Media maven Mike Petrilli urges education reporters to follow the money

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Meet the think tank guy who watches education journalism closely.

By Alexander Russo

You may know him from Twitter or remember him from his appearance at the opening of last spring’s Education Writers Association national conference. You may have seen his controversial and now-defunct annual ranking of social media influencers in education.

But the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli has been around the Beltway education scene so long that some people may not know that he was for a time an education staffer during the Bush administration. He also wrote a thoughtful 2012 book called “The Diverse Schools Dilemma” about trying to find a diverse school for his children (and has, it should be noted, commissioned some of my work either directly through the Fordham Institute or through the journal Education Next).

What he’s best known for these days is being an active part of the discussion about education coverage in mainstream and trade news outlets. Petrilli watches education journalism almost as closely as I do, albeit from a different perspective. That’s the main reason we’ve invited him to sit for this week’s interview.

As you’ll see, Petrilli is optimistic about several aspects of today’s education journalism — much more so than I expected — and equanimous about many others. But he’s concerned about the complacency he sees in some education journalism and the seeming inability or unwillingness of education reporters and editors to attack stories (like teaching kids how to read) that aren’t necessarily controversial. And he’s understandably impatient for education coverage that will push the current system out towards better results for kids.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

petrilli ewa18

Fordham’s Mike Petrilli (in blue) at the May 2018 Education Writers Association conference in Los Angeles

What’s the current state of education journalism, from your point of view?

Mike Petrilli: I feel like education journalism is in a pretty good place right now. There’s a lot of solid work being done, plenty of articles worthy of praise. The major newspapers have a strong group of reporters covering education. The New York Times’ Erica Green has fantastic local experience that she brings. Dana Goldstein comes with a ton of great writing experience. We have a real grownup, in terms of her professional experience, with Laura Meckler at the Washington Post. None of these folks have been in their current roles for all that long. But they’ve got the raw talent and a commitment to telling the story.

So everything’s great in education journalism, then? I can’t imagine that’s your entire viewpoint.

MP: I do have my critiques. Emily Hanford’s fantastic radio documentary on reading instruction [Hard Words] is a reminder about what’s missing. I would love to see more of that sort of investigation. It challenged the system’s complacency. She looked at the results that our school systems are getting when it comes to teaching kids to read and concluded that our system is not working for a vast number of our kids.

Why do you think that reading instruction has gotten so little attention until this recent piece?

MP: A lot of things in our world, there is not strong evidence for one side or the other, especially when you talk about policy. Evidence only plays a partial role in those debates. But there are a few areas where there’s real science. Reading is one of them. I think that strong education reporters need to get up to speed on that. As Emily’s piece argued, saying that “kids learn to read naturally” is like saying “there’s no evidence of climate change.” That view doesn’t deserve to be included in print, and the folks still advancing it ought to lose their licenses.

For previous interviews with education insiders, check out Edtech coverage, the hype cycle, and media complicity  (featuring Doug Levin) and Thoughts on education journalism (featuring Audrey Watters).

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A 2017 Petrilli article about perceived bias in education journalism.

What kind of impact do you think education journalism can have on real-world classrooms, schools, and systems?

MP: If you take the long view, you see that all this yammering that we do, all of the coverage in the media, eventually can have an impact, at least on policy. You can never pinpoint just one article, or just one study, or just one blog post or op-ed—it’s the whole combination. Journalism is a part of that, one of the ways that these ideas and debates happen, through these various stories, so it matters to policy. Whether any of this has any influence on practice, that’s a lot harder. Nothing seems to impact practice, at least at scale. That’s why we’ve seen so little progress!

What are some examples of coverage that helped influence the policymaking world?

MP: Many of the No Child Left Behind-era stories, illustrating the law’s unintended consequences, had an impact on the Every Student Succeeds Act, like its allowance for states to measure student progress over time instead of just whether students were achieving proficiency or not. Coverage of disappointing charter performance has led to stronger oversight, and eventually results, in that sector. There are lots of examples.

petrilli at chiefs

Petrilli (in checked jacket) at a CCSSO event not too long ago.

You wrote recently that New York City was “chasing diversity.” Do you think that education journalists are also chasing school integration stories?

MP: I think that integration has been a hot topic for the media that they find compelling. I get it, of course, we should work on integrating our schools. But has it been shown to help kids do dramatically better? There’s not a lot of great evidence, but there’s a little bit of evidence. I just want equal time for other things that might be more promising but less sexy. Is New York City teaching reading the right way? Cover that!

What do you make of how teachers are being covered right now?

MP: Right now, the meme is let’s talk about how these teachers are underpaid and not treated well. That’s true in many places, and these problems deserve attention. Still, I’m forever frustrated that journalists aren’t giving the full picture. Young teachers are getting screwed. Money is being siphoned from them and being handed over to older teachers and retirees for pensions and lifelong health care benefits. In many cases, the new teachers will never get the lavish benefits that their veteran colleagues are getting, even if they teach for their whole careers. It’s another example of the Baby Boomers stealing from the Millennials. But it almost never gets portrayed that way.

What about charter schools and choice. How well do you think alternatives to traditional neighborhood schools are being covered these days?

MP: My sense is that charter school scandals get more attention than district scandals too. But those stories — as enticing as they may be — also miss an important point about trade-offs. Charters and private schools have more freedom, which often leads to breakthrough ideas and breakthrough results, but it means accepting some risk that some bad operators will take advantage of the opportunity. Reporters should cover this in all of its complexity.

Each week, The Grade takes a deeper look at education journalism. Sign up for the free newsletter

petrilli and harper at EWA18

Petrilli (left) and USC’s Shaun Harper discuss race and education at EWA 2018. Image courtesy USC.

What’s it like being a think tank in 2018?

MP: It’s harder to get a study covered than it used to be. The quality of the research being done by university-based scholars has improved dramatically (which is a good thing!), but we think tanks now have to work harder to get coverage. It can feel unfairly challenging at times, even when our work is quite rigorous. Because we’re a think tank, some outlets don’t cover our work. And national outlets, in particular, seem to have a negative attitude about covering studies in general, which I sort of get, but it’s problematic if you believe in science and progress. When it comes to commentary, on the other hand, it’s easier than it used to be to get your own views out there. Editorial pages and policy journals used to be the gatekeepers, but now everyone has their own blog and Twitter account.

What advice or encouragement would you give to education reporters?

MP: Follow the money! You do the math and you’ll see that there is a ton of money we’re spending in every classroom. Where is the money going? And given our huge and hugely fragmented system, it’s important to keep looking for valid examples of success and contrast those examples with the complacent schools and districts that surround them. We have a lot of problems in this country, and schools can’t fix them all. But the right question is: Are schools doing all they can? Why aren’t solutions traveling from one school to another, from one district to another? The media can help transmit what’s working and pressure the comfortable, complacent schools into action.

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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