Because you are reading this now, I am assuming that you have a strong interest in education and may even be a wonk like me. It’s great that you care, but, unfortunately, we are in the minority. Perhaps you can help us figure out how to reach and engage the “inadvertent audience,” the people who tune in for coverage of politics or the economy, stumble across an education story, and get hooked. These “inadvertent viewers” might be part of the 80% of American households without school-age children; perhaps they are people who don’t spend much time thinking about schools and their role in our democracy.
Whoever they may be, they are critical, for reasons I will go into below.
Those folks don’t get a regular dose of education coverage, because there’s really no such thing. That we know from a December 2009 report from the Brookings Institution, which pointed out that a mere 1.4% of the national “news hole” for television, radio, newspapers and the web was devoted to education.
Of that meager amount, about 30% focused on higher education, the rest on elementary, secondary and pre-school, but that number is inflated because, the report notes, much of that ‘education’ coverage was devoted to the hot ‘education’ issue of the day and its impact on schools. (In 2009, the hot issue was the H1N1 flu).
The number is further inflated because some outlets apparently count a story about gang violence, for example, as an education story because some of the gang members were in high school or because some acts of violence occur just off school grounds.
The leading outlets, like the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time and so forth, do not devote much space or manpower to national education issues. None of the four major television networks has a full time education correspondent. (The Brookings Report does not point out that the PBS NewsHour has two, John Tulenko and yours truly, plus national correspondents like Tom Bearden who also contribute occasional reports about education.)
If we want things to change, we need to reach the “inadvertent audience” – but not just because it’s larger. That group is important because the education community is small, insular, fragmented and fundamentally reactive, not proactive. Let me address those in order.
Small: See above reference to number of households with school-age children.
Insular and fragmented: In 2009 there were about 5,000 education blogs, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there are 10,000 or more today. Most reach a small audience and are probably preaching to the converted. That seems to be what’s happening on Twitter, as Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation demonstrated recently. Using Michelle Rhee to represent the right and Diane Ravitch to stand for the left, he calculated that only about 10% follow both, inferring that people gravitate to where they are most comfortable. They talk to each other and yell about everyone else. That’s not a recipe for moving the ball forward.
Reactive, not proactive: Educators rarely act; instead they react. Imagine for a moment that the Newtown killer had burst into a rabbinical school or a convent and slaughtered two dozen rabbinical students, nuns or priests. Had he done that, the entire religious community–Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, et cetera–would have come together before the next sunset. That coalition would have issued a strong statement condemning weapons of mass murder and demanding that the President and the Congress ban their sale and possession.
Now think about the reaction of ‘the education community.’ No coalition formed. Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund published a powerful clarion call for action within hours, and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers followed not long afterwards. Otherwise, mostly silence or bland words. That ineffectual response allowed the National Rifle Association to frame the debate on its terms. Instead of debating the wisdom/folly of allowing weapons designed for mass killing to be legal, we find ourselves arguing whether principals should carry loaded weapons or not.
As I say, educators as a group are a timid lot, accustomed to reacting, not leading.
The “inadvertent audience” matters because many of those men and women know where the levers of power are, and how to operate them. We need to figure out how to reach and touch them, because they need to understand that providing decent educational opportunities for all children is essential for the health of our economy and our way of life–even though the kids we are talking about are not their own children or grandchildren.
We cannot have a national conversation about the goals of education, about our dreams for our children and about our hopes for America, without them.
To be clear, I am not trolling for story ideas for the NewsHour but for something bigger, something I can’t quite get a handle on myself.