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Education coverage? You talk, we listen. Really.

Posted at 11:40 AM on December 12, 2006 by Mike Edgerly (1 Comments)

About 15 teachers, parents and administrators gave MPR's education unit an earful in the UBS forum at St. Paul headquarters on Tuesday.

We invited people in our Public Insight Journalism network who had expressed an interest in education, to tell us what they know. PIJ analyst Michael Caputo brought in an interesting cross section of participants, ranging from Tom Ames, Superintendant of St. Charles schools near Rochester to former Minnesota Commissioner of Education Robert Wedl to Asad Zaman who runs the Tarek Ibn Ziyad Academy in Inver Grove Heights and Margaret Sullivan, the parent of a special needs student in the Minneapolis schools.

As an editor, I wanted to know where they see potential for improving our coverage of education and how we can broaden and deepen it. Reporters Laura McCallum, now on education after a successful career as MPR's Capitol bureau chief, and Art Hughes, who covers the higher education beat, wanted some story ideas. We all got what we hoped for and more.

Anecdotally the biggest beef these people see in education today? Testing.

Specifically, the state-wide achievement tests. They said the one-size-fits-all students approach fails to properly measure actual student knowledge and places way too much emphasis in schools on simply scoring well on tests.

And, if my notes are correct, coverage of these test results is tops of their complaints about media coverage of education. Test results are a snapshot, they said, and print and broadcast media treat the scores as the end-all and be-all measure of the state's education system.

It was an interesting 90 minutes of conversation. And man, were these folks impressive. These are dedicated, caring people who obviously love children and want them to succeed. I m sure you'll hear more from them and more of their ideas in stories to come from Art and Laura.

Comments (1)

You might want to search out Gene Maeroff's 1998 collection of essays "Imaging Education: The Media and Schools in America." Lots of thought provoking stuff, especially "The Lamentable Alliance Between the Media and School Critics." Although MPR's coverage is often quite good, editors would do well to reflect on that essay.

Critics too often get a free ride. Not that our urban systems are what we should want but there is far too little attention to the indignities visited upon our kids outside the schools. Reporters consistently assume that schools can and should overcome those disadvantages, which with the rare short-term heroic exception, just has no basis in fact or history. The critics can sell their self-serving school panacea or self-actualization scheme with no rigorous analytical work by journalists about the interplay of school and culture. The unexamined hum of those critics distracts attention and undermines the civic capacity that could be marshaled to improve the lives of kids.

It is easy to criticize the free rides MPR gives folks like Nathan and Wedl. On a more significant scale, you could look at coverage of NCLB as a he said-she said story. That is a bit like covering global warming (or holocaust denial or the flat earth society or lynching) as a story with two equally plausible sides. Anyone who spent any amount of time learning about how schools work could have recognized in 2001 that NCLB could only make things worse in urban schools before its gentle touch on suburban schools will scuttle it. But that was never the coverage mainstream media gave it.

Finally, as a former Minneapolis School Board member, it seems to me that MPR and other outlets too frequently fail to analyze and report on the interplay of mulitple forces in shaping school and child welfare stories. (One writer identified 22 separate types of political forces that affected his school.)

Tim Pugmeier did a fine job on the beat and I assume McCollum will, too. But don't get distracted by shiny objects or the spinmeisters who would deny the very idea of a public interest.

Posted by Dennis Schapiro | December 13, 2006 6:40 AM