Just the facts, ma'am

Columbia Journalism Review has a long essay in its March/April issue calling upon journalists to "get beyond" test scores in education reporting and not just accept the district or state's numbers, but also look at how numbers and policies are actually affecting the classroom. The essay by LynNell Hancock - a professor at Columbia's journalism school and former education reporter for Newsweek - notes that the education beat, long the unloved step-child of the news and metro sections, is "a complex beat, in flux, under new scrutiny. Old top-down reporting habits - never adequate to begin with - become even more dangerous when used to analyze the impact of such far-reaching, top-down reforms as the elimination of social promotion and No Child Left Behind." The essay argues that journalists need to stack these claims against the impact that reforms have on individual schools and teachers, on classrooms and the lives of students. We agree - to a point. A healthy skepticism about official pronouncements among the fourth estate is always advisable, and possibly even indispensable to transparent government. But reporters should also beware of the "tunnel effect" that can bedevil all reporting, but especially education reporting. (It has its ed school counterpart: so called "qualitative research".) As in, because I see something - curricular narrowing, or a wonderfully effective teaching tool - in this particular school, it must be equally effective or equally true of all schools, all students, all teachers. Not true. And of course, there is ever the problem of stacking the deck by allowing emotional appeal to trump good data about effectiveness or impact. It's always going to make better copy to, for example, highlight the tears and disruptions testing causes those who don't pass some particular test. But once you stack that emotion against the long-term effects of not possessing the skills and knowledge one needs to succeed in life, one's perspective about the issue might just change.

"How are the kids?," by LynNell Hancock, Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 2005

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