Is The Media Mis-Characterizing (Or Just Ducking) Possible (Positive) Impacts Of NCLB?

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Campbell Brown’s media outlet/advocacy campaign, The Seventy Four, has now published at least two pieces critical of the current school reform movement — one about how the Obama administration’s pressure on Common Core generated a predictable pushback and the other (this week) about how poorly Ohio’s charter school sector has performed. 

It’s also taking a shot at critiquing mainstream media coverage of NCLB’s impact — specifically the notion that NCLB was full of unintended negative consequences and also didn’t have any positive impact on student achievement. 

Titled “What if No Child Left Behind Worked and Nobody Realized it? Blame the Media,” the Matt Barnum takedown claims that “the media has largely not addressed the crucial question of NCLB’s impact on students, favoring instead traditional he-said, she-said style reporting  or offering crude statistical analysis of its legacy.”

In particular, the piece focuses on Washington Post reporter Lindsey Layton’s summary of the law’s impact: “Many schools squeezed out art, science and other subjects to focus on math and reading; cheating scandals erupted; and some states lowered standards so their students would appear more proficient.”

All that may be true, notes The Seventy Four, but what about improving student learning? “No research is cited; no researchers are quoted.”  

Layton says that NAEP scores don’t show much clear improvement. Barnum and a few experts he cites (including Morgan Polikoff from USC and Matt di Carlo from the Shanker Institute) suggest that looking at NAEP scores that way isn’t useful. (No word yet on how they feel about how their views were presented.)

The Post isn’t alone in ignoring or mis-stating the possible impact of NCLB on student achievement, according to Barnum. The NYT, WSJ, LA Times, AP, USA Today, and Atlantic have all tended to focus on the conflict over the renewal of the law or its legacy rather than talking to experts.

“This is not a new tendency for our press corps, where false balance and conflict often  trump substance. In education the same problem exists: the boxing match is covered, the research is not. It’s charters vs. traditional public schools, reformers vs. unions, opt-out-ers vs. accountability hawks. Empirical evidence rarely sees the light of day.” 

But the problem isn’t universal, according to Barnum. Vox and Wonkblog were the exceptions, and NPR also summarized the research last year.  

“But that is part of a reporter’s job: to render complex subject matter understandable so the public can make informed decisions. After all, taking research, and all its complexity, seriously is necessary if we have any hope of expanding effective education policies.”

Problematic coverage of NCLB has come up a lot, including recently when an NPR segment let stand a source’s claim that the law had contributed to a decrease in the number of welders:

The media focus on the conflict over the substance is nothing new, either (see my recent rant about coverage of the proposed charter expansion in LA) but is a serious problem that deserves more attention. Towards that end, I’ve got a Columbia Journalism Review piece about the issue of overly narrowed conflict-focused education coverage coming out later this week, based on interviews with education editors including Patricia Willens and Philissa Cramer and journalism-watchers like Jeff Henig and Patrick Riccards.

The one thing I’d add is that mis-statements about NCLB don’t all come from media outlets and obvious suspects. For several years, Arne Duncan told reporters and anyone else he could find that NCLB had caused states to lower their standards, which indeed some states had done but many had not done. He finally quit using the misleading talking point a couple of years ago, though it lives on in lots of peoples’ minds (and lazy roundups of the law’s effects).

So there’s room for improvement in accuracy and care from public officials as well as journalists on the issue of what NCLB has and hasn’t done.

Related posts: USA Today Reporter Questions NCLB’s Impact On Welding.

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.