Education Gets Spotlight on Al Jazeera America

By Mark Walsh — January 23, 2014 2 min read
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When Al Jazeera America debuted last August, the biggest question for curious viewers was where to find the Qatar-owned news channel on their cable boxes.

This week, the channel is making a splash in education coverage with a week full of special reports on its flagship evening newscast, “America Tonight” (9 p.m. Eastern time.) The network has already aired reports on discipline (the “schools-to-prison pipeline”), home schooling, and “stealing education"—unauthorized attendance at a school out of one’s zone or community.

Thursday’s report is on algebra as a marker for school success, especially for male students. Friday’s is on “flipped classrooms,” which focus on problem-solving in small groups rather than teacher-led lectures.

I watched the first three reports (on Channel 107 on my Comcast box, though they are all expected to be available on Al Jazeera America’s Web site, too). All three are polished packages about arguably relevant education issues. (Education blogger Alexander Russo thought the “stealing education” piece by Soledad O’Brien was about a fairly “embedded” problem that few talk about anymore, though one Philadelphia couple in the piece, who are charged with theft of services for enrolling their child in a suburban district, go on trial next week.)

Here’s the video for the two parts of the “Stealing Education” piece, the only one posted by the network yet:

The home schooling and school-to-prison pipeline pieces, meanwhile, had a bit of a point of view. In “Home School,” Shelia MacVicar focuses on Oklahoma, said to be the lone state in the nation requiring no testing or monitoring of home-schooled children. She spotlights child advocates who contend there are many children kept at home who are receiving no education whatsoever.

The “School-to-Prison Pipeline” report by Sarah Hoye focuses on Wake County, N.C., where a water ballon prank by seniors at Enloe High School led to police involvement and criminal charges for some students. Coincidentally, a legal aid group filed a complaint Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging “a pattern of discrimination and unlawful criminalization” caused by school policing policies and practices in the Wake County school system.

Hoye’s tone is that the school system and other authorities have gone too far. She attempts to interview officials but gets only a written statement. She does get a surrogate, an official with the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Al Jazeera America is reportedly getting very low ratings. According to National Review online, “America Tonight” was drawing an average of 18,000 viewers last fall, compared with about a half-million of CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight,” about 1 million for MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” and more than 2 million for “The Kelly File” (Megyn Kelly) on Fox News Channel.

Still, the commitment to this kind of a block of programming is significant, along the lines of public television and radio. And viewers will see a lot of familiar names on these reports: veterans of network and other cable news outlets such as MacVicar, O’Brien, Chris Bury just on some of the education pieces. And they were introduced by anchors such as Joie Chen and John Seigenthaler.

Some of these folks, or their salaries, didn’t fit into the long-term plans of more established networks. But if they keep up their interest in reporting education pieces, the TV audience will be well served.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.