A Nagging Disconnect Between Vivid Anecdotes & Underlying Data

Screenshot 2015-06-26 13.29.52

There aren’t many policy wonks who seem to pay much attention to how the media covers education — and are willing to write and talk publicly about what they see.

The handful that come to mind include Mike Petrilli at Fordham, Andy Rotherham at Bellwether, and New America’s Conor Williams.

Ditto for many education advocates, system leaders, and even academic experts. It seems to me that they feel that they’re too busy “doing the work,” don’t want to stir anything up that might distract them from kids and schools, don’t take media coverage all that seriously, or (alternately) fear some change in their relationship with the news outlets and reporters they know if they pipe up about what they’re reading.

One other name you might not be entirely familiar with is Neerav Kingsland, the former New Schools for New Orleans head who’s now a consultant.  On his blog and elsewhere, he makes regular note of the strengths and weaknesses of the media coverage that he sees from his reform-oriented point of view. 

Among other complaints, Kingsland regularly echoes Nate Silver’s critique of anecdote-based political journalism, favoring a more data-based approach:

“Too much of [national] reporting is based on setting one anecdote up against another, rather than starting with the data,” he told me in a recent phone interview. “Typically a journalist finds one parent who likes what’s going on with the school system and another who doesn’t, and then gives them 50/50 coverage. The stories imply that the anecdotes are representative, ignoring opinion polling and focus group data that might be a better guide to the coverage.”

This theme — that education reporters aren’t working closely enough with hard data and that they’re too focused on personalities and unrepresentative illustrations — comes up in his writing as well: 

“Education reporters too often do not have a firm enough grasp on the data for the issues which they are covering,” wrote Kingsland. “Too much of education reporting is about raising or lowering the status of specific individuals, rather than examining the root causes of school system dysfunction.”

Similarly, a blog post focused on University of California Berkeley professor David Kirp’s NYT column on charter schools took on the column’s loaded language, use of rhetorical straw men, and its description of data on charter school performance and vouchers in Milwaukee. 

His take on Washington Post education writer Lyndsey Layton’s piece on Newark public schools focused on the absence of any description of charter school performance in the piece.

Not too long ago, he noted that several media outlets — the WSJ, Vox, NPR, Shanker Blog, and National Review — covering a report about a charter school called The Equity Project failed to note that the school’s results weren’t much better from most other NYC charter schools.

Sometimes reporters will include information about student achievement increases but then spend the majority of the story describing caveats or exceptions. Part of it may be to appeal to readers, to amp up the controversy, he says, or to appeal to preset beliefs.

Early on, Kingsland says that he didn’t realize that it would be OK to call or email with a reporter about what he saw going on — that they might be looking for information or insight that he could provide. “I was surely naive,” he says.  “I think a lot of us were too passive.”

He’s obviously gotten over that, and is sure to tell others he works with that “doing the work includes media and communications.” Sometimes he gets a response — sometimes he doesn’t.  He says he tries to keep what he does to a “respectful critique.”

A pro-reform, pro-charter advocate, Kingsland also believes that the language reporters pick up from their sources matters — specifically that “the idea of corporate reform and privatization — these jargony, slanderous words — [was] taking hold in a way that didn’t reflect what [is] happening on the ground.”

All too often, reporters’ and outlets’ beliefs or viewpoints aren’t well-hidden, according to Kingsland. “I’d love to be able to read them and not know which way they and their outlet lean politically.” The selection of anecdotes and the coded language give them [their political leanings] away all too often, he says.

He like others in New Orleans has also had problems with the coverage that NPR’s Anya Kamenetz has generated.

But he’s sympathetic to what education reporters are up against, including an overload of information, a frighteningly broad beat to cover, and an ever-changing cast of characters to talk to. “Journalists have one beat and a lot to cover,” he says. “It’s more on us than on anything else to ensure that they have access to on the ground information”

Talking with Kingsland and re-reading some of his work, I am reminded that he’s not really the finger-wagging righteous type, slamming reporters merely for disagreeing with him, and that his main points — the over-reliance on conflicting anecdotes and the disconnect between data and what’s being described — are well worth keeping in mind.

Those whose work he writes about may well disagree.  I’ve asked them for their thoughts and will report back anything that they choose to share. 

It helps that he’s not entirely critical of all the education writing he comes across. He generally admires Amanda Ripley, for example, and the NYT Sunday Magazine’s Paul Tough, whose work according to Kingsland “transcends the reform/anti reform divide.”

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.