Incompetent or Unethical? Opposing biased reporting on Education.

EDIT: Some time after I wrote this piece, I was contacted by Amy McNeilage who informed me that she did not actually attend the presentation by Andreas Schleicher and that she obtained her information from a phone conversation. I have left the article below as originally posted.

The overarching theme of this post is to question whether or not mainstream news services that print blatantly biased or otherwise sub-par reporting as the majority of their content actually deserve the financial support of the general public. I focus on one piece of reporting particularly, but only use it to highlight the way reporters cherry pick facts from their source material in order to suit a pre-existing narrative (usually a right-wing political one).

On July 1, 2013, Jonathon Holmes hosted his last episode of the ABC program Media Watch. In his closing statements he said this:

“So my parting plea is this: whatever your politics, or your preferences, and even if you’ve never bought a newspaper, start subscribing to at least one media website: whether it’s the Herald Sun or New Matilda, Crikey or the Sydney Morning Herald, old media or new, pay just a little to keep real journalism alive. “ (Transcript and episode can be found at  http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/transcripts/s3793572.htm )

He had given some examples of major stories in favour of the public interest that had been broken by commercial journalists, and used those as an example of why the public should continue to support such journalism, DESPITE the fact that industry leaders had dropped the ball so significantly on keeping up with changing technologies and DESPITE the fact that the very show he hosted highlighted so many examples of not just journalists making errors, but deliberately perverting information to suit an alternative agenda or political narrative.

The problem is, while many journalists may still see themselves as the agents of truth and information for the benefit of the general public, far too many are clearly happy to simply be content producers. So many ‘journalists’ are writing content that ranges from the generic, to the mediocre, to the cheaply provocative, and seem quite happy to support one sided political narratives regardless of whether or not it is in the public interest. I feel no need to qualify or support that statement, as it seems to be an open topic of discussion even among those media outlets themselves! Maybe that’s the requirement of the job, churn out a few pieces of page filler in the hope of getting to do one or two really good investigative pieces every so often. But what potential harm do those filler pieces do?

It’s in this context that I draw your attention to a recent article by Sydney Morning Herald Education Reporter, Amy McNeilage: http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/good-teachers-trump-small-classes-oecd-adviser-20130705-2phga.html

This article refers to a presentation from Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary-General. This presentation was made at Sydney University at 4:30pm on Friday, 5 July, and was broadly on the topic of PISA results and what Australia could learn from those results in the national effort to ‘have one of the top 5 performing education systems in the world’.

The reason I’m focusing on this particular article is because I also attended the same presentation, and can give a fairly thorough explanation of how Ms. McNeilage’s reporting of the event is not an appropriate representation of what Dr. Schleicher had to say. I warn you that some of this argument has to do in part with subtleties of language, and while some points may seem at first to be a little petty, consider that the subtleties of using language to represent events make up a significant portion of the job a journalist is expected to perform, so there is little excuse for a journalist, or their sub-editor, to get it wrong.

My particular issue with Ms. McNeilage’s reporting has to do with Australia’s journalistic code of ethics, which states:

“1.  Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts.  Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.  Do your utmost  to give a fair opportunity for reply.” http://www.alliance.org.au/code-of-ethics.html

Just pay particular attention to that second sentence, particularly the idea of giving ‘distorting emphasis’, as we delve into Ms. McNeilages article, starting with the headline and opening three paragraphs:

“Good teachers trump small classes: OECD adviser

Australian children could be achieving the same stellar results in international testing as those from Korea and Finland within a generation if educators addressed equity challenges, boosted teacher quality and strengthened discipline, a world-leading education expert said.

 Education policy adviser to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Andreas Schleicher said too much money had been spent reducing class sizes, instead of boosting teacher performance.

 ”If you have to make a choice between a great teacher and a small class, go for the great teacher,” he said. ”Australia has put its bets very much the other way around over the past decade.”

If you read those passages you might be forgiven for thinking that over the past decade Australia had flushed its educational prosperity away by investing in small class sizes while failing to pursue ‘teacher quality’. McNeilage’s use of a phrase like “too much money” (note that it’s not presented as a quote in the article) is a fairly emotive phrase that suggests waste or excess, when in fact what Dr. Schleicher actually did was present a comparison of the spending patterns of educational systems around the world and highlighted the fact that Korea and Finland, two well-known top performing  educational systems, had invested significantly more money into the ongoing professional development of their teaching staff as a priority over maintaining low class sizes.

What Ms. McNeilage also failed to do was look into the actual details of the data. While Korea and Finland had indeed focussed their attention on teacher development over class sizes, classes in Finland have an average number of less than 20 students in both primary and lower secondary school compared to Australia’s average of low to mid-twenties, which was marginally higher than the OECD average. This can been seen on the OECD education page here http://oecdeducationtoday.blogspot.com.au/2012/12/how-does-class-size-vary-around-world.html

Korea, the academic world leader in the last round of PISA assessments, has an average class size of mid to high-twenties for primary school and mid-thirties for lower secondary school, however here is where a few minor ‘cultural factors’ might come into play. Ms McNeilage reports it as Australian students not being as “well-disciplined as other high performing countries”, but provided no contextual detail. For example, Korean schools still have issues with corporal punishment which was only banned in Korea in 2010 (after the last round of PISA results, meaning that Korea’s world-leading results were achieved under a regime that still allowed caning), and such behaviour still needs to be policed in many private institutions. Dr. Schleicher did make it clear that he believed that cultural factors were not responsible for the majority of variables between education systems and countries,  however he did not say they should be entirely discounted.

I acknowledge that there is no clear solution here as to what would be the more effective strategy for an education system to follow. But that is the whole point, and in reporting the content of the presentation, Ms. McNeilage appears to be giving a “distorting emphasis” to the effect of class sizes in her reporting without a) accurately representing what Dr. Schelcher actually said on the issue, or b) giving a more rounded picture of the issue and instead making it seem quite a cut-and-dried solution. I’ll get onto why I think this matters later.

Ms. McNeilage goes on to report Dr. Schleichers’ comments about inequity in our education system and puts his comments in the context of the ‘Gonski’ funding reforms and recent legislation. The article comments on an apparent “lack of transparency” in how school funding is spent, but once again, Ms. McNeilage leaves out some fairly telling statements and points of comparison made in the presentation.

Dr. Schleicher also made the following points, with comparative data to support each statement:

  • Australia’s education system has high levels of achievement but also has large disparities in socioeconomic indicators
  • All over the world, improvements in equitable spending on education correlated with improved academic performance
  • Despite significantly greater socioeconomic advantage, private school students in Australia did not achieve any better than public school students.
  • Around the world, highly stratified education systems correlated with poor performance.

Instead of picking up on any of these issues of school funding or the divisions within our school system, the article instead goes on to report about NAPLAN, and here’s where a tendency to provide a ‘distorting emphasis’ risks becoming an outright misrepresentation of the facts.

Ms. McNeilage reports the following:

Mr Schleicher explained that, to address the performance disparity within Australian schools, teachers needed to be able to identify struggling students early. That, he said, was where NAPLAN testing should help.

 ”I think NAPLAN has really brought into the system a more rigorous approach to quality assurance.”

 He said Australia’s performance could lift in the coming years as the impact of NAPLAN began to filter through.

 The line taken as a direct quote from Dr. Shleicher was said in the context of discussing levels of accountability within educational systems. At no point did he connect specific teaching practices or the need to ‘identify struggling students early’ to Australia’s NAPLAN agenda, nor did he make any statement to the effect that NAPLAN would have future positive effects on the overall educational achievements of Australian students. He did, throughout his presentation, make several statements about standardised tests in Australia and some of their positive impacts, but Ms. McNeilage seems to have inserted some editorialising of her own on this point in order to provide a more positive picture of NAPLAN while ignoring state-based standardised exams such as the HSC in NSW (or the School Certificate, which still existed during the last round of PISA assessments informing the data on display). If someone with a recording of the event wants to prove me wrong, I’ll happily correct that last statement, but once again my point is that the reporting of the presentation seems to provide a very black and white narrative of “NAPLAN good” rather than addressing the complexity of the issue that Dr. Schleicher was outlining. That she has chosen to do so at a time when NAPLAN tests have been under fire from parents and teachers seems to provide motive for her distorted representation, but this is purely speculation. All I can say for certain is that the SMH article suggests that Dr. Schleicher’s presentation was singularly positive about NAPLAN and its effects, when the truth is more that he highlighted many and complex variables that may affect educational performance (and mentioned NAPLAN by name only a couple of times in a 90 minute presentation & question time).

I could go on with a further breakdown of the article, but I risk getting away from my original point, which is the quality of reporting and whether or not it deserves our financial support.

In this article, the reporter has clearly adopted a particular perspective on two key issues, class sizes and NAPLAN. Class sizes are immaterial, and NAPLAN is good. In both cases she has misrepresented the full picture of what Dr. Schleicher was saying, and in both cases her misrepresentation seems to be generally in line with the narrative produced by those of right-wing political persuasions. The article leaves out some fairly damning comments by Dr. Schleicher which would seem to fly in the face of that political narrative, particularly his statements that private schools offer no academic advantage, and that Australian teachers, while paid slightly higher than OECD average, also spend significantly more time in front of students than those in higher performing countries (who also, as a general rule, pay their teachers even better, as well!)

The issue of education is complex, and  Dr. Schleicher’s presentation only served to highlight the many variables that make it so complex, but to boil down such a message into fairly simplistic and one sided arguments would seem to be a disservice to the Australian public who do not get access to such information and rely on the media to present a more rounded picture. An article such as this only reinforces incorrect notions and promotes the false idea that such an issue can be viewed in black-and-white terms.

To be fair to Ms. McNeilage for a moment, it is possible that her article was significantly edited to suit a political narrative by someone above her pay grade, and that she had indeed written a more comprehensive piece. Indeed, my purpose here is not to target her personally, but the article that ended up printed under her name. It is also worth noting, as a colleague of mine pointed out, that this young reporter has only just completed a 12 month internship with the SMH and would therefore only be a couple of months into an independent journalistic career. In that context, such sloppy reporting may well be more representative of the culture and practices of the SMH, though I don’t know that such an acknowledgement actually makes things any better.

Regardless of who is responsible, reporting like this is NOT something I feel happy to support financially. The public & political narrative surrounding issues like Education is clouded enough without poor and biased reporting making it even harder to see the truth of an issue.

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2 Comments

Filed under Reflections and Musings

2 responses to “Incompetent or Unethical? Opposing biased reporting on Education.

  1. Pingback: Episode #001 – July 2013 | Teachers' Education Review

  2. Marilyn Hadfield

    A good and thorough reading of the report – very rate!

    And I wish that other aspects would also be investigated e.g. Korean students spend as much as 14 hours at school (8 a to 10.30 pm – an hour for lunch an hour for dinner and ten minutes between periods). Is this one of the more important factors?? How would Australian parents and students manage this??

    My newly arrived young people from Korea (and China) tell e that this is one of the reasons their family migrated. What about quality of life ? An balanced lifestyle? A proper all round education!?

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