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Radical Eyes for Equity: From Stereotypes to Policy: Understanding the Relationship Between Media and Education

This is a brief overview of the following article:

Edling, S. (2015). Between curriculum complexity and stereotypes: Exploring stereotypes of teachers and education in media as a question of structural violenceJournal of Curriculum Studies, 47(3), 399-415.

For many years I have been raising concerns about the use of “crisis” rhetoric around education [1], specifically challenging the default use of “crisis” and “miracle” in mainstream media.

The central role of “crisis” rhetoric in the accountability era of education reform has been characterized as a “manufactured” [2] crisis.

The current subset of education reform, the “science of reading” (SOR) movement, fits into the same patterns of the broader accountability era of education reform, I have argued.

Here, I am using Edling excellent work on the relationship between mainstream media and education to reinforce the claims that SOR as a reform movement is both mainstream accountability reform and essentially conservative.

I want this overview to be accessible, but I also highly recommend reading the piece in it entirety (click title above for access).

Edling’s first sentence establishes: “What is of particular interest in this paper is how professional teachers repeatedly, although not always, seem to be pictured in a de-contextualized and non-relational manner by actors outside education, and especially how the media often fails to take educational complexity and practice into account.”

Media representations of education, then, are often overly simplistic. Note that a key aspect of the SOR movement [3] is the claim that reading science is simple (the simple view of reading) and settled, effectively erasing the complexity of reading science and of reading instruction.

Edling’s explanation about the relationship between media and education also describes well the story of reading found in the SOR movement:

Newspapers do not just write about education, they also represent to their readers what education is ‘about’ (p. 392, see also McLure, 2003; Thomas, 2004). Similarly, Fairclough (1995) stresses that the media has the power: ‘to shape governments and parties … influence knowledge, beliefs, values, social relations, social identities’ (p. 2). From this way of reasoning, the media can be seen as an important power source for the construction of certain ideologies that can either exclude or include (Fairclough, 1995, p. 14), depending on how they are positioned and what sets the agenda for what is to be framed as true or false in society (cf. Johnson-Cartee, 2005).

There is no doubt that critical analyses of education in general are necessary in order to improve quality. Education is here understood as a broad concept that includes institutions such as (pre)schools, teacher education and the ideas behind them (cf. Sa ̈fstro ̈m & Ekerwald, 2012). However, what is highlighted here is not criticism of the media itself, but how the media’s recurring simplifications and often negative images of education and teachers are understood and how they might affect people who are seen or define themselves as teachers. Moreover, teachers in teacher education and teachers at (pre)schools are dialectically interconnected, in that teacher education aims to educate teachers, who are capable of acting as professionals in various educational positions—not the least in (pre) schools. For that reason, the term teacher includes teachers at (pre) schools and teacher education (cf. Hallse ́n, 2013).

In the paper, four interrelated propensities are problematized concerning the media’s portrayals of teachers and education:

  •  Viewing education as being in more or less permanent crisis
  •  Taking the role as a spokesperson for teachers and on behalf of the field of education
  •  Excluding the knowledge and experiences of teacher(s), educators and/or educational researchers in the public press
  •  Simplifying the notion of being a good teacher through stereotypes and dualistic frameworks that overlook task and relational complexity.

Between curriculum complexity and stereotypes

The SOR movement is yet another reading crisis in a long line of similar reading crises reaching back to the 1940s. Also the SOR movement is being driven by journalists who are identified as literacy experts, and those journalists have repeatedly characterized teachers as ill-equipped to teach reading because the entire field of teacher education has failed those teachers.

As the fourth bullet point above notes, as well, the SOR movement depends on simplistic characterizations of balanced literacy and reading programs as well as cartoonish caricatures of “three cueing” and “guessing” as pervasive failures of reading instruction across the entire US.

Edling details next “educational crisis discourse”:

Although crisis in the media is generally pictured as having specific causes that can be limited to a certain time in history (Wiklund, 2006), research indicates that the notion of educational crisis has been used as a more or less constant image ever since the 1950s and 1960s, and can be associated with the progressive school vs. conservative school problematic…. [C]risis is something that originates in the clash between different world views. As it is reasonable to assume that different world views will exist as long as there are humans, it is equally reasonable to assume that crises—including educational crises—will too.

The repetition of the word crisis is closely related to ideas that teachers and teacher education are incapable of dealing with education in a proper way. Crisis is used as a blanket to cover the field of education and, as in a situation of social crisis, groups outside education feel the need to step in and take control. The phenomenon can be described as an outside-in vs. an inside-out professionalism (cf. Stanley & Stonach, 2013). It is argued that the way in which people from the outside have assumed the right to define what is good and bad education has created a systematic disbelief in teachers in ways that have reduced their professional autonomy (Ball, 2011; Beach & Bagley, 2012; Krantz, 2009; Lauder, Brown, & Halsey, 2009).

Other researchers point to how the media refers to teacher education and teachers as lacking the necessary qualities and blames them for the crisis in school without taking the purposes and contexts of education into account (cf. Cochran-Smith & Fries, 2008; MacLure, 2003; Thomas, 2004; Warburton & Saunders, 1996).

Between curriculum complexity and stereotypes

The SOR movement has manufactured a reading crisis (mostly from misrepresenting NAEP data) and then placing soft or indirect blame on reading teachers and direct blame on teacher educators.

Edling notes that blame for educational crises do vary across countries (Sweden, for example, portrays teachers as victims of the crisis as well as the authorities who can overcome that crisis, contrary to the SOR story of teacher blaming). However, Edling adds that in most crisis discourse about education “teacher educator(s) and educational researchers were degraded and silenced,” similar to the current SOR movement.

Broadly, Edling emphasizes “a tendency to repeatedly fixate the debate on education in a dualistic and simplified image that omits the task and relational complexity,” resulting in “[s]tructural violence”:

Structural violence is generated through social practice and law, and hence becomes closely entwined in a specific culture and the norms that govern it, which implies that people in general, including members of group who suffers from their consequences, risks upholding the norms in their every-day actions since the norms are taken for granted as true. From this sense, people or groups of people, such as teachers, are not neutral or simply passive victims but partakers in the weaving of social structures. Violence is produced as a recurring beat through endorsed ideals, speech, gestures, choice of focus and solutions to world problems. The violence that becomes materialized as a consequence of these structures does not necessarily have to do with ill-will, as in deliberately wanting to do harm. On the contrary, what characterizes these acts is that they appear to be normal, harmless and sometimes have the ambition to do good, whereas in reality, they make life difficult for certain groups of people (cf. Cudd, 2006, p. 127, Epp & Watkinsson, 1997, p. 6).

Between curriculum complexity and stereotypes

Here is a key point: Journalists and teachers do not need to be bad actors for the media stories and resulting consequences to be bad actions. Hanford and other journalists as well as elected officials likely see their work as good work even as their messaging and policy endorsements are oversimplified, misguided, and harmful (to teachers and students).

This helps explain why Hanford and other journalists have teacher support:

She argues that our identity is not just shaped by how we see ourselves, but also through the way others see us, and that seeing is often coloured by stereotypes and norms (Young, 1990, p. 46–47). In accordance with the associative model, teachers can choose to see themselves as part of the professional group of teachers, which research describes as complex and multidimensional. At the same time, the group affinity model helps to illuminate how teachers’ identity as a group is shaped from the outside based on stereotyped and simplified images of teachers and educational researchers. Hence, people can identify themselves as members of the group known as ‘teacher professionals’ that is associated with certain practices. At the same time, they may have to face contrasting images of a teacher created by the media.

Between curriculum complexity and stereotypes

Parallel to the role of NAEP in the media-manufactured reading crisis, the role of standardized tests is acknowledged by Edling: “In a sense, one could argue that reports such as TIMMS and PISA have presented evidence of the failure of education in many countries, which might suggest that the negative criticism of teachers and education is justified. The results in the reports have been used to motivate several reforms focusing on measurability, accountability and control.”

Ultimately the stories perpetuated by media are stereotypes: “Once people have become accustomed to stereotypical thinking, they may not be able to see individuals or situations for what they are. Accordingly, a problem with stereotypes is that they are used to judge and pigeonhole people, without really taking into account context and unique individuals.”

The crisis story of reading in SOR is a simplistic story of caricature about teachers, teacher educators, balanced literacy, and reading programs. the complexity of the real world of teaching and learning reading are erased. As Edling notes:

Parallel with the recurring waves of crisis that wash over the field of edu- cation and the recurring stereotyped images of teachers, the curriculum complexity of the purposes and practices of education generally goes unnoticed in the media debate on education. What is forgotten is that teachers are not free to do as they want, even though their profession often allows them some kind of freedom to judge. Indeed, as the teaching profession is politically defined, it is obliged to pay attention to a multitude of different policies (Ball et al., 2012) and curriculum purposes (Hopmann, 2007). In a sense, it is possible to assert that teaching in many countries have come to be restricted to a standard and accountability movement; and hence, rendered more mechanical and simplified than before—very much following the logic presented in media (cf. Apple, 2011; Berliner, 2013).

Between curriculum complexity and stereotypes

Consequently, Edling explains: “Rather than beginning the discussion with the various demands that are embedded in teachers’ professional assignments, there are tendencies within the media to portray the good teacher as someone who is capable of efficiently transferring knowledge to pupils, where the epistemology of knowledge stems from science rendering it equal with truth and fact about a world (Wiklund, 2006, p. 177).”

The weaponizing of “science” in the SOR movement, in fact, has begun to creep broader into the science of learning, the science of writing, and the science of math.

The great paradox of crisis rhetoric in media coverage of education is it insures failure:

The implication is that whatever they do, they will end up as failures in the sense of being unable to embrace the multitude of requirements at the same time. Hence, drawing on the task and relational complexity of teachers’ work, one might ask whether it is possible to be an impeccable teacher in the relational midst of education if a multitude of educational purposes and relational inconsistencies have to be taken into account. If it is not, perhaps there is a point in adhering to more nuanced judgements of teachers’ quality in accordance with curriculum content, pur- poses and the ways in which relations are played out in educational spaces.

Between curriculum complexity and stereotypes

Edling warns: “[T]he power of the media and the damaging consequences of repeatedly judging groups of people through a grid of stereo- types need nevertheless to be taken seriously,” concluding:

Consequently, when the media systematically define teachers as working in a field of crisis and need exterior help to sort things out, it automatically excludes the profes- sional knowledge and experiences of teachers and educational researchers and their task and relational complexity, which are already present in their day-to-day work, from the debate.

In the light of these tendencies, research on structural violence helps to remind us that: (a) teachers are unwillingly forced into a paradoxical (in)visibility (even in Sweden, where it is pointed out that their voices need to be heard), (b) they are squeezed in-between two pressuring external demands, namely the complexities in their professional assignment that are politically steered and stereotypes of the good and bad teacher produced by, in this case, the media, (c) they risk wasting time and energy on addressing prejudices that have nothing to do with the specific work they are expected to do, and d) the logic of binary stereotypes is a power issue that brands teachers into a position of permanent failure.

Between curriculum complexity and stereotypes

While Edling is writing about media coverage of education in general, her examination matches exactly how the SOR movement works as well as how that movement is grounded in misinformation to the detriment of teachers, students, and democracy.

[1] Thomas, P.L. (2015). Ignored under Obama: Word magic, crisis discourse, and utopian expectations. In P. R. Carr & B. J. Porfilio (Eds.), The phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope (still) audaciously trump neoliberalism? (pp. 45-68). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

[2] Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1997). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. Longman.

[3] See an overview of the story about reading now commonplace in media, grounded in Emily Hanford’s journalism, specifically her article “Hard Words.”


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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...