Wednesday, September 19, 2012

John Thompson on Press Coverage: The Unsung Heroes of the Chicago Strike

The unsung heroes of the Chicago teachers strike have been, predictably, the education beat press and, perhaps surprisingly, other reporters who are not education experts. Just as it was not the job of the press to promote Waiting for Superman and other "widespread descriptions of the unions as the main obstacle to school improvement," it is not the journalists' job to say that teachers are being attacked unfairly. The job of the press is to report on what the strike was really about, provide historical and political perspectives, and to summarize evidence regarding policy. That is what it did.
Numbers-driven "reformers," and their corporate backers, could be forgiven in expecting a replay of previous well-choreographed attacks on urban teachers. Conservative "reformers" were justifiably confident that the seemingly high wages of Chicago teachers could be portrayed as the issue. Liberal "reformers" had enjoyed great success in misrepresenting seniority and due process as antiquated institutions to defend burned out teachers at the expense of poor children of color. And neo-liberal technocrats had long been adept in portraying their not-ready-for-prime-time algorithms as reliable measures of "student performance."
For instance, it is a safe bet that few reporters off the education beat have ever done more than skim a few "studies" of value-added models (VAMS). It is hard to imagine a journalist who does not cover schools with the hobby of reading and rereading both sides of these complex econometric models. And even if those sorts of wonks exist, how many would have the concrete knowledge of inner city schools that would be necessary to determine whether value-added evaluations would likely produce an exodus of teaching talent from the schools where it is harder to raise test scores.
Even op-ed writers were somewhat more fair during this controversy. The New York Times' anti-union opinion pieces showed more balance, and the paper also featured Alex Kotlowitz's review of the social science that argues against Chicago's "reforms." I suspect that commentators had read the brilliant work of Kotlowitz and William Julius Wilson, and they might know that the Chicago murder rate is far worse than that of New York City, for instance, and sense its relevance to teachers' performance. That might help explain the apparent desire of some to acknowledge that the Chicago strike is a fight over policy, as opposed to jumping the conclusion that teachers are merely protecting incompetents.
I suspect that others rushed to read Paul Tough's How Children Succeed, and thus moderated their reflective support for data-driven accountability. However, I wonder how many had already gone to print, basically in support of "reform," before reading Tough's conclusion, "I think education reform has probably hurt the very poor. [...] The better-off portion of low-income kids are more likely to find alternatives [like charter schools]. That leaves the original schools more concentrated in their disadvantage, and thus even worse learning environments."
The real difference between the teacher-bashing frenzy of the first "Education Nation," and other public relations campaigns funded by the "billionaires boys club," was that journalists set the tone by reporting on the evidence in regard to value-added evaluations. For instance, the Washington Post's Valerie Strauss reported how the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences concluded, "VAM estimates of teacher effectiveness [...] should not be used to make operational decisions because such estimates are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable."
Similarly, the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn summarized research that concluded, "'analyses of (value-added model) results have led researchers to doubt whether the methodology can accurately identify more and less effective teachers. (Value-added model) estimates have proven to be unstable across statistical models, years and classes that teachers teach.'"
The most obvious difference between the last teachers strike is that since 1987 we have seen the rise of National Public Radio, The Huffington Post, and the edusphere, where the messy details of politics and social science can be reported. NPR drew upon the work of Associated Press writers Christina Hoag in Los Angeles and Rodrique Ngowi to put the role of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in a national context. They reported on the contradictions created by the mayor's former boss, President Obama. They reviewed some of the president's rushed policies that have left educators "incredulous," and then used that word when quoting a Chicago teacher, "You are going to judge me on the results of the tests where there could be some extenuating circumstances that are beyond my control?" Hoag and Ngowi then cited Emanuel, "I am not a patient man. [...] When it comes to improving our schools, I will not be a patient mayor."
Or, consider the balanced reporting of the Huffington Post's Joy Resmovits and Emmeline Zhao who explained that the Chicago Teachers Union's "complaints echo the broader ones of teachers' unions across America: standardized tests are over-emphasized; class sizes are ballooning; teacher evaluations that use standardized tests 'cheapen' schools."
Nowhere in the above passages, I must emphasize, were the teachers' perspectives presented without giving equal attention to the arguments for the Chicago School System. But, that is the point. Whether you agree or disagree with the contemporary market-driven, test-driven "reform" movement, it would be hard to deny that it has benefited from the best public relations campaign that money can buy. This time, however, teachers received fair treatment. In the past, I suspect, education beat reporters filed the same solid accounts of school reform controversies, but old-fashioned journalistic excellence took a back seat to spin. This time, reporters provided the facts and set the balanced tone for a fair evaluation of the merits of complicated issues.

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