The recognized dean of Canadian education reporters, Louise Brown of The Toronto Star, has just stepped down and will leave a gigantic hole in the field. Why that is so is worthy of a commentary on the state of the Education Beat in Canada as well as the United States.
For over thirty years, Louise not only “covered” education and family life, but produced numerous in-depth pieces demonstrating her formidable enterprise reporting skills and commitment to media accuracy. In her recent August 6, 2016 farewell piece, she identified the abandonment of Ontario Grade 13 as “the biggest mistake” of the past 30 years. It demonstrated, once again, the critical importance of “institutional memory” in education reporting.
Reading Louise’s retrospective piece prompted me to start investigating the state of Education Beat journalism and to look for research on recent trends over the past decade. A May 2016 report, State of the Education Beat 2016, produced by the Education Writers Association, revealed how different the situation is on the other side of the continental line.
Based upon a survey of 400 American “education journalists,” the average reporter is a woman, 36 years old with 11 years experience and almost four of five (79 %) of the respondents are “very or fairly satisfied with their jobs.” Optimism oozed from the report and the EWA made a bold declaration: “Education journalism is a field with a future.”
The EWA was, of course, attempting to dispel the myth abroad in the land of journalism that covering education is a “beginner beat” where novice reporters are broken-in and mark time waiting for more prestigious assignments to materialize at the newspaper or local television station. Surveying local education reporters over the past forty years, most have looked (to me) either totally bored covering school board meetings or so completely out-to-sea as to be easy prey for board communications officers.
Digging more deeply into the EWA 2016 report, a different, more familiar pattern begins to emerge. Most education journalists (60 per cent) work for newspapers, reporting in print and online. Very few are employed in television (4 %) and today’s education journalists are surprisingly critical of the token, superficial coverage provided on local television. The fastest growing segment, education-focused news outlets, like Ed Surge, Education Next or Chalkbeat, employ 22 per cent of American reporters, a field largely absent in Canada.
When it comes to nagging professional challenges, there is remarkable convergence across the border. Based upon my ongoing conversations with beat reporters, over forty years, the critical issues remain remarkably consistent: 1) being spread far too thin covering K-12 and PSE education or periodically reassigned to general reporting duties; 2) shortage of expertise, particularly among senior editors and regular reporters; 3) the spread of data analytics, skewing coverage to “click bait” topics or reactive reporting.
Two-thirds of American education reporters report having little or no difficulty getting in-person access to schools and campuses. The vast majority of them ( 88 per cent) still report getting their information primarily from school system insiders, via teachers (89%), news releases (89%), local education leaders (82%), or education departments (80%). Most “story leads” (70 %) are “planted” by school district communications officers, and only 41% are generated by academic research and 37% by education think tanks. Only 20 per cent of U.S. reporters admit that they find themselves covering topics they “don’t really understand.”
One-third of American education journalists find it difficult to penetrate the school or university system. Getting in-person access to schools or campuses is difficult for them and almost one-out-of four (23 %) of reporters find educational leaders either “uncooperative or hostile” toward them, effectively denying access. It would be interesting to know why this happens and whether, as one might assume, it is retribution for writing critical pieces on education.
Education reporting in Canada, based upon my experience, is in considerably worse shape. Few of our beat reporters make a career of covering education and those that do achieve legendary status. Over the past thirty years, only a handful have either registered as major players or stayed long enough to make a real impact. The Toronto Star’s Louise Brown belongs in that company, but so does Janet Steffenhagen of the Vancouver Sun, who, for fifteen years broke many stories in British Columbia education, most notably the crisis that tore apart the former BC College of Teachers. Promising education reporters such as Hugo Rodrigues of the Sun News chain and Frances Willick of The Chronicle Herald are more typical — making their mark and then moving on in journalism.
Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, has employed an Education Reporter for years, but none better than Jennifer Lewington in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She is also, to my knowledge, the only one ever to write a book about the state of education. Her 1993 book, co-authored with Graham Orpwood, Overdue Assignment, still offers the most thorough, insightful analysis of the “fortress-like,” self-absorbed school system. It’s safe to say that educational leaders who dared to take her calls had done their homework.
One Canadian education news outlet that does exert influence inside the school system is the Canadian Education Association. Official education news has found a reliable outlet in the CEA, particularly through the pages of the CEA magazine, Education Canada, and, more recently, the CEA Blog. Provincial education ministries and faculty of education professors find Education Canada most useful in trumpeting new initiatives or disseminating research supporting those initiatives. Under the guidance of Max Cooke, the CEA Blog has become more interactive, publishing many thoughtful pieces by former teacher Stephen Hurley, the curator of VoiceED Canada, a truly unique open-ended online venture in a field too often characterized by echo chamber conversations.
Education commentators tend to fill the void in Canadian public education. Of all Canadian daily columnists, Margaret Wente, is — by far – the most influential and the most feared, judging by the rather foolish attempts of a University of Toronto OISE “Facts in Education” truth squad to discredit her opinions. Manitoba social studies teacher Michael Zwaagstra, a tireless newspaper column writer, and Edmonton Journal online writer-editor, David Staples, regularly bang the drum for higher standards, improved math instruction, and proper teaching of reading.
Over the past month, two feisty and incredibly determined Canadian education reformers, Malkin Dare and Doretta Wilson, have taken a step back from the education battleground. For over thirty years, “Aunt Malkin” of Waterloo, Ontario, the founder of the Society for Quality Education, churned out hundreds and hundreds of short research summaries and columns championing not only phonics and systematic reading instruction, but school choice and charter schools. As Executive Administrator of SQE, Doretta was the public face of the movement, appearing regularly on Ontario radio and television shows.
Education reform tends to get short-shrift in the Canadian popular press but not so in the United States. A May 2016 American Enterprise Institute (AEI) paper, How the Press Covers Charter Schools, reveals just how vibrant the public discourse is in American newspapers, magazines, and the electronic media. Based upon 2015 coverage in seven major news outlets, Rick Hess and his AEI team found a relatively balanced division of opinion, perhaps reflecting that country’s deeper right-left divisions.
One fascinating finding was the influence of gatekeepers such as Valerie Strauss, Editor of The Answer Sheet, a widely-read regular feature in The Washington Post. Of 36 Washington Post stories coded and analyzed, some 17 were from The Answer Sheet and, of those, nine were critical or “negative” on charter schools, eight were neutral, and none judged supportive or “positive” toward the reform. Her presence, AEI noted, skewed Post coverage against school reform.
Carrying the torch for so-called “progressive education” in Strauss’s fashion would not even raise an eyebrow in Canadian educational circles. That’s why no one even asks why Toronto’s perennial education commentator Annie Kidder, founder of education funding lobby group People for Education, is quoted in a surprising number of news stories generated by Toronto news media outlets. News biases are invisible in the mainstream Canadian educational echo chamber.
What’s happened to the education beat in Canada and the United States? Why do so many education reporters simply recycle school district media releases or content themselves reacting to official policy pronouncements? Is there cause for the optimism reflected in the 2016 EWA report on the state of the field? Who is going to fill the void in Canada left by the departures of veteran reporters like Louise Brown, Janet Steffenhagen, and Jennifer Lewington?