Vox, EdWeek, & US News Illustrate Different Ways To Cover Clinton Campaign Rhetoric*

Over the weekend, the AFT released the partial transcript of a November 9 conversation Hillary Clinton had with members in New Hampshire in which the candidate discussed not only charter schools – the subject of her previous remarks on education — but also the hot-button issue of teacher evaluation:

“I have for a very long time also been against the idea that you tie teacher evaluation and even teacher pay to test outcomes,” Clinton is quoted as saying. “There’s no evidence. There’s no evidence. Now, there is some evidence that it can help with school performance. If everybody is on the same team, and they’re all working together, that’s a different issue, but that’s not the way it’s been presented…”

Unlike last week, when news outlets seemed to slow to pick up on Clinton’s charter school critique, these comments got lots of immediate coverage. But was it any good?

Politico’s Morning Education was first to pick it up (that I saw) Monday morning, but others were quick to follow — especially after an AFT conference call with Randi Weingarten to talk about what Clinton had said.

Among them was Vox’s Libby Nelson,* whose story (Hillary Clinton is planning a huge break with Obama on education) made the case that Clinton was likely to roll back substantial portions of the Obama reform agenda and that that reformers must be freaking out at the possibility of a Clinton White House.

“It’s becoming very clear that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t follow in his footsteps,” according to Nelson, whose explainer details how Clinton’s rhetoric and the Obama education agenda differ.

On Twitter, she went a even a bit further: “DFER has got to be freaking out about the Clinton/AFT roundtable transcript.”

[Correction: It’s Libby Nelson, not former AP education reporter Libby Quaid. My apologies.]

But campaign rhetoric and governing are very different things — especially during the primary process. Nelson seems to be encouraging readers to take Clinton’s rhetoric as concrete evidence of what she would do in the White House. But that’s rarely the case. More likely, Clinton is trying to solidify her base and appeal to those to her left — just like pro-reform groups like DFER are trying to push her back towards the middle with their rhetoric. 

Other outlets that covered the Clinton remarks didn’t seem to take Clinton’s quotes so literally, and even provided some helpful background to give readers a greater sense of context:

Over at Politics K-12 (Four Ways Hillary Clinton Might Differ From Obama on K-12 Policy), the politics and timing behind the roundtable (AFT’s early endorsement of Clinton) are laid out for readers, as well as Clinton’s longstanding history of favoring multiple measures of teacher effectiveness (rather than relying largely on student test scores).

The Washington Post’s version by Lyndsey Layton (Clinton says ‘no evidence’ that teachers can be judged by student test scores) notes that the teachers unions both gave tacit approval to using test scores as a part of evaluating teachers during the early days of the Obama administration, though they have since opposed.

Perhaps best of all, US News’ Lauren Camera penned a story that captures the political dynamics behind the situation most clearly (Hillary Clinton Says Exactly What Teachers Unions Want to Hear) and tweeted that Clinton’s remarks were “pillow talk” for unions that had endorsed her early.

This is the second time in recent memory that Camera’s US News coverage has stood out. A few weeks ago, her story about the Obama test reduction plan (Obama Administration’s School Testing Proposal Comes Under Fire) was among the only ones to note that two major education groups were actually opposed to the 2 percent cap idea. 

Asked about the piece, Vox’s Nelson responded via email:

“While nobody can say for sure how Clinton would govern if elected, some of her responses seemed like explicit statements of exactly that, such as returning focus to Title I and IDEA. 

“Certainly we can’t tell how her general skepticism of charter schools and teacher eval systems would be reflected in policy, but such a direct refutation of most of which Obama has done also seemed notable, especially since these have been the bulk of her remarks on education policy so far.

“Only time will tell, but I generally tend to take campaign promises seriously, particularly in the lack of countervailing promises she’s making elsewhere. And the evidence suggests campaign promises matter.” 

Nelson’s not the only one to take Clinton’s campaign utterances seriously:

Good points, all — and for the record Nelson usually does a standout job. I just wish her argument had been laid out a little more explicitly in this post.

Now, back to Clinton’s “no evidence” claim. There’s no evidence — no evidence? — or just not conclusive evidence?

Related posts: Blame the Heat? Reformer Cries Foul Over Vox CoveragePolicy Wonks (Misguidedly) Object To Vox ExplainerPolitics K-12 & Vox Win Praise for Senate ESEA CoverageComparing Coverage of Clinton-AFT Meeting2 Things About That “Hillary Being Squeezed” Piece.

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.