Monday, April 14, 2008

Framing Teachers: No Child Left Behind, the media, and teachers and teaching

Note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Midwestern Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL, 2008

As an urban teacher educator who is very interested in how education policy shapes the lived experiences of students and teachers in schools, the above moments intrigued me. After all, it’s been standard practice for some time now to employ lobbyists to get one’s interests supported in government. In the public sphere, we call it advertising (sometimes pandering), but the effect can often be the same. What I found so interesting about this was the fact that it leads me to wonder what, if anything, the public can believe in the media. For years now, conservatives have been critiquing the media in the United States for what they perceive to be a liberal bias. Liberals have shot back that the media, is in fact not liberal, but under the thumb of conservative pundits. And so it goes. While it might be nice to engage with this discussion, I have a different goal: to explore how the media frames No Child Left Behind.

Let me be clear. I am not a scholar in media studies. I am a teacher educator who is deeply committed to the promise of public education. Given the longstanding ambivalent relationship that the polity has with its public schools, investigating the political discourse surrounding NCLB has been of great interest to me. Debates over what schools should teach and to what end serve as a backdrop for much of the educational reform efforts we have seen, for a large part of the history of public education in the United States. Further, the pressure for public schools to perform for political and economic reasons have had an impact. From the first news that the Soviet Union won the space race and the initial approval of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to its latest reauthorization as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), public education has been viewed as the means to effect change (moral, social, cultural, and economic) in all of society in the United States even though the schools themselves are not independent of the communities and society they serve. And, as Arthur Lippman pointed out so long ago people can be manipulated in multiple ways to hold certain beliefs about the state of the nation, and the MSM plays a role in this.

When I poll my undergraduate teacher education students at the beginning of each semester to explore what they believe to be true about teaching, learning, and public schools, they express a number of beliefs about public schools that are firmly rooted in the American psyche: parents don’t care, the schools are failing students, teachers are lazy, teachers don’t care, progressive education is too soft, we need to go back to basics, money to fund schools isn’t important, understanding education theory isn’t as important as practical experience, etc. The list goes on. When I prod further to explore the origins of these beliefs, many students reference what we expect; they just know it, it was their personal experience, their parents told them, they have read/heard about it in the media, and most recently, because “we have NCLB.” It is important to note that the course in which I informally poll my undergraduate students is a required course they must complete BEFORE they apply to the teachers education program at the university at which I teach. And yet, their list is eerily similar to the one that Shaker & Heilman (2004) note has become the accepted view of public education today. Thus, while the above anecdote cannot and should not serve as a statement of truth about college students’ beliefs regarding the public schools, it does serve, on a number of levels, as the inspiration for this paper because it reflects the larger trends regarding perceptions of education.

If one were to take a closer look at the lists above, much of what is there reflects deeper held ideas, beliefs, and values that Americans express and hold about the purposes and functions of the public schools. In fact, many of these deep-held beliefs serve to organize people’s understandings about the world around them. This is what George Lakoff talked about in his work on metaphor, politics, and language. Lakoff illustrates how two contradictory metaphors, the strict parent and nurturant parent, can be utilized to explain the differing political worldviews of conservatives and liberals, and that these metaphors are intricately tied to the process of framing. At the same time, it is inappropriate to consider the media an independent entity that simply reports the news. Lippman (1922; 1997) wrote extensively during his lifetime on the ways in which the elite are able to harness venues like the mass media to shape the perceptions of the public. Herman & Chomsky (1985), building upon the notion of the “manufacture of consent” (e.g., the media serves to entertain, inform, and manipulate viewers based upon the interests of the powerful and the elite, so that viewers’ beliefs and values are shaped by the media), remind the reader that media outlets, after all, are not nonprofit organizations that function simply to serve the public good. Indeed, media outlets are businesses. Because they are subject to the control of owners, the market, and profit margins, they are not just in the business of reporting the news; they are also in the business of producing the news. As evidenced by the GAO report and later news reports about the Department of Education (ED) and its role in paying Armstrong Williams, a prominent African American commentator to tout NCLB when asked to guest on any news program or print outlet, what the public is exposed to is, in fact, shaped by very explicit goals. The choice of visual imagery (e.g., photos, graphics, advertising, etc.) indeed, whether the article itself is cover story, front page, above-the-fold news, is not randomly chosen. Decisions are made to sell papers, and more importantly, to win supporters.

Capturing the imagination of the polity

Historically, the use of pictures on the covers of magazines and front pages of newspapers has served as a means to entice people to buy, but also to function as a means of knowledge production by tapping into people’s emotions. My father collected certain issues of Life Magazine and was crushed when he discovered they were destroyed by water damage in the basement of my childhood home. After my grandmother’s death, my mother and I found several newspapers from the day President Kennedy was assassinated. For my Irish Catholic grandmother it was a horrible day (she mourned the loss of the first Irish Catholic President of the US even though she abhorred his politics). Each of us probably has a similar story to share.

While the examples above derive from my own family narrative, there are other examples that derive from a more collective national narrative. Take for instance the iconic images of the “Little Red Schoolhouse” or the one-room schol house in the historical narrative of the United States. In 1921 a progressive school named the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School was founded. Begun as a progressive school, it persists today, in spite of the pressures of NCLB. Numerous other schools and a national curriculum share the same name. In contrast, the one-roomed schoolhouse is much more a rarity today. But what makes the notion of the one-roomed schoolhouse so iconic is the fact that the vision endures in spite of so many changes in society (transportation, population explosions, reform efforts, etc. The image of the little red school house or the one-room school house exists to this day because it harkens back to what people think of as being a simpler, less violent, more stable life. These images are so much part of US popular culture that one can find popular Clip Art capturing the iconic essence. Finally, the ED has also employed this imagery as part of the façade surrounding its entrance, including the words No Child Left Behind emblazened above the entryway.

Teachers unions

In the case of framing the state of public education, there are similar images available in the NYT and Time. And, some of these images literally leap from the papers and into larger than life icons because they can communicate on multiple levels in multiple ways (Mitchell & Weber, 1995). While recently attending the 2008 American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting in New York City, a colleague asked me if I had seen a 70 foot billboard that was located across the street (see Figure 5). This billboard was a replica of a full-page add taken out in the NYT by the Center for Union Facts (see Figure 6) and part of a recently launched campaign to draw attention to incompetent teachers and the unions that supposedy protect them. Other ads like this one from the NYT and other media outlets had been brought to my attention by my graduate students. Particularly in the last few weeks. On the billboard and in the ad was a picture of an apple with a bite taken out of it with a worm sticking out. The text above the apple read, “Vote for the WORST unionized TEACHERS (who can’t be fired)” (font size, etc., approximated). While standing in front of the billboard, my colleague and I watched two women stop to read the text. As they walked away, one of them laughed, and said “How funny is that! There really are so many bad teachers.” Another person walking by said, “You can read that because of a teacher.”

The irony that such a billboard was positioned outside an educational conference was not lost on me. Nor was the use of the iconic apple, often associated with teachers. The fact that there was a worm sticking out of a spot where a person had taken a bite was a great example of visual imagery. But what makes this billboard and the NYT ad important to this discussion is that the women I mentioned completed missed or overlooked the word “unionized” on the billboard. In fact, when one looks at the billboard and the NYT ad, the term “unionized” is in a font size much smaller and finer text than the rest of the text. If one were to glance, one might mistakenly read vote for the worst teachers. When exporing the background of this ad at, there is no mention of from where their support comes other than a mention of the Center on Union Facts. Richard Berman, a Washington, DC lobbyist who has worked for the tobacco industry and other large-scale political interests for years founded the Center on Union Facts. This information is not immediately available to the public, unless one digs much deeper.

In addition to their general critique of teachers unions, the Center has also launched attacks on particular communities, including Newark, NJ, a high-needs district with which my home university partners. Upon exploring the website, the reader learns that they (the designers of the site) are not against teachers; they are against unions, union corruption, and union abuse. However, this message may not seem clear to the viewer of the ad. Indeed, by asking people to vote for the worst teachers, the focus is off any role the unions may or may not play in teacher employment. One’s attention is drawn to the teachers themselves. No mention is made of the conditions in which teachers work, particularly those who work in urban communities. And, these are the teachers whom are the focus of the Center for Union Facts attack. As a result, the critique of a collective, in this case teachers unions is reduced to an attack on individual teachers themselves.

The Labor Movement in the US itself has long been viewed in complex ways. On the one hand, its history of fighting for the rights of workers in terms of a living wage, safe work conditions, and the right to organize is well-known among some circles. In addition, unions also were a site of educational and intellectual development among the working class (Aronowitz & Giroux, 2004). This is not necessarily the image of unions, teachers unions in particular, the media has focused on, historically or today. A second ad by framed teachers unions as bullies in schools. The photo is that of a young, blue-eyed, white boy with light brown hair. He is hung by the back of his coat over a coat hook hung on a brick wall. The image draws upon many-an-adults’ memories of the kid who was always bullied: hung up on hooks, shoved in lockers, lunch money or homework stolen. Instead of the bully being the bigger kid, however, the bully this ad points to is the teachers union. The text above the photo reads, “The Biggest Bully in Schools?” Below, it reads, “Teacher Unions.” The subtext reads, “Teacher unions bully principals into keeping bad teachers, scare politicians who support school reform, and block efforts to pay great teachers higher pay. It’s time to stand up to the bully.”

Indeed, groups like the Education Policy Institute (, and others have presented teachers unions as the primary obstacle to reforming education. Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, blamed the unions for the problems in public education in February of 2007 at an invited talk at a conference on technology and education w. Rod Paige’s new book, The War Against Hope is subtitled How Teachers’ Unions Hurt Children, Hinder Teachers, and Endanger Public Education (2007). To present teachers’ unions as bullies, not only ignores the long standing struggles for access, equity, and justice in which the unions have participated; it also frames them as an obstacle to justice. In doing so, the media frames school reform (and justice) as a process that must occur outside the realm of teachers and unions. They cannot be trusted to do what is just and right. They must be told what to do because if left to their own devices, they will cut a swath of destruction through their students, because they are lazy, incompetent, abusive, and above all, a threat to the American public.

The coverage of former Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s claim that the National Education Association (NEA) was a terrorist group is a case in point. On Tuesday, February 24, 2004, several US media outlets carried the story that Secretary of Education Roderick Paige called the National Education Association “a terrorist organization” the day before. The next day, Secretary Paige issued a written apology:

"It was an inappropriate choice of words to describe the obstructionist scare tactics the NEA’s Washington lobbyists have employed against No Child Left Behind’s historic educational reforms. I also said, as I have repeatedly, that our nation’s teachers, who have dedicated their lives to service in the classroom, are the real soldiers of democracy, whereas the NEA’s high-priced Washington lobbyists have made no secret that they will fight against bringing real, rock-solid improvements in the way we educate all our children regardless of skin color, accent or where they live. But, as one who grew up on the receiving end of insensitive remarks, I should have chosen my words better." (Secretary Paige Issues apology for the comment about the NEA, February 23, 2004)

Understandably, teacher organizations (and teachers themselves) responded to these statements with fury and disappointment, given that the Secretary of Education discursively situated the nation’s largest teachers’ association at the heated center of political violence and intimidation. Granted, he was most likely responding to the NEA’s resistance to NCLB, which critics consider to be poorly conceived. However, in claiming his comments were nothing more than a poor choice of words, Paige dismissed the reaction of the NEA and teachers as them being overly sensitive and naïve about the fact that NCLB was good for students and society.

The NYT carried no front-page coverage of this event. The Opinion section hosted five commentaries: two editorials, one op-ed, and two letters to the editor. While all five pieces were scathing of Paige’s remark, the fact that they were located in the Opinion section framed their content as clearly partisan. In contrast, the Education section hosted nine articles that referred to Secretary Paige’s comment. The first was an article reporting on the initial discursive act (2/24/2004). In the first article, Robert Pear, NYT reporter, noted that Paige said the NEA “was like ''a terrorist organization'' because of the way it was resisting many provisions of a school improvement law pushed through Congress by President Bush in 2001”. In further reporting of Paige’s apology, Pear noted that Paige stood by the intent of his words, noted that he (Paige) still had great respect for individual teachers (not teachers as a collective), but that he had merely made a “poor choice of words.” The remainder of the articles addressed calls for removing Secretary Paige from his position. All of these articles focused on the unions, individual teachers, some politicians and their reactions to the statement, not its implications for teachers, their work, or public perception of teachers. There was no mention of knowledge of or reaction to Paige’s comments from the wider public.

On one hand, it’s politics as usual; it is a classical rhetorical device to “demonize” what one perceives to be a threat. In this case, Secretary Paige saw the NEA as a threat to implementing NCLB, and therefore a threat to the Bush Administration’s perception of how to achieve justice for all children in the US (through testing, accountability, and choice). On the other hand, to call the teachers unions in general “bullies,” let alone the nation’s largest teachers’ association a “terrorist organization” politically detracts from the work in which unions and teachers engage, especially when the American public is already concerned about teachers and teaching on the national level. To only report the reactions of those who were victims of the attack, serves to further minimize the initial attack (the terrorist comment) and marginalizes the object of that attack (the NEA in particular, teachers unions in a broader sense, and teachers in general) because it is framed as a localized and individual concern, not one of larger social, political, and economic concerns.

Still other images available in the media play upon assumptions about teachers. Mitchell and Weber (1995) note that there are several images about teachers that permeate US society. One of the most enduring, according to Mitchell and Weber (1995) is that of the prim and proper, white teacher. Both Time and the NYT utilize this image in their discussion of NCLB. Take, for instance, the February 5, 2008 cover of Time (Figure 8), which includes a picture of a young white female teacher with long brown hair, in a blue button down shirt and grey slacks. She is sitting in a student’s desk with an open math book and other books are visible underneath the desk. The phrases “How to make better teachers” and “Who would be the education President?” flank her on either side. The cover story itself, however, includes a photo of a young white male in white shirt, tie, and khakies. His arms are crossed, and he is flanked by blurred shapes of students (see Figure 9). The caption reads, “Ben Van Dyk fled public school to teach at parochial Servite High. Pay isn't great, but there's more support and freedom to teach creatively.” These and other visual images employed by both Time and the NYT present the image of teacher as predominately young, white, and conservative.

Visually, these two images play upon a number of assumptions about teachers and teaching. On the one hand, both publications presents “better teachers” as being young and fresh. The new teachers are presumably better than current teachers who are more experienced, older, resistant ot NCLB, and presumably part of the union. In this respect, NCLB and its focus on the Highly Qualified Teacher frames youth as something that is desirable because new teachers have not yet been jaded by those who would oppose the requirements of NCLB (see Cochran-Smith & Lyttle, 2006; Weiner, 2005).

The text of the article, however, is not about the age, skills, knowledge, or dispositions of talented teachers, nor is it about what challenges teachers face in the classroom. Instead, the focus is on merit pay, and how merit pay might widen the pool of potential teachers, reward teachers, and motivate teachers in general. Analysis reveals that the Time article, like others addressing issues related to the Highly Qualified Teachers Act, prestents recruiting new teachers and learning to teach, as independent of larger social issues. If one is motivated to teach, has the appropriate bachelors degree, and the desire to be successful (evidenced through raising test scores, etc.) then one can become the type of teacher the nation, under the geies of NCLB needs and want. Better teachers don’t need better preparation, more mentoring, a more stable school environment, better leadership, more resources. They simply need more pay to improve. Connecting the preparation of better teachers to issues of pay and the market reflects a wider public belief that if one is better at something, one will be payed more, because one is worth more. Those who do not perform as well, get paid less, or are fired.

My point here is not that teachers don’t deserve better pay, better working conditions, and more respect. Many teachers work second (and third) jobs to make up the difference between their salaries and the cost of living. Many teachers have to wait to go to the bathroom, have to buy their own supplies, and work in classrooms with inadequate desks (too few or the wrong size), lighting, and heating (too little or too much). Too many hard working educators are told they are “just teachers,” not nearly as important as the doctors, lawyers, and engineers who were once their students (some of homw also belong ot unions—which coincidentally, are rarely critiqued. One has to wonder why only teachers unions are subjects of such derision). The point is that the media frames issues related to justice as a matter of economic justice, as if pay, competition, and the market (in the form of merit pay, vouchers and school choice), will level the playing field for students and prepare them for the competitive workplace in a privatized world by incetivizing public education as a competitive workplace for teachers (McCluskey, 2007; Giroux, 2008; Hursh, 2008; Saltman, 2007). Problematic in this view, of course, is the notion that all school districts, students, and communities are the same, and therefore need and get the same.

In fact, those who are critical of NCLB are excluded from the discussion simply because they challenge the prevailing view of those in power (van Dijk, 1998), and therefore are part of the problem, not the solution. In a speech to the Greater Huston Partnership, Secretary Paige reflected this sentiment.

"Now I know…they [teachers unions, those opposed to NCLB] will fight it anyway they can. If those who fear change defeat national reform, then division, exclusion, racism, and callousness win. This is a debate with profound consequences. If we lose this debate, millions of children will be harmed by being excluded, ignored, disrespected, and under-educated, and then sent out into a world for which they are educationally unprepared and uncompetitive. Who among us would wish that on any child?" (12/15/03)

The discourse here constructs anyone who challenges NCLB bitter and unreasonable. They are not doing so based upon reasonable arguments; they are instead irrational obstructionists who don’t believe in the full potential of all children. Those who challenge NCLB don’t believe in equality, they want to divide the nation and maintain the current status quo of inequitable educational experience, no choice and no opportunity. In this sense, they oppose social justice for students, particularly those from poor or minority communities.

It is significant that this view of justice is so able to capitalize upon what is collectively understood as core American values of equality and opportunity (Feinberg, 1999; Parker, 2003; Sehr, 1997). While this discourse has not silenced the dissension of NCLB, it has effectively de-legitimized much of it, relegated that dissension to the margins, and is so powerful that it has been able to shape the common understanding of public education and where fault for its shortcomings lies (with schools and teachers, not with larger institutions, see for instance, Cochran-Smith & Lyttle, 2006). And, the media, in its discussion of NCLB, still frames its policies and practices as a viable means for achieving justice (in the form of economic access) even when it presents a critique of aspects of or actions surrounding the legislation (for instance, budget cuts, issues related to state standards, etc.).

Take for instance, the October 13, 2004 NYT article about the 2004 US Commission of Civil Rights report about the Bush Administration. According to Janofsky, President Bush,
“neither exhibited leadership on pressing civil rights issues nor taken actions that matched his words."

The draft, prepared by the commission staff, accuses Mr. Bush of civil rights failures in education, voting, gay and lesbian issues, affirmative action, housing, environmental justice, racial profiling and hate crimes and concludes by saying, "Failing to build on common ground, the Bush administration missed opportunities to build consensus on key civil rights issues and has instead adopted policies that divide Americans." (2004)
Instead of continuing to report the findings of the Commission and providing details of the report, the article instead focused on the timing of the report’s release (right before the 2004 Presidential elections) and the fact that a number of Republican voting members of the commission were disturbed by its timing. Janofsky reported that, “Republicans were clearly concerned that politics were trumping fairness. Mr. Kirsanow [the Commissioner] said that the draft "evinces a bias and political slant unacceptable from an allegedly nonpartisan agency." Thus, the focus of the article was more about the individual political concerns of members of the Commission and the timing of the report draft (which was well-known given the process) rather than the content of the report. Instead of digging into the deeper, and more complex issues at stake, the NYT here, and in other places simply presented opposing viewpoints (about the timing of the report) rather than addressing or engaging in a critique of the content of the report (and whether, or not, President Bush’s record merited the critique—see, for instance, Gerstl-Pepin, 1998 on “thin” public, and Gerstl-Pepin, 2002).

The above article illustrates how what some might consider the real news (a report detailing President Bush’s record on civil rights, particularly in relation to education), is not nearly as important as the politics surrounding the release of that report. Instead of focusing on the content of the report, the concerns of individual Republican members of the Commission are deemed more news-worthy (and of more value) than the polity’s right to information prior to an election, whether about an administration in general, or public education specifically. Instead, the issues are framed in terms of the idea that “it’s politics as usual” and therefore not news of a serious issue.

The point is that the media, in the images it produces (whether in the form of advertisements, or journalist photos), in what it reports, where and how, frames issues related to NCLB and education in general in ways that do little to transcend what people’s current beliefs about them are. It simply “reports the news.” As a result, the message is left unchecked. In the case of how the media frames issues of justice as it relates to NCLB, the connection is not necessarily a direct one in the MSM. Indeed, as this discussion illustrated, media representations of unions and teachers frame the discussion more in terms of what and who impede justice, not in terms of what was necessary to achieve it.

Conclusions: Imaging unions and teachers as anti-justice

The discussion here is by no means an exhaustive one. It is a first foray into interrogating how the media contributes to the framing of NCLB within the wider community. It is interesting to note that while many people in the United States are suspicious of the main stream media, they still engage in consuming it and repeating what it reports. In this respect, the media then wields a great deal of power in terms of how it frames different issues, particularly those related to NCLB. In his discussion of television and the media, Bourdieu noted,

"The political dangers inherent in the ordinary use of television have to do with the fact that images have peculiar capacity to produce what critics call a reality effect [italics original]. They show things and make people believe in what they show. This power to show is also a power to mobilize. It can give a life to ideas or images, but also to groups. The news, the incidents and accidents of everyday life, can be loaded with political or ethnic significance liable to unleash strong, often negative feeings, such as racism, chauvinism, the fear-hatred of the foreigner or, xenophobia. The simple report, the very fact of reporting, of putting on record as a reporter, always implies a social constructions of reality that can mobilize (or demobilze) individuals or groups." (1996, p. 21)

When the media continues to simply “present” the story or report the facts, it fails to take responsibility for the fact that it is complicit in how people interpret those news reports. People bring assumptions and beliefs to every text with which they engage and the media is no different. At the same time, however, the media also has the power to give to or take away voice from different groups, depending upon how it presents the content of the story.

In the next few months, NCLB will be (hopefully) hotly debated: in homes, in schools, in coffee houses, at the local burger joint, just as it will be in state and federal governments. As the nation moves forward to reauthorize the legislation, hopefully, there will be serious changes beyond the current discussion. Media outlets like the NYT and Time can play a role in not only reporting the news, they can and should engage in a deeper critique about what they consequences might be for schools, teachers, and most importantly, students, as the ED moves forward. If the only changes are to be relieving suburban districts of some of their requirements—what Secretary Spellings has called “triage”—or requiring states to report graduation rates using a set equation, which will undoubtably heighten concerns about a long-standing problem—one that Fine, 1991 and others discussed extensively before the recent reports about dropouts in the the NYT and Time—then little will change in terms of the educational experiences of students. They and their teachers will still be held responsible for achieving their own justice without any real support from those who are making demands for equality, execellence, and justice form them.