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When the Market Drives Education Reporting

Susan Notes: A small look at the bias in the Education Week narrative.

by Susan Ohanian

Five years ago, while trying to answer big questions about press coverage of Race to the Top and the Common Core standards, I read some 700 articles published between Mid-May 2009 and mid-July 2010, counting who got quoted as an education expert and how these "experts" were identified. My findings were published in EXTRA! a publication of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). Of the 23 experts quoted five times or more, 15 had connections with institutions receiving funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and 13 with strong charter advocacy institutions. Three functionaries at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute were cited 55 times. Education Week was so fond Fordham expertise as to quote employees in three different articles in the same issue of the newspaper.

I was stunned by the missing experts. To cite just one example: Even though Richard Rothstein, respected author of numerous books, briefs, and studies had co-authored an Economic Policy Institute briefing paper during this period, "Let's Do the Numbers: Department of Education's 'Race to the Top' Program Offers Only a Muddled Path to the Finish Line" (4/20/10), he was not called on to discuss the issue.

Education Week declares in a parenthetical statement in the middle of an article (Feb. 4, 2015) "Education Week also receives support from the Joyce and Gates foundations, but maintains editorial control over its coverage." But who's pulling the puppet strings?

In his U.S. Teacher Prep Rules Face Heavy Criticism from Stakeholders, Stephen Sawchuk offers a classic example of opinion traveling as news:

Still other commenters drew on a brief prepared by the National Education Policy Center, a left-learning think tank at the University of Colorado that is partly funded by teachers' unions and generally opposes market-based education policies.

There's no mention of the research brief title or author--or any hint of the activities labeled "left-leaning." In a peculiar world where some funding by teacher unions is indication of "left-leaning," we have to suppose that the Ayn Rand-inspired Objectivist outfit (current radio ads say call 1-888-SELFISH) would be centrist.

Pro-Market forces are the unacknowledged elephant in the room of much of Education Week coverage, but the reader is on her own in figuring this out .

While Sawchuk is quick to identify NEPC as anti-market, he fails to identify any of the deep pocketed pro-market syndicate. Sawchuk's sterilized descriptors of other organizations mentioned in the article are typical of Education Week performance:

  • Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization that supports teacher-leadership efforts

  • National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group

  • Teach for America, alternative-certification program

  • TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project, alternative-certification program

  • The reader without knowledge of what's what in the education world will not be informed by this kind of reporting. In a broad sweep, Sawchuk identifies these groups as "generally have endorsed more accountability for teacher preparation," adding, "Some have also been funded by like-minded philanthropies, such as the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation and the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation."

    The reader should know that we're not talking small change here.

  • Teach Plus: $9,594,388 from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

  • National Council on Teacher Quality: $10,995,002 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Other "champion supporters" include the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Joyce Foundation.

  • Teach for America $11,405,267 from Gates and more millions from the Walton Foundation. The Doris & Donald Fisher fund isn't a "champion" because its donation is under $5 million.

  • It is to the Gates Foundation credit that they make it very easy to see whom they fund and for how much.

    Sawchuk doesn't mention the $6,711,452 financial relationship between the Thomas B. Fordham fellows and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, nor the fact that Joyce, Broad, Walton, Fisher, GE, Bradley, Helmsley, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and College Board are among the Fordham donors.

    Sawchuk identifies Democrats for Education Reform simply as "a political action committee," which is as informative as describing bourbon as a beverage. Jim Harrison comes a whole lot closer in The English Major: "They were that new kind of Democrat who didn't seem to know any working people. They were limited to their own breed."
    Nonetheless, DER made 18 appearances in Education Week pages during this time period,with its policy director Charles Barone getting three paragraphs in one item to explain his views on teacher evaluation.

    Although Sawchuk doesn't ask the research brief author--or anyone associated with the National Education Policy Center--to discuss the findings, Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which is described as "generally backing stronger accountability mechanisms in education," is given three paragraphs to explain his views.

    All this provoked me to look at how Sawchuk describes other institutions. In Feb. 26, 2014, he identifies ETS as "venerable test maker"; Kevin Huffman as "Tennessee education commissioner"; William Sanders as "developer of TVAAS" and "North Carolina-based researcher." Chris Cerf is simply "former state superintendent" and Bellwether Education Partners "an education consultancy based in Washington."

    Such reporting that offers no information requires knowledgeable readers on high alert and raises the question: Do subscribers pay out their fees just to look at the ads?

    On March 12, 2014, Sean Cavanagh offered a different kind of put-down: "The National Education Policy Center says it identified 338 full-time virtual schools...."


    Outside of Fox News, I'd expect a news outfit to say something like: "In a report, NEPC identified. . ." Cavanagh is also concerned about NEPC funding: "The latest report, the second to focus on virtual schools, was supported with funding provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, a nonprofit whose members include teachers' unions, according to the organization's website."

    Of the 34 references to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute expertise between 2//01/14 and 2/28/15, most citations provided no identifier, seven identified it as a think tank, four as a Washington based research and advocacy group. One commentary written by a non-Education Week staff member identified Fordham as "conservative-leaning" and another as "right-leaning." None mentioned its funders.

    Between February 2014 and February 2015, National Education Policy Center was mentioned only five times in Education Week. Thomas B. Fordham Institute personnel appeared in 34 articles, the Democrats for Education Reform in 18. One might conclude that the National Education Policy Center should adopt the Barnum Theory, not caring what is said about them just so long as their name is spelled right. But clearly, readers would better understand education issues if Education Week and other media would offer some relief from the stranglehold of pro-market proponents and regularly call on actual education experts like those at NEPC--and even to call on actual leftists--to explain the relationship of capital, democracy and schooling. In the meantime, although Education Week claims distance from its supporters, the reader must realize that someone is paying the piper here, and one has to question the driving force when a publication purporting to present education information offers more than three times as much print to a political education committee and seven times as much to a conservative mouthpiece traveling as a think tank than to a respected education organization offering peer-reviewed research.

    Note: The writer is a fellow at National Education Policy Center

    — Susan Ohanian


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