BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, I’m Bob Garfield. Hey, tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Schools are failing. It’s a national systemic epidemic of under-funding, sclerotic bureaucracy, inadequate teachers, overcrowding and low morale. Add it all up and what you get is sinking test scores, rising dropout rates and students who are falling behind their peers internationally.
How conventional is that wisdom? Well, Paul Farhi, a Washington Post reporter who wrote a recent essay in the American Journalism Review, says that the phrase “failing schools” was used 544 times in news articles in just one month this year. Twenty years ago it was cited in less than a dozen over the same period. So the press likes the term, says Farhi, but are schools failing?
Before we begin, two disclosures: Paul and I are close friends and Paul is extremely closely connected to the teaching industry.
PAUL FARHI: My wife is a life-long schoolteacher. I’ll go one further. My mother was a lifelong schoolteacher.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so it’s established you are just a shill for the – teachers’ unions. But the other thing is you’re obviously wrong, Paul, because I have been reading why Johnny can’t read in Time Magazine like every ten years for literally my entire life, haven’t I?
PAUL FARHI: Yes, you have. And it goes back further than your entire life. You could probably go back to the founding of the Republic, and even before then, to find concerns expressed in prominent publications about the inadequacy of American education. I’ll give you one example.
Around the turn of the century, this would be the nineteenth century, there was widespread concern that the schools were not turning out enough workers to fill the highly technical jobs that were being created in mills and foundries and factories. Businessmen of the day were finding that workers were just not adequately educated and up to the task.
Flash forward, you can take your pick. The Soviet Union is going to beat our brains out. They got Sputnik, we don’t have enough math and science majors. Life Magazine did a wonderful photo essay right after the launch of Sputnik, comparing a Russian teenager and his heavy academic load versus a Chicago teenager and his carefree lifestyle. And, of course, the headline was, “Crisis in Education.”
BOB GARFIELD: So what you said was, “All right, let’s actually look at the data.” And you concluded that American education actually is – eh, doin’ pretty well.
PAUL FARHI: Yes, it depends where you look. That isn’t to say all schools are perfect, all teachers are perfect, all education is perfect. It’s far from it. There’s a lot of inequity, but on the whole, on average, yes, we’re getting better. More people going to college, more people graduating college, higher SAT scores, higher scores on international tests, lower dropout rates.
You know, you can’t look at the trend lines and say this is a crisis that’s getting deeper and deeper. In fact, it’s going the other way. We are a lot better than you would otherwise suspect from looking at the media day in and day out.
BOB GARFIELD: So you point out in your American Journalism Review piece that Americans, when polled, find their own schools to be just fine, but when asked to rate the performance of schools in general, they assess failing grades. What’s that all about?
PAUL FARHI: Yes, that’s truly the media of fact here. If you ask a parent at your local school how he feels about this local school, for the most part they’ll say, “We like it. We know the teachers, we know the principal. We see our kid come home, we see their assignments. We’re pretty happy with our local schools.”
If you then go to the general public and ask the general public about how they feel about schools, well, wait a second, that’s a different story. Schools are in crisis. It’s an opinion informed by only media accounts. There’s no direct experience. There are tens of thousands of schools in America. Are they all failing? It just doesn’t wash.
BOB GARFIELD: But you understand that some students are leaving school unprepared in even, you know, the most rudimentary education.
PAUL FARHI: That is correct. Who are those children? Where are those children? That’s the real issue. And why are those children inadequately prepared?
Part of the reason we get very excited and depressed about this at the same time is because we know more about this. We know about the achievement gap. No Child Left Behind, if it has done one thing, is to have exposed the differences between poor kids and rich kids, black kids and white kids, Hispanic kids and Asian-American kids.
In part, let’s recognize that certain schools are not as good as other schools. But let’s also recognize who those children are. Those children tend to be poor, from families that are broken up, that are abused, that might be chronically ill, that have learning deficits, that have eyesight, hearing, mental illness that is unaddressed.
The poverty rate among children in America today is at 22 percent. That means more than one in five children lives in poverty. That’s going to lead to certain outcomes educationally. And people don’t really want to hear that because that implicates the real inequities of this society.
BOB GARFIELD: What fundamental mistake are the media making in just taking for granted the notion of systemic failure?
PAUL FARHI: The idea that schools are failing is actually a phrase that is now locked into the public discourse by the passage and enactment of No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind sets up a whole high stakes testing regime and holds schools to various standards, one of which enables politicians, school boards, etc., to declare schools “failing.”
But the phrase has been made generic, and the term is, importantly, politicized. Politicians run on the basis of fixing the failing schools. No politician ever will say, “You know, the schools in my district are doing just fine, the teachers are great, the kids are happy. Let’s just leave it alone and let it go on.” No, you have to be, Democrat or Republican, involved in fixing education.
BOB GARFIELD: I’m curious about the psychology of this. Is it just that as journalists we are always ready to embrace reform, and that by framing educational policy as “reform” you almost dictate that the press is going to be all in?
PAUL FARHI: I don’t think there is any conspiracy to this. The press isn’t invested in the reform movement. They are simply covering the people who have adopted the reform movement as the prescription for what ails our schools. Reform feeds into the press bias toward conflict. Somebody wants to change something. The press likes that.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there is one place in your piece where you find fault with the public schools, and that has to do literally with access to the classrooms for, you know, people like you.
PAUL FARHI: One of the basic problems here is that reporters can’t actually get in to see what goes on in the classroom. You don’t get to talk to the teachers. You end up talking to the people way above the teachers, the administrators, the flacks for the school system. That’s not a real good way to do reporting.
One of the reactions I’ve gotten from this story is from a lot of teachers saying, “Thank you for putting into print the things I’ve not been able to say to my local reporter because they won’t let me say those things.” The school districts are fearful that we’ll expose something they don’t want to see, so they shut us out.
BOB GARFIELD: All right Paul, thank you very much.
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PAUL FARHI: Thanks very much, Bob. I really enjoyed it.
BOB GARFIELD: Paul Farhi is a reporter for The Washington Post and senior contributing writer for the American Journalism Review.