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The Daily Dunce

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Education coverage in Canadian papers is often superficial and one-sided. It's time for editors and reporters to smarten up

Roden Public School Junior sits in the middle of a quiet residential neighbourhood in downtown Toronto. Weekdays from 8:45 a.m. till 3:15 p.m. the three-storey, concrete building houses over 500 kids from junior kindergarten to Grade 6. Up on the third floor, 26 Grade 2 students are following a character education program called “Roots of Empathy.” The course teaches tolerance to schoolchildren by bringing babies into the classroom. Today’s subject is Michelle, a bright-eyed and expressive four-month-old. The kids laugh with the baby. They clap hands and sing her songs while she plays with her toys. They discuss with the program instructor what Michelle can’t do yet, like walk, talk, or eat on her own. The goal: to instill patience in the hopes of ending bullying.

Along with Michelle’s parents, the class teacher, the students and me, Julie Smyth, education reporter for theNational Post is here.

She spent the previous day in the Roots office interviewing the founder; now Smyth needs to see the program in action. Today, she talks to the teacher, the principal, and Michelle’s parents. She watches the kids and takes notes. In all, she spends over an hour at the school. While the Roots story has been covered in the local newspapers, the program has recently been launched nationally; that’s the news hook. But Smyth, who is five weeks away from parenthood, wants more than facts. That alone will earn her a place at the front of the class and put her piece ahead of most education stories.

Poll after poll shows that education is second only to health care on Canadians’ list of concerns. Education reporting, however, is long on facts and short on context and analysis. Some people say that’s simply because it’s a tough beat: provincial governments, especially the one here in Ontario, do a “scary” job, as someone in the education system put it, of keeping their own research under wraps; and “eduspeak,” the language used to cloud rather than explain an issue, is the mother tongue of most educators. According to Sylvia Stead, executive editor at The Globe and Mail, education doesn’t get the attention health care does because the issues are provincial. Another reason: the topic isn’t sexy. “If education had stretchers and people waiting in the hallways of hospitals, it would be more interesting to cover,” says Annie Kidder, spokeswoman for the Ontario-based lobby group People for Education. That could be why he-said, she-said stories of crisis (think school closures and budget cuts) and features on food fairs and exercise programs are often part of the journalistic curriculum.

In the last decade, there were big changes in education across Canada. Some provinces seized funding and policy control from municipal school boards and established province-wide rules, exerting more influence over hot-button issues such as curriculum, class size, and standardized testing. The provinces became micromanagers, accounting for every dollar spent in every school district, and in every school. School boards lost the power to levy local property taxes, a key source of funding for special programs such as English as a second language, thus creating inequality among school districts. Battles popped up between teachers and boards, between boards and governments. For parents, accountability became an issue: Just how are teachers teaching and are kids learning? School choice, budget cuts, teacher testing: all of it provided a heated environment for compelling stories.

Many of these issues were covered in the papers. But according to those within the system, that coverage was underresearched and often, they felt, one-sided. Regardless of who’s right, the reporters or their sources, the image created by all those column inches was clear: the system is dominated by incompetent teachers, delinquent students, and corrupt school boards. The trickle-down effect of this bad press was also clear: people within the education system clammed up.

Jennifer Lewington covered education for the Globe from 1991 to 1998 after spending a year at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow. “I was often asked by teachers, union reps, and school board officials, ‘Why would someone with your experience want to write about education?'” she remembers. “I was also asked, ‘Why doesn’t anyone in the media write anything good about education?’ These are low morale questions. Low morale, yet protective. People with a stake in education-teachers, bureaucrats, parents-would say education is not political. But it’s intensely political. It’s a conflict of values, of ideologies. That’s what makes it interesting.”

The potential may be there, but stories about curriculum changes, budget cutbacks, and teachers’ strikes often read like press releases. There is little insight into why strikes happen and what they mean for students. According to Louise Brown, a longtime education reporter for The Toronto Star, that kind of coverage makes the education system a scapegoat. “There’s something human in wanting to blame others for our children’s faults. Teachers are what get covered most often because it’s labour-related news; it’s quick coverage of issues that deserve a more thoughtful evaluation. All this is reflected in people’s attitudes. They see whining, bitchy teachers. If you don’t give people a look at what’s going on at ground level, you get a skewed look at the system.”

That’s what happened in Halifax last winter when the public school janitors went on strike. The schools closed the doors to the media “presumably because the board wanted to control the message,” offers Peter McLaughlin, then the education reporter for the Halifax Daily News. News did make it into the papers, however, via interviews conducted outside school property. What students, teachers, and union reps told reporters astounded readers. The schools were a pigsty, they said. Toilets and garbage cans overflowed, dirt stained the walls, paper filled the halls. The sources’ conclusion: the strike was just one more example of desperate schools saving a few cents at the expense of their students.

McLaughlin wanted to see things for himself. On day 10 of the two-month strike, he went to four Halifax-area schools. He just walked in and headed for the washrooms. The one time he was stopped by a teacher, he played dumb and asked for directions to the office. He did see a mess, and a lot of dust. No overflowing toilets or sticky floors, though. Replacement workers and volunteers were picking up the slack.

This, class, is what’s called dedication, something that’s also missing in education reporting. And while many editors acknowledge that education is an important beat, you’ve got to wonder. When a Charlottetown high school receives a bomb threat or a Vancouver teacher is accused of sexually assaulting a student, facts like how it happened, what was done, and who was expelled are reported as straight news. Stories on school violence in general-what causes it, how some schools discourage it, how it affects kids and learning, teachers and their performance-aren’t given the same attention.

The same goes for budget cuts. In 1999, the Newfoundland government proposed to slash programs and increase class sizes in St. John’s. A local paper published the stats: which programs would be eliminated and in which schools; which grades would increase to 30 students per class and which ones to 37. There was also the requisite coverage of the political posturing between the education minister and the opposition critic. Relevant information, but it doesn’t tell readers what the cuts will mean to students and teachers, what effect, if any, class size has on learning.

For the most part, teachers and school board chairs are the major sources in education coverage. “There’s an assumption that status quo educators are all experts, but that’s not the case,” says Malkin Dare, head of the Ontario-based lobby group Organization for Quality Education. “There’s a whole other world and reporters have to see this. It takes a willingness to listen to people in groups like OQE who give a different take [than most educators] on issues like funding,” she says, referring to the OQE’s controversial stance that Ontario school boards are not underfunded.

Another problem: Most education reporters are on the job only a couple of years before being “promoted,” as Dare puts it, to other sections. (The Toronto Sun hasn’t had a full-time education reporter since Moira MacDonald left the beat in 2000.) That shuffling frustrates sources. “I get calls from reporters who say, ‘Hi, I’m so-and-so. I’m not the regular education reporter so you’ll have to help me with this,'” says Phyllis Benedict, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. “This gets trying with important issues. You used to know who would call when a story broke. Education issues are complex; the government makes them look easy.”

Some education reporters, though, stick with it. Louise Brown began covering education for the Star in the early ’80s and has been doing so on and off for roughly 20 years. Karen Seidman has 18 years’ experience atThe Gazette in Montreal. In fact, The Gazette allocates a lot of resources to education; it has two full-time education reporters and one part-time university reporter. And unlike many of his compatriots, Peter Stockland, The Gazette‘s editor-in-chief, has an education reporting background. Very early in his career, he covered small town municipal councils and school boards before becoming the editor of The Calgary Sun in 1994. “I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t care about education stories,” he says. “It knocks my shoes off. It’s shocking.”

Stockland knows the role journalism can play in the education system. “We are part of the education process,” he says. “We have a significant role in the formation of the way young people think. We have to be attentive to the effects we have on that system in terms of the view parents have of how it is working and how it defines the success or failure of their children.” Stockland’s experience has seeped into the culture of The Gazette, of course, and particularly its education coverage.

While most papers send general assignment reporters to cover education stories, The Gazette has kept reporters on the beat for over 10 years. In January 2002, the paper took a Statistics Canada report on high school dropouts and turned it into a three-part series looking at why kids quit, what kind of students drop out, and how they can be helped. Five years ago, when other papers were promoting government-controlled education, The Gazette ran an op-ed piece by Malkin Dare outlining how education should be in the hands of the parents and the local community to become more accountable. “Could we do better?” Stockland asks. “Sure, everybody could do better. But we hit it on the head 99 times out of 100.”

That may be true, but complaints from those in the education system still play like a broken record. “What gets reported is the simple stuff, the polarized battles. What gets left out is the analysis,” says Kidder. “They like strikes and anger, but not what’s really going on in the schools.” Andrew Nikiforuk, a former education columnist at the Globe, is more disdainful: “Editors don’t know a thing about education, or they don’t care. Reporters just use press releases. It’s data processing, not reporting. It accounts for all the idiotic stuff we read in the papers.”

So what does it take to get that analysis? Research, says Dare. Tough skin to deal with the intimidation of “eduspeak,” says Sue-Ann Levy, former education reporter for the Sun. Criticism, says Nikiforuk. Or a combination of the three. Education may be a tough beat, but Levy remembers a time when it was tougher, when trustees, senior bureaucrats, and principals kept reporters out of meetings. But even for experienced reporters who have the contacts, understand the issues, and speak the language, there’s another problem. “You get friendly with these people,” explains Levy. “You see these are well-meaning people, once you get to know them. Then you’re afraid of asking the tough questions because they might not talk to you again. You’re afraid of pissing them off.” (Levy got over this fear pretty quickly: It wasn’t unusual for trustees to stop meetings she was covering to criticize her latest article. In 1995, she reported on the salaries of the Toronto public school board’s top bureaucrats. No one had published those numbers before; her story was the main item on the agenda at the next meeting. Just as it was getting started, one trustee shouted, “Lies! Lies! Lies!” in reference to Levy’s piece. That outburst, of course, became the subject of a follow-up article.)

“Good journalism provides a check and balance of the education system,” says Nikiforuk, who’s been on all sides of the issue. Besides having three children (one is home-schooled, two attend private school), he taught for three years in the separate-school system in Etobicoke and at the Manitoba Association for Children with Learning Disabilities in Winnipeg. He had also been writing freelance articles on the environment when William Thorsell, then the editor-in-chief of the Globe, came calling for an education columnist and critic in the early ’90s. Thorsell offered him a weekly column in the Facts and Arguments section. “It was straight talk, no bureaucratic mumbo jumbo,” Nikiforuk says. As he wrote in his final column, he defended “community, history, true literacy, parental authority, religious faith, honest standards, plain words, hard work, wise teaching, wild creatures and sexual discipline.” Not surprisingly, he made people angry. He questioned the teachers’ professional code of ethics. He criticized the public system and supported parent-run schools. “The column was popular because it was refreshing. In the end, it was driven by people’s interests and mysterious brown envelopes left on my doorstep,” Nikiforuk says, referring to the leads on alternative schools and inept administrators he received from readers.

In 1994 Nikiforuk was replaced by Lesley Krueger, a new voice that was, by comparison, friendlier to the education establishment than Nikiforuk, sometimes pointing out where the public system was thriving. She also gave tongue-in-cheek personal accounts of her childrens’ back-to-school experiences, something Nikiforuk never did.

Now freelance, Nikiforuk still writes education and environmental stories from Calgary and he still has a lot to say, most of it in his self-described “cantankerous” style. “It’s a loaded beat, full of agendas. Education reporting is often shallow, stupid, uninformed. It suffers from the same problems that plague all journalism in newspapers and magazines. Most of the journalists are middle class, got their degree at university and were trained to worship the system, not question it. Same with teachers: they don’t bite the hand that feeds them.” Nikiforuk believes the beat needs a responsible way of taking out-of-province education stories and applying them to issues closer to home. That would force reporters to track down research to back up claims made by school boards and governments.

That approach would have been helpful last spring, when Ontario Finance Minister Jim Flaherty released the province’s budget. The only surprise in the document was the “Equity in Education Tax Credit.” Basically, it’s a tax credit of up to $3,500 (to be phased in by 2006) per child for private-school tuition. The news coverage was significant; so was the backlash.

Opposition leaders and some readers claimed “tax credit” meant “voucher”; that the credit would lead to social divisiveness and elitism, steal tax dollars from the publicly funded system and cream the best students from public schools. But the outcry came before the whole story was told. In the papers, this credit was strictly a political matter-the announcement came out of Queen’s Park, after all. Readers learned that Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty would abolish this tax credit if elected in 2003. They learned that, allegedly, Janet Ecker, Ontario’s minister of education, didn’t support the funding for private schools, and that it threatened to tear the Conservative party apart. They learned how Flaherty denied this was a move toward an American-style voucher system. The fact that many other provinces had tried similar initiatives-and still funded their public systems-was buried.

Robert Benzie covered the story from Queen’s Park for the National Post. “I think the Post’s coverage provided context, as much context as we can,” he says. Along with a couple of other reporters, Benzie briefly mentioned the fact that other provinces fund private schools. But the fact that studies suggest those schools are more successful at teaching tolerance than publicly funded ones was downplayed; statistics that indicate Alberta, home of the Canadian charter school, has only a four percent enrollment rate in independent schools were ignored. The story would have been helped along if it was looked at from a national perspective.

So while education is a provincial responsibility, it has a national context. “You can connect the dots,” says Lewington. “There are overriding themes like access and accountability. Provinces are just attacking issues with different solutions.” While Lewington took that approach at the Globe (she tackled issues like the quality of university education across Canada and how Ontario’s cuts to education jeopardized the federal government’s plans for a national curriculum and testing process), she was an exception.

Wili Liberman saw the need for a national education media source and, in 1993, started Teach, a trade publication that appears five times a year, has a circulation of about 22,000, and a readership between 90,000 and 100,000. Teach reporters have looked critically at the idea of ranking schools and have evaluated nontraditional teaching methods, such as online classes. The magazine’s six staff members, along with a number of freelance writers (including teachers), use educators as primary resources, providing an inside view of the education system the newspapers tend to miss. It is this inside view, Liberman believes, that will allow people to see the good things that are happening in education. “There is a lack of information being conveyed in Canadian papers,” he says.

He cites the media’s tireless bashing of the Toronto District School Board and seeming indifference to the effects of poverty, family instability, and non-English-speaking households on standardized test scores as examples of important issues not being properly reported. Liberman, who spent six years on his local parents’ council and has two kids in public high school, also worries about a lack of passion about education. “Editors don’t think the impact of education reform is newsworthy, which is why strikes and shootings get the front page,” he says.

Julie Smyth shares his passion. Back at Roden Public School Junior, the Roots session is ending, Michelle has gone home, and the young students are settling into their seats to hear the next chapter in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Smyth has to hurry back to the office, but as we make our way down the sidewalk she reflects on the kind of story she wants to write. Her pace is quick and anxious, but her voice is calm and confident. She doesn’t know what she’s going to write, but she knows it won’t be a fluff piece. “This is part of a bigger trend, this program and the research on it, as little as there is right now,” she tells me as she digs impatiently through her purse for her car keys. “I want this to teach parents whether or not character education is viable by offering a broader perspective in context.” Good thing, too, because that’s what education journalism needs: more teaching, less show-and-tell.

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