Commentary about NPR’s recent coverage of Rocketship charter schools continued unabated over the weekend on Twitter and Facebook.
The 6/24 story (High Test Scores — But At What Cost?) has been admired and defended by many, including Audrey Watters, who Tweeted: “Great reporting by @anya1anya on Rocketship’s chain of techcentric charter schools.”
Indeed, Kamenetz sheds new light on some of the internal practices of the charter network that have not previously been reported.
Where the 3,800-word story may be lacking, however, is in breadth and balance.
Critics (most of them Rocketship supporters) suggest that the NPR piece may not have painted a fair and complete picture of the network, focusing almost exclusively on the challenges it’s experienced without much context.
“To qualify as ‘in depth’ don’t you have to compare Rocketship charters to neighborhood schools?” asked longtime journalist and Rocketship author Richard Whitmire.
The original piece, written by head blogger Anya Kamenetz , describes the 13-school Rocketship network as “among the most nationally applauded charter networks, hailed as an innovative model of blended learning.”
But the piece mainly relies on reports of problematic practices at the network — and suggests that these practices are common to other charter networks as well:
“The long hours, high pressure, tight discipline and ritualistic classroom protocols aren’t out of line with those seen at other charter school networks, like KIPP and Success Academy, that also have high test scores and draw communities of fiercely loyal parents … But these practices, at charter schools across the country, have also come under increasing scrutiny.”
Rocketship’s early adoption of a tech-heavy model — and later realization that it would have to change its model and lower its expansion goals — has been the subject of much attention in the past.
I wrote about it several years ago. The Hechinger Report published a piece last year.
On Twitter, Kamenetz defended the balance of the piece in traditional journalistic terms: “We quoted a happy parent and an unhappy ex parent.”
However, the piece includes little about why the schools are so popular or gives any context for the handful of critical anecdotes that accompany the piece.
Are retesting and limiting bathroom breaks not done at other schools? Are substantial numbers of parents exiting the school, compared to other charters or community mobility? Is staff turnover particularly high compared to other charters or schools in the area?
Like an Obamacare health care plan, the piece is deep but narrow.
One particularly controversial aspect of the piece is its repeated description of Rocketship as a “company.”
This choice of words is an extremely sensitive issue in the education world, in which accusations of being commercial or privatization-oriented are critical.
The term “company” has many meanings but is usually a reference to a private, for-profit business, not a nonprofit.
Defenders of piece (many of them who are critics of Rocketship) point out that nonprofits often rely on for-profit companies for services and materials and that the difference in tax status is unimportant.
So, too, do traditional schools and districts, but these are rarely described as companies. Ditto for NPR.
On Twitter, Kamenetz defended the use of the term with a dictionary definition: “a number of individuals assembled or associated together; group of people.”
She also claimed that the term was used “Mainly to avoid repetition? ; “Rocketship” 68x; “Rocketship schools” 8x ;”company” 4x ;”Charter network” 3x.”
This explanation would make sense if the story used more neutral terms like “organization” or nonprofit” to describe Rocketship. But it doesn’t.
NPR declined to make Kamenetz or editors Steve Drummond and Susan Vavrick available to talk about the story, so all we have are their Twitter responses.
It’s curious that such an obvious red flag as “company” would have gotten through the editing process at NPR, including both subject-matter reviews and copy editing.
It’s also interesting that neither Kamenetz nor her editors seem to be all that concerned about the possibility that such a piece might come off as more of a takedown than as straight journalism.
Perhaps it’s a sign of just how strong the anti-reform zeitgeist has become in journalism and in general, or a reflection of NPR’s comfortable audience. Perhaps the piece serves to help NPR make the case that its education coverage isn’t overly beholden to its funders (who include the Gates Foundation). Perhaps the piece is an attempt to generate controversy.
We don’t know. But there are certainly some legitimate journalistic questions about the story that should be addressed, and an unfortunate unwillingness by NPR to reflect or engage on its practices.
I’ve asked the NPR ombudsperson for her thoughts on the use of “company” among other things and will let you know if she responds.
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