Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Policy & Politics Opinion

How the Pandemic Changed Coverage of K-12

Transgender issues and masking were among the topics that received soaring attention
By Rick Hess — January 10, 2023 3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Last month—over at Education Next—my research assistant, Ilana Ovental, and I took a careful look at media coverage of education. We were particularly curious as to how the pandemic altered the focus of coverage.

If you’re curious, go read the whole thing. (It’s not long, and it features several simple graphs that tell a pretty interesting story.) But I also thought it worth flagging a few of the key takeaways here.

After all, a decade or two ago, those in the education reform business used to lament that education didn’t get the attention it deserved. Their faith that a star turn would energize school improvement played a big role in explaining the huge fuss education reformers made about the niche film “Waiting for Superman” back in 2010.

Well, starting with the Common Core brouhaha, education has finally gotten its turn in the spotlight. Indeed, in 2022, school masking received more media attention than Ron DeSantis, Florida’s GOP governor, or quarterbacking icon Tom Brady (who retired, unretired, got divorced, and had his worst season of the millennium).

To examine what was covered, we used Lexis Nexis’ academic search engine Nexis Uni (formerly LexisNexis Academic). This provides access to 17,000 news, business, and legal sources. We looked at a number of different issues, tracing many back to the dawn of this century.

Here are a few of the takeaways.

Eras of Education Conversation   Rick Hess

It can be striking to realize that topics which have recently been unavoidable were nowhere to be seen just three years ago. Critical race theory, school masking, and remote learning combined received less than 500 media mentions in all of 2019. Meanwhile, school masking alone received far more than that each week in 2022.

Surprisingly, even with 2021 seeing a raft of state legislation that earned it the moniker “The Year of School Choice,” the pandemic wasn’t an especially high-profile time for school choice. “School choice” saw no meaningful change in media coverage during the pandemic from pre-2020, with the number of mentions actually dipping in both 2020 and 2021 and then returning to roughly the pre-pandemic norm in 2022. The same pattern applied to school vouchers and tax-credit scholarships, while home schooling saw a noticeable (but relatively short-lived) 2020 bounce.

More generally, those calling for schools to get more media attention should be careful what they wish for. In particular, it’s important to keep in mind that the attention tends to focus on the dramatic and the controversial. In our experience, those urging more coverage tend to have in mind careful accounts of complex school improvement strategies. A quick perusal here suggests that the things which grab media notice appear to be novel or controversial, which means that even extensive attention isn’t likely to yield much of that kind of coverage.

A larger point here may be that coverage tends to come when there’s a sense that the issues at stake have a direct impact on daily lives. Masking and vaccinations certainly fit that bill. Controversies over the Common Core or critical race theory raised real concerns among parents and educators, on both sides of the debate: that their students or their schools were going to be scarred by politically motivated adversaries.

It can be eye-opening to realize that some topics which have been ubiquitous during the pandemic were wholly invisible just three years ago. It’s a reminder of how rapidly a variety of high-profile reforms or issues have dominated and then departed the education landscape. This should be a caution for school leaders, funders, and advocates who are inclined to rethink or reposition their mission or vision in accord with the latest (but often short-lived) changed reality.

Finally—outside of masking, school choice, DEI, and gender identity—the data suggests (perhaps to the surprise of some readers) there was pretty much an across-the-board decline in media attention to K–12 topics in 2022. As we look to 2023, with the pandemic largely behind us and attention seemingly ebbing with regard to things like blended learning, SEL, and critical race theory, we’ll see if the new year starts to look more like 2019—or if we’re off into a very different post-pandemic era. Time will tell.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Academic Integrity in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
As AI writing tools rapidly evolve, learn how to set standards and expectations for your students on their use.
Content provided by Turnitin
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
The Science of Reading: Tools to Build Reading Proficiency
The Science of Reading has taken education by storm. Learn how Dr. Miranda Blount transformed literacy instruction in her state.
Content provided by hand2mind

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Funding 6 Lawsuits That Could Shake Up How States Pay for Schools
Far removed from annual budgets, these lawsuits hold the potential to force states to direct more funds to their schools.
6 min read
Large white hand holding a weighing scale with a bag of money on one side and books with floating letters on the other side showing a balance of knowledge and money
iStock/Getty
Federal What’s Behind the Push for a $60K Base Teacher Salary
When reintroduced in Congress, a bill to raise teacher salaries will include money to account for regional cost differences.
5 min read
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Teachers from Seattle Public Schools picket outside Roosevelt High School on what was supposed to be the first day of classes, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Seattle. The first day of classes at Seattle Public Schools was cancelled and teachers are on strike over issues that include pay, mental health support, and staffing ratios for special education and multilingual students.
Jason Redmond/AP
States This State Set Up a Program to Reduce Chronic Absences. It Worked
A program in Connecticut sent school employees to families' homes to address absenteeism's root causes.
4 min read
Rebecca Grabill/E+
Rebecca Grabill/E+
Education Funding States Are Rolling in Surplus Cash, But It's Not All Good News for Schools
Some states are ramping up education spending, while others are leaving districts disappointed.
7 min read
Illustration of a man holding oversized money.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock/Getty