Big picture needs emphasis in coverage of ed bill

Education gets big headlines year around, not just when an education law like SB191 is being debated at the State House. There are the CSAP tests, the graduation rates, the international comparisons, school rankings, and so on. The news is mostly bad, and the impression you’re left with, even if the reporting is broad and comprehensive, is that our schools and teachers aren’t doing their jobs well enough, particularly in urban areas like Denver.

But what if we had an annual parade of front-page stories about the success rates of our other public programs on the front lines of the battle against poverty?  What’s the “graduation rate” from public housing? From the “free lunch program?” From drug-addiction programs? From poverty itself? Is Colorado making progress in these areas?

My point is that education gets too much media attention, relative to other problems related to poverty in America. I haven’t done a bean count to document this, if one could be done, but who doubts it?

And with the media spotlight on the schools and teachers, legislation like SB191 naturally becomes a hot button story and issue, with various interest groups clamoring to be heard and seen.

So journalists are right to give serious play to SB191, but in doing so, reporters should take every opportunity to illuminate the big-picture issues of school funding and the effects of poverty on education.

“To get a school that serves truly disadvantaged kids to the point where it could actually focus on teaching and learning is going to require infusions of resources that we haven’t even begun to think about, just into the school, let alone the community,” Rona Wilensky, the former principal at New Vista High School in Boulder told me.

If you look through the news coverage of SB 191, you find one perspective that’s predictably under-emphasized: the view that passing any new education laws isn’t necessarily the way to improve public education in Colorado.

“They are looking for a simple answer to a complicated problem,” Wilensky told me of the legislative effort in Colorado. “Getting rid of bad teachers is not the solution to all our educational woes. We have the schools we have because we want these schools. They serve a function in our society. Why would we have them if they didn’t work for us? And everything in our system supports them being the schools they are. To change this in a really fundamental way, to equalize school achievement, means overturning the effects of social and economic inequality, which we’ve built our society around. ”

Call me a socialist if you must, but don’t you think this perspective should be seen more in coverage of education reform…-because what Wilensky says reflects a reality that you miss in education reporting that too often focuses on the latest narrow bit of education-specific data.

3 Responses to “Big picture needs emphasis in coverage of ed bill”

  1. lauriehzeller Says:

    With respect, Jason, we progressives get lost in the fog of acknowledging the obstacles to educational success for children from low-income families and lose focus on the fact that the only real path out of poverty IS that success. If we accept that we can’t fix low performing public schools until we fix the problems of poverty, we are effectively consigning these children to the underclass. This isn’t about who is a socialist – this is about finding a solution, and treating teachers as the professionals they are.

  2. Jason Salzman Says:

    Thanks, Laurie.

    The problem of bad teachers exists, but it would be a miracle if this bill solved the problem, in my view, and the benefits of imposing requirements like these on schools is outweighed by the burden (both financial and wasted time) that would be placed on the schools.

    This bill distracts the Legislature from focusing on more important stuff to improve education, like providing more funds for inner-city schools and addressing poverty issues that cripple schools.

    This bill is one of the lowest priorities, and this might be more clear to more people if the media highlighted the big picture more often.

  3. lauriehzeller Says:

    Hi Jason.
    No one is expecting a miracle, just a first step in figuring out a puzzle of how to make low-performing schools serving high-needs kids better. No question it is complicated – that doesn’t excuse not taking the first step.

    I think this is the first step because it will improve school culture, a crucial element in schools that work.

    Politically, in this centrist state we create functional consensus for fiscal reform and robust funding for pubic schools when we introduce accountability

    I am not willing to wait for the Legislature to “address poverty issues that cripple schools” in this fiscal and economic environment – are you?

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