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Good News, Bad News

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A recent Newsweek article posed the following question: "Are the schools getting better, worse, or just jogging in place?" and then responded, "The answer is yes and no and all of the above."

Other reports about education are less equivocal. Most show schools to be in serious trouble on a number of fronts: low achievement, violence, drugs, lack of discipline, and more. Others are now contesting these claims. In a new work entitled The Manufactured Crisis, researchers David Berliner and Bruce Biddle call the "education crisis" a myth and a fraud. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1995.)

Who's right? As the Newsweek article suggests, it is not an easy question to answer. But it is even more difficult to arrive at a clear understanding when the media selectively report the education news.

Working at the U.S. Department of Education on the only nationally representative test of student achievement, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, we have repeatedly witnessed firsthand how the media present the results of education data collections.

Most recently, within a span of two weeks, our office released two important documents: results of national assessments in geography and in U.S. history. The geography press conference was attended by the president of the National Geographic Society, and the mood of almost all the speakers was clearly upbeat. They noted, for example, that more than 70 percent of students at the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades had attained at least a basic level of proficiency in geography. The overriding impression from the news conference was one of progress being made. Almost all speakers pointed to the rigorous nature of the assessment and indicated that tests like NAEP were very important indicators for the future well-being of the nation. The reporting in the press, however, was lackluster and negative, at best. Few news agencies picked up the story, and those that did generally highlighted that at least 30 percent of the nation's students were below the basic level of proficiency--an important point, to be sure, but not the only point, and probably not the most important one. A colleague who was deeply involved with the production of this report said that he had received "zero" requests from the media for information on the geography assessment. (See Education Week, Oct. 25, 1995.)

At the U.S. history press conference two weeks later, the results reported were significantly worse and the speakers noted this: More than half of the nation's high school seniors were below the basic level of achievement in history. Returning to our offices after the press conference, we found our voice mail jam-packed with media requests for additional information. News accounts were on the radio, and reports were even spotted on the Internet. Requests for additional information flooded in from radio and television stations, newspapers, and a few talk-show hosts. That evening, reports on the history results were seen on the network newscasts, public television, and, later in the week, on the political talk shows from Washington. The story was reported in The Baltimore Sun and made the front page of The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. Even television's late-night comedy king, Jay Leno, spoke about (and ridiculed) the results. Clearly, the coverage of the negative news about history eclipsed the relatively good news about geography. (See Education Week, Nov. 8, 1995.)

Yet, statistics exist which suggest that some performance by American students is actually good. It might surprise most readers of the large urban dailies to learn, for example, that in one part of an international test of reading, the average score of American 9-year-olds placed them first in the world--above students from Italy, France, Spain, and (then) West Germany; or that during the last decade dropout rates declined sharply in America--especially for minority groups; or that, on average, U.S. students are taking dramatically more "core" courses than they were 10 years ago; or that most parents of schoolchildren think their local schools are doing a pretty good job (it's those "other" schools that are the problem).

That these facts are not known (and that their inverse is probably believed) by most of the public points to a media that is generally failing to meet its own standards of balanced reporting when presenting education information and data. Most of those who are familiar with the above statistics would admit that our schools are far from where they should be. An enormous amount of work remains to help American students achieve at world-class levels. But, at least in a few areas, the schools are doing some things right.

If the media accentuate only what is wrong with schools, readers will be led to believe that American education is failing in every aspect. This is unacceptable because it presents only part of the story and suggests resorting to shotgun, scattershot remedies. Citizens, sensing a problem too large to control, might simply give up on the public schools altogether--putting a gun to their collective head. Or, more likely, taxpayers might continue blindly spending money on the schools, instead of targeting the real problems of American education.

The purpose of presenting positive news about education should not be to make educators "feel good about themselves" or the institutions they serve. Rather, accurate reporting should enable concerned citizens to focus their energies on those aspects of our education system which desperately need help. Only when citizens know what is both right and wrong with the schools will they be able to act. It might be a small step, but balanced journalism is the beginning of, and a key element in, true education reform.

Laurence Ogle and Patricia Dabbs are employees of the office of educational research and improvement in the U.S. Department of Education. This article was written in their private capacity. No official support or endorsement by the Department of Education is intended or should be inferred.

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