This week, education writers meet in Los Angeles for an annual conference. Their work is read by millions of people every day and shared widely through digital media. It drives conversations in classrooms, teacher lounges, administrative offices, community meetings, think tanks, political campaigns, legislatures, government offices and at kitchen tables. Discussions touch on funding, politics, choice, accountability, integration, immigration, poverty, economics, opportunity and the American Dream. Sometimes, it’s also about teaching and learning—the magical mechanics of classroom management, student engagement, curriculum, creativity and the inspiring connections among teachers and students that inspire kids to break free of their bubbles and grow their minds. I am grateful for their work. Their stories of hope and promise in the classroom are an antidote to the cynicism and polarization poisoning much of today’s public debate.
Where Things Stand
Given the importance of education journalism, it’s worth thinking about the state of the field and the big question on my mind is whether it adequately reflects the voice of parents. Parents are arguably the most important decision-makers in the field of education. By choosing where to educate their children—urban, suburban, rural, traditional district or public charter, private, home-school—they drive the field, and yet, they are often the quietest voices in the debate. The fact is, a lot of education journalism is aimed at influencers and practitioners rather than parents, who often take a back seat to experts. Experts’ voices matter, of course, though it’s often in the service of an agenda. Administrators, union leaders, politicians, advocates, policy analysts and researchers all have agendas. Education reform proponents are mostly interested in justifying it. Opponents are mostly interested in criticizing it. Only sometimes are they reflective and open-minded. Readers need help to understand the agendas behind the experts. For the most part, parents’ only agendas are their children. So my great hope for education journalism is that the voices of parents would be given equal or greater weight to experts. Classroom teachers are also underrepresented in the public sphere. Many teachers are too busy teaching to engage in policy debates but when they make time to lean in it’s always edifying. I hope to see more teacher voice driving the debates and take heart by the many teachers who regularly blog and engage on social media. Their voices matter. Lastly, there are about 60 million K-12 students in America and their voices should also be heard. Of course, many are young and their opinions are less formed, but their experiences are supremely valid. They’re living it. Academic studies about education policy are rarely as illuminating and never as entertaining as conversations with students. The best journalism combines both. Finally, it’s important to remember that getting to the truth of a story and bending over backwards to achieve “balance” can sometimes be in conflict. Balance is critical but he-said, she-said journalism too often leaves readers confused about what is really happening. It’s not enough to report a “fact” and solicit canned opinions from people on opposite sides of an issue. People want to come away with some sense of what a story really means for children, parents and teachers. This is where journalists’ own biases must be checked. Journalism purports to objectivity but, in reality, it’s driven by the writer’s worldview and personal experiences. Even the choice of topic is a loaded decision. If a journalist opposes certain reforms and choose to write stories only about reform’s shortcomings, that’s her right, but it’s also her bias. It doesn’t mean her stories are wrong but it does warrant going the extra mile to prove her point. The important thing is to be self-aware and transparent. While education writers are soaking in their panels and soaking in some Southern California sun, readers across America will be surfing the internet looking for meaning behind the headlines, the agendas, the experts and the combatants. The more we hear from parents, teachers and students, the closer we get to the truth.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with