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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
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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.

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