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American Schools: Making the Grade or Failing the Test?

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Date posted: June 5, 2012

Is the American education system doing a better job than news stories would indicate? Paul Farhi thinks so and, in the Spring 2012 issue of the American Journalism Review, lays out a case that the media is “Flunking the Test” when reporting about education.

The popular narrative is our schools are failing—failing to educate children and prepare them for a hypercompetitive, global economy. Our scores in international tests are mediocre. Too many students drop out and more graduate without being prepared for college or career.

Yet, by any number of data points, schools are doing a pretty good job. In several important tests, student performance is up and, on international benchmarks, American students are not only above average but also within striking distance of the leading nations. High school completion rates are up. So what’s going on?

Farhi lays much of the blame at the feet of the news media, saying that stories are “full of loaded rhetoric, vapid reporting and unchallenged assumptions.” More importantly, he notes that few media outlets have dedicated education reporters with the deep knowledge necessary to understand and explain complex issues about schools, teaching, testing, and learning. Moreover, as the number of reporters and the length of time devoted to researching stories have fallen dramatically, the schools, themselves, have become less welcoming to the press. Few reporters are seeing what’s actually going on in classrooms. Instead, they rely on talking heads—the so-called experts and advocates ready with controversial opinions and compelling sound bites.

Media literacy shows us how headlines, images, and storylines are chosen to grab a consumer’s attention and draw one into the story. The sensational, shocking, or provocative is far more likely to be prominently featured than is the positive and prosaic. Arguments between two opposites are more compelling than analyzing or evaluating claims.

Regardless of its message for the news media, this article should be a wake-up call for schools. By themselves or in collaboration with others, schools have to do a better job of telling their story, of illustrating what 21st century education looks like and what today’s students are able to do. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills* (P21), for example, is compiling a list of “exemplar schools”—those that have infused critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity into a rigorous core curriculum—and is taking policy makers and press to see and experience these classrooms. But much more needs to be done.

Do you know a terrific school or teacher? Let us know about them with a comment below. And, next time you hear about the failure of public education, take that with an extra-large grain of salt.

* Cable in the Classroom is a member of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.