Fads for the schools

Reform depends on who defines it

People have been talking about a recent Newsweek cover, which shows a supposedly wild-eyed U.S. Rep. Michelle Bachmann. This is being interpreted by some folks as a way of slanting the cover story against its subject. After the battles in this year’s Legislature over education “reform” and with the opening of school nearing, I got to thinking about some other magazine covers.

In February 2010, Time magazine put this headline on its cover: “How to fix football.”

Fourteen months earlier, Time had this headline on its cover: “How to fix America’s schools.”

That was the same week that Newsweek put this headline on its cover: “How to fix the world.”

Do you get the idea that we journalists are awfully full of ourselves sometimes?

“How to fix the world” was written by Fareed Zakaria, who must be one heckuva reporter. Of course, it is not the job of reporters to fix things, but we sometimes find it difficult to stick to our lasts. This kind of journalism is misleading, since it encourages the view that public policy problems can be “fixed” as easily as a car.

In the 1990s, there was a now-latent school of reporting called civic journalism that held that it is our job as reporters to identify and advocate solutions. Advocates didn’t say it that baldly, of course. They said things like “attempting to use journalism to enhance social capital” in order to conceal the fact that it was essentially advocacy journalism in which we align ourselves with favored players.

Anyway, what I always wondered was, who will report the news if journalists are trying to set public policy? Or, to put it another way, who will report the problems if journalists try to create solutions?

Take that December 2008 Time magazine cover, “How to fix America’s schools.” The cover art shows the chancellor of the District of Columbia public schools system, Michelle Rhee, holding a broom. The subhead says in part, “Her battle against bad teachers has earned her admirers and enemies—and could transform public education.”

Don’t bet on it. That’s what Time said about Joe Clark in its issue of Jan. 28, 1988. Clark was on the cover holding not a broom but a baseball bat, and Time thought Clark could transform education, too. Here it is 22 years later. Morgan Freeman played Joe Clark in Lean On Me and Denzel Washington played him in Hard Lessons, but otherwise nothing has changed. Clark is mostly forgotten, and education is highly untransformed. One more fad gone by.

In that case, getting tough on students was Time’s prescription for schools. Today, with fad Rhee, the prescription is getting tough on teachers. Both of the Time cover stories had the same four problems, problems they share with our politics. Politicians and Time want (1) easy answers, (2) villains, (3) quick fixes and (4) and all of it done on the cheap.

The field of education, like crime, is always fertile ground for trendy new things. In March 2007 Time magazine used two pages on an essay by Caroline Kennedy extolling the virtues of one teacher’s theories—“a strong emphasis on literacy and on the social and emotional development of their students … a reading program called You Can’t Be Caught Without a Book because, he says, we need to get them reading … All of these efforts are intended to heighten the students’ sense of connection with the world around them and encourage them to believe in themselves and to make ambitious plans for their own futures.” Were a slick ad slogan, a psychological rationale and a celebrity endorsement really needed to get us to understand the value of reading?

At the Nevada Legislature that same year, the two big new school fads were “empowerment” of local schools and all-day kindergarten. The empowerment concept, under the name autonomy, was put into some pilot schools in Las Vegas under the promotion of a group called the Community Alliance to Reform Education. Democrats in the Legislature offered an alternative “empowerment” program to the version proposed by Gov. Jim Gibbons, a nice example of how Democrats let Republicans set the agenda and of the way education policy is set by political competition instead of by student needs.

If all of this sounds familiar, it is probably less because the specific programs are familiar than because this template is used so often—a hip new program, a lot of flash and splash, and then on to the next craze.

And yet after decades of chasing after these kinds of fashionable solutions, we still have the same problems.

In a 1997 New York Times essay titled “How California Betrayed Its Schools—Starved Them of Cash, Then Fed Them Fads,” Brent Staples wrote of class size reduction: “The new training and reading strategies are long overdue. But California’s plan for reducing class size is likely to backfire. The law encourages schools to shrink classes in the early grades, but makes no provisions for new classrooms. Classes are being held two to a room. Computer labs and libraries are being sacrificed. To create smaller classes in the lower grades, the schools must strip money from the upper grades, where victims of the past are struggling to catch up.”

That closely tracks with the way Nevada handled class size reduction. It was suddenly enacted with little planning and preparation to get the schools ready for it. It was plagued with problems at the outset, including a lack of space, features that were later echoed in “empowerment.” One Nevada high school principal said of the “empowerment” proposal that state schools are funded so low that the state’s not ready “whether it’s ’empowerment’ or any other intervention.”

Some of these programs may have something to offer to the public. But they may never work because they are treated like fads and because the expectations of rapid solutions are impossible to meet. It also doesn’t help that there is little broad public interest. Everyone—not just parents and educators—have a stake in whether the schools succeed or fail.

In our state’s election for governor last year, Democrat Rory Reid and Republican Brian Sandoval both issued elaborate white papers on their plans for education. Both papers told us what we want to hear. (See points one through four above.)

And where has journalism been during the fad of civic journalism and the political blame fads? We have failed to describe the problem. Almost everything we “know” about education is wrong because journalists let policy myths take root, with the result that politicians are trying to solve problems that don’t exist instead of those that do.

One of my favorite journalists is not a journalist at all. He’s a scholar named Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute who does a job journalists should do. He is spending his career trying to correct policy myths about schools: Charter schools perform better than public schools. Schools are violent. Parents are fleeing public schools for private schools. Graduates don’t have skills for the job market. Funding for schools has been increased, to no avail.

All of these things are demonstrably false, but politicians spend huge amounts of time trying to “solve” them because poorly informed journalists set the agenda and define reform. By failing to identify and recognize the very real achievements of school systems, we send politicians off on wild goose chases. And we play into the hands of pop stars like Rhee, whose organization this past spring ran broadcast ads in Nevada promoting trendy measures in the Nevada Legislature. Finally, we let the public off the hook of getting deeply and knowledgeably involved in the schools—of caring.

The world doesn’t work the way journalism describes schools working. Cars can be fixed quickly, but the deeply rooted problems of schools cannot, even if the right problems are identified. A family with a member who has a drinking problem or mental health issues does not expect the problem to be “fixed” in a jiffy and on the cheap. But journalism today is encouraging a notion of fast, shallow action on poorly identified problems. Caught in the middle are schools—students, teachers, administrators who are alternately demonized and ignored. It’s a great system. It guarantees that our efforts to have better schools will fail, and will do it in the name of “reform.”