Monday, April 4, 2011

Brookings Without Pity: ‘Americans’ Consumption of Education News’

The political blogosphere tends to treat social science very, very nicely, even when social science is being ridiculous (e.g. “Heritability of eating bread in Danish and Finnish men and women,” which the National Affairs blog did not want you to miss). I suppose it’s because so many bloggers either suffer from English-major innumeracy — Stand back, lads, he knows statistics! — or are guild apprentices themselves. But a lot of these academic papers could use a good thwacking; where, I ask you, is the wonk equivalent of Television Without Pity?

My crankiness reserves are sufficient to the task, so herewith and henceforth I announce a semi-regular feature, Brookings Without Pity. For truly, when I read this headline asserting as verified fact that “Americans want more coverage of teacher performance and student achievement,” I entered into a struggle with the urge to mock it that I knew I could not win.

Jokes aside, we all owe the Brookings Institution and Messrs. West, Whitehurt, and Dionne (yes, E.J.) a debt of gratitude for shedding light on this important crisis, because far too few Americans are aware that our consumption of education-related news is in a shocking state. Consider this: “Parents of children 18 years or younger were more likely to rely on school publications (72 percent) than non parents (52 percent).”

Do you know what this means? Fifty-two percent of people with no children in school are nevertheless regular readers of school newsletters. How do they get hold of them? Do they read the newsletters of all the schools in town, or just the ones they attended? And why, why, do they do it? Nostalgia? Small-talk fodder? “Hey, Benny, did you see that article in the PS 157 Eagle’s Eye? I can’t believe Mrs. Fitzhugh is retiring!”

The authors believe . . . pardon me, Americans believe that education coverage should focus on the things that matter (“teacher performance,” “student academic achievement,” and “school curricula”) instead of, say, the education topics given the most coverage last year (“budget problems, school crime, and the H1N1 flu outbreak”). But before they can tell us what kind of education coverage we want, they need a clear picture of the education coverage we’re getting now. The media landscape, roughly, is this:
The most common sources of current education news were family and friends (75 percent), followed by daily newspapers (60 percent), school publications (56 percent), local television (54 percent), community groups (42 percent), national television (38 percent), Internet site (37 percent), radio (33 percent), school specialty publications (28 percent), school Facebook or MySpace sites (14 percent), electronic newsreaders (11 percent), cellphone texts (nine percent), and blogs (nine percent).
This sentence raises many questions. First of all, what sort of “current education news” is ever conveyed by text message? Texting was around when I was in high school, and the only news I remember being conveyed is “mrs k has a sub today, u shld defntly skip w us, krispy kreme run!!!” Don’t get me wrong, I think the limits of the medium could impose on school administrators a salutary brevity. But I still think 9 percent sounds a little high.

And doesn’t the popularity of national television run counter to their thesis? “Teacher performance” at the national level is meaningless, “student achievement” practically so. There’s an appealing surreality to the idea that Katie Couric will ever speak the words “Mrs. Titlow’s American history is a teach-to-the-test kind of class; I think she’s phoning it in. Film at 11.” But if we assume, rather credulously, that people really do want more coverage of teacher performance — and didn’t just tell the nice survey man what they thought he wanted to hear — they probably want it to be specific enough to be useful, or at least relevant.

And that’s the problem with this paper. Teacher performance and student achievement are important things — fine. But newspapers, TV, and, God help us, text messages are not well suited to conveying that kind of information. It’s too specific, and too personal — when I imagine a blog dedicated to exposing inadequate teachers, it strikes me as scurrilous. “Teacher performance” and “student achievement” are, depending on how zoomed-in the information is, either statistics or gossip. A parent who wants actionable information should consult the grapevine. Which, according to this helpful Brookings study, is what they are already doing, or 75 percent of them are. I just hope Brookings didn’t spend too much money finding that out.

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