our world until we had more data. The media can take the lion's share of credit for helping over the last several years to deliver a steady stream of "reality checks" to the public. Top notch, veteran education reporters exist at some of the leading papers and broadcast news outlets. But they share the education space with the reporter who is also covering the birth of the baby seal at the local zoo. We need more and better coverage, and today we have more and better access to information than ever before. There's no excuse for not hitting a home run every time.

The public needs to demand it; the media need to embrace it. And The Media Bullpen will keep scoring until everyone is batting 1.000.

 
 
 

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