BLOG #7: THE A PRIORI ARIA ABOUT ‘STANDARDS’
The blog concerns a Page One story in today’s Boston Globe, entitled “State stands firm on school quality” (3/15). Written by James Vaznis who works the ed reform beat, the piece is one of many thousands of education stories printed by the Globe since the dawning of the reform era in 1993.
The article reports on a controversy among policy makers that is actually not being furiously debated over dinner tables across the Commonwealth. The issue appears to be whether our state education standards should give way to proposed national standards that some claim are less rigorous. According to the story, the Governor, the Education Secretary, and the multi-titled neo-con education policy activist and state Board of Ed member Sandra Stotsky remain committed to our higher state standards.
The article contains direct quotes, indirect quotes, and, at the end presents the views of “the other side.” In many respects, this seems a prosaic news article. However, it deserves careful study by all those-citizens and students of journalism-who prefer to get their news straight up, unlaced by bias, and who can put their paper down feeling more brightly illuminated about the issues of the day.
Now, true, there is bias and there is bias. There is Glenn Beck bias and then there’s Boston Globe bias. While Beckian bias has been known to occasionally rear its head in the Globe, more often than not my morning newspaper’s favorite slant and slouch is defined not by mad chalkboard scribblings, but by what isn’t there, that is, by what remains unsaid or unasked, and by who isn’t interviewed. In fairness, the bias appears as often because of laziness as ideology.
Let it be said that reporter James Vaznis is not lazy, nor is he a nefarious conspirator or a willing minion. He no doubt sees himself as a conscientious, hard-working reporter who tries to be fair. Within his frame of reference, he is. But Mr. Vaznis quite sincerely sees the world through the same eyes as his employer and this informs the questions he asks and doesn’t. He rarely stands back to consider other angles or perspectives from which the issue might be viewed. Globe editors are clearly pleased with the product he produces.
Let’s look more closely at the article, how its organized, and, most importantly, what huge, unstated assumption it rests on. We are informed that state officials are taking a strong stand against a lowering of state education standards in the face of a new threat. In this case, the enemy is not the usual suspect-the “teacher unions”-but the Obama administration itself, and its proposed national standards. The Globe’s parent company, the New York Times, had hailed these standards editorially just a few days before.
After two wary quotes by the Education Secretary Paul Reville concerning the need to protect the highest standards, we get a double-barreled response in graph 7 of this 27-graph story from one of the Globe’s favorite think tanks, the neo-con Pioneer Institute. Its executive director strongly decries these weaker standards. There are no balancing quotations from education think tanks located on the left side of the spectrum, which lie well outside of the Globe’s comfort zone. Needless to say, other scholars like Diane Ravtch and Deborah Meier, are not asked for their views to counter-balance the Globe’s favorite savant, Ms. Stotsky.
Indeed, a few graphs later, state board member Stotsky is given two quotations to express her opposition to these national standards. Rather than identifying her as a leader within the Pioneer Institute, the Globe allows her to wear another hat in this story, thereby creating an impression of broad resistance to the proposed national standards.
Nine graphs from the end, the reporter helps us frame the story with these shadowy lines: “The prospect of bringing national standards to Massachusetts is generating wide-ranging reaction among groups that work directly with school districts and some concerns that there would be a push to create a national test, based on those standards, that could replace the MCAS.” Really, who are these groups that are being weighed down by all these concerns?
In the final quarter of the story, there appears a few very brief quotations-one liners, really-from the “other side,” namely, the teacher union leaders and the head of the Association of School Committees. Here is the appearance, but the not the substance, of balance.
Ok, this was a fairly standard content analysis of a story that’s not quite as balanced as it might be or as its proper journalistic form suggests it is. But mainly, the story misses the larger point.
There are major omissions in this story that go to the heart of the actual and barely mentioned issue. Most obviously, Globe readers are not really informed about the differences between the two sets of standards, nor the educational implications of an emphasis on skills vs. content, nor whether one emphasis is inherently “higher” or better than the other. In the absence of this information and context, who wouldn’t support what’s described by state officials and deep thinkers as high standards rather than low. That word “standards” has such a magical ring to it!
However, this story is really about the MCAS exams, to which state standards are currently aligned (and vice versa), and about the degree of control the state should impose on classrooms¬-and on teachers who attempt to make their classes provocative and interesting.
Most crucially, the story asks us not to notice the elephant in the room. While there may be differences between Massachusetts’ and national standards, both rest solidly on the unstated assumption that single assessment, high-stakes standardized testing provides the pathway to meaningful education reform. This assumption is gospel to the Globe, and why this today’s story must be understood as part of the paper’s continuing campaign. This is why Stotsky appeared on the op ed page making the same points just two days before. Today, the news columns were used to further underscore the Globe/Stotsky/ Pioneer Institute position. The Globe gave at the office, and it just keeps on giving.
How important to realize that neither of these sets of standards are intended as only goals to inspire or aspire to. Rather, they are tethers to bind teachers to mandated curriculum and students to multiple-choice tests. Both sets have more to do with narrowing education, rather than offering up reform strategies that might broaden and deepen it.
If you put your ear down on this article and listen closely, you will hear the a priori aria that provides the background music for this news story.
Yes, it’s the same old siren song.