Brookings, Ed Media, and Missed Opps

They’re back!  The good folks over at Brookings Institution have returned with their third study on the United States and how it covers education issues in the media.  If you’ll recall, in 2009 we learned that only 1.4 percent of national news coverage in the dear ol’ U.S. of A was about education issues.  Last year, the trio of Darrell West, Russ Whitehurst, and E.J. Dionne came back for a return engagement to tell us how key leaders are seeing the future of education media.

First off, the people seem to care most about the issues that are pretty much getting the most coverage these days.  Teacher performance (73 percent).  Student academic performance (71 percent).  School crime or violence (69 percent).  School finance and school reform (66 percent).  It is just shocking!  The most important education policy issues for those polled are those issues they constantly hear about from President Obama, EdSec Duncan, governors, and the mainstream media that still covers K-12 issues.
Who do they get their information from?  Family and friends is tops, at 75 percent.  Then comes daily newspapers (60 percent), school publications (56 percent), local television (54 percent), community groups (42 percent), national television (38 percent), Internet sites (37 percent), radio (33 percent), and school Facebook or MySpace sites (14 percent).  (Who knew we were even still using MySpace??)  Of those sources, family and friends were deemed the most highly regarded (62 percent), with radio coming in at 24 percent, Facebook at 12 percent, and just 7 percent regarding those phone texts as valuable.
This is all important data, as it helps flesh out the picture of how one successfully informs stakeholders — namely parents, as far as this survey is concerned — about developments in local and national education.  But it also raises some concerns:
* Do we really believe this is a true representative sample of Main Street USA?  Setting aside the concerns of telephone polling and who has land lines these days, just take a look at the numbers, take a look at the school communities you know, and compare.  Are we really getting local education information from daily newspapers and local television stations?  
* Does this even provide us an apples/apples comparison?  I look at the first bucket — “the areas they wanted more coverage of their local schools,” and teacher performance comes in first.  Then we ask them how they are getting news, and we are scoring things like texts?  Who texts about a complex issue like teacher evaluations?
* When asked how to improve communications, the most popular response was more printed newsletters.  Second was more information through the Internet (despite it ranking seventh in preferred sources).  Seems we really don’t know what we want, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, Brookings didn’t offer up some recommendations on what to do with this data.  Instead, it concluded its report with the following:

Although Americans feel reasonably well-informed about schools and do not sense a decline in the amount of information available to them, they do want more information than they are getting, especially on the most basic educational questions: teacher performance, student academic achievement, curricula, finances, and reform efforts. They are also concerned about violence in the schools. To a remarkable degree, they still rely on daily newspapers for educational information, and that is true even among young Americans who are more open to newer technologies. This points to an opportunity for newspapers eager to expand their readership among the young. Education blogs on newspaper websites are a growing and vital source of education news. Expanding and building on them would be helpful to the education policy debate, and good for newspapapers.

But Brookings’ loss is Eduflack’s gain.  Let me offer us a few observations/suggestions:
  1. We need to define what “news” is.  The first set of questions address high-brow policy discussions related to ESEA and other national debates.  But the news source information seems to focus on “information,” not “news.”  There is a big difference between learning about teacher incentives and knowing how the girls’ soccer team did.  But those are lumped into the same question as equals.
  2. We need to separate discussion of education policy issues from local school issues.  Here, respondents were focused on the policy issues driven by the mainstream media.  But their answers regarding media sources reflect what they are hearing about schools in their local community.  How many of us have family and friends who can talk about teacher performance issues?  And what printed newsletter is going to enlighten us on that issue?  We need better data on the separation of the two issues.  And quite frankly, knowing how people learn about their local schools and their concerns regarding those local schools is far more valuable.
  3. While the information regarding what 18-29 year olds think about these topics is interesting, how many 20-year-olds really care about what is happening at their local schools?  Along similar lines, how many really care about student academic performance information?   
  4. We need data on “who” is providing the information to the sources in question.  Is it earned media from news organizations?  School-generated print and web information?  Community-generated blogs or radio programs?  All information is not created equal.  Are people looking for more fact-based, trusted news, or are they looking for the snarky, the provacative, or that that simply relates back to them and their families?  
  5. Finally, the big issue is SO WHAT?  What do we do with this data?  Is it a problem of information not being out there, or people not knowing where to look?  Is the information folks are not finding in their local newspapers available on the Internet?  Is the data people want from printed newsletters available on school web or Facebook sites?  We need both educated and informed customers of education information.  We need to understand what they need, information wise, and then help them see where to find it.   
Ultimately, the data provided by Brookings makes for lovely water cooler or cocktail party chatter for those in ed policy circles, but it does very little, if anything, to help advance improving communications in the education arena.  
UPDATE: Apparently, the report’s authors have said a second document, focusing on reccs from the telephone survey, is in development.  But in these days of instant gratification, who waits to deliver reccs??

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