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Alert the Media

vonzastrowc's picture

Education Sector's charter school report has not yet got the media's attention, and that's bad news.

For those of you who don't already know, the report questions the ability of the best Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) to expand without damaging their schools' quality. And the final report is much tamer than the original draft, leading some to argue that Education Sector censored the report to please its patrons.

This tussle has gotten attention in some quarters. Blogger Alexander Russo was the first to report that something was amiss. Blogger Marc Dean Millot found and published the original draft. Deborah Viadero at Education Week wrote a story on the controversy. Linda Perlstein covered it in her blog. Tom Hoffman zeroed in on one of the most startling passages in the original draft. And Millot questioned Education Sector's ethics.

But only education insiders got to see any of this. The report has yet to make a ripple outside the eduworld.

Note to journos: This is a great story. Neither version of the report will make everyone happy. The biggest opponents of charter schools hardly come away unscathed in Toch's draft. And, as I've noted before, the final version should be enough to curb the enthusiasm of politicians and pundits who are peddling charter expansion as some kind of magic pill.

But the story goes way beyond possible indiscretions at Education Sector. Think tanks are often in the opinion business. When they do original research, we have to treat that research with caution. Education Sector seemed different from most. The outfit produced lucid, compelling and balanced reports even though staff members let their opinions fly freely on its two blogs. The current drama over the CMO report shakes that credibility.

But I'm more concerned about the news media than about the think tanks. We all know that think tanks can lean this way or that, but we expect more from the press. So far, they've been very disappointing.

Search online for news about the EdSector report, and you'll find the EdWeek story and a handful of blog postings. That's it. Of course, Education Sector doesn't seem to be promoting the report much or at all. Maybe they saw the scuffle coming. But their in-house blog Eduwonk.com didn't even mention it. What's worse, on the very day Education sector released the report, Eduwonk crowed over cheery charter school data released by another group, the charter-friendly Center on Education Reform.

But I would still expect the press to pay closer attention. When Caroline Hoxby's forceful study praising New York City charter schools appeared, the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal tripped over each other to run editorials proclaiming the debate about charters over. Let them grow, let them grow, let them grow. Those newspapers were far more sluggish in reporting the results of Stanford's CREDO study, which painted a much darker picture of charter school quality. You can debate the relative merits of each report, but at least acknowledge the debate.

In either form, the Education Sector report is newsworthy. It's almost a foregone conclusion in Washington and many places besides that charter expansion is our ticket out of the education doldrums. Don't Americans deserve to hear more about the possible pitfalls of this strategy? The stakes are huge.

So I'm waiting to see if some reporters will pick up the scent where the report left it. Maybe they'll find it leads to better prospects for charters down the road. Either way, they should rescue us from blind enthusiasm.

As I've commented before, the

As I've commented before, the press will report what the bosses want to see reported. If any part of the Education Sector report gets emphasized in the corporate media, it likely will be the parts unfavorable to those opposed to charter schools. The rest will likely be ignored altogether.

Oh, by the way, it seems our friend Jonathan Alter may have been in suck-up mode after all with his Newsweek article on charter schools. Margaret Meacham, the wife of Alter's boss at the magazine, used to be the Executive Director of the Harlem Day Charter School in New York.

Thanks for your comment,

Thanks for your comment, eliot926.

I'm less convinced than you are that the media have consciously sold out to corporate interests. From my experience, you'll can barely find anyone in the education world these days who doesn't work for, work with, or spend time with someone involved in the charter movement. That, I think, is not a bad thing. One of the original ideas behind the charter movement was to create laboratories of innovation that work under fewer regulations than other schools do. It can be very good to keep the best charters within easy sniffing distance of others--traditional public educators and people in the media--who can learn from them.

I'm bothered, however, by the tendency of too may pols and pundits to oversell what the charter movement can deliver right now. A bunch of different well-funded organizations in DC have been part of that sales job. When something like the Ed Sector report comes out--in both its forms--you'd think that people in the media would see its importance. We have a lot riding on our ability to expand the best charter networks right now, and the report raises big questions about our ability to do that. I believe thoughtful reporters who follow the trail Ed Sector laid out would discover that the report's recommendations aren't adequate to the problems it describes. There's a real story there--not the only story, but a story that deserves telling as we weigh our policy options.

I'm not dissing charter

I'm not dissing charter schools or (in general) the people who work for them. I was bothered by what seemed an idealistic view of the media in your piece, particularly as expressed in your frustration that "thoughtful journalists" aren't providing coverage to something you feel is important. I'm sorry if there was any misunderstanding.

The views promoted by the media with regard to education don't reflect corporate interests so much as class bias. You'd be very hard-pressed to find anyone working in a media operation these days who doesn't come from an affluent or upper-middle-class background. It's a homogenization of mindset that was created by increased competitiveness for employment in the field. It's enforced by the insistence on employees coming from particular universities (most of them private) and the use of unpaid internships as entry-level employment. If you don't come from money, it's all but impossible to start a career in the business. Most professional journalists these days never attended public schools in the first place, and those that did identify with the more affluent members of their cohort. They don't sell out so much as reflect the values that are already in place.

I'm not talking out of my hat with this. I worked in the New York City media world for a number of years, and it's small enough that everybody pretty much knows everybody else. The biases of the affluent mindset are all but universal, and they become more firmly ingrained the higher up you go.

That class bias also manifests itself in bigotry towards working-class people, who are generally viewed either patronizingly or with outright contempt. This also works against public schools in media portrayals, as they're generally seen as the province of the working class. If the schools and the people who work in them aren't being punished in some way, you're not likely to see anything favorable.

However, since you brought it up, the media is owned by large corporate interests lock, stock, and barrel. Almost every outlet is owned by a conglomerate. It affects their coverage of things substantially. The malfeasance that goes on has been extensively documented. To pick one example, a few years back General Electric ordered the cancellation of MSNBC's top-rated show because they thought it might negatively impact their contracts with the Pentagon. The list goes on and on.

One should always be on the lookout for conflicts of interest. On the education front, if the Washington Post publishes a lot of pro-testing articles, the reason might have something to do with the fact that the paper is owned by Kaplan. Or that a Newsweek writer who recites pro-charter-school talking points might be trying to curry favor with his editor, whose wife is a significant player in that field.

There are several good isolated outlets, such as Salon.com or the McClatchy news service. And a lot of people in the field are very nice one-on-one. (One nepotism case I cited in another comment is someone I've encountered a few times, and I liked her personally quite a bit.) The media in general, though, is not your friend. You appear to have a very idealistic view of the people in the field, and I worry that it's going to bite you quite hard one day.

Sorry this comment was so long. I do get carried away at times.

Correction: The Washington

Correction: The Washington Post isn't owned by Kaplan; it owns Kaplan.

I think it would be even more

I think it would be even more precise to say that the Washington Post newspaper and Kaplan are both owned by the same entity.

But you're really on to something. Consider the overlap between Ed Sector's funders and the charter schools' funders. (Yes, it's disclosed in the report, but disclosing a conflict of interest doesn't eliminate it.) Further, since some of those foundations also fund media coverage -- at Education Week and NPR -- we sometimes have funders paying for the reform, the research and the media coverage.

Even if the funders and the organizations go to some lengths to set up firewalls, it's hard to pretend that the reform, in this case charter schools, is getting the oversight it needs.

I can hear the

I can hear the editor...

Claus -- my guess (as one of many escapees from the Fourth Estate) is that most editors would look at the two reports and ask, "so tell me again how these are different and what the story is?" If there was sufficient scandal attached to the editing (a USDOE official on tape directing which chunks had to come out), MAYBE. The best prospect is a mainstream columnist. Kristof? ;) Otherwise, Viadero's story is likely as good as it's going to get.

John, I understand that this

John, I understand that this story of think tank intrigue is a bit abstract for readers who aren't already knee-deep in the education world. But I had something else in mind.

I think a national newspaper could cover the Ed Sector story in any form. The lede--that creating many new charters will be hard to do without diluting quality--strikes me as pretty palatable, even for readers who aren't education wonks. Charters are all the rage, and casual readers have been treated to all sorts of stories about their promise. How about a story about challenges facing one of the most talked-about ideas for reforming schools?

Below the fold, the story could mention the controversy with the original draft, get some people to talk about the power of the charter lobby, get some other people to talk about charter opponents creating mountains out of molehills, etc. And perhaps the reporter could also do some careful interviews with some of the people Toch interviewed, just to get a sense of deep--or shallow--the problems with CMO's may be.

But the big story would be about alleged barriers to one of the most popular and talked-about school reform strategies. Let the details of the controversy come later on in the story, and use them to illustrate just how complicated the current political environment is.

There's a reason for that,

There's a reason for that, friend. No paper would bite the hand that feeds it. Do these charters spend a good deal on ads? I wouldn't know... I'm just asking because it seems to me a little guaranteed income from these folks does tend to keep newspeople quiet. They *say* it doesn't bias them, but I've seen this sort of thing a fair bit.

Then there is this: for better or worse (I think based on MY personal experience with Elf, it is "for better"), the schools are viewed as evil corporations like HMOs. I can't say that HMOs aren't evil, but I also can't say they don't save countless lives as well. But in the news? The stories are almost invariably about this or that person who didn't get coverage for something, NOT the person who was reasonably well-served by the company and got better.

Sometimes the truth is messy and multi-layered and can't be pounded out in three 'grafs. It will be interesting to see how this story plays out and whether your persistence pays off.

Anyway, Claus, I do enjoy reading your blog and I do appreciate your efforts to be fair. :]

The "story" isn't about two

The "story" isn't about two different versions of a tax-free, think-ideologically tank report. It's that the United States government is chasing a "reform" that is being propped up financially by wealthy tax-free "foundations." The "reform" is financially unsustainable. And the evidence is that in the aggregate the "reform" schools are no better than than the "pre-reformed" public schools.

Mrs. C--Thanks, as always,

Mrs. C--Thanks, as always, for the kind comment.

I'm not sure newspapers are simply covering their financial interests. There's been a lot of energy in the charter movement, and newspapers have been looking for stories about reform. Many wealthy foundations have supported the charter movement--mostly with good intentions, I think--and they've been able to finance effective communications operations, which lead to positive media coverage and enthusiastic editorial boards.

What's more, at a time when many stories about public schools are negative, some of the high profile charter schools offer a convenient foil for struggling traditional public schools. Never mind that there are traditional public schools that are also succeeding against all odds. They don't give pundits and journos the same interesting charter vs. "traditional" school angle.

As Dick suggests, the fight over what happened to the report itself isn't the story--at least not outside of the education policy sphere. The story is that a major reform strategy with major momentum and major support from many quarters is more complicated than many people thought--even if every regulatory barrier to charter school expansion disappeared overnight. This is an issue for serious debate, and the Education Sector report has given that debate a new depth,  

We teachers are to blame.

We teachers are to blame. First we stopped teaching the generation that spawned the "reform" movement how to diagram sentences, and now they can't remember how to structure a paragraph.

Take the Ed Sector's intro. They write:

"Most charter schools haven't performed as well as Amistad, and there is a lively ongoing debate about quality and effectiveness in the charter school sector. But the most well-known of the new nonprofit charter school networks, organizations with names like Aspire Public Schools, Uncommon Schools, and the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) have produced compelling results, ..."

As I read the topic sentence, the paragraph is about the "quality and effectiveness of the charter school sector." They assert that some CMOs have produced "compelling results." So the reader should expect more information on the paragraph's topic - student performance? How is the sentence completed?

The "compelling results" are:

... "attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in philanthropy and congratulatory coverage in the national media—on "60 Minutes" and the "Oprah Winfrey Show," in the New York Times Magazine and Esquire, in nearly every major daily newspaper, and in a spate of new books ..."

This pattern is pervasive in "reform" literature. The Ed Trust, for instance, writes about the performance of the subset of Black children of highly educated, affluent, book-owning mothers who didn't have kids until the age of thirty, and the next sentence switches to nationawide test NAEP scores to show that teachers are to blame. The TNTP writes about the scholarly interest in VAMs for evaluations, but the footnote cites studies that show they are not ready. Frankly, I'm stunned by the amount of intellectual dishonesty I read in "reform" publications.

This is an issue for serious

This is an issue for serious debate, and the Education Sector report has given that debate a new depth.

I'm stunned by the amount of intellectual dishonesty I read in "reform" publications.

Hmm. If there is any debate in the media on any of the "reforms," I've missed it. Rather, states have to voluntarily "assure" that they will comply with initiatives that the National Academy of Sciences has warned are without scientific/technical foundation.

I have a hard time distinguishing between "dishonesty," "ignorance," "incompetence," "naivete," and "hubris." Whatever motives may be involved, a little fact-checking and examining previous experience would go a long way.

If charter schools are not fiscally sustainable, that's easily checked. Ask the same people that Toch asked, or ask others. Likewise, the National Academy of Sciences doesn't have a reputation of going off half-cocked. It's warnings can be easily checked.

If there is anything to the NAS warnings, the Nation is truly at educational risk. And the "reform" goes on.

This is really interesting

This is really interesting stuff--here in Washington State we're starting up yet another big fight over charter schools (we currently don't have charter school laws now), and it's been a complete whitewash--"Charters Good! Opponents Idiots!"

John--Successful PR often

John--Successful PR often breeds more successful PR. Perhaps that's why the Ed Sector report cites media attention as a measure of certain charter schools' success. Still, it strikes me that some CMO's can point to very impressive successes. Even Toch's report is celebratory about those successes, though he's very skeptical of CMO's ability to scale up nearly as far and fast as the press seems to think they can.

Dick--I agree with you that the media have done little to acknowledge the debate over current reforms. They generally spin serious debate into a morality play with virtuous reformers and vices personified as the "establishment." My point is that the press would do well to acknowledge that there is a debate, and that credible research raises big questions about reforms over which too many editorial boards are simply swooning. 

Eliot926: Perhaps I am being idealistic. There are certainly class dynamics at work in the media and in academia. I've heard some people refer to class dynamics in the reform community, the members of which tend to be fairly well heeled, graduates of elite universities, and themselves rather distant from many people working in the front lines of education (with apologies to Nancy Flanagan for the military metaphor). Still, I can't help believing that those people media folks and reformers, even when misguided, do mean well.

I'm also familiar with the unfortunate mixing of media and corporate interests: news outlets owned by the companies that advertise on their shows; growing concentration of media interests in fewer and fewer hands; reporters in the thrall of the people they cover; etc. Still, I worry that we can take that argument too far and chalk up any coverage we don't like--or more often what w consider the media's sins of omission--to some conscious desire to hide the truth or distort the facts. 

More often than not, in my (idealistic) opinion, those sins of omission, misrepresentations, distortions, etc. stem from hopefulness, frustration with persistent challenges in struggling schools, lack of money for investigative reporting, and a natural tendency to pay the closest attention to groups that have the best communications strategies and lots of foundation dollars lined up lined up behind them. I know too many people who are committed to CMO expansion or rapid introduction of performance pay to think they all have sinister, unspoken motives for what they do.

Ryan--The "charters good, traditional public schools bad" line raises my blood pressure....

One last reponse and I'm

One last reponse and I'm done. You're right that most people in the media mean well. In general, they aren't deliberately dishonest.

Most conflict-of-interest situations don't result in falsifications; they usually end up with a matter being ignored altogether.

While there are widespread ethical problems in the field, most of the lousy coverage results from ideological predispositions and blindness. Laziness plays a big role, too.

For better or for worse, the

For better or for worse, the elhi "story" will have legs--several of them. Secretary Duncan's stock speech will soon be over-run by applications for RttT funds. Maybe the applications will provide clear plans for raising the bar and closing the achievement gap, providing best practices that work and that can go to scale, thereby delivering fundamental, transformational change.

If you believe that, I've plans for a pig that can fly, which will knock the top off the energy crisis.

The thing is, media coverage of elhi has improved both quantitatively and qualitatively since 2001. We don't know how to "reform" the coverage any more than we know how to "reform" schools. The only difference is, everyone recognizes this with the media, but few recognize it for schools.

More news at 11:00, in tomorrow's newspapers, and in the blogosphere.

Andrew Rotherham, of all

Andrew Rotherham, of all people, gets the last word as expressed in the National Journal blog discussion. If you believe that "The Sum is Greater than its Parts," none of our skepticism is relevant. When you are sure that you are right, it is difficult for facts to falsify such a fishes and loafs belief.

John, I thought some of

John, I thought some of Andy's points were quite reasonable, especially about the distortion of the debate over charter schools. But he didn't address the limitations of the movement. Tellingly, he didn't even mention the Ed Sector report. That was left to the three lonely skeptics in what Robert Pondiscio has called the "education petting zoo" of invited experts at the National Journal.

I agree that Andrew points

I agree that Andrew points were reasonable. The fishes and loafes analogy just explains how true believers can reach conclusions without being dishonest.

But I have to admit the education petting zoo is a better line.