If public education is ever going to meet the needs of low-income students, ideas for change must get beyond the constant war of words fueled by advocacy journalism, partisan blogging and fake news.
The left and right have found little common ground to advance education, in part because education advocates are no more interested in finding pragmatic, nonpartisan solutions than defense contractors are in finding peace.
Well-financed special interest groups have inundated the public with salesmen disguised as advocates, who won’t take no for an answer. Anyone who dares read the fine print is branded an enemy of change.
That’s why now – more than ever – we need media to read the fine print and help the public make decisions for themselves.
We have a president-elect with debauched attitudes toward women, a man who has denied facts about global warming and disparaged our own intelligence community.
Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education has financed dozens of national, state and local elections to push what has been proven to be harmful education policy. Trump and Betsy DeVos are examples of why a free press is needed now more than ever.
When I transitioned from managing schools to writing about them, I learned the value of independent journalistic reporting and writing, detached from an institution. For an administrator at a school or college, a government employee or even as a teacher, the job isn’t just to serve students well; it’s also to make the institution look good.
As a university administrator who managed charter schools, I was told, “You have to share the sunny side of facts.” It’s hard to see what you really need to know and share about schools and colleges because of that glare.
A traditional journalist’s capacity to speak freely is a liberty professional educators should enjoy, but seldom do. Communication firms (not to be confused with news organizations) and professional bloggers can limit or tailor what they perceive as news to their liking. Advocacy journalism – a genre of journalism that intentionally adopts a nonobjective viewpoint – also clouds details we may need to know to make better decisions.
The pervasiveness of advocacy writing helped usher in a “post-truth” era, where people consumed copious amounts of narrative over fact. The post-truth era fit neatly between enactments of No Child Left Behind in 2001 – a touted bipartisan compromise – and its follow-up, the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, which essentially said, “we were better off before 2001.”
In between federal laws, warring factions have dug themselves in petty foxholes to show their loyalties to their respective camps, at the expense of integrity and solutions. For example, states like Arizona voted to “replace” Common Core standards only to make minor changes on things like cursive writing.
We are missing opportunities to improve because advocates won’t take no for an answer. For instance, we need to update university-based teacher prep programs, not eradicate them, as some advocates intimate.
Likewise, universities can learn a great deal from reform-minded, alternate route teacher preparation programs – “alt-route” isn’t the “alt-right.” Content-stripped alternate route programs naturally have much to learn from university-based programs.
Let’s be clear, charters and unions are not oil and water. There are racist teachers who need less protection, and there are black women who need more. But advocates won’t get past their original positions to make reasonable judgments.
When I joined the award-winning nonprofit Hechinger Report, I also learned how similar journalists and academics can be. As a former academic, I appreciate the rigorous process journalists and columnists subject themselves to in order to pursue a question, dispute a proposition or uncover corruption.
There are editors, peer reviewers and others who keep reason and truth in the forefront, and personal vendettas away from public view. Both professions share a sincere effort to pursue truth, wherever it may fall.
There are also big differences. Regrettably, their audiences differ. I’m constantly unlearning how to write the jargony “academese” (I did it again) to the few people fluent in it so that I can reach a broader audience. However, in both professions there’s a sincere effort to pursue truth wherever that may fall.
As a former paid blogger for a communications company and an educational leader, I also know the coziness that can exist between superintendents, funders and other politicos, which limits what an advocate can say or do. This is especially true in environments where communication firms, bloggers and school leaders work together behind the scenes to develop unified talking points and strategies.
On more than one occasion, reform and traditional education advocates have said to me, “You’ve seemed to change positions on reform.”
To them I reply, “That’s what education is supposed to do.”
For example, when I wrote about the lack of diversity among teachers honored by the nation’s largest teachers union, I was told I had crossed a line. When I commented on the need for the Louisiana Department of Education to make data it affords to some groups accessible to all, my claims were vigorously refuted by the state superintendent – but the data appeared.
When I opined on the irresponsible use of grit, growth mindset and other poorly framed ideas that see black youth as deficits, I received some burn from its proponents, but I also received dozens of correspondences from those who said I validated their concerns.
I don’t simply want to advocate viewpoints with my writing. I want to ask questions wherever and whenever they need asking.
The Hechinger Report enables me to freely pursue truth. You can help by supporting award-winning, in-depth reporting on inequality and innovation in classrooms and campuses all over the U.S. with a financial gift today.
Education advocates can continue to make news with their fighting, or we can find solutions with news. Help us bolster better journalism about education in 2017.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.