Last night (6/4/12) the PBS NewsHour launched "a series about teachers, testing and accountability in public schools." And while I'm sure there will be some bright spots, the rollout was a reminder of some of the big problems in media coverage of public education.
At the top of the show anchor Jeffrey Brown announced, "Our first part includes the views of one of the more outspoken reformers and players in this debate." That terminology, so prevalent in the schools debates, should be avoided. If the corporate-minded, pro-charter test-obsessed are the "reformers," then what does that make someone who disagrees with them? An anti-reformer?
The views shared in the report came courtesy of Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Which meant that NewsHour reporter Hari Sreenivasan had to make this disclosure up front:
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, both funders of this program, are sponsoring the American Graduate initiative to help improve nation's high school graduation rates.
It's slightly awkward to launch a series on anything with a soft interview with one of your program's funders–particularly one that has funded reporting on your program that lines up with the foundation's goals.
The Gates Foundation, of course, is heavily invested in education policy. But does that necessarily make them education experts? Or are they treated as such because they have money to promote their views on schools?
Those fundamental questions comes into focus when we hear Gates answer a question about "what is working":
If you look back a decade ago, when we started into this work, there wasn't even a conversation across the nation about the fact that our schools were broken, fundamentally broken. And I think that dialogue has changed. I think the American public has woken up to the fact now that schools are broken.
The panic over America's supposedly failing schools goes back at least to 1983 and the publication of A Nation at Risk by Ronald Reagan's education commission. The crisis argument was brilliantly debunked by David Berliner and Biddle in their 1996 book The Manufactured Crisis. The Gates Foundation cannot plausibly argue that it ushered in a "conversation" about how our schools are "fundamentally broken."
Not to worry, though–as PBS anchor Brown says at the end:
We get a different perspective tomorrow from Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration.
That's media balance for you: On one night, an expert whose education expertise seems to consist primarily of funding (mostly) one side of the debate over public schools. And for balance: the nation's preeminent education historian.