Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

Journalism and Advocacy

March 03, 2008 6 min read
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To the Editor:

The editors of Education Week claim to be objective journalists, but with your Quality Counts publication, you abandon objectivity and promote the standards-and-testing, industrial school paradigm of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In this context, you are no longer reporters; you have chosen to act as advocates.

Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit organization that publishes Education Week, says that its mission is to “help raise the level of awareness and understanding among professionals and the public of important issues in American education. We cover local, state, and national news and issues from preschool through the 12th grade.” Education Week does not publish its own editorials, and it claims not to advocate for particular ideological or policy positions.

Yet for more than a decade, EPE has published its Quality Counts annual volume, purporting to assess the condition of American public schooling from a neutral and fair-minded vantage point. Education Week has presented Quality Counts as if it were any other piece of journalism, that is, a piece of reporting. But a quick inspection of the 2008 volume (Jan. 10, 2008) reveals the dishonesty in this presentation. Quality Counts is not reporting in any normal sense of the word. Rather, it is advocacy. Its assertions and conclusions often support particular policy positions. A few examples reveal these characteristics.

QC embraces the position that state academic standards are a positive force in schooling (Page 45). This is an ideological position. The publication offers no evidence to support it. While most corporate and political leaders and many school leaders embrace this position, many educators and parents believe that standards constrain learning more than they enable it, that standardization of learning is an antiquated artifact of the 20th century that hinders creativity and the personalization of learning.

QC accepts the criteria of an unpublished review of state standards conducted by the American Federation of Teachers, dated October-November 2007. This review judges state standards in terms of the following attributes: “clear, specific, and grounded in content.” Here, QC is embracing an advocacy position of the AFT. To employ an unpublished document that cannot be reviewed is also bizarre for a publication that calls itself journalistic.

QC awards positive scores to a state if it “assigns ratings to all schools” and “sanctions low-performing schools” (Page 47). These are additional advocacy stances. There is no evidence that, for example, Florida’s crude A-to-F rating system does anything for children other than intensify test preparation. Nor does Quality Counts offer evidence that sanctioning “low-performing schools” does anyone any good.

QC advocates for the ideological position that “all high school students … [should] take a college-preparatory curriculum to earn a diploma” (Page 48). This is yet another values-based position, not reportage. While some politicians and educators support this goal, others note that a more differentiated high school curriculum is likely to better serve the very diverse high school population, particularly since a large percentage of new jobs in the decades to come will not require a college degree.

QC awards points to states where “teacher evaluation is tied to student achievement” (Page 51 ). Such a policy is extremely controversial, given that many educators and analysts agree that efforts at this sort of simplistic, cause-and-effect delineation both distort the complexity of causation in the schooling process and increase pressure for schools to become test-preparation factories.

These examples and others in the 2008 edition of Quality Counts display the profound ideological bias in the document. In this volume you, the EPE editors, are not journalists engaged in good-faith, objective reporting. You are powerful advocates for a particular school ideology: state standards, the labeling of schools based on narrow indicators and the “sanctioning of low-performing schools,” “teacher evaluation tied to student achievement,” and so on—seemingly the whole industrial paradigm of schooling, from Ellwood P. Cubberley to George W. Bush.

If you are not willing to publicly acknowledge your work as advocates in your yearly publication of Quality Counts, how can we trust the fairness of what you present each week in Education Week?

We call on you to rectify this situation. Two obvious remedies come to mind:

1. EPE could cease to act as an advocate, and thus cease to publish advocacy pieces such as Quality Counts.

2. EPE could play by the rules, just as every other newspaper does, and establish an identified editorial function. Then it would need to separate its reporters from its editorialists. Even The Wall Street Journal and the Manchester, N.H., Union Leader meet this standard.

It’s certainly long past time for you to give up this charade of objectivity and play by the same journalistic rules as everyone else.

David Marshak
Philip Kovacs
Susan Ohanian
Gerald W. Bracey
William Spady
Deborah Meier

Mr. Marshak is a teacher and author living in Bellingham, Wash. Mr. Kovacs, an assistant professor of education at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, is the chair of the Educator Roundtable. Ms. Ohanian is a senior fellow at the Vermont Society for the Study of Education and lives in Charlotte, Vt. Mr. Bracey is an independent writer and researcher in Alexandria, Va. Mr. Spady is the co-director of the New Possibilities Network, in Dillon, Colo. Ms. Meier, a senior scholar at New York University, lives in Columbia County, N.Y.

EDITORS’ NOTE:

Education Week first published Quality Counts in 1997 in response to a need, expressed by policymakers and others, for comparisons of education policies and performance across states. At the national education summit held in March 1996, the nation’s governors, in particular, had called for an “external, independent, nongovernmental effort to measure and report each state’s annual progress.” We believed then, as now, that Education Week could undertake one such effort in a way that fits with the newspaper’s role as an independent source of news, analysis, and information on American education.

In grading the states annually on their policies and performance, we recognize that this is a project different from the weekly newspaper, yet it is not outside the realm of other independent, enterprising journalism that involves extensive data-gathering and analysis. Our goal, from the start, has been to frame a large number of indicators in a way that can inform public discussion about state policy measures aimed at improving education.

This year’s Quality Counts contains more than 150 state-by-state indicators spanning six categories of educational policy and performance. In deciding which indicators make the cut, we rely on our own professional judgment as journalists (in the case of Education Week’s editors) and researchers (in the case of our Editorial Projects in Education colleagues in the EPE Research Center), but also seek advice from outside experts. Each year, we bring together a technical advisory group to help us think through the indicators we choose and the policies we track, based on a variety of research and current thinking in the field. The resulting report represents an evolving picture of states’ policy initiatives and performance.

After a dozen years, we see Quality Counts’ continuing ability to spark vigorous debate as a sign that the report provides a useful service. We appreciate knowing how our work is received, and perceived, by people in the field, and we seriously consider such feedback as we assess and revise this annual report.

A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2008 edition of Education Week as Journalism and Advocacy

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