Critique of Education Journalism Flunks Its Own Test

04/03/2012 11:42 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2012

The only thing worse than superficial, credulous education journalism is superficial, credulous criticism of education journalism. A recent AJR story on the dismal state of education journalism (Flunking the Test) is getting torn apart (behind the scenes, mostly) for mis-apprehending the issues facing mainstream education reporting.

While I'm no great cheerleader for education journalism (and there's no group more sensitive to criticism and reluctant to have their work covered than journalists) I have to agree with most of the criticisms and express my own disappointment in writer Paul Farhi's piece, which is surprisingly simplistic and unreflective.  

The list of the flaws in Farhi's story is a long one. In essence, it's commentary blown up into quasi-journalism. He's defending his wife's work, and his local schools. The fact that it's published in the AJR, and presented as a reported piece rather than opinion, makes this all the more striking.

First and foremost, Farhi seems to lack much in-depth understanding of education issues and the people who write about them.  He relies on Nexis searches and news broadcast segments (CNN, MSNBC, Telemundo) to take measure of education coverage (a lazybones move like Brookings did a few years ago) instead of taking a deep look at the reporting that's being done out there or talking to veteran reporters like Sam Dillon, Greg Toppo, Claudio Sanchez, or Stephanie Banchero, or former journalists like Richard Lee Colvin.

His take on education reporting -- that it's insufficiently critical of reform efforts -- is outdated and unoriginal. It's as if he's never read Joann Barkan (Dissent), or LynNell Hancock (Columbia Journalism Review), or Richard Rothstein and Mike Winerip (former and current New York Times education columnists, David Sirota (Salon), Dana Goldstein (The Nation), or (God forbid) my blog, This Week In Education, which has covered these issues for years now. Or seen The Daily Show, for that matter, or ever heard of Diane Ravitch. His main examples are from 2008 and 2010.  

Instead of talking to veteran reporters or independent experts on education journalism, Farhi quotes the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss and former EWA public editor Linda Perlstein, both of whom can't be said to have any real distance from the subject at hand.  He also quotes the wisdom of a Newark Star Ledger reporter who's been on the beat for less than two years (largely because she said something he agreed with, I am guessing). In reality, I don't recall a single fact or quote that would oppose Farhi's case.  There's not even the traditional "to be sure..." graf that writers often use to hem and haw when they've gone a little too far and need to regain some credibility.

There are some saving graces, however. Farhi notes that it's difficult for reporters to get into schools and classrooms and do the reporting they'd like to do.  Fine.  He channels the frustrations of educators and researchers like NYU's Pedro Noguera. Fine.  He calls out NBC News for being overly pro-reform.  Good.  He doesn't quote Diane Ravitch.  Bravo! 

There's been a lot of superficial, credulous crap out there -- some of it extremely high-profile stuff, which eclipses the good, dogged work being done at smaller print outlets.  Even the print outlets -- notably the NYT and LAT -- made a big mistake in printing teachers' value-added scores.  I agree that it's been overheated at times -- a favorite word of mine that I'm happy to see used in Farhi's piece.  But his take is overheated and simplistic in the other direction, which undermines its credibility.  I just wish he'd kept his own advice and guarded better against sweeping generaliazations.

I've asked Farhi if he wants to do an interview, and will let you know if he agrees to participate.