Good News Is No News to Education Reporters

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The day after the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released encouraging data on the nation's reading achievement, the headline appearing on page one of The New York Times read: "Reading Data Indicate Decline in Reasoning Ability."

This headline is not untrue, but it is misleading. Out of 12 categories reported in the study, five showed significant increases and six showed stable scores. The New York Times headline and article focused on the single category that exhibited a significant decline.

It's amazing! Unfortunately, it's all too common for journalists to focus only on the negative aspects of reading achievement. In terms of how the modern press often operates, the old saying that "no news is good news" has come to mean "good news is no news."

Although the Times article did mention the positive NAEP achievement findings, readers who had time to read only the headline and lead paragraph undoubtedly concluded that schools are failing to teach youngsters how to read.

This is but one instance of the negative coverage that characterizes education reporting in the news media and elsewhere. Consider the following examples:

"Our Growing Illiteracy"--National Review, June 27, 1980.

"Literacy Crisis"--Center Magazine, Jan./Feb. 1981.

Why Johnny Still Can't Read, by Rudolf Flesch, 1981.

From these titles, readers would surely conclude that education in the United States was tottering on the brink of total collapse, if indeed it hadn't already fallen into the abyss. Is this an accurate conclusion?

The data indicate that it is not. Let us consider some recent data, starting with the NAEP results released in April of 1981.

  • The NAEP reading tests, administered in 1970-71, 1974-75, and 1979-80 to a representative nationwide sample of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds, measure achievement in the areas of literal comprehension, inferential comprehension, and reference skills. Since the tests measure the abilities of comparable students doing the same exercises in different years, the results provide the basis for an accurate analysis of reading trends across a period of time.

    The data from the latest study show that 9-year-olds improved significantly in all three areas of reading achievement during the past decade, while 13- and 17-year-olds had no significant overall change. Thirteen-year-olds did improve significantly in literal comprehension skills, while 17-year-olds declined significantly in inferential comprehension skills.

  • More good news about reading achievement comes from an unlikely source--big- city school districts. Many of these districts, long criticized for low levels of reading achievement, have shown dramatic improvement in recent years. New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., were among the cities reporting sharp gains both in 1980 and 1981.

Findings such as these hardly support the contention that youngsters are not learning how to read. These and other studies describing the positive aspects of education haven't received nearly the coverage given to studies with negative findings. Even when studies such as the NAEP receive comprehensive coverage, the headlines often point to any negative aspect of the findings. The press seems intent on painting an unrealistically bleak picture of education.

The biggest problem with this negative portrayal of education is that it has become accepted as fact by the general public. National opinion polls indicate that public confidence in education has declined in recent years. According to a 1979 Gallup Poll, 42 percent of the people questioned said they believed education was worse today than it had been in their youth, whereas only 41 percent felt that today's education was better. This indicated a negative swing of more than 20 percentage points from when the question was previously asked in 1973.

What caused this deterioration in public confidence? Evidence would seem to suggest that media coverage had at least some influence. Consider this: Although 42 percent of the people polled believed that education was better in times past, those respondents who actually had children in the public schools believed that today's education was better by the wide margin of 53 percent to 29 percent. These people were obviously the ones who had close personal contact with public schools, and they felt that the schools were effective.

Meanwhile, those respondents whose children attended private school and those who had no school-aged children believed by a wide margin that public education was deteriorating. Ask any person who doesn't actually have children in the public schools to describe public education. Very likely the reply will be, "It's a mess. Kids aren't learning anything any more. A lot of them graduate without even learning to read.'' On what do these people base their beliefs? Probably not on personal experience. One would have to conclude that their opinion of education is based on media coverage that has been almost exclusively negative.

The public perception of education has sunk to such a degree that millions of people now have the mistaken impression that education today is totally ineffective and that children are not being taught how to read. Educators can counter this with a variety of data showing that children in the primary grades are achieving higher levels of reading competence than ever before. On the other hand, critics point to declines in standardized-test scores and the decline in inferential comprehension among 17-year-olds on the NAEP test to support their claims that the higher-level reading skills of older students are dropping.

Who is right? Is education a success or failure? It all depends upon your point of view. An optimist might say that the situation is nearly perfect and that there is little left to accomplish. A pessimist might claim we are in the midst of a reading crisis and that we must take drastic steps to remedy the situation. A realist would also point out, however, that reading education is not yet adequately meeting all the needs of all students.

The educational community has no right to expect journalists to paint an unrealistically positive picture of achievement in the United States. Educators do, however, have the right to expect news coverage to be fair. Some people see the silver linings. Others see the clouds. But the news media's coverage of education often seems intent on stirring these clouds into hurricanes. And the public's trust in education is being swept away by storm.

Vol. 01, Issue 32, Page 19

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