School & District Management Commentary

Climbing Out of the Bunker

By Richard Lee Colvin — November 02, 2004 8 min read
Education reporters throughout the nation tell me that openness in school districts is rare and subject to constant negotiation.

Insight can come from hard work. But it also can show up as an unexpected, although almost always welcome, visitor. I was graced with such a visit in May, at the end of a seminar the Hechinger Institute organized to help journalists focus their attention more acutely on the nature and quality of leadership in education.

As the two-day event, one of a series underwritten by the Wallace Foundation, was breaking up, Clive McFarlane, a veteran education reporter from Worcester, Mass., graciously told me he’d found it useful. But he said, somewhat ruefully, “All of this information and knowledge you give us is great, but it’s hard to do the kind of in-depth reporting you are trying to get us to do if we don’t have access to the schools.”

He’s right. The wager we make at the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media is that journalists need to know a lot about education to get the story right, to create journalism that is fair, accurate, and, most of all, insightful. Therefore, they need intensive training and exposure to the very best thinkers and practitioners. But those assertions rest on the assumption that, because the public pays for the schools and elects the governing body that oversees the schools, administrators will welcome honest attempts to explain and evaluate their performance, both positive and negative. At a time when the federal government aggressively shields itself from scrutiny—either as a matter of national security or political expediency—that assumption may be naive. Yet it would seem that the public schools would want to stand apart from that unfortunate trend, given that they are so dependent on the support of their local communities.

Instead, many districts have adopted a bunker mentality, and education reporters throughout the nation tell me that openness is rare and subject to constant negotiation. The irony is that transparency is a guiding principle of education reform these days. The era of “trust us, we’re the experts” is over. School districts are obligated to issue reams of data about class size, salaries, the availability of textbooks, teacher qualifications, and crime statistics, not to mention student test scores. All that data is supposed to help parents become more informed, and assertive, consumers. But data is just a bunch of numbers. One would think that educators would use the public’s current engagement in education issues to throw open their doors and honestly explain the challenges they face and their efforts to improve. But many district leaders seem to resent having to explain themselves, so rather than shaping the public debate, they’re withdrawing from it. And slamming the door behind them.

This wasn’t always the case. I’ve been writing about schools since the early 1980s, and I never remember having trouble getting into schools in the past. Others whose tenure on the beat stretches back even further say the same thing. Reporters speak nostalgically of being able to roam freely, poking their heads into classrooms almost at will. Even when a story seemed likely to be controversial, most educators accepted that scrutiny came with the territory.

What’s changed? One thing is that, increasingly, public school districts are losing educational as well as political dominance. In New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, mayors or state governments have gained control over the schools. Charter schools pose a challenge. The performance demands of the federal No Child Left Behind Act have created defensiveness among some educators.

“NCLB has made principals paranoid,” said Deborah Morgan, the spokeswoman for the Fort Wayne Community Schools in Fort Wayne, Ind. “More and more principals are saying they don’t want the media in their buildings. They say, ‘We have to be focused on the core mission, educating children.’ ”

Many district leaders seem to resent having to explain themselves, so rather than shaping the public debate, they're withdrawing from it.

It’s also true that the public’s attitude toward the news media has changed significantly in the past 10 years and not for the better. A 1997 survey by Public Agenda found that 47 percent of Americans believed the coverage of education to be biased and one-sided. To be sure, some journalists are, as educators suspect, driven by a “gotcha” mentality and are rewarded when they make public officials look bad. Others are simply reluctant to tell positive stories out of healthy skepticism for quick fixes for systemic problems. Few local broadcast outlets, especially television broadcasters, cover education with any depth, preferring to showcase the sensational. And far too many newspapers treat the education beat as a temporary stopover requiring little expertise. Many superintendents rightly complain that they tire of having to constantly educate new, young reporters on the ins and outs of everything from budgets to pedagogical debates.

Nevertheless, school leaders should also know that a 2002 Gallup Poll found that community members are even more likely to trust the local media than the information they receive from the school district itself. Indeed, the same Public Agenda poll found that 71 percent of Americans think local media outlets perform a valuable service by keeping a “watchful eye” on the schools.

But performing that function is getting tougher. Education reporters now matter-of-factly say that many educators are subject to a gag order that they must use all their wiles to evade. This practice, which superintendents almost always contend does not exist, seems to be spreading, most commonly in urban school districts. Joseph Williams, a veteran education reporter who covers the New York City public schools for the Daily News, told a group of his fellow journalists at a Hechinger Institute seminar in Chicago in June that the school district in the past has even tried to shoo away reporters interviewing parents, teachers, or students outside of schools. So he now carries a letter from former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani that explicitly grants journalists the same rights as any other citizen to stand on the sidewalk. He said he files on average one or more Freedom of Information Act requests weekly in a quest for even routine information. “I spend more time fighting this battle than I do reporting on education,” he said.

Educators may think they are too busy to engage the media. But rich, explanatory narratives are both a tool and a hallmark of strong, confident leaders. Leaders who refuse to tell the stories of teachers and principals miss an opportunity to connect with the public.

But rather than telling their stories honestly, many district officials seem to be trying to manage the message. Attendees at the annual conference of the American Association of School Administrators in San Francisco earlier this year were given tips on how to steer the media away from important, controversial stories and toward innocuous ones. They were advised not to talk to “investigative” reporters. The irony is, of course, that these attempts to squelch open discussion rarely succeed. In fact, attempts at manipulation can have the opposite effect, sowing suspicion and doubt instead of building confidence in the school district.

“It’s all about image control,” said Amy McConnell Schaarsmith, an education writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who said teachers or principals there are never allowed to talk to reporters without permission. When she’s asked district leaders why, she’s been told that the front-line educators lack the information and perspective required for a proper response. But, she said, “that’s cheating people. It’s terrible to take away the voice of those who are closest to the kids.”

Of course, journalists don’t always pick up on positive stories, even when they are ripe to be told. Beverly Hall, the superintendent in Atlanta, often talks about the situation she faced when she arrived there in 1999, the fifth leader the district had had in 10 years.

“Even as we were rolling out our vision, everyone was wondering, ‘Why bother?’ ” she told a group of journalists at a leadership seminar in St. Louis this past April. The district was plagued by poor student achievement, corruption, a lack of long-range planning for capital improvement, and the hiring of principals on the basis of connections rather than merit. Hall created an accountability system, linked her own compensation and that of principals to meeting performance targets, instituted major overhauls of the lowest-achieving schools, and won community support for a $400 million bond issue.

Leaders who refuse to tell the stories of teachers and principals miss an opportunity to connect with the public.

She said it is important for the media to take note of such improvements. “The media has to help tell the story in the whole context,” she said. “People who have no hope have to understand the whole story.”

Clive McFarlane understands why educators are wary of reporters. He says his newspaper, like many others, has cut back on staffing, and he thinks that coverage has slipped in quality. Other reporters say that they don’t have time to do thoughtful, in-depth reporting because their newspapers pressure them to turn out a story a day as well as longer pieces for the weekend. But McFarlane still argues that school officials should be willing to be open.

“The school is a great barometer of the community,” he said. “The public would be a lot more sympathetic if people could see on a day-to-day basis the kinds of challenges educators are facing.

“I try to get principals and teachers to see that the best way to do this is to let me come and do various types of stories—whether it’s the kid who has no decent and reliable family but is still making it or the kid who comes to school without breakfast. These are stories we can write.”

In recognition of his efforts to be fair to all sides, McFarlane was given a “Friend of Education” award by the local teachers’ union. “I appreciated that,” he said. “I’ve written negative things. But they said that every time I wrote stories I got both sides, and they said they could live with that.”

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