Asking Candidates Better Questions (& Media Self-Reflection, Too)

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Last week’s “On The Media” included a segment (The Wrong Hypothetical Question) about how reporters and media outlets have been missing out on an opportunity for self-reflection and future improvement, and unintentionally letting political candidates off the hook:

In interviews over the past two weeks, 2016 hopefuls are facing a hypothetical question on the Iraq War: “knowing what we know now” would they have authorized the 2003 invasion?

But James Fallows of The Atlantic says that’s the wrong question because it suggests the decision to go into Iraq came down to faulty intelligence. 

Host Brooke Gladstone and guest Fallows were talking about the Iraq War decision, but the issue comes up in education coverage, too.

Take for example EdWeek’s recent post about a DC event at which former Congressman George Miller is asked whether he’d vote for NCLB again now, 13 years later:

During the event, Miller was also asked whether if he knew then what he knows now about the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act would he still have voted for it.

His answer: Yes. “Of course I would,” he said. “Because you had no system of finding out how children were doing. If you were poor or a minority student, you had no access to that information.”

The one NCLB regret he has, Miller said, was the lack of understanding about the impact of labeling a school a failing school. “When the test scores weren’t good, those schools were called failing schools in the sense that the principals failed, the teachers failed,” he said. “And that’s not how it works. I didn’t appreciate what that would mean in terms of public discussion.”

To be clear, it wasn’t necessarily EdWeek who asked the question.  And Miller made better use of the question than most would have. But don’t be fooled.  Miller isn’t your usual respondent, and he’s no longer in office or running for office.

Reporters go for these kinds of questions because they’re are easier questions to ask, according to Fallows. (They also has the unintended side effect of letting the press off the hook, according to Gladstone.)

Instead of asking that question (or at least in addition to it), media outlets and journalists should be asking candidates about what lessons they learned from their decision at the time and reflecting themselves about how well or poorly they’d covered the events.

Better questions, according to Fallows, would be these: How did you assess the evidence at the time, what you have learned from the experience, and how will those lessons inform future decisions?

So instead of asking candidates and politicians whether they’d still support NCLB, or Race to the Top, or Common Core, or whatever, education reporters should ask them what they’ve learned from their decision, how it would affect future decisions — and save some time and headspace for reflecting on how they and their outlets covered the events in question at the time.

Education journalism isn’t as used to this kind of self-examination as has become common in other beats, and some education writers aren’t yet comfortable talking about what they did and why it may or may not have worked out for the best.  But there’s lots of opportunity for everyone to learn and get better at what they do.

In an On The Media segment several years ago, I argued that coverage of NCLB implementation was exaggerated and misguided.  I’ve argued more recently that coverage of Common Core testing tended towards speculation and advocacy-driven arguments.

The goal here isn’t to play “gotcha!” with candidates or with the press. It’s reflection, accountability, and improvement  for candidates and education media outlets alike.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.