The Lamentable Alliance Between the Media and School Critics

By reinforcing negative perceptions and spotlighting the absurd, the press stymies public support for schools by DAVID C. BERLINER AND BRUCE J. BIDDLE

Spring 1997 was not kind to the press. At the April 1997 meetings of the American Educational Research Association, we asked approximately 200 attendees at a presentation on education and the media four questions about educational reporting and editorial policy in the newspapers they read.

About 95 percent believed that news reporting about public education was not neutral but was biased negatively, critical of the schools; reporting about education was simple and incomplete, rather than complex or thoughtful; editorial policy was overly critical of the schools; and editorial policy was simple and not particularly thoughtful.

A month later, at the annual conference of the Education Writers Association, the school reform organization Public Agenda released its report Good News, Bad News: What People Really Think About the Educational Press. This was a much more rigorous survey, but yielded similar results. Here, educators vilified the press, with 75 to 91 percent of the respondents agreeing strongly that reporters cover education news according to what sells; report low achievement without contexts for evaluating those findings; unfairly dwell on conflict and failure; use quotes or statistics out of context; and have caused much of the decline in public confidence in public schools. Parents were less negative, but even so, 50 percent judged news coverage of the schools to be fair or poor.

A little earlier that spring, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press conducted a survey of attitudes about the press in general, not just about education reporting. They found broad cynicism about the press. The public characterized the press as more unfair, more inaccurate and pushier than in previous years. A majority of the public believes the press is biased and gets in the way of our nation's ability to find solutions to its problems.

Negative Perceptions
What follows is designed to give substance to these negative perceptions and to point out their unfortunate implications. Before proceeding, however, we need to acknowledge that education reporting shows variation from newspaper to newspaper. And reporting varies within the same newspaper, from story to story and from one reporter to another.

It is also true and noteworthy that within the Fourth Estate are people of great integrity who try hard to get their stories correct and make their commentaries useful. Group and individual data are different, of course, and so we ask your indulgence as we comment on the profession in general, not individual reporters and newspapers in particular.

We think that too frequently a story is found interesting to reporters only if it is critical of the schools or if it has some scent of blood about it. In news lingo, "If it bleeds, it leads." We also believe that most of the editorial opinions from the so-called liberal press are, in fact, quite conservative. Thus, to us, the newspapers have become a natural ally of those who believe that public education has failed.

The critics believe that public schooling should be abandoned or should reform itself to find some way of returning to those halcyon days of yesterday (a time better described as the halcyon haze of yesterday--much better recalled from memory than actually lived).

We will not explore in depth the problem of who speaks for education to the press. We note only, for example, some of those who write op-ed articles and are widely quoted are not necessarily objective and have something to gain from, say, the approval of vouchers that could be used at nonpublic schools. It serves their interests to promote the belief that public education is a failure and that privatization is the only sensible solution. Why, when they write or talk, aren't they identified as individuals who may be compromised in regard to their objectivity?

Others who criticize the public schools hold strong fundamentalist religious beliefs that lead them to want their children segregated from those in secular schools. They seek vouchers to fund such schools, and by attacking the public schools, they come a little closer to achieving their goals. Critics with such strong views or with pecuniary interests should be identified by the press when their comments are reported, just as are representatives from the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Highlighting the Absurd
It appears to be great sport to draw blood when reporting the unseemly, the negative and the absurdities that necessarily occur in a system with nearly 3 million public school teachers in about 100,000 public schools.

Last year the nation's press ridiculed a school that suspended a girl for giving an aspirin to a friend with a headache. Few news accounts contained any sympathy for a school dealing with a citizenry that overuses and abuses both legal and illegal drugs. Few reporters acknowledged that this school was attempting to follow the leads of former first lady Nancy Reagan and President Clinton to teach children to "just say no!" and to impose a zero tolerance drug policy on their campus. Public school critics assert that the schools promote drug use among teen-agers, yet here was a public school trying its best to prevent any drug use on its campus, and for these educators’ efforts, they were made to appear ridiculous.

The press also ridiculed school officials in Lexington, N.C., for suspending a kindergarten boy in primary school who kissed a classmate on the cheek. Wisecracks and cartoons made the rounds unmercilessly, painting the school officials as politically correct fanatics. Few accounts included any sympathy for a school trying to deal with the high and ignominious rates of sexual harassment and domestic violence that exist in our society. When should schools start teaching the serious consequences of these behaviors--after puberty or before? The critics of public schools often assert that our schools do not teach character or develop morals. Yet here was a public school trying to do precisely that, and the news media made that school appear ludicrous.

The press had a field day ridiculing the Oakland, Calif., school board's Ebonics policy, treating its actions as the demented ravings of foolish African people. In newspapers, newsweeklies and the burgeoning electronic media, cartoons and jokes swept across the country. Such treatment not only mocked the Oakland school board, but it also revived stereotypes and visual images that we thought had died out in polite company a half century ago. We had to turn to the academic journals to learn something about the rationale for the proposed policy, the reasonable pedagogical principles that were being promoted through the board’s policy and the linguistically solid grounds for declaring black English vernacular a language.

These arguments were not found in the popular press. An unsympathetic press was more interested in a good bloodletting than they were in uncovering any trace of reasonableness in the decision of Oakland’s governing board. The ridicule, of course, provided more ammunition to those who assert that public education has failed.

We are not defending the school boards' or administrators' actions in any of these three instances. In our estimation, they were each examples of bungled and embarrassing attempts at implementing or developing public policy. All were public relations nightmares, and we cringe when we think about the silliness of some of the school people involved.

But schools are about something bigger than the public relations nightmares that inevitably occur. Public schooling is really about ordinary people trying to make reasonable decisions in the best interests of their communities--decisions that will help their young people grow to be knowledgeable, economically productive and decent citizens. In all three cases, that was the intention of the school policy, and those noble intentions were commonly ignored in the derision and the bloodletting in which the media indulged. Missing from the reporting of all three cases was a modicum of caring, sympathy and understanding about what the schools were trying to accomplish, even though in each case they appeared to have bungled it.

Because no quarter was given by the press, those who criticize the schools were given more ammunition. Particularly helped were those who claim the public schools are run by inept bureaucrats. For some, the proposed solution to the allegations of ineptitude is the privatization of our public education system. But, in our view, the most pernicious immediate effect of this kind of reporting was that schoolchildren and their parents learned that their school leaders are chumps--people of low prestige, the butt of Jay Leno and David Letterman jokes, people whose words and actions can be dismissed easily.

Public perceptions, particularly student perceptions, are shaped by the media through the respect or derision that they display for different groups. Can the routine and undiscriminating ridicule of schoolteachers and administrators be good for the nation? Could the press not find the absurdities of individual educators newsworthy--subject to criticism, laughter or outrage--and find ways to preserve the dignity of a few million other professional educators who work so hard for the good of the nation?

Deficiencies Galore
In our opinion, the press on educational issues:

* Is biased and covers the negative side of news stories much more diligently than the positive side;

* Presents too simplistic and incomplete a view of the educational problems and issues that they are reporting;

* Is more critical of the schools in its editorial policies than it is complimentary;

* Has editorial policies that are biased against public schools, school change and, in particular, schools that serve the poor;

* Displays a lack of understanding of the complexity of school life in contemporary America;

* Shows an appalling, lack of understanding of statistics and social science research, without which reporters cannot properly interpret the huge amount of data that the educational system produces; and

* Shows an ignorance of the role of poverty as a root cause of many of the difficulties in our schools.

Uninformed Coverage
The press seems either too scared, too controlled or too uninformed to raise what we consider the most basic issue confronting education in the United States--achieving a fair distribution of opportunities to succeed. This issue, however, is a close relative of issues associated with redistribution of wealth in our society, a topic that the mainstream press too often avoids.

Over the past few years, we have kept some files about the news reports that have shaped our perceptions. We will use one major recent news event to illustrate why we feel as we do. Then we note some further problems with the coverage of educational stories.

Extensive news coverage of TIMSS--the Third International Mathematics and Science Study--followed the first release of test data to the public in November 1996.

We read more than 100 news stories to get a feel for how the press handles a contemporary and important education story. The objective facts are clear and not in dispute. In a well-run, 41-nation study of 7th and 8th graders, the United States ranked about average, with Singapore a runaway winner and other Asian nations outscoring us. (The recently released 12th-grade data painted a more negative picture of our performance. But that data is quite difficult to interpret and needs further debate.)

The data on achievement in 8th-grade math and science was presented by the TIMSS researchers as three statistically homogeneous groups of nations--those ahead of the United States, those tied with us and those behind us. More interesting to the education profession was the data about curriculum and instruction for each nation. But, as expected, more press coverage went to the multination horse race in science and mathematics, a search for winners and losers.

The New York Times, along with many other newspapers, provided perfectly sensible stories based on the release of the data. The Times story was thorough and in our estimation its headline was accurate and descriptive: "Americans Straddle the Average Mark in Math and Science" (Nov. 21, 1996).

But others had different approaches to reporting the same data, provided at the same press conference called to announce the results of the study. For example, the San Diego Union-Tribune actually found cause to celebrate, announcing: "Global Test of Pupils Shows U.S. Improving." This interpretation was an accurate one, but apparently not worth featuring in any other report we could find. The St. Petersburg Times coverage was less positive but thought-provoking nevertheless. It proclaimed: "Science, Math Study Renews Calls for Reform." And that is true, too. There is much of interest in the study that can guide our school improvement efforts. The Chicago Sun-Times, however, created a much harsher and unsubstantiated headline to report the same story: "U.S. Schools in Crisis; So What Else Is New?" Most of the reporting was closer to the negativism expressed by the Sun-Times rather than to the single positive and the few thoughtful responses to the study generated by the press.

Fascinated by Rankings
As we read these stories, we noticed quickly that nobody liked to be average, including Education Secretary Richard Riley, who was quoted as saying that "for U.S. students, average is just not good enough" (Orange County Register). No reporter or any government official seemed to note the inevitability of some nations having to be about average.

Moreover, that position in an international comparison of educational achievement almost always will go to one of the more heterogeneous nations, say a country like the United States, which provides for the study a random sample from 15,700 designed-to-be-different school systems. These school systems operate independently. They receive support through vastly different funding formulas that yield great disparities in per-pupil support. They have created different curricula, use different texts and serve families heavily segregated by social class and ethnicity. Under conditions such as these, if a fair sample is drawn, it should be obvious that it will combine both the excellent performance of children in superb school districts and the abysmal performance of children in awful school districts. A nation such as the United States inevitably will be described by its central characteristics--losing its ability to showcase its pockets of excellence, although hiding as well, its genuine disasters.

The Tampa Tribune, however, was not dealing with this subtlety, apparently not even understanding the basic meaning of average, since it proclaimed in a headline: "U.S. Eighth-Graders Far Back in Math." The San Francisco Chronicle said: "American Eighth-Graders Are Average, at Best." It added the little zinger at the end to be sure that a negative tone was attached to the headline. The San Diego Union-Tribune carried an article by a state legislator noting that such terribly low scores on tests like these are old news. All this negativism was associated with being average in mathematics--a position that statistically tied us with such equally inadequate and equally average countries as Thailand, Israel, Germany, New Zealand, England, Norway, Denmark, Scotland, Spain and Iceland.

In science, being about average statistically tied us with the inadequate likes of England, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Thailand, Israel, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Scotland. It also tied us with the Russian federation. That was the awesome economic and military competitor that, 40 years ago, Admiral Hyman Rickover predicted would bury us because Russian schools taught rigorous science courses whereas our schools were too lenient. No reports we saw noted the remarkably good company that we were in with "merely" an average score. Apparently, it is the dream of the American press and the American people to have children like those in the Lake Wobegon schools--all above average.

The most obvious distortion of the TIMSS data, however, was offered to the public by the Orange County Register. Since the nations were placed into three statistically homogeneous groups--above us, tied with us and below us--this newspaper could honestly say to its readers that "the United States scored in the second lowest group," not even calling it the middle group. The Register took a cheap shot in this regard. It is like the description of an Olympic footrace in which all but two runners drop out. The winner could then be described as coming in next to last, and the second fastest runner in the world could be described as coming in dead last!

Rankings were used by most reporters to describe the TIMSS data. But none of the reporters seemed to see any analogy to an Olympic running competition. That is, no one thought that you can be a very competitive racer at the Olympics, come in a few seconds behind the winner of the 10-kilometer race, and rank 24th, though perhaps only a few seconds off a world record. So another way the data from TIMSS might have been looked at was to ask how the United States actually scored, not how the country ranked in the race to mathematics and science gold medals.

When that is done in mathematics for the 28th-ranked United States, 8th graders are seen to have correctly answered 53 percent of the math items, which placed them within 10 percent of 30 other nations. Only six nations achieved scores higher than those in the United States by 10 percent or more. Newsweek reported this as finishing "way out of the money" in an article describing the mediocrity of the American educational system.

Actually, mediocrity was a word used a lot during the week the TIMSS 8th-grade data report was released, and it was technically used correctly, since mediocre has the same root as median. But we think this adjective was chosen less for its technical appropriateness and more for its connotation of failure, which is easier to attach to the rankings but much less convincing if anyone chose to look at the actual scores achieved by the various nations.

The science test showed a similar pattern. Students in the United States got an average of 58 percent of the items correct. Thirty-three other nations had scores within 10 percent of what American students attained, and only one scored more than 10 percent above the United States. In rank, the United States was 17th, a long way out of the money. Nevertheless, only one country exceeded the American average science score by more than 10 percent, suggesting that the United States ran a pretty good race after all. These kinds of interpretations were lacking in the reports we read.

Solutions From Everywhere
All that mediocrity on the TIMSS tests led citizens and news reporters to propose solutions. An editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune suggested that students should use rulers to make every mathematical problem neat and ensure all the equal signs were lined up perfectly. The logic was that if students used the rulers in this way, they would slow down and think more about the mathematics problems they were doing.

On the other hand, The Los Angeles Times reported that American students needed to be speeded up, developing the facility to do simple multiplication problems in their heads in 8/10 of a second or less. The Orange County Register claimed the TIMSS study provided empirical evidence that the new math standards and teaching methods were a total failure. But the St. Petersburg Times reported correctly that the TIMSS data supported the use of the new mathematics standards and teaching methods.

Slowing them down or speeding them up, throwing out the standards or putting them in seems to be a sad kind of search for magic bullets and Holy Grails, a search to assure parents that their children's test scores will be high and competitive with those of other nations. But a little study of the previous international mathematics survey, reported less than a decade ago, reveals most of what we need to know about the causes of high and low mathematics performance in the United States.

We learned in the international mathematics study of 1991-1992 that public school children in such states as Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota proved they were the equal of their Asian counterparts who scored so well on average when taking a comparable mathematics test. American public school children of middle- and high-income families also were competitive with students in the highest-achieving nations in the world. The average mathematics performance of white children in the United States was quite high, as well.

Added to this, and a bit amusing, was that students of Asian origin in American public schools scored above the average of Asian students in the Asian nations that participated in that study. So we know that the American public system of education, as diverse and incoherent as it is, can turn out world-class young mathematicians if they are raised in certain states, are of a certain income level and are of a certain ethnicity. But the average performance was low in that study because some students in the United States were not achieving well at all.

Who were these low performers? Poor children in general, Hispanic and African American children in particular and the children living in some of the poorest states in the country, particularly Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. In our estimation, there is only one major difference between the schools and students that score well and those that score poorly in the United States. It is the wealth and social conditions that characterize the families, neighborhoods and districts involved.

We saw little evidence that reporters knew any of the history of testing achievement across nations and no TIMSS report we saw even hinted at the fact that poverty might be the single greatest barrier to high achievement in the American public schools.

Stereotyping Adolescence
We also are concerned about the problems that occur when an uncritical press promotes myths that serve to demonize youth. Examples of this include the distortions about the sexual activity of teen-agers and their high pregnancy rate. Almost all of the early sexual activity and ensuing pregnancies of young females is the result of predatory, fully adult males, often family members. It is not necessarily female teen-age sexual morals that are our national problem but rather adult male morality to which we need to attend. But one would never know it from the news coverage.

Moreover, the well-publicized violence of youth is almost fully explained by the poverty of youth in the United States. America is the undisputed leader in the industrialized world in percentage of youth in poverty. It is the pernicious effects of this poverty and the easy availability of weapons, not the uncontrollable hormones of puberty, that result in youth violence. But one would never know it from the newspapers because few reporters know how correlations and other statistics really work.

The great youth drug culture is still another myth that is promulgated widely. Yet 99 percent of the illegal-drug deaths recorded in the United States in 1993 were of adults; teen-agers accounted for only 1 percent of the deaths. All of these deaths are tragic, to be sure, but it is hardly a teen drug problem that the nation faces.

What harm is there in demonizing youth? It is done, after all, to sell papers. We think it does more than that. Either by implication or sometimes quite directly, the schools are held to blame for our youths' alleged licentiousness, violence and drug use. Those schools are thus deemed unworthy of support. Demonizing teen-agers through lurid headlines and vivid prose results in a loss of confidence in the public schools and helps those who promote privatization.

We think it is inappropriate to expect a democratic free press to be anything but highly critical of the society in which it exists. That is one of its functions. But it is not inappropriate to ask for balance. And we do not think we have that. It seems to us that democracy depends just as much on a free and efficient public school system as it does on a free press.

It would be ironic, as well as tragic, if the imbalance in the reporting that exists were to lead to the abandonment of public schools and a dramatic rise in private school enrollment. We are sure this would result in greater privilege for a few and less of a chance for success in life for the many. And when those circumstances occur, the press is always captured by the power of the few, and no longer can claim to be totally free. We may be well on the way to that sad state now, as recent critics contend.

Unremitting Negativism
By continuing the unfair, unremitting negative characterization of the nation's schools and youth, by searching for the blood and too often avoiding the more reasonable interpretations that are possible and by failing to describe the magnificent achievements that also characterize public education, the nation's free press may ultimately become less free.

The natural alliance between the media and public school critics could destroy both the free press and the free public educational system that we now enjoy in this nation. It may be in the interest of those in the press to ponder this line of reasoning and think about providing more balance in educational reporting--not just because it is justified, but because it is in their own self-interest.

David Berliner is Regents’ professor and dean of the College of Education at Arizona State University, Tempe, Ariz. 85287. E-mail: berliner@asu.edu. Bruce Biddle is professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. This article is adapted from Imaging Education: The Media and Schools in America, produced by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media and published in 1998 by Teachers College Press.