Federal Dateline

Gaining a Perspective on Education News

by Bruce Hunter

AASA recently has been interested in learning how the public hears about education and what’s happening in schools today. From our perspective much of the news about education is negative. In fact, good news seems almost nonexistent.

We recently decided to test these impressions and develop a plan to deal with the results, whatever they were.

Somewhat to our surprise, most people (72 percent) say they saw education in the news. Based on the four focus groups we conducted that included this topic, education news is not conscious to everyone. Nonparents report getting education news almost accidentally, that is they do not always notice such stories.

Where did folks get their news? Newspapers (46%) and television (38%) rank first and second with radio (7%) and the Internet (6 %) a distant third and fourth. When we asked this question in 1998, the Internet was the source of education news for only 1 percent of the public. We should all keep our eye on the Internet because that constitutes considerable growth as a news source in the last five years.

When we asked whether local or national news outlets were the primary source of education news, the answer was overwhelmingly local. For example, 86 percent of the respondents who cited newspapers as the source of the latest education story they saw said they saw the story in a local newspaper. And 71 percent of those citing television as the source of their most recent education news spotted the story on a local news program. The message is clear: Work with your local newspaper and television station if there is one in your area.

Perspective Matters

Unfortunately, 60 percent of those polled saw the stories as negative with 34 percent viewing the news as positive. It is not clear that the positive and negative percentages would be different for any topic, but the public perception is that education news is negative.

One interesting finding to emerge in our focus groups was that not all news the public thinks of as negative would be considered negative by school leaders. For example, a news story about the amount and impact of potential or actual budget cuts by state legislatures was considered negative by the public, but many school leaders want that story out there among the public. So the positive and negative percentages may be misleading on some stories. School leaders view such a story as positive if the public response to the story leads to the restoration of the budget cutbacks.

All of this leads to the conclusion that advocacy for public education has to be well organized and thoughtfully planned if we are to reach the 70 percent or more of adults who do not have a child in school, in addition to parents. Successful advocacy for public schools must start with providing good information on a regular basis to local newspaper and television stations and effective use of the Internet through the school district and individual school websites.

Ongoing advocacy through news about local schools is important because of our focus group finding that nonparents get their education news incidentally or accidentally. Because we cannot count on nonparents to be looking for stories, our message has to be loud, clear and consistent so whenever parents or nonparents find education news, they get the message of advocacy for public education.

Judging Schools

We conducted the focus groups in July and the polling in August, about the time when back-to-school news is at its peak. We will have to poll later in the year to see whether the percentages of people noticing education news change and to see if the positive vs. negative percentages hold.

In August, what people told us they noticed were stories about test scores (27%) and budget difficulties (10%). No other topic of education news was noticed by more than 6 percent. We were surprised that only test scores and funding had much recognition because many other types of back-to-school stories focused on local topics such as new or renovated schools or new teachers and principals.

The news about test scores was interesting because in 1998 we did a poll of public school parents in which we asked them how they judged their child’s school. We found that test scores were important to only 17 percent of parents. On the other hand, how happy their child was with their school was very important to 61 percent of parents.

The message may be that parents notice test scores, but they are not as important in judging a school. However, for the more than 70 percent of adults who do not have a child in school the reported test scores may be more important.

Education news needs further study, and AASA is going to work on that over the coming year. We will be able to provide some updates on this front as the year progresses.

Bruce Hunter is an associate executive director of public policy at AASA. E-mail: bhunter@aasa.org