Educating the Press To Provide Better Education Reporting

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The class had listened and probed as I explained my job and why I had spent nearly 18 out of 30 years as a journalist covering education. The teachers and administrators seemed to understand the urgency of informing the press about what's going on in the classroom. I told them I would rather be in the back of a class any day, observing a good teacher, than be in a board room listening to the 33rd annual discussion of the same policy.

I tried to stress that journalists as well educators are in the education business. I reminisced about my teaching days, and said how much better, on the whole, I think education is today.

I discussed my background as a former secondary-school teacher, president for three years of the Education Writers Association (EWA), and winner of awards from the International Reading Association, Phi Delta Kappa, EWA, and others. Even education writers, I pointed out, have their competence judged.

We discussed the importance of candor, of sharing, of being willing to tell the public their story if educators expected taxpayer and parent support. I thought I had made my point.

As I left, I found a teacher trailing me.

"I really loved your presentation," she said, inflating my ego by at least ten points. "I agree with everything you said." I felt better by the minute.

"But," she added, quickly breaking the spell, "I could never give you a call about what I'm doing. I know it's important, but I don't want my fellow teachers to think I'm trying to jump into the limelight. They'd be jealous. They wouldn't understand."

I've thought about that conversation several times. With that much timidity, I've wondered, how can we ever hope to tell the public what's really going on in their schools?

That encounter came to mind again when I read the essay "Good News Is No News to Education Reporters" (Commentary, May 5, 1982), by John Micklos Jr., a staff member of the International Reading Association (IRA). The piece was based on an earlier article that appeared in the association's journal, The Reading Teacher.

His blanket, unsubstantiated, uninformed criticism of the press is ironic, I thought. Earlier, I had tried to get on the mailing list of The Reading Teacher as a means of keeping abreast of the current concerns of the field. I was told by the IRA staff that the publication could only be sent to members.

I had been given the impression by annual IRA releases about their media contest that the quality of education reporting had increased substantially over the past few years. The contest releases and stories about their convention are the only communication IRA has with the press each year, so they must think we're doing a good job, I had told myself.

Sure, the press makes mistakes. I remember when Harold Hodgkinson, former head of the National Institute of Education (NIE), told a group of education writers about an amusing headline that had appeared in an Iowa newspaper. It said, "Fifty Percent of All Iowa Students Below Average in Reading." It would be good if everyone could score above average, we agreed with a laugh.

And it also would be good if NIE, IRA, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and others kept us informed about trends and research results. I fought successive public-relations persons at NAEP for several years in an effort to get full data and even more press releases on their findings. And NIE, like many other agencies, hides its light too often.

Mr. Micklos is obviously unaware that in more than 20 years of growth, the Education Writers Association has become an organization with some 600 members who are reporting education--including reading--in much more depth than they did in the 1960's.

I once was fortunate to take a three-month leave, with other NIE fellows, co-sponsored by the Institute for Educational Leadership, to do an in-depth study of education in my state. Those studies received widespread attention. My paper ran a two-week-long series on what we found, citing good and bad teaching practices in reading and other fields.

Education reporters will acknowledge that the field is becoming more complicated. We need help from concerned educators and other interested, knowledgeable people in order to interpret schooling today.

Sometimes the public can't read, despite the best efforts of reading teachers. Like Mr. Micklos, many persons remember only the bad news that newspapers report, not the good news.

My newspaper has devoted a full page to the pros and cons of standardized tests, only to have a reader criticize us for not saying anything about test scores. A recent column on the quality of English instruction suggested that teachers need more help and more time to grade writing assignments. But a teacher-critic of that column who didn't read the paper carefully failed to notice that in the same issue we ran a story on a creative instructor who had increased student writing and competence.

Education writers also attempt to translate education jargon into plain English. That is not easy. We report the bad as well as the good. That's our job.

Educators and reporters deal with imperfect human beings. If, as Mr. Hodgkinson's Iowa headline suggests, we could find a magic method that would work for everyone each time, we'd be pleased. But life, like education writing and teaching, isn't without its blemishes.

Vol. 02, Issue 01, Page 19

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