Imaging Education: The Media and the Schools In America

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Arthur Levine and Gene Maeroff
Title: Imaging Education: The Media and Schools in America
VTR: 4/20/98

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Two years ago, when the president of Columbia University’s prestigious Teachers College was my guest at this table, and he spoke in part kindly, but perhaps a bit skeptically too, about well-intentioned technological fixes for this nation’s educational problems, we didn’t have the time then to examine the role that media play in and with our nation’s schools. Today, however, there is at hand an impressive new volume that does just that. Titled Imaging Education: The Media and Schools in America, and published by Teachers College Press. This compendium of perceptive essays is a direct outgrowth of the work of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, and designed to honor the memory of Fred M. Hechinger, who during a long and distinguished career was most widely known as the education editor of The New York Times.

Well, joining me again today to parse this Hechinger Institute venture is Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College. With him is Gene Maeroff, the Institute’s director, and Imaging Education’s editor. In his brilliant volume, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman reminded us of the Decalogue’s prohibition upon the ancient Israelites, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water beneath the earth.” And today I would ask my guests whether imaging of American education in our media today gives substance to that prohibition. By and large, in other words, has the media’s imaging of education been more a part of our schools’ problems, or of their solutions?

Mr. Maeroff, you edited this interesting volume. Why don’t I ask you to begin.

MAEROFF: Well, I think it’s hard to separate the role that the media play in this and the problems of the schools themselves. Sometimes they really get mixed up together, and when the media do give a negative depiction of education — which unfortunately is often the case — one just can’t automatically assume that it’s because the media are malevolent or misdirecting attention. It may well be that there are negative aspects of the schools. But, on the other hand, sometimes the media tends toward the negative when it really isn’t warranted.

HEFFNER: Arthur Levine?

LEVINE: I feel probably a little harsher than Gene. What I tend to say is that few reporters tend to the education beat with very much knowledge about education. It’s one of the crummier beats a reporter can have. And the result is that, gee, it’s sort of a step above religion editor, except in the South where it’s a step below religion editor. People don’t stay in the assignment very long. And they come without much knowledge of the field. The end result is that coverage tends to be too often more concerned with the politics of education, the horse race, who’s winning, who’s losing, who’s to blame, and tends to ignore real issues dealing with teaching and learning. They’re not part of the conversation.

HEFFNER: Why have you let it develop that way? That’s a funny question, but indeed, you’re a leading educator. Where has the push been to make the press perform otherwise?

LEVINE: I don’t have a lot of impact on the press. If what I say isn’t right by the press, it’s not printed. So in terms of my ability to influence what ends up in the daily newspaper, it’s really quite minimal.

HEFFNER: And what happens? Are we condemned to this matter of inadequate coverage, as you say, something a little below the religious desk, or, in some instances, a little above it?

LEVINE: I don’t think so. I think that’s what Gene’s trying to do.

MAEROFF: Well, we formed the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College to try to help education writing lift itself up and operate at a higher level than it sometimes does. And we run seminars for journalists and try to familiarize them with education issues. And that’s a way to try to make a contribution to affect what Arthur’s talking about.

HEFFNER: But is this a matter of information, misinformation, or a lack of information on the part of the reporter on the beat?

MAEROFF: I think in part it is. But I don’t think it entirely revolves around a lack of information. There is a tendency in the media — and certainly the situation is most egregious in (Can I say it here?), in television as opposed to the print media.

HEFFNER: Say it, say it, say it. Please.

MAEROFF: But not in serious television.

HEFFNER: But why?

MAEROFF: I think to try to deal with things in a stereotypical manner, to try to deal with them in a shorthand way, and it’s epitomized by the sound bites. And all of that does not add up to lots of light being shed. And often there isn’t depth, there isn’t profundity, and there is just this little snippet. And that’s not going to really portray the situation in the schools and the colleges with the kind of depth that one would like to see.

LEVINE: Now, you’ve been an education reporter. And I may not know quite what I’m talking about here, but let me try it anyway, and say that most of the reporters I run into are under enormous deadline pressure, so that a story is due tomorrow. It doesn’t give them much of a chance to stop and think or ponder the larger issues, even a chance to learn about the larger issues are. I remember talking to a reporter who was covering one of the big issues of the day: vouchers. And what he said was he didn’t know much about the topic. And I asked how he got started. And he said, “Well, you know, I called the sources in an article that I read in The New York Times.” And that’s where he got started on his topic.

What we found was, as we began talking to reporters, they didn’t have much time to learn about any topic, and as one moved from print to electronic journalism, the time became even shorter. So that not only could they not look at a topic with any depth whatsoever, they also had to turn it over very quickly. And when you look at television, the amount of time that’s spent on an issue is very short. It’s a 30-second piece. A minute and 30 seconds. You can’t cover that with any depth.

HEFFNER: But let me ask you both: Do you think it’s any different in any other aspect of American life, the printed press and the electronic press coverage of anything else in our lives? I mean, are you fellows being picked on.

MAEROFF: I don’t think it’s vastly different in other endeavors. I think, given the nature of education, however, since it is something that really is of the mind, perhaps, more than some other areas, at least it has that aura about it, it becomes more patently obvious perhaps in the coverage of education than it might in others. Arthur referred to this idea of covering, I often use the term, but of covering education, say, like a horse race, when the scores come in on this kind of test or that kind it’s depicted, well, “How does the US rank with other nations?” And, “Are we first, are we second?” And there is a lot of that. And that seems to be the way a lot of coverage takes place, to try to simplify it in that manner.

HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you, Arthur: Is education damaged in this country by this kind of reporting?

LEVINE: Yeah, I think it is. And I think it may be more damaged than other fields. And I think the reason I’d give is that the science reporter generally has a background in science, the financial reporter knows something about Wall Street, the legal reporter may have a law degree. I have yet to meet almost any reporter who has any background training in education. More than that, it’s not a dedicated beat. So what we’re running into is, as the criticism mounts — and some of it’s real justified, so I don’t mean to say that education has no problems — but as the criticism mounts, what we’re faced with is a reality that government leaders, policymakers, get their news primarily from newspapers. The general public get their news in the same fashion: newspaper or television or radio. The result is that whatever errors are made are compounded in terms of how the public views the field of education.

HEFFNER: Well, what about Imaging Education? What about the volume? What about these people who’ve contributed their work?

MAEROFF: Well, the contributors are drawn from many areas. Some of them are journalists, some of them are academic scholars, some are just professional observers. And we try to have this amalgam to give varied points of view. And also we come at it in many different ways. There are 14 chapters in that book. And we look at all kinds of portrayals, from the way that teachers and principals and education in general have been portrayed in Hollywood films, to the way that they’re portrayed through the education beat in daily reportage. And then we look at portrayals in sitcoms, and the kinds of things that are done with the college guides in US News and World Report and others. So we’ve tried to give a very, a varied picture is what we’re striving for here…

HEFFNER: Okay.

MAEROFF: …both in the content and the kind of people who have done the writing.

HEFFNER: Key question, not meant hostilely…

MAEROFF: Yes.

HEFFNER: What’s the impact of what you’ve been doing?

MAEROFF: I think, by and large, one comes away from this volume with a feeling that the portrayal of education generally in the media is a negative one. Now, that goes back to what I said originally. Part of it could be because of the way that the institutions are functioning is kind of negative, and that’s an accurate portrayal. But, on the other hand, one also gets the feeling that there is an inclination on the part of those who are responsible for these portrayals, whether we’re talking about sitcoms or a news story in a daily newspaper, they have an inclination to look for the worst in schools. Particularly in schools. I was going to say, “In schools and colleges.” But I think to some extent colleges get a free ride in this. I don’t think there’s as much awareness of the problems of colleges. But there is this inclination to look for the worst. And some of the authors in this volume say that carries out so far that, when reporters encounter something that would look favorable, they’re very skeptical, if not cynical of it, and can’t believe there could be good news about the schools.

HEFFNER: Well, they believe they’ve gotten “the call.”

MAEROFF: Yes.

HEFFNER: “The call” from the principal or somebody involved in some issue who wants to smooth over violence in the schools or something of the kind.

The cynicism that parts of this book exposes is the same cynicism, as you suggest, that goes into the coverage of American politics or just about any other aspect of our lives. What’s the answer? And when I talk about effectiveness, when I raised the question about effectiveness, I really meant: Are you able to make inroads, not with the book, but with your seminars, with your conferences, with the workshops, with the work that the Hechinger Institute does? Do you really feel you can get to these people in an effective way?

MAEROFF: Well, I hope that there are at least two main ways that we do. One, when journalists come to these seminars, which generally last over three days, I would hope that they take away more of a dedication to the coverage of education than before they were there, that they’re imbued with a kind of feeling about it and they’re really trying even harder than they were before — not to say that many of them weren’t trying hard — and that they want to stay on that beat, that they have an appreciation of that beat. And that goes to what Arthur was talking about on the turnover.

But secondly, the people who we accept for the seminars have to have a recommendation from a supervisor, an editor or a news director or whatever. And so I would hope that those who are writing the recommendations will also have a sense of an investment being made in this journalist, and want him to keep that person on the beat longer. Because, in truth — and this isn’t true everywhere, certainly — but in many places it’s a beginner’s beat, it’s a stepping stone, it’s for younger, newer journalists, and when they get their feet wet they go on to the really good beats like City Hall, etcetera, etcetera.

HEFFNER: You know, it’s so strange. We’re all concerned about our children’s education, our grandchildren’s education. How could it be that the most important thing in our lives, the way our children and grandchildren are being taught, is treated this way?

LEVINE: No, it’s not real different, the way we treat education in general in our society. We don’t pay teachers very much money, we don’t invest strongly in the field. And, as Americans, we’ve been a country that as long ago as Tocqueville described us as “anti-intellectual.” We talk a lot about education. But we don’t do much to show we really care about education.

HEFFNER: You’d leave it at that.

LEVINE: For the moment. If you want to push me, go ahead.

HEFFNER: No, no. I meant in terms of you’re willing to say this is a general description of the nature of Americans’ involvement or non-involvement with education.

LEVINE: Yes.

HEFFNER: So what do you do about it?

LEVINE: In terms of?

HEFFNER: In terms of anything. Because you’re sitting there teaching teachers. And what is it? I don’t mean “What do you do, Arthur Levine?” What can we do?

LEVINE: Let me talk about something which strikes me as troubling. One of the things we’ve been finding is that young people in college now are really idealistic. One young person recently told me that becoming a teacher for our generation is equivalent to joining the Peace Corps. Which is very exciting. We’re finding, at Teachers College, for example, is that we’re being inundated with applications by people coming from the best colleges in America who have decided they want to become teachers. And the big problem we’re finding is that after a few years in the job with their senior classmates who are making more money and are more prestigious jobs, what they’re finding is that mom and dad are coming to them and saying, “It’s great to have this experience, but it’s time you got on with your career.” Or they find they’ve gone to a cocktail party, and after having a marvelous conversation, the person they’re talking to asks what they do for a living. And they explain, “I’m a teacher.” And that person looks down, remembers that his or her glass is empty, and walks off. And in a lot of respects that anecdote mirrors everything I just talked about. It’s a lack of status we hold for education, the lack of respect we hold for teachers, the lack of rewards.

What we do is… We do a very hard job. And what that ends up being is trying to convince that person in the first place that he or she wants to enter teaching. What we end up doing after that is working with that person once in teaching to keep them excited and try to overcome the countervailing forces. And what we’re doing at the same time is, as Gene works with media, we have the governor of West Virginia working with governors. We have Tom Sobol…

HEFFNER: At TC.

LEVINE: At TC.

We have Tom Sobol, who used to be New York State Commissioner of Education, working with superintendents. We have other people working with parents. In essence, what we’re doing is we’re working with every constituency we can imagine working with to keep education strong, to keep people believing and wanting to participate to strengthen it.

HEFFNER: This would seem to be, to me, as a media person — so I have my prejudices — the single most important constituency, the media people, who either interest the rest of us in understanding and appreciating the role of education, or they don’t. And they seem not to be, as I read these chapters. It’s a horror story.

MAEROFF: I think it’s important though to recognize — and many people in education to not recognize — that it is not the role of the media to be flaking for the schools and colleges.

HEFFNER: Yes, but nowhere, it seems to me, have either one of you, you in this volume, in putting it together, you in all of your work at Teachers College, suggested flaking. What you’ve suggested is a more honest, more down-to-earth, more important coverage of perhaps the most important coverage beat of all in this country.

MAEROFF: I think one of the obstacles here is a belief (and we can debate whether it’s correct or not) among editors, news directors, people who make these decisions, that the public, the viewers, and the readers, are not terribly interested in education.

HEFFNER: Okay. That comes out again and again.

MAEROFF: Yeah.

HEFFNER: Do you think it is really such a ho-hum topic?

MAEROFF: I don’t, because as a journalist…

HEFFNER: I mean for parents.

MAEROFF: I think probably the closer that parents are, the closer that adults are in terms of having a vested interest in the schools, the more likely they are to be interested in the articles and in the programs. But I suspect that when one doesn’t have children in the school any longer and is now removed from that scene, that perhaps there isn’t as much of an inclination to have an interest in education coverage.

HEFFNER: Then it goes back to what Arthur describes as the level of devotion to the schools and their well being.

MAEROFF: And that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be covered and that the media shouldn’t do as good as possible and shouldn’t really strive for profundity, because they should. But the people who make the decisions say, “Well, we’ve got to set priorities here. We just have so much time on the program, we just have so many column inches in the paper, let’s give people the subjects that interest them most.”

LEVINE: You know, the one thing I hope that doesn’t come through here is a sense that this issue is irremediable. The whole purpose behind the institute, the purpose behind the book, the purpose behind all of this, is that most people who cover the Ed beat may not be trained in the area, but they seem legitimately interested. They’d like to do a better job at the beat than they’re doing. And what we have is a chance to try to educate them more about it. Nobody forces them to come to these seminars. And every one of them has been oversubscribed. And what we’re trying now to do is exactly what Gene talked about: we’ve got to get to the people who are going to determine whether they’re on the air, and how much space they get, and make them believe this is an important issue as well. And that’s our next job. We’ve started working with reporters, and now on to their bosses.

HEFFNER: In terms of the institute?

MAEROFF: Well, yes. And I also don’t want to leave the impression here that there aren’t some news organizations that have a real dedication to education coverage, and, in fact, do it quite well. Because there are quite a few of them around the country. I can name if it comes to that. But it’s not just The New York Times that has a number of people assigned to education and does a good job. There are other places, like the Hartford Courant, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury, the Atlanta Constitution and Journal. All of these places have a dedication to covering education. And some of them put a lot of emphasis into it. But that’s not the rule throughout, and it also doesn’t mean that some people may not be moved through that beat, shuttled through that beat in a way that they shouldn’t; they should be on that beat longer and gain expertise.

HEFFNER: What are the tough areas, or the toughest areas in terms of coverage, in terms of coverage generally being so negative that it’s disastrous?

MAEROFF: Well, one of the great omissions (and there are places, including the ones I mentioned, that try to address this) is the teaching and learning process in the classroom. Because there is a tendency (and we talk about this in the book) for the media to get involved with the politics of education, with the school board, with the superintendents’ battles with various constituencies. And surveys have shown this is not what the public is most interested in. And yet it often gets much more coverage than it’s warranted. So I’d say one of the challenges is certainly getting more into the teaching and learning process, which isn’t that easy to do well, but certainly can be rewarding when it’s done well.

HEFFNER: You know, what puzzled me was this, in Imaging Education, was the degree to which, on the college level, the matter of college admissions and tuition costs seem continuously without a break to be misrepresented in the press. Now, how do you explain that?

MAEROFF: Well, and that’s something we certainly wanted to convey to readers in this book. We have a chapter devoted to each of those areas that you just mentioned. There’s a tendency by the media to cover the high-cost, highly selective institutions because they think that’s the most interesting story to write, and isn’t it something that college costs over $100,000 to go to for four years and people can’t afford it. There’s no recognition in these stories generally of the fact that most people don’t go to these highly selective, expensive institutions. Most applicants get into the institution of their first choice. They don’t pay remotely those amounts of money. But I guess we can only conclude two things: that it makes a good story, to put it that way; and it’s more readily understandable to some reporters and to some news consumers to depict it that way.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting that what you say second, it’s easier, in a sense, for them to grasp the dollars when they’re big dollars than to grasp the subtleties.

MAEROFF: Community colleges are virtually never mentioned in this coverage. And they’re eminently affordable. But you wouldn’t know from reaching most coverage of both the cost of going to college and the admissions that community colleges even exist. And they enroll almost 40 percent of all the students at the undergraduate level.

LEVINE: You’re exactly right. And community colleges only get mentioned when the topic is remediation or lack of degree completion. Selective colleges only get mentioned when the topic is cost. There’s a fascinating dislocation in terms of the coverage.

MAEROFF: And the coverage of higher education, I think, is really deficient in terms of getting into some of the real issues in higher education. I say it gets a free ride, because it’s very uncritical. And the kind of focus that’s put on elementary and secondary schools that sometimes will come out in a negative way or depict situations that aren’t very positive (maybe deservedly so), you don’t see much of that kind of coverage in higher education.

HEFFNER: There aren’t any free rides, I gather, when you get below the level of college education.

MAEROFF: Tends not to be, yes.

HEFFNER: Questions of violence in the schools, questions of scoring. Why does that rank so high, so frequently, the question of scoring, the ratings of our schools? What is there about us?

MAEROFF: Again, it’s that horse race kind of mentality.

LEVINE: Yeah, exactly. As a nation we love that. We love that in politics, we love that in business, and we love that in schooling. We want to know who’s winning.

HEFFNER: You think we’re losing by as much as the press would indicate?

LEVINE: No. I think we have serious problems. I think the largest problem we’re facing right now is that we created schools for an industrial era. The economy has changed, the demography has changed, the technology has changed. And there’s a sense in the press that what happens is somehow the schools got broken: they used to be a lot better, scores were a lot higher, students were doing better than they are today. The real problem is that the society is different; it’s today’s society. Even if we had the scores at any time you could imagine — pick the 1950s or ’60s, your favorite era — those scores would be inadequate to prepare the workforce we need in today’s workforce. What’s critically important, for example, is: once upon a time we could tolerate school dropouts. Didn’t even have to write about them, because there were jobs available for them working in factories. You could support a whole family that way. Those jobs are gone. You can’t support a family on fast-food jobs. The end result is that however good our schools were in the past, they’re not good enough for the present. And that’s not a question of the horse race, it’s not a question of whether we’re doing better than England or Germany or Japan. What those tests showed was that every industrial nation in the world is weak in higher order intellectual skills and mathematics and in science. The problem that should have been recorded wasn’t that one country did better than another; it’s that countries are universally doing badly in advanced preparation of the sciences.

HEFFNER: Arthur Levine, Gene Maeroff, too bad you can’t do all the reporting on the schools in our country. Thank you so much, both of you, for joining me today on The Open Mind.

LEVINE: Thank you.

MAEROFF: Thank you, Richard.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.

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