Why education reporting is REALLY so boring

An associate education editor at the Atlantic wrote a piece today explaining why education reporting is so boring.  Alia Wong explains that it’s because of the words.

“Edu-speak—the incomprehensible babble used to describe what are often relatively straightforward teaching methods, learning styles, and classroom designs is plaguing the country’s schools.”

Instead of helping everyone understand education, edu-speak “muddles.”

Words matter.  As a 20-year educator with a passion for teaching writing, I know.  I, too, raise my eyebrows in disdain when I hear ridiculous syntax or terminology.  If a sentence, for example, has four or more elements in a comma series, I know there’s no focus.  If I get something that talks about “inequitable valuation,” I don’t even care to ask for clarification.

The Atlantic piece stands largely as a commentary on education reporting and, therefore, education reporters.  While reporters’ sincere efforts to seek truth and report it are mostly well intentioned, I’m going to agree with Alia Wong: education reporting is boring.  Here are four more reasons Wong’s education piece overlooked.

1. We know the plot; we know the ending.

Education articles tell the story of struggling urban schools that are always struggling.  Some efforts are made to improve the learning conditions but, in the end, the schools continue to struggle.  Many education reporters aim to uncover the racial and social inequities for readers.  But readers know them.

Some schools do really well.  Others don’t.  And we know how the story is going to end.  We don’t like to read easily predictable stories with pie charts, graphs, and tables that tell us what we can predict.

The plot needs to focus on the stories of those affected by the key players in education.  We don’t need more stories about the education leaders.  We need more stories about the students and the families that are affected—not always in negative ways—by education policies.  There are always two sides to every story.  We need the other side of the plot.

2. We know what the characters are going to do.

We must have an ivy-leaguer who arrogantly announces he or she has the answers to solve all of education’s problems.  In a few years, he or she will improve schools.  We must also have a loud, polarizing opponent who claims progressive views and usually wants poverty fixed first.  One side will argue for more school options.  The other will oppose.

Then there’s the minor characters.  We’ll have low-income black and brown students who struggle in school and get into more trouble than their white peers. We’ll have parent groups (who are mostly white, living on a gentrified street) fighting to be heard.  The parents of color usually portrayed are attempting to salvage some piece of something that has value to them.  There’s the academic who spends time researching what we already know.

Once in awhile, we’ll have a teacher quoted.  But teachers aren’t usually quoted or included in education pieces because . . . well . . . teachers don’t want to get reprimanded or ostracized.  The ones that are quoted, however, usually watch their words so carefully that it’s boring.  Or they come off as people with extreme, myopic views.

These become, in every education story, one-dimensional perspectives.  There are other voices, more nuanced voices.  But nuance doesn’t come across well in a tweet.  Bombastic quotes and outrageous actions generate more page views, retweets, and comments.

Education reporting won’t move beyond these predictable, unengaging perspectives until education reporters gain more people’s trust.  This means reporters need to spend more time getting to know adults and students in education before expecting them to reveal their authentic views.

3. We know the story’s emotional tugs.

Education reporting will usually make us feel one of three emotions:

  • Euphoric: there’s one teacher or leader who dedicates many living moments to saving low-income black and brown youth.  We end up being calmed and feeling good that someone somewhere is doing something. 
  • Enraged: our blood boils at the injustice and the apparent inability for anyone to solve a problem so extreme.  Or maybe we are pushed to rally behind one person who—this time—will fix everything.  We are pushed to fight the “powers that be” instead of learning about small, practical approaches that might not solve the problem but will contribute to progress.
  • Disheartened: we become so sad that we disengage with the situation and don’t want to hear about it anymore.

This highlights the extremes in education reporting.  It’s either / or.  Someone’s absolutely right or absolutely wrong.  Nothing is this clear—especially in the complexity of education.  We need to hear about that middle ground.

4. Instead of being pushed to think, we’re pushed to pick sides.

We end up being for it or against it.  These extremes result from the dialogue and sound bytes that fail to expose the nuances of education.  Instead of informing us and challenging us to think, many education pieces end up reinforcing what we already believe.

I believe news should be insightful to the people it affects.

Sadly, education reporting often fails to give teachers insights into the situations we live every day.

If we think low-income black and brown kids struggle, how about we hear the story of a first-generation, low-income Latina from a neighborhood high school who got admitted to the #2 college in the country?

How about the undocumented young woman who graduated with a full scholarship from one of the country’s top schools?

How about the gangmember who—despite being suspended many times—did graduate on time?

These are all students I and many other teachers know.  They’re not boring stories.

If education reporters avoid these traps—along with edu-speak—we’ll be a more informed nation.  More importantly, we’ll realize that we are not education experts simply because we were educated or mis-educated.

My bias against education reporters was challenged a couple of years ago when I attended a conference and looked into a room full of education reporters.  I spoke my truth.  I also heard theirs.

Because of this blog, I  had good, honest interactions with a few education reporters.  We spoke casually and off the record.  I didn’t feel like they were after something.  They just wanted to talk about education and so did I.  And if they call me one day about a situation, I’ll make sure to call them back.

And, yes, through this blog and on Twitter, there are education reporters I regularly critique.

I’ve come to understand that, like most teachers, most education reporters do everything they can within reason to fulfill their responsibilities.  Like teachers, they’re not always trusted.  Like teachers, they’re exhausted at the end of a hard day’s work—and the work never seems to end.

But the boring education stories do need to end.  Let’s be fair, though.  Not all education reporting is boring.

If more education reporters spent more time researching schools by visiting, watching, listening for some time, and talking 0ff the record with teachers, students, and families—before they wrote a story—they would gain the trust of people with more perspective.  Then, they’d produce more education stories that readers would not consider boring.

Am I right, wrong, or somewhere in between?  Let me know in the comment section.

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