Thursday, March 31, 2011


“Most educators don't write articles, and most journalists don't know anything about education, except how to report uncritically baseless and tired criticisms and assumptions.”

By Paul Thomas | |

March 27, 2011 at 08:41:01 - Malcolm Gladwell has garnered a significant amount of fame and respect as a writer of nonfiction, as a journalist and public intellectual.

Gladwell's 2009 advice in Time , then, to aspiring journalists stands as both provocative and illustrative of the problem at the heart of media coverage of education and the education reform debate:

<<Malcolm Gladwell

"The issue is not writing. It's what you write about. One of my favorite columnists is Jonathan Weil, who writes for Bloomberg. He broke the Enron story, and he broke it because he's one of the very few mainstream journalists in America who really knows how to read a balance sheet. That means Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. He's unique. Most accountants don't write articles, and most journalists don't know anything about accounting. Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master's in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that's the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter."

The media has changed dramatically, both in types of access to information and in the breadth of that access, in the past couple decades--including the rise of blogs allowing virtually anyone to publish as a journalist. The irony in this media evolution is that while even Gladwell seems to confront the professional preparation of journalists narrowly and while the new media has opened the door to journalism to any writer regardless of direct training experience in journalism, the education profession is experiencing a convoluted media-driven assault on its professionalism.

To add insult to injury, the so-called "liberal" media reports, perpetuates, and makes credible daily a neo-liberal, corporatist attack on the similarly labeled "liberal" public school system.

The media sits at the center of the current education reform debate, playing a powerful role that deserves no better than an "F" for the failure of the vast majority of that media to do as Gladwell implores: To rephrase, most educators don't write articles, and most journalists don't know anything about education, except how to report uncritically baseless and tired criticisms and assumptions.

The high-profile examples are easy to cite: Waiting for Superman, Bill Gates interviewed in Newsweek (and virtually everywhere else), Michelle Rhee and Geoffrey Canada on The Colbert Report (and virtually everywhere else), and episodes and segments of Oprah and Real Time with Bill Maher .

While high-profile media coverage and distortions of the education debate are powerful, the incessant drip of flawed media coverage occurring at all levels is equally corrosive.

For example, in December 2009, The Greenville News (Greenville, SC) published an Op-Ed by Dr. Jameson Taylor, "Educating Entrepreneurs Will Create Prosperity," claiming that public schools are failing based on NAEP scores. Then, Taylor proclaims:

"A new report by the South Carolina Policy Council shows that school choice programs in the counties of Clarendon, Hampton, Lee, Marlboro and Williamsburg could create 123 small businesses and 379 additional jobs. In fact, a statewide school choice initiative could create thousands of new jobs. These jobs are not teaching or administrative positions created by more state spending, but jobs created by the students themselves."

For the average reader, an Op-Ed by Dr. Taylor, identified as director of research at the South Carolina Policy Council, and a report from SCPC authored by economist Sven Larson present an authoritative message that matches two cultural narratives that are robust but lacking in evidence--simplistic claims of public education failure and the power of the free market.

I was immediately skeptical about the Op-Ed and the report since I was then working on a book on parental school choice ; the claims about schools and the conclusions of the study failed to match what I was examining in my research.

Several months later, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) released a review of Larson's study and concluded: "As a result of its uncritical acceptance of an earlier flawed study and in its introduction of additional untenable assumptions, the report offers findings that are unlikely to be valid and is of little use in informing policymakers and the public about the effects of vouchers."

The NEPC also awarded Larson's study the "Magic Potion" Award in their 2010 Bunkum Awards.

When I submitted a rebuttal Op-Ed to The Greenville News, what happened?

The editor said that I had already been afforded my say on school choice in previous pieces and that the Jameson piece provided balance to the debate--not a single bit of interest in the accuracy or credibility of the balance, though.

In the past decade, we have, in fact ample evidence that think-tanks have assumed many of the surface features of credible research--experts with credentials, slick publications, citations--without following through on the essential element of high-quality evidence--peer review. Molnar in 2001 noted " [n] ews reports of education research frequently do not appear to take account of whether such research is peer reviewed."

By 2009, Holly Yettick released a study of how educational research is portrayed in the mainstream media , focusing on educational reporting in three major publications--New York Times , Washington Post , and Education Week. Yettick discovered that university and government-funded research received the most media coverage, but that proportionately, think-tank reports were overrepresented by the media.

University research occurred 14 to 16 times more often than think-tank reports, but the media covered university research only twice as often: "As a result, any given think tank report was substantially more likely to be cited than any given study produced by a university."

Yettick proposes three recommendations for combating this phenomenon among education journalists reporting on research. First, in order to improve the quality of evidence stakeholders receive through the media, reporters should begin to seek out peer-reviewed research through all entities conducting research.

While not without flaws, peer-review remains the gold standard of evaluating research, as reflected in the medical and pharmaceutical fields. Before any research can be deemed credible, we must know the who's and how's of the research process. Peer-review provides oversight for bias and corruption in the research process, but it also adds nuance to the discourse.

Next, reporters dealing with educational research should implement peer-review strategies on think-tank reports themselves; if no peer-review is available, or if the reporter is unable to find an expert to help evaluate the report, Yettick explains, "the article might include the sentence, "Other experts in the field have not yet had an opportunity to assess this study, which has not gone through peer review, a process that serves as an important quality control for research in education.'"

Finally, all media reports of educational research should provide an active link to the research itself, facilitating stakeholders drawing their own informed conclusions about the quality of the research.

Yettick also provides in the study useful appendices that should guide us all as we contemplate the value of any research or report we come across. One appendix details dozens of think-tanks and the ideology of each. The media covered think-tank reports during the time of the study ranging, out of 99 think-tanks , from 11% liberal, 52% centrist, and 34% conservative.

When the media reports in the same way on a think-tank study that is not peer-reviewed as the media reports on a peer-reviewed university study, the implication is that the evidence is equal--when it is highly likely that the evidence is not of equal rigor. Advocacy reports, whether from the left, center, or right, are just that, advocacy.

Recently, Jay Matthews, who has earned a reputation as a journalist with credibility about education, weighed in again about vouchers, "Vouchers Work, But So What ?"

The piece focuses on an updated report from the Foundation for Educational Choice, as Matthews characterizes:

"Greg Forster, a talented and often engagingly contrarian senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice, has expanded a previous study to show that nearly all the research on vouchers, including some using the gold standard of random assignment, has good news for those who believe in giving parents funds that can be used to put their children in private schools. Students given that chance do better in private schools than similar students do in public schools, the research shows. Public schools who are threatened by the loss of students to private schools because of voucher programs improve more than schools that do not have to worry about that competition, the research also shows."

Matthew's position as a journalist focusing on education and the surface credibility of the think-tank report combine to mask, once again, what lies behind the report--the earlier incarnation of "Win-Win" was promoted with the same positive claims about choice, but later unmasked in a review:

"This new report purports to gather all available empirical evidence on the question of the competitive effects of vouchers, finding a strong consensus that vouchers help public schools. But the report, based on a review of 17 studies, selectively reads the evidence in some of those studies, the majority of which were produced by voucher advocacy organizations. Moreover, the report can't decide whether or not to acknowledge the impact of factors other than vouchers on public schools. It attempts to show that public school gains were caused by the presence of vouchers alone, but then argues that the lack of overall gains for districts with vouchers should be ignored because too many other factors are at play. In truth, existing research provides little reliable information about the competitive effects of vouchers, and this report does little to help answer the question."

At the very least, the updated "Win-Win" should be placed in the context of the earlier flaws in the 2009 version; but we should also expect to withhold endorsing this version until the work is reviewed.

Yettick opens her analysis with this argument about the importance of media coverage of educational research: "Because the research featured in these outlets influences policymakers, practitioners and parents, it is important to know who produces the educational research mentioned in the news media."

Combined with Gladwell's advice, Yettick's recommendations are a start, but I am certain that education reform will continue to fail if the media continues to fail the public discourse about our society, our schools, and our need for that reform.


An Associate Professor of Education at Furman University since 2002, Dr. P. L. Thomas taught high school English for 18 years at Woodruff High along with teaching as an adjunct at a number of Upstate colleges. He holds an undergraduate degree in Secondary Education (1983) along with an M. Ed. in Secondary Education (1985) and Ed. D. in Curriculum and Instruction (1998), all from the University of South Carolina. Dr. Thomas has focused throughout his career on writing and the teaching of writing. He has published fiction, poetry, and numerous scholarly works since the early 1980s. Currently, he works closely with the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) as a column editor for English Journal, Challenging Text, and the SC Council of Teachers of English (SCCTE) as co-editor of South Carolina English Teacher. His major publications include a critique of American education, Numbers Games (2004, Peter Lang); a text on the teaching of writing, Teaching Writing Primer (2005, Peter Lang); and books in a series edited by Thomas, Confronting the Text, Confronting the World--his most recent volume being Reading, Learning, Teaching Ralph Ellison (2008, Peter Lang). He has also co-authored a work with Joe Kincheloe (McGill University), Reading, Writing, and Thinking: The Postformal Basics (2006, Sense Publishers), and Renita Schmidt, 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted Are We Literate? (Springer, 2009). His next books include Parental Choice? (2010, Information Age Publishing) and the first volume in a new series he edits, Challenging Genres: Comics and Graphic Novels (Sense Publishers). His scholarship and teaching deal primarily with critical literacy and social justice. See his work at:

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