A Moving But Misleading School Closing Story

Posted on July 11, the 40-minute Embedded podcast called “The School” (above) focuses on the plight of a tiny Pennsylvania high school near Pittsburgh that’s graduating its last seniors.

It’s a moving, powerful piece of narrative journalism that generates tremendous sympathy for the handful of kids and parents who are among the last to attend the school or will have to go to another school next year.

But is the piece also accurate, or is it misleading us in a number of ways?

Usually, NPR education segments are solid. But right off the bat, this one raises questions about its accuracy.

The introduction by Kelly McEvers seems to connect the 2002 NCLB law to all sorts of things — school closings, school choice, charters and even private school vouchers (where public funds are used to pay tuition at private schools):

“Schools across the country are closing … namely traditional public schools. You know, that place you walked to or took a bus to every day when you were a kid. And the reasons why are complicated. First, people are on the move. The economy is changing. So when people leave a town or a neighborhood, then there aren’t enough kids in the school, it’s hard to keep the school open. But there’s another big reason. When No Child Left behind was passed in the early 2000s it embraced this idea of “school choice.”  Kids are now able to leave failing public schools to go to charter schools or use vouchers to pay for private schools. A decade later – CLOSING the under-performing schools that remained became a priority for the Obama administration now – if the school sucks … just close it and send the kids to some other school.”

Yes, some schools are closing. Yes, the reasons are complicated. But NCLB isn’t usually the main factor, and charters and vouchers aren’t explicitly funded or promoted.

As you may recall, NCLB had some choice-related provisions related to kids attending low-performing and/or dangerous schools, in theory giving parents additional choices, but these were used only infrequently. Districts were reluctant to let kids transfer in or out of their current assigned schools, or across district lines. The regulations governing school safety were written in a way that few schools were deemed unsafe. The easier option, providing extra tutoring to kids at low-performing schools, was much preferred by districts. Vouchers weren’t part of the deal.

Once made aware of the problem, producers were quick to move to make a correction. They re-recorded a new version of the introduction that leaves vouchers out and put a correction at the bottom of the page:

“A previous audio version of this story incorrectly said ‘vouchers to pay for private school’ were an option for children in underperforming schools under No Child Left Behind. Vouchers were not part of the legislation.”

However, the presence of the error raises questions even after it’s been corrected. And there are several other journalistic questions about the way the piece is reported and written, including the claim that school closings are common, one parent’s unrefuted suggestion that charter school parents should have to pay tuition if they don’t want to send their children to the local school, and the absence of opposing voices (such as parents who’d transferred out of the school).

For an in-depth look at where the segment may be inaccurate or misleading, check out Tracy Dell’Angela’s piece below:

[Dell’Angela is a former journalist with the Chicago Tribune who now works for an education group called Education Post that’s funded by the Walton, Bloomberg and Broad foundations.]

So how did how did such an obvious mistake get through the vetting process? (Presumably, the script was reviewed with experts and scrutinized by multiple editors.) And why did the segment focus on the distant role of NCLB and leave out the parents who moved away or transferred their children to other schools? (A June 2016 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review version — Wilkinsburg HS students sentimental as century-old school closes doors — tells us that there were as many as 448 students attending the school five years ago.)

We don’t know. Asked about the snafu, NPR’s press person declined to make one of the editors or producers available and provided the following boilerplate response:

“NPR takes great care to ensure that statements of fact in our journalism are both correct and in context. We made a correction to an inaccuracy in the introduction to the podcast on June 17 and it is noted on the website. The All Things Considered companion piece to the podcast will run in a few weeks, it hasn’t been completed yet, so no changes have been made to it.”

To be fair, NPR isn’t the only outlet to make the same decision. The October 2015 Washington Post version (In a disadvantaged district, a parable of contemporary American schooling) also leaves out how many parents are sending their children to private or charter schools instead of Wilkinsburg, why they left and how they’re doing at their new schools.

And it wasn’t too long ago that the NYT published a story about NCLB leading to school closings which was also challenged by some of those who know the law best (A “Punitive” Look At The NYT’s Latest Education Coverage).

Still, it’s unfortunate that the original version of the podcast “aired” with such an obvious error, that the story seems constructed to generate strong emotions more than to inform its listeners and that NPR won’t make its reporters and editors available to reflect on their process.

Most of all, it’s unfortunate the the school closings narrative has, in too many cases, remained so narrowly conceived and sentimental. It’s intellectually lazy for journalists to describe closings of schools in such tragic terms when there are so many other possible student and parent experiences out there to be revealed, and short-sighted to leave out the problems these schools faced that go back well before NCLB or more recent reform measures were enacted.

Related posts: Behind The Scenes Of NPR’s Big New “School Money” SeriesNo More On-Air Plugs For “The Test” (& Other NPR Staffers’ Books).

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.