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How to practice solution journalism part 2: Ask what needs to happen next

   /   May 12th, 2010Education, News

One of the reasons we launched Dowser was to counter a pervasive bias in the news—a bias against the future. Too often journalists report on yesterday’s events without giving readers a sense of the implications—and possibilities—for tomorrow.

The New York Times recently ran a story reporting that most charter schools fail to outperform ordinary public schools. This is an important story given all the hype surrounding the charter school movement. But the article failed to explain the role that leading charter schools are playing today in national efforts to reform education.

Before I explain why—a quick refresher on the charter school movement: Charter schools are elementary or secondary schools that are exempt from many of the rules and regulations that govern other public schools. In exchange for greater autonomy, charter schools are supposed to be held to higher accountability standards. Charter schools are publicly funded but they often receive private support as well.

Charter schools sound like a good idea, right? And some of them perform very well. In fact, some of the most innovative schools in the country serving low income students are charter schools, such as those run by KIPP, Uncommon Schools and the Harlem Children’s Zone. These schools have gained national attention for their success raising student achievement rates. As the Times points out, however, they are the exceptions. Most charter schools perform no better than other schools, and many fare worse. In practice, they are not being held to the standards in their charters.

But while the Times’ article exposes the problem, it doesn’t consider how it might be solved. And it doesn’t really explain why charter schools matter. Right now, the country is engaged in a massive education experiment. The Department of Education has deployed $4.3 billion in its Race to the Top fund to encourage school systems to find new ways to improve performance.

The question is: What should schools do? Educators desperately need new ideas and practical models to work from. And successful charter schools are among the few providing them. They are demonstrating new possibilities and, along the way, overcoming the tyranny of low expectations. More than ever, we need innovation in education. And the only way to get it is to give responsible educators latitude to experiment. The challenge is deciding who has earned that privilege and who has lost it.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made this point  a week ago at the annual dinner of KIPP, the network of 82 high-performing charter schools.

Adults may care about whether a high-performing school is a charter school or a traditional neighborhood school. But children do not—and neither do I. I’ve said that I am not a fan of charter schools. But I am a big fan of good charter schools. By the same measure, charters that do not work need to be shut down much faster than they are today. As President Obama and I have said repeatedly, we care about what works to boost student learning—not about ideology, rhetorical purity, or political party.

Read the full speech here. Education reform blogger Whitney Tilson called it “one of the best ed-related speeches” he’s ever read.

Photo: mylifemix

5 Responses

  1. My hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, has what is often referred to as the worst urban public school system in the nation. Annually low test scores, violence and a poor retention rate are just some of the criteria that have helped shape this perception.

    Recently the Cleveland Public Schools have been attempting to find a solution to manage its $53 million deficit. Their answer? Demolishing 25 school buildings around town.

    The only way to save these buildings is to sell them to charter schools. In fact, it is illegal for the city to knock down the schools without first making offers to groups that run charters.

    Although these schools take away hundreds of thousands of dollars of state aid from state-run schools, many Cleveland parents refuse to send their kids to the derelict, unsafe institutions that comprise the Cleveland Public School System.

    Many Clevelanders have expressed their disdain with the public schools and see charters as the only option.

    So, the question is this: Are Charter schools actually contributing to the downfall of public education? Or were things in public schools so bad that charters are a saving grace?

    Here’s the article that got me thinking about this debate:

    • David Bornstein says:

      Kristin, Charters are neither the problem nor the solution. What you’re describing is a problem whose roots go back half a century to the loss of a powerful economic and political base in the inner cities. That’s what allowed schools to decline for decades. There’s no simple fix. The great benefit of charter schools is that they free the hands of creative people who are motivated to do better. They can also free the hands of people who are *not* motivated to do better, as we see. Clearly, they play a role in education reform — as fonts of new ideas and possibly as standard bearers of excellence. But it’s worth remembering that 97 percent of all students attend public schools. The degree to which charter schools will be seen as a ‘saving grace’ depends on whether they can be used effectively as examples or models that catalyze change in the big, broken public systems.

  2. g says:

    From my perspective journalism should cut to the chase and not opine. It isn’t their responsibility to construct a new narrative — that is the job for the thinkers, policy makers, and the people.

    We have far too much opinion journalism as it is.

    I think we are better off with journalists who reports the facts – to why it is, or is not, important is an opinion and we have too many people thinking that opinions are facts.

    The educators, experts, essayists, and those who make policy can take it from there.

    • David Bornstein says:

      G — Journalists can discuss implications and look ahead without pushing opinions or constructing new narratives, as you say. We’re not advocating editorializing. You’re right: there’s way too much opinion everywhere. But the fact is we only have knowledge about the past; and we only have conclusive knowledge about the distant past. However, it’s possible — and I would argue necessary — to give readers a sense of where things may be heading — or at least what could happen if a particular route is followed. Otherwise, how do they understand the potential upside or downside?

      We see these kinds of conditional statements every day in science and business sections of major newspapers, where journalists help readers understand why an incipient industry or area of research is worth their attention (usually based on limited facts). Those are future oriented statements, but they’re made judiciously, and they of course need to be backed up by evidence.

      Why don’t we do this when it comes to social goods? In my view, it’s because journalists are afraid of being seen as advocates. So they withhold any statement that may potentially signal their approval or support. Even relatively benign statements like, ‘If this organization continues on its current trajectory, it could be serving X thousand children by 2015.’ When I was a newspaper reporter, every time I would propose a story about a local organization that was grappling with a social problem, my editors cautioned me not to appear to advocate for the solution. But I reported on lots of negative things and nobody ever worried that I might be an advocate for the problems!

  3. I think the whole notion of “totally objective, just-the-facts” journalism is flawed. There is no such thing. Reporters ask questions. The questions they choose to ask shape the story. What on earth is wrong with asking an expert source an opinion that might lead to a solution?!