Opinion
Assessment Opinion

The role of the media

By Diane Ravitch — July 06, 2007 3 min read

Dear Deb,

The promise of this blog “Bridging Differences” was that (is that?) we would acknowledge our disagreements and from time to time discover issues where we agree. We aim to keep that promise!

This is an issue—spotting the nonsense and naming it—where we are on the same page. A few days ago, I watched a movie made in the 1930s, in which there was a crusading newspaper editor. In his office was a sampler that said, “Tell the truth.” These days, we recognize that the “truth” may be elusive, and we may not even agree on how to define it. But where you and I agree is that we both sense that we have an obligation, as citizens, as sentient human beings, to tell the truth as we see it, without kowtowing to somebody’s party line.

I join you in frustration at the laziness or ignorance or indifference of the media, in education as in so many other areas. How poorly education is “covered”! Or not covered, as is usually the case. And, good grief, when was the last time that we encountered a crusading newspaper editor or an investigative journalist who was concerned about exposing the frauds in education? Remember the New York Post under Dorothy Schiff? Remember its dedication to exposing greed, malfeasance, and chicanery? (For more on that, read my friend Marilyn Nissenson’s superb biography “The Lady Upstairs” about Schiff and her crusading newspaper and why it died.)

I agree with you about television. It is rare to hear more than a 30-second sound bite or headline, repeating the headline of someone’s press release. The print media is only marginally better. We may be treated to stories that run for a column, even two, but they too usually parrot the press release that was issued the day before by some public or private agency. They usually have a quote or two from a critic of the claim made in the press release, but no in-depth independent analysis of the claims made.

I served for seven years on the NAEP governing board. Whenever scores went up or down more than a few points, the customary response was to wonder what went wrong with the test or the scoring or something else. When scores jump way up or down, alarm bells are supposed to start ringing. But today, we read about scores leaping by large numbers and the press reports it without questions or alarm bells.

Same with graduation rates. As you note, The New York Times reported dramatic increases in several New York City high schools that had been broken up into small schools. Not much attention was paid to the fact that the population of the original school was dispersed and replaced with different students. Thus the comparison between Martin Luther King Jr. High School as a large school and the same school broken into small schools was not comparing apples to apples. Typically, a school with about 3,500 students is reconstituted as, say, four small schools with 500 students each. What happens to the missing 1,500 students? They are pushed into other large and overcrowded schools. The “new small schools” then have a population with fewer limited English proficient students and fewer special education students than the original large high school; the new population typically has higher scores and better attendance rates than the students in the original school.

So, voila, the new schools miraculously have a higher graduation rate, which should not surprise anyone who takes a look at the educational legerdemain. Until the press gets wise and starts covering the manipulation of data and the manipulation of the student body, the public will remain in the dark.

The message emanating now from New York City is that it is not hard to achieve educational success: open lots of small schools; invest heavily in test-preparation activities; test, test, test, then test some more; pay students to get higher scores; pay teachers and supervisors more if their students get higher scores; threaten to fire educators whose scores do not go up. A brilliant formula, no? Mayor Michael Bloomberg is holding this up as a national model.

The end result is not hard to foresee: A populace that knows how to take tests but is uneducated, lacking the civic skills, the democratic understandings, and the cultural knowledge to enrich their lives and our society.

Diane

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.