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Media: Flunking Paul Farhi's Education Journalism Critique


The only thing worse than superficial, credulous education journalism is superficial, credulous criticism of education journalism.  
Bart and lisa A recent AJR story on the dismal state of education journalism (Flunking the Test) is getting torn apart (behind the scenes, mostly) for mis-apprehending the issues facing mainstream education reporting, and while I'm no great cheerleader for education journalism (and there's no group more sensitive to criticism and reluctant to have their work covered than journalists) I have to agree with most of the criticisms and express my own disappointment in the piece, which is surprisingly simplistic and unreflective.  
The list of the flaws in Farhi's story is a long one. In essence, it's commentary blown up into quasi-journalism.He's defending his wife's work, and his local schools. The fact that it's published in the AJR, and presented as a reported piece rather than opinion, makes this all the more striking. 
First and foremost, writer Paul Farhi seems to lack much in-depth understanding of education issues and the people who write about them.  He relies on Nexis searches and news broadcast segments (CNN, MSNBC, Telemundo) to take measure of education coverage (a lazybones move like Brookings did a few years ago) instead of taking a deep look at the reporting that's being done out there or talking to veteran reporters like Sam Dillon, Greg Toppo, Claudio Sanchez, or Stephanie Banchero, or former journalists like Richard Lee Colvin.  

His take on education reporting -- that it's insufficiently critical of reform efforts -- is outdated and unoriginal. His main examples are from 2008 and 2010.  It's as if he's never read Joann Barkan, or LynNell Hancock, or Richard Rothstein, Mike Winerip, David Sirota, Dana Goldstein, or (God forbid) this blog.  Or seen The Daily Show, for that matter, or ever heard of Diane Ravitch.  

Instead of talking to veteran reporters or independent experts on education journalism, he quotes Valerie Strauss and former EWA public editor Linda Perlstein, both of whom can't be said to have any real distance from the subject at hand.  He quotes the wisdom of a Newark Star Ledger reporter who's been on the beat for less than two years (largely because she said something he agreed with, I am guessing). I don't recall a single fact or quote that would oppose Farhi's case.  There's not even the traditional "to be sure," graf that writers often use to hem and haw when they've gone a little too far and need to regain some credibility.

He makes a strangely big deal out of NBC News' coverage of education, which is notable but by no means dominant.  A look at the Huffington Post's coverage of education would have been more timely and interesting, or at the decline in the quantity of coverage from national outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post. 

There are some saving graces, however. Farhi notes that it's difficult for reporters to get into schools and classrooms and do the reporting they'd like to do.  Fine.  He channels the frustrations of educators and researchers like Noguera. Fine.  He calls out NBC News for being overly pro-reform.  Good.  He doesn't quote Diane Ravitch.  Bravo! 
There's been a lot of superficial, credulous crap out there -- some of it extremely high-profile stuff, which eclipses the good, dogged work being done at smaller print outlets.  Even the print outlets -- notably the NYT and LAT -- made a big mistake in printing teachers' value-added scores.  I agree that it's been overheated at times. -- a favorite word of mine that I'm happy to see used in Farhi's piece.  But his take is overheated and simplistic in the other direction, which undermines its credibility.  I just wish he'd kept his own advice and guarded better against sweeping generaliazations. 
I've asked Farhi if he wants to do an interview, and will let you know if he agrees to participate.
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Oh, after following news coverage of education for closely for well over 10 years, I think what Farhi said SO needed to be said. I agree with you, Alexander, about all the journalists you name (well, most, with occasional lapses). The reporters currently covering the ed beat here in San Francisco are solid and well-informed. But this has been a huge issue in education coverage, as you say: "There's been a lot of superficial, credulous crap out there -- some of it extremely high-profile stuff, which eclipses the good, dogged work being done at smaller print outlets."

From today's Fresno Bee (a fairly large daily in California's Central Valley), I present Exhibit A -- only because it's from today's paper. Surprise, a puff piece on a charter school.
http://www.fresnobee.com/2012/03/31/2783621/fresno-charter-school-offers-a.html

Here's a classic that's admittedly six years old, but it sticks in my memory because it puffs a charter that doesn't yet exist, including quoting a student who hasn't started there yet (since the school hadn't opened yet) as saying he knows he'll do well there. In reality, the charter struggled for its entire existence and was finally shut down.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/05/04/BAG5HIKCEV1.DTL

Here's one where a canny and dishonest charter operator flimflammed an unwary columnist -- who had no background in covering education -- into telling an entirely false story. It's inaccurate in layers of ways, all part of the charter operator's successful (though dishonest) damage control campaign after it had to close down a school. I can explain all the ways it's dishonest upon request.

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/10/13/BAHVSP84I.DTL

Now, I admit this one is really old, but it ran on Page 1 of the New York Times and quoted me, so understandably, it sticks in my memory. It's all about the great success of an Edison Schools Inc. charter in San Francisco. Here's a standout line: ** H. Christopher Whittle, the founder and president of Edison Schools, said the company would fight to retain its contract, in court if necessary. "The statistics literally speak for themselves here," he said. "None of the 44 other cities where we manage schools has ever done anything like this." ** By "this," Whittle means moving to revoke Edison's contract. Well, that was just a flat-out lie. One district (Sherman, TX) had already done so, and a number of other districts were in the process (Dallas and Boston, among quite a few others). But the New York Times' Page 1 story quoted this falsehood unchecked and unchallenged, and failed to respond to requests for a correction.

I could keep going, because I've been following this crap for YEARS, and as a newsroom veteran, I pay a lot of attention to the bad journalism. And don't even get me started on editorial boards, which are still puffing the Parent Trigger and bashing teachers in lockstep.

What baffles me is that "puff piece" is an extreme pejorative in the newsroom, so what are these reporters and columnists thinking as they churn out breathless puff pieces, or compliantly swallow and repeat some con artists flimflam story unchallenged and unchecked? Rhetorical question, I guess, though it would be interesting ask some of them.


Oops, the link to the New York Times classic on Edison Charter Academy went AWOL. http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/TYR/message/1827

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