Education Opinion

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By Edward F. Deroche — January 29, 2003 9 min read
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Newspaper content provides students with rich, real-life opportunities to examine virtues and vices in action, and to explore ethical decisionmaking.

Thirty years ago, in a middle school where I was the principal, teachers decided to put away the textbooks for two weeks and use daily newspapers instead. They made a compelling case for seeking funding to provide a newspaper for every student. Newspapers would give students the opportunity to learn to read, the teachers said, while also teaching them to read to learn. That might motivate students and change their attitudes about school, they argued, and it surely would improve critical-thinking skills. Besides, the teachers added, it might be fun to break the routine and try some creative instruction.

So the plan was set. Teachers were to teach the same content they usually would for these two weeks, but they would do it using newspapers. Every day, they came in a half-hour earlier than usual, met in teams to prepare their lessons, and then headed off to class with their bundles of newspapers.

What happened was surprising. Unknown to us until we concluded our post-mortem on the experience, the school had experienced during those two weeks decreases in the absentee rate, in referrals to the office, and in classroom disruptions. Teachers reported making greater use of grouping students to work on projects (“cooperative learning” was not in our vocabulary at that time). Homework assignments did more to involve parents, since each student took the newspaper home. Teachers claimed a new sense of creativity in their teaching and assignments. And our students did indeed seem more motivated and interested in classwork. “Nonreaders” were reading (if only the sports pages and the comics), and discussion of public events and political issues was more frequent, and more fact-based.

Students liked the idea of using an adult medium to learn things. They enjoyed using newspapers to do math problems and geography projects. These middle schoolers also were motivated by the creative activities assigned in their language arts classes. Two classes even created their own newspapers. And they liked bringing the real world into their social studies classes by discussing the news of the day. Here was a textbook they liked to read—and then cut up and mark up for other assignments. After two weeks, we returned to our regular program schedule, but many teachers continued to use newspapers as a supplement to their textbooks.

As might be expected, a reporter from a local paper did a story on this “experiment” at our school. Then others became interested in trying it as well. Our teachers were invited to make presentations at other schools. And the whole experience started me on a career specialty of conducting newspaper workshops and seminars, and teaching graduate courses, making presentations, and writing about this topic. An avid newspaper reader myself, I became and still remain a crusader for using newspapers in schools.

My experiences over the years have convinced me that newspapers can support both school and family literacy efforts. I’m not talking simply about the act of reading, but about communication in its broader sense (reading, writing, discussing) and about civic literacy. Newspaper content also can contribute to schools’ character education initiatives. It provides students with rich, real-life opportunities to examine virtues and vices in action, and to explore ethical decisionmaking.

Using newspapers in formal schooling was first proposed in 1795, in an article in Maine’s Portland Eastern Herald, according to Betty Sullivan, the president of the USETHENEWS Foundation and one who has traced the beginnings of what came to be known as the “newspapers in the classroom” program. The program we know today, she says, probably started in the 1930s, when social studies teachers in New York City asked The New York Times to arrange delivery of the paper to their schools. Over the next two decades, other newspapers began offering educators teacher’s guides, tours of their facilities, and free newspapers.

In the 1970s, Ms. Sullivan notes, Canadian newspaper personnel recommended a name change from “newspapers in the classroom” to “newspapers in education,” as the industry expanded its educational offerings and services. In addition to serving K-12 schools, newspapers began to focus on helping community-literacy programs and other education projects. As someone said then, “Newspapers in Education offers programs from preschool to prisons.” During that time, the high cost of newsprint forced the industry to begin charging schools half-price for copies of the papers.

In the 1980s, many of the high-circulation dailies began employing a newspapers- in-education, or NIE, manager to ensure newspaper deliveries, expand services, and, most important, to find sponsors, so that schools could receive newspapers without charge.

When teachers and students encounter newspapers together, the four walls of the classroom open to the real world. The class comes alive.

Publishers saw NIE not only as a way of increasing circulation, but also as an effort to encourage the next generation to become regular newspaper readers. They also saw such programs as an important service to their local communities.

The Newspaper Association of America Foundation is the industry’s clearinghouse and resource for newspapers-in-education programs worldwide. Jim Abbott, the executive director, says that NIE is a “cooperative effort between schools and newspapers to promote the use of newspapers as an educational resource.” He notes that NIE programs exist in 52 countries.

In the United States, most large- and medium-size newspapers offer NIE programs, providing a service to 14.4 million students and covering about 40 percent of all elementary and secondary schools. School copies account for about 2 percent of newspaper circulation.

The range of school services a paper offers will vary according to circulation size. Typically, services may include local conferences or workshops, special programs such as the Stock Market Game, weekly inserts known as the “Mini-Page,” special teaching materials tied to such events as Newspapers in Education Week, Literacy Day, and Geography Awareness Week, and teachers’ guides aligned with state and local academic standards. There also may be fliers on student spelling bees and writing contests, and special supplements or booklets supporting school initiatives like character education and family literacy.

One of my favorite services, also popular with teachers and students, is the provision of special newspaper supplements in tabloid size focusing on a specific topic. I have seen some excellent “tabs” (as they are called in the industry) that would enrich any school’s curriculum: for Black History and Hispanic Heritage months, as well as on topics such as the history of jazz, a presidential election, how to vote, and space exploration, to name a few.

Many newspapers have helped schools and communities with programs and materials on character. Several offer the booklet “Character Matters” with classroom subscriptions, showing how newspaper content can be used for teaching about values and ethical decisionmaking.

In Nashville, Tenn., The Tennessean, in collaboration with the public schools, developed Project Solution, a program for students in grades K-4 designed to reduce youth violence and enrich the schools’ character education efforts. Each month, the newspaper provided the community with two tabloid-size publications on character traits such as respect, courage, caring, and service. The partnership also offered workshops for teachers and parents and a mentoring program using high school students.

Gauging the full impact of newspapers-in-education programs has not been easy, however. Most of the research to date has had serious methodological problems. Studies are often short-term, with small samples, few control groups, poor designs, and limited data. But it is nonetheless interesting to probe and ponder possibilities. At the University of San Diego, where I work, a national clearinghouse of studies about newspaper use in schools has given me the opportunity to do so. Here, briefly, is some of what I’ve learned.

Probably the first attempt to examine how using newspapers affected students’ reading skills was in 1965, when The New York Times tried to determine what impact its newspaper summer-reading program had on 743 13-year-olds. The students were about to enter junior high school, but were reading below grade level. At the end of the summer, the newspaper found, two-thirds of the adolescents had increased their reading scores by one year.

My own unwavering view is that newspapers should be the supplement to most textbooks.

In the 1970s, the American Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation (now the Newspaper Association of America Foundation) contracted with the Educational Testing Service to create the “Newspaper Reading Test,” used in several studies over the decade to determine the extent to which students who used newspapers as a text or a supplement developed newspaper-reading skills. The students using newspapers scored higher on the test than those who did not, the studies showed, and teachers’ and students’ attitudes about the use of newspapers were generally positive.

During this same time, the Newspaper Advertising Bureau conducted several surveys about newspaper use in classrooms. Its subsequent reports held some interesting nuggets: Two out of three adult subscribers to newspapers reported having used newspapers in school; both children and their parents had positive attitudes about newspaper use at school; and the use of newspapers correlated positively with students’ social and political awareness.

In the 1980s, a few doctoral dissertations on the topic began to emerge, but no definitive, broad-based research study. Still, of the approximately 17 studies in which students using newspapers in grades 4-8 were tested using a standardized reading test, almost three-fourths showed students in such classes to score significantly higher in spelling, vocabulary development, and comprehension than comparable students who did not use newspapers.

Moreover, in the early 1990s, studies from England and Sweden also suggested that newspaper use improved students’ reading skills. A summary of this international research noted that these programs appeared to make up for young people’s not having a newspaper in their homes, and that students in them were more likely to be newspaper readers in later life than students not exposed to papers in their classes.

My own unwavering view is that newspapers should be the supplement to most textbooks; that every student should leave the 8th grade able to read a newspaper; and that young people should be encouraged to become lifelong daily-newspaper readers, whether in hard copy or on the Internet.

Something happens to teachers and students when they encounter newspapers together. The four walls of the classroom open to the real world. The class comes alive. Relationships change. Conversations are enriched.

Maybe Walter Cronkite said it best when he posed three questions to educators, then gave a suggestion for answering them.

“How can we make American education become more relevant?” Mr. Cronkite asked. “How can we avoid producing passive, indifferent students? How can we turn out better-informed young people with a genuine curiosity about and involvement in our world? We could start by using daily newspapers in our public schools.”

Edward F. DeRoche is a professor and the co-director of the International Center for Character Education at the University of San Diego’s school of education, in San Diego. He can be reached by e-mail at deroche@sandiego.edu.


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