LAST week I discussed the need to move beyond viewing educational reports as weapons in public debate and the crude politicisation of educational issues. I also suggested that a "report is not a stick to be used in a public melee, it is a document to be read, considered and deliberated upon".
In this week's comment, I want to broaden my critique and discuss the way educational issues are presented as spectacles and how this may distort our understanding of educational issues and impoverish our capacity to engage our educational problems in an informed manner.
Next to me, on top of a pile of books and papers, is an interesting book first published in 1995.
The Manufactured Crisis: Myths Fraud and the Attack on America's Schools was written by David C. Berliner and Bruce J. Biddle. At the time the book brought together the evidence and arguments to counter the debates of voucher proponents and the school choice movement which saw "choice" as the antidote to America's educational problems.
Arguably the most well-known book that weighed up the merits of vouchers and school choice was John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe's Politics, Markets and America's Schools.
This book had come out in 1990 and constituted a significant moment in the school choice debate in the United States and abroad.
The disagreements with regard to school choice in America were, and still are, part and parcel of deeper and broader dispute over the nature of freedom, politics, efficiency, standards and values in American schools.
Part of any push to change the structure of schooling relies on arguing that drastic change is necessary due to the radically calamitous nature of the problems to be addressed, hence the title of Berliner and Biddle's book The Manufactured Crisis.
A recent article in the American Journalism review revisits these controversies and suggests that the discourse on decline and crisis is overstated.
Responding to Fareed Zakaria's prime-time special Restoring the American Dream: Fixing Education, Paul Farhi says that America's education system has never been better.
According to Farhi: "By many important measures -- high school completion rates, college graduation, overall performance on standardised tests -- America's educational attainment has never been higher (http://ajr.org/Article.asp?id>5280)."
Farhi takes Fareed to task for the "perfect distillation of much of what's wrong with mainstream media coverage of education.
"The prevailing narrative -- and let's be wary of our own sweeping generalisations here -- is that the nation's educational system is in crisis, that schools are "failing", that teachers aren't up to the job and that America's economic competitiveness is threatened as a result (http://ajr.org/Article.asp?id>5280)."
Farhi asks an interesting question and provides a compelling answer. "Have the nation's schools gotten noticeably lousier? Or has the coverage of them just made it seem that way? (http://ajr.org/Article.asp?id>5280)," he wonders.
According to Farhi: "Some schools are having a difficult time educating children -- particularly children who are impoverished, speak a language other than English, move frequently or arrive at the school door neglected, abused or chronically ill. But many pieces of this complex mosaic are quite positive.
"First data point: American elementary and middle school students have improved their performance on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study every four years since the tests began in 1995; they are above the international average in all categories and within a few percentage points of the global leaders (something that few news reports mention).
"Second data point: The number of Americans with at least some college education has soared over the past 70 years, from 10 per cent in 1940 to 56 per cent today, even as the population has tripled and the nation has grown vastly more diverse.
"All told, America's long-term achievements in education are nothing short of stunning (http://ajr.org/Article.asp?id>5280)."
Farhi criticises his ire on the way schooling is reported in America where he points to "the evident flaws in some of the reporting about education -- namely, a lack of balance and historical context, and a willingness to accept the most generic and even inflammatory characterisations at face value (http://ajr.org/Article.asp?id>5280)."
I think Farhi is onto something by pointing out the way in which media coverage of education issues is so often focused on the sense of crisis and the opinions of media favourites on the problems and nature of schooling.
Reporters shoulder the burden of researching into the problems. It requires a desire to get beyond the "talking heads" and not accept the latest fad or fashion just because it has media presence.
The growth of education debate as a media spectacle where the latest report or ranking is often cited or given gravitas despite the responses of teachers and school administrators is one concern.
Guy Debord, the famous French social theorist and philosopher, wrote that we are increasingly living in a spectacle society that "the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967, Zone Books 1994, Thesis 10)."
Appearances, media space and the breaking down of complex issues into easily consumable spectacles such as found, for example, in rankings tables or reports reduced in meaning to easy one-liners and television sound bites is not the basis for a serious understanding of educational problems.
I am not suggesting that there are no challenges in schools and education. I believe that in the United States, Malaysia and Australia, there is a real need to address issues such as funding levels for disadvantaged schools and programmes to help raise participation and achievement for students from disadvantaged economic backgrounds, for example.
However, addressing these and other matters requires moving our understanding of educational issues beyond the spectacle and seriously engaging the data, reports and realities of schooling and what really goes on within them.
These are complicated concerns. Media spectacles and the dilution of educational issues to political point scoring may entertain us for a while.
However, the problems of schools and education deserve our concentrated attention so that considered and disciplined discussion replaces politicisation and spectacle as the form in which we decide on schools and educational policy.