Elephants in the news room

Education reporters ply their craft without much pushback, most of the time. It’s rare, for example, to see an education story or series analyzed in depth from the perspective of educators who often see a lack of nuance — and even understanding — in the work of some education journalists.

In the Spring issue of Rethinking Schools, a Milwaukee-based, teacher-driven publication of special interest to teacher leaders, educator Gregory Michie performs an autopsy on several reports about urban education, including a three-part, front-page special report published in 2004 by the Chicago Tribune that “ostensibly focused on the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on Chicago’s schools.”

Michie says that “the story that unfolded over three days and 10 full Tribune pages turned out to be less about a seriously flawed and woefully under-funded educational policy than about perpetuating stereotypes of low-income parents.”

Michie also takes on Chicago magazine and (what temerity!) Oprah’s special, “America’s Schools in Crisis,” about which he says: ” By dodging complexities they knew could implicate and possibly alienate their core audience, they ended up further mystifying the issues.”

“Like historians,” Michie concludes, “journalists and television producers make choices: what to show and what to leave out, what to emphasize and what to minimize. These choices are unavoidable, of course — no historical account or front-page article tells a story completely. But once made, they say something about the storyteller’s assumptions, beliefs, and worldview.

Those of us who believe differently need to pay close attention to the silences in popular accounts of urban education, and to seek out public spaces where we can tell counter-narratives: op-ed pages, letters to the editor, community or city council meetings, blogs, online discussion boards. There’s not just an elephant in the room — there’s a herd. As often and as conspicuously as possible, we need to wave our arms, point each one out, and call it by name.

We would add only that the “silences” in news accounts of public education aren’t limited to urban schools, and teacher leaders everywhere should be prepared, as Michie says, to point each one out.

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