Public Education Communication Breakdown

I just came across a section of a piece on education reporting — “Flunking the Test” by Paul Farhi in the February/March issue of American Journalism Review — that I find myself wishing the communications officials at Baltimore City Public Schools would read:

…veteran education reporters say they face a simple yet profound barrier to doing their job: It’s hard to get inside a classroom these days. They say administrators are wary about putting potential problems on display, particularly in the wake of No Child Left Behind and the Obama Administration’s initiative, Race to the Top.

“School systems are crazed about controlling the message,” says Linda Perlstein, author of two books about schools and, until recently, public editor of the Education Writers Association. “Access is so constricted.” As a result, she says, “There’s great underreporting of what happens in classroom, and it’s just getting worse.”

Perlstein spent three school years in classrooms to report a series about middle school for the Washington Post in 2000, and for her books, “Not Much Just Chillin'” (about middle schoolers in Columbia, Maryland) and “Tested” (about high-stakes tests). But Perlstein says other reporters were never able to gain similar access to other schools, including those in Washington, D.C., where the reform efforts of former Schools Chancellor Rhee attracted national attention.

Even with a cooperative principal or school superintendent, few reporters could make the lengthy commitment that Perlstein did in her reporting. That means journalists don’t get to see the very thing they’re reporting about. Imagine if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never attended a campaign rally. Some districts even forbid teachers from speaking to the media on the record outside the classroom.

What to do? “You rely more and more on talking heads and less on what a school looks like,” Perlstein says. She adds, “That matters.” Ironically, superintendents and administrators “always tell me that the media gets it wrong. Well, how can we get it right when they won’t talk to us?”


4 Comments to “Public Education Communication Breakdown”

  1. I agree that Jay’s comment helps put this issue in perspective, although I think his characterization of all, or even most, principals or administrators as passive “mouthpieces” for the “party line” is a bit overdrawn. I think that just as teachers are leery of having reporters (or any member of the general public) in their classrooms, principals and administrators have no reason to believe that all, or most, reporters are interested in digging hard and long for facts and writing an unbiased story. If NBC will shamefully edit a 911 call connected with a highly inflammatory homicide in Florida, why would any school staff member trust their local reporter to have no axes to grind on the highly inflammatory topic of education?

    Additionally, any reporter worth her salt knows that what she gets out of any interview has to be evaluated in light of the personal–not institutional-motives of the person interviewed. Maybe the average principal wants to look good; is that so strange? And does it imply that the principal is therefore intentionally blowing smoke on behalf of the school authorities? I think self-congratulation is perfectly normal–and the reporter who is unaware of this human propensity needs to look for other work!

    Ms. Perlstein’s also just a bit ingenouous when she compares classroom visits to attending a sports event or political rally, isn’t she? (Sort of like Justice Scalia comparing health insurance to broccoli, in my view.) Everybody and her sister is invited to sports events or especially political rallies–neither of these matter in the long run. On the other hand, undistracted classroom time for teachers and students DOES matter a great deal for our nation’s future. We learned many years ago in the classic Hawthorne studies that simply by being present in the classroom, a reporter is probably going to disrupt the normal interaction patterns that the teacher and students have established–and so any resulting observations will likely be biased.

    Let me suggest a middle way. Parents or other family members–or indeed any adult who wants to help our struggling schools–should be welcome in the classrooms where their community’s kids go to school–and I think if they want to visit, they also should commit to being there more than sporadically, to expect to be vetted by the school, and to be willing to help the teacher under the teacher’s guidance. If we had more such useful non-teacher adult classroom participant-visitors, these folks would be a fine source of information for reporters who feel shut out.

    Thanks for the post. Ms. Pearlstein raises an issue that we do need to confront, and I detest public institutions that intentionally reduce the transparency of their internal processes. But I don’t think she’s got the right solution if she thinks she can learn a whole lot that the public needs to know by observing what goes on in a classroom. Neither she, nor any reporter, has the time or patience to do enough classroom visits to get any kind of valid impression. A few hours in a few classrooms not only doesn’t provide the basis for a good story–this approach would in my view lead to a superficial and fundamentally harmful “report.”

    John Bosley


    • John, my most faithful reader,

      Three points: 1) It isn’t Perlstein but Farhi who makes the analogy between sports writers and education reporters. I agree that it’s an imperfect comparison. The point is that you can’t report on something you haven’t seen. 2) In defense of Perlstein’s work, she spent more than a few hours in the schools she wrote about in her two books. I think it was three years. 3) With no writers on the ground to tell people’s stories, we get slightly retouched press releases and regurgitated statistics. The Sun publishes MSA scores like stock sheets and the New York Times publishes teacher value-added data. But numbers aren’t narrative. They can’t speak. Principals and teachers can. What amazes me is how often they don’t. (We can talk about this privately.)

      What I liked so much about Jay’s comment is that he recognizes how important it is for people to tell their own stories, in their own voices. But he has a personal interest in making that case. He’s an English teacher.


  2. Dear Ms. Barry,

    It’s absolutely true that principals and school administrators are poor sources of information. They function as PR reps, speak only in aphorisms, spew jargon, and as they talk their jaws click so mechanically you can almost see the fingers of a ventriloquist fluttering inside their necks. Teachers usually have a more informed perspective, but, as the article asserts, they’re not encouraged to talk to reporters. I once got myself into a bit of trouble with my school system when I spoke to a reporter from The Examiner about the findings of a statewide task force on which I had served.

    In gentle defense of the system, though, I will say that most of us in education are wary of classroom visitors who come in with very little context, agendas of their own, and hostile intentions. Veteran reporters like Perlstein who can invest the time and resources into long-term observation, and who bring with them a solid foundation in the methodology of educational research, are rare finds. Good teaching doesn’t often give grounds for desirable reporting, and most classrooms are already subject to nebulous and often arbitrary criteria for what should and shouldn’t be happening. That’s part of the reason why teachers are sometimes just as compelled as administrators to hide behind the curtain of metrics and “results” to justify what’s happening during instruction. Reporters are vital, but I say let educators be the voices of education. They have real stories to tell. I’m sure it would make for juicy reading.

    Keep up the good fight. –Jay


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