Some in the news business are more inclined than others to probe deeply and to do an in-depth study of a particular story or subject when dealing with schools or educational issues. This is to be expected. Not all journalists are assigned to be investigative journalists or are cut out to ask (and attempt to answer) the penetrating or analytical questions intended to uncover subtle truths, hidden facts, or technical information. When journalists follow events or write content for stories on education or on schools, it should be no surprise that what many of them transmit to audiences is relatively superficial or that what are reported are merely “facts” and information as stated more or less verbatim by those working in schools or those designated as spokespersons for the officials and administrators with minimal nuance.
Nevertheless, there have been ample media professionals who have not been shy about reporting on various controversies, contentious issues, and failings which have arisen with respect to schools and their staff or students. Plenty of stories have been printed or broadcast about scandals, low test scores, accusations of malfeasance, reports of discipline problems, abuses by teachers, and various other topics that are unfavorable and negative. Yet, pointing fingers, citing ugly statistics, and exposing issues and various influences that are unproductive or inimical contributes little to correcting problems or preventing them from recurring in another semester or at another location. By attributing the wrong causes or failing to dig below the surface to reveal more basic and systemic flaws such accounts may do much harm and little or no good.
If we take a close and realistic look at the record, most of the time there is truly no one to blame. Individual actors sometimes do contemptible things or display a degree of incompetence or irresponsibility that is clearly unacceptable. However, even in many of those cases, a flaw has been identified in the “system” or an oversight has set the stage for a person to “fly under the radar” or slip through the cracks. Frequently, inadequate funding is the excuse for a multitude of sins and a comedy of errors.
The more essential underlying factors along with bad thinking, flawed theory, erroneous assumptions, or mythology that have allowed conditions to deteriorate are rarely ever questioned. Under the ‘bad apple’ theory, the problem is local or temporary and may be temporarily or partially solved through some corrective action, but the larger picture and the underlying factors are too vague or blurred to sort out and scrutinize. This is known as “The Error of the Third Kind”. Repeatedly solving the wrong problems is no solution at all.
Indeed, in the case of the vast majority of media reports and stories on schools and education, there appears to be a tacit agreement that anything they produce for public consumption that is too highly critical or negative in nature is somehow illegitimate. Until there is a crisis or problems have become conspicuous, media personnel are expected to use utmost discretion. The people working in the field or the people speaking about issues and problems should be regarded as having the inside track and a special knowledge. No one from outside should be asking too many probing questions, since they supposedly lack the necessary expertise to evaluate and judge.
Educators do have an extremely difficult and sensitive set of responsibilities. There is some justification for believing that casual observers and people who are not able to see and appreciate all of the challenges they face on a daily basis and all of the variables involved in managing large numbers of anxious or antsy children cannot fully understand what they are up against. Also, according to one perspective the media is not supposed to take sides or adjudicate. Yet, to reveal truth and realities, they must be willing and able to search for causes and for factors involved in issues and to honestly evaluate what they find, regardless of whose feathers get ruffled.
Most of those calling themselves educators and those involved in the field of education or with schooling are relatively optimistic and idealistic by nature. They can look at a terribly disturbing scenario and see deplorable results and devastating projections from objective observers and professional “experts” and still manage to find a great deal of hope and promise. At the end of nearly every analysis or evaluation and before ending any interview or report, they all seem compelled to look at the bright side. They cannot acknowledge the sad truth of school failures and disappointing numbers here or there without engaging in some rather blithe “happy talk”.
The stated reason for a meeting or conference, a panel discussion or formal complaint, or any other process or proceeding might be a laundry list of dire facts and circumstances that border on the criminal. Nevertheless, teachers, principals, school board officials and others almost invariably are ready with the exciting news of an innovative new program; a “proven” set of new and creative practices or methods; a sparkling and shiny novel curriculum design or approach with a catchy name or acronym, or a plan to crack down and shape up the ship. Reporters and journalists fall for these distractions every single time! If one were to compare the newspaper stories from decades ago to the stories in the newspapers of today, one would be stunned to discover how identically the language and the proposals for change match up.
In recent years, it has been all the rage for well-known anchors of news programs or other dynamic personalities who have gained notoriety through books they’ve published or high-level positions they’ve occupied in business, academia, government, or the media to sponsor or participate in widely publicized and professionally produced panels or debates on schooling and education. One such magnificent production was called “Education Nation” and seemed to go on for weeks or months and may be a recurring series on NBC.
The love/hate America has with its schools is exhibited in all its glory in these spectacles with a panoply of speakers and representative articulating a wide variety of grievances and complaints and harsh criticisms from most of the members and participants. In each instance, there is at least one charismatic Ted Talk-type inspirational speaker who has all the right kinds of confessions or revelations relative to the shortcomings of the schools, yet who counters his own criticisms and those of others with a wondrous message of how we will confront our failings and fix these exasperating problems. Why? Because, “Our children are our future”! Gee, whiz, we didn’t know that!
If any of these people had any knowledge about the history of schooling and education, they would be (or should be) terribly embarrassed to be part of one of these charades. It is not the media’s responsibility to solve the conundrum that has been public schooling for generations, of course. But, the media should not have the same amnesia as the educators or allow them to gloss over chronically atrocious conditions and to passively abrogate their responsibility by letting the lack of an institutional memory perpetuate the incessant contradictions and unfulfilled promises.
As always, we are obliged to report that the continuous loop on which the same discussions are had and on which the same bromides and palliatives are offered will slowly get us nowhere. There are many misperceptions and false ideas circulating within the educational community. Those must be addressed through the analyses and application of good scientific research. However, there is a chasm of immense proportions separating educators (or, educationists, or educrats) from putting the science to work and applying what has been known for a long time. The one thing standing in the way, which is a wall more effective than Donald Trump has ever envisioned, is the authoritarian bureaucracy that MUST ALWAYS remain intact as long as there are attendance laws making conscripts of children and punitive bureaucrats of teachers.