School & District Management

Survey Shows Americans Want More Education News

By Ross Brenneman — April 05, 2011 3 min read
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At a time when daily newspapers are seeing their staffs shrink and their revenues decline, Americans want more news coverage of teacher performance and student academic achievement, according to a report released last week by the Brookings Institution.

The report is based on a telephone survey of just over 1,200 adults across the nation.

“There’s a hunger for information that isn’t being provided,” said Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of Brookings’ Brown Center on American Education and one of three report co-authors. He spoke at a March 29 panel discussion held to discuss the findings.

Of those interviewed, 73 percent said they wanted more information on teacher performance, while 71 percent said they wanted more news on student academic achievement. That demand was even greater among parent respondents, of whom 82 percent wanted more information on teacher performance, while 80 percent favored more coverage of both student academic achievement and school curricula.

The report’s findings may create a sense of foreboding for teachers wary of recent efforts by news organizations to publish rankings that tie individual teachers by name to their students’ progress on state exams. The Los Angeles Times caused a national stir last year when it became the first major newspaper to publish a database with effectiveness rankings for more than 6,000 teachers in that district. In New York City, several newspapers have sought teacher-performance records, and they won a court battle in January to have teachers’ names included with the information.

Opening up such databases has generated controversy and drawn backlash from teachers, who contend that there’s more to a school’s quality than test scores and that it’s hard to accurately attribute student performance to any one teacher.

On the Grapevine

With schools reluctant to share all the data they collect, said Mr. Whitehurst, and with many newspapers lacking the resources to provide the coverage readers say they want, the community grapevine has filled the gap for many consumers of education news: At least 75 percent of respondents said they received either some or a great deal of education news from their social networks. That source has a significant lead over daily papers, from which 60 percent of respondents said they get at least some information.

Mr. Whitehurst, who crafted the report with Darrell M. West, the vice president and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, and E.J. Dionne Jr., a senior fellow at Brookings and a columnist for The Washington Post, noted that friends and family are the ones left to tell parents which classes come recommended, or what teachers are best for their children.

“Once [parents] have a more reliable source of information than the rumors from the neighbor next door, they will seek it out and use it,” said Mr. Whitehurst, a former head of the U.S. Department of Education’s research operations.

The survey is the final installment of a three-part series by Brookings on American readership of education news. (“Is Education News Falling Off Front Pages?,” Dec. 9, 2009.) It found that, across age, gender, racial, and regional lines, respondents overwhelmingly sought more news on teacher effectiveness, student academic performance, school financing, and reform initiatives.

“There’s a myth that people don’t want to read policy stories,” said Mr. West. However, the statistics do not necessarily forecast the publishing of a slew of rankings databases—nor should it, said Liz Willen, the interim director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.“The true picture on what makes a teacher effective is a lot more nuanced, and it’s at the heart of federal policy, research, and education reform right now,” she said in an email.

The survey data corroborate that, too. When asked to assess suggestions for improvement, respondents favored having more forums to discuss schools, such as on newspaper blogs, and, perhaps most simply, increased communication from schools.

Panelist Caroline Hendrie, the executive director of the Washington-based Education Writers Association and a former reporter and editor for Education Week, was not surprised by the findings.

“Politicians and policymakers have really driven home this point that to get out of the economic doldrums, we really need to focus on what students are learning in school, and increase the amount of time Americans spend in school,” she said, suggesting that poll respondents had heard the message.

A version of this article appeared in the April 06, 2011 edition of Education Week as Survey Examines Public’s Appetite for Education News

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