Fact Checking, Spin, Media, Money and Education

Television – “Prove It” (click to listen or download)

Three stories I read today got me thinking about the relationship between media companies and education.  The first, on the Huffington Post included this revelation from Politco’s Dylan Byers:

Newsweek did not fact-check [Niall] Ferguson’s cover story, according to Dylan Byers, a media reporter at Politico. Byers wrote on Twitter that a Newsweek spokesman said the magazine does not have a fact-checking department, and that “we, like other news organizations today, rely on our writers to submit factually accurate material.”

Fortunately for those of us who care about things like facts, the Huffington Post also included a link to Matt O’Brien’s fact-check on the Atlantic site.  As I was trying to wrap my head around the complete lack of concern for truth and accuracy at one of the major news magazines, I read this report in the New York Times about the Discovery Channel and other media companies seeking to enter the education market, and this older column from Andrew Rotherman at Time ,touting the same idea.  I don’t know if Time has a fact-checking department, but after reading Rotherman’s column I’d say they need to make better efforts in that area.

Rotherman bemoans the lack of historical and civic knowledge among our students and in our nation as a whole.  As a college history instructor and political activist, I am less than sanguine about the current state of these.   Yet some of the examples Rotherman uses and the way he presents them seem closer to Ferguson’s factually challenged polemic than anything I’d want in most K-12 classrooms.

Rotherman is a member in good standing of the push reforms by misusing NAEP scores to create a panic about the state of our schools club and pays his dues again in the column cited above.  I wrote about this tactic recently here and am still trying to find the time to do a long post on the topic.  Till I get around to that, I’ll point again to National Academy of Sciences publication, “Grading the Nation’s Report Card: Evaluating NAEP and Transforming the Assessment of Educational Progress,” especially chapter 5, “Setting Reasonable and Useful Performance Standards.  Here is an excerpt:

Although standards-based reporting offers much of potential value, there are also possible negative consequences as well. The public may be misled if they infer a different meaning from the achievement-level descriptions than is intended.  (For example, for performance at the advanced level, the public and policy makers could infer a meaning based on other uses of the label “advanced,” such as advanced placement, that implies a different standard. That is, reporting that 10 percent of grade 12 students are performing at an “advanced” level on NAEP does not bear any relation to the percentage of students performing successfully in advanced placement courses, although we have noted instances in which this inference has been drawn.) In addition, the public may misread the degree of consensus that actually exists about the performance standards and thus have undue confidence in the meaning of the results. Similarly, audiences for NAEP reports may not understand the judgmental basis underlying the standards. All of these false impressions could lead the public and policy makers to erroneous conclusions about the status and progress of education in this country.

Any cite of NAEP scores without some background and context inevitably leads to “false impressions” and “erroneous conclusions.”  Here’s Rotherman:

Test scores released last month from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a.k.a. the Nation’s Report Card, were a stark reminder of the problem: less than one quarter of all students performed at or above the proficient level on NAEP’s 2010 history test. And just 17% of eighth-graders scored at the proficient level…

No background or context, but  not technically inaccurate.

However, Rotherman continues and crosses a line from spin to false.

…meaning that the vast majority of them did not understand key events such as the infamous three-fifths compromise (the founding fathers’ solution to whether/how slaves should be counted when apportioning members of the U.S. House of Representatives based on a state’s population) or the Industrial Revolution.

In fact a majority of 2010 NAEP test takers, 59%,  did correctly answer the question on the three-fifths compromise.  Here is the report from the NAEP Question Tool).  The evidence on the Industrial Revolution is more complex, but the characterization of “a vast majority” “not understanding” is false.  There are two released sample questions that address the Industrial Revolution, one  is a multiple choice and asks about the decline of apprenticeship.   48% answered that correctly (and I would argue that at least two of the “incorrect” answers are partially true).  The other question was a short response on agricultural technology; 3% received complete credit, 9% at the “essential” level and 61% at the “partial” level.  Did anyone at Time fact-check Rotherman?

Both the lack of fact-checking by media companies and their move into the education market are driven by the bottom line, the desire for profit.  I’m not against the careful use of materials from media companies in education, but we  need to recognize that the kind of  quick and dirty repackagings that are likely to produce a profit may not serve our students very well.  Textbook publishers at least make a show of fact-checking.

The Common Core places a new emphasis on the sophistication of the texts employed.   I’m trying to imagine lessons built around the Ferguson or Rotherman pieces that would challenge students to discern and understand how and why they mislead their readers.  There is some real potential there, but I doubt that the same media companies that foist these kind of things on the public would be inclined to produce classroom materials that exposed their failings.

Thomas J. Mertz

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Filed under Accountability, Best Practices, education, Gimme Some Truth, National News, Uncategorized

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