Amanda Ripley

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The Mysterious World of Education Reporting

3rd Mar 2011 posted in Education

Always beware of stories that begin with a fuzzy reference to online comments. It sometimes means that the reporter could not find a real person to say what he wanted to be said.

Today’s New York Times has a front-page story entitled, “Teachers Wonder, Why the Scorn?”

The jabs Erin Parker has heard about her job have stunned her. Oh you pathetic teachers, read the online comments and placards of counterdemonstrators. You are glorified baby sitters who leave work at 3 p.m. You deserve minimum wage.

Presumably, the reporter is paraphrasing, since there are no quotation marks. And weirdly, the online comments and placards seem to be saying the same very nasty thing… Hmm.

Reading this story, like reading most workaday stories about education, is like entering a kaleidoscope. There is a lot of color and spectacle, but there’s very little actually there.

There’s no actual evidence, for example, that most Americans think that teachers are pathetic baby sitters. What most Americans actually think, according to many surveys, is that teachers should be paid more—but they should be treated like professionals. They should not have lifetime job security regardless of their performance. They should get bonuses for great work. And so forth.

But the article is right that many teachers certainly feel like they are under attack. I hear from these teachers regularly, and they are genuinely distraught. This is partly, I think, a legitimate reaction to some of the overheated rhetoric coming from some politicians. But it’s also a natural response to a sudden change in the playbook. A job that has long been done in isolation without any meaningful feedback is now being dissected in public—and not always fairly.

It might help ground this debate if education reporters and pundits were held to a higher bar for accuracy. For example, in this same story, Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, is quoted linking the alleged decline in teachers’ status to the success of unions in protecting tenure and lockstep salary schemes.

“They are reaping a bitter harvest that they didn’t individually plant but their profession has planted over 50 years, going from a respected profession to a mass work force in which everyone is treated as if they are interchangeable, as in the steel mills of yesteryear,” Mr. Finn said.

This is half true. The public is less and less willing to let teachers remain exempt from the basic rules of a competitive, meritocratic workforce—particularly since we spend more than any nation on earth to educate our children and get consistently unimpressive results.

But it is worth remembering that teachers were not respected 50 years ago, either. Or even 64 years ago, when the New York Times surveyed 300 deans of American universities and colleges—and reported on Page E9—that “the best students are not going into teaching.” Citing low salaries and low prestige, the deans said that teaching did not appeal to most college students. “Most of our students who become teachers do so because they are unable to meet the standards of other fields,” the dean of Oklahoma A&M College told the Times. It’s not immediately apparent if teachers (or education reporters) interpreted that quote as an attack on teachers back in 1947, but I am still checking the archives….