Education Reporting on Public Television
Covering Education in the 1980s
Featured Program: Their School? Your School! (1981)
“This program is about your children and about my children,” says New Jersey Education Commissioner Fred Burke standing outside the graffitied doors of Public School #34 in Jersey City. He continues, “Our laws and Constitution require reasonably equitable educational opportunity. Yet the great contrast which exists in school facilities suggests inequality.” Burke asks the viewer to follow him on a tour through some of the school buildings, good and poor, across the state. As the camera pans across a decrepit basement stairway, a narrator asks, “How would your child feel walking through this hallway?” We see that Public School #2 in Jersey City has no cafeteria, no auditorium, and an unusable library. Special education classes are offered in a converted coat closet. The assistant superintendent insists the school is a good one, though he argues that improved facilities would make it better. Downstate in Atlantic City, Burke presents the Westside School Complex as a successful local institution, with extensive facilities and services for both students and community members. Officials in Jersey City believe renovations to their facilities would create an environment that would make parents want to get involved. Summing up, the narrator comments, “We might well say that’s not our town, that’s not our school.” But, she corrects, the consequences of the quality of urban schools “influences our communities whether we like it or not.” The commissioner beseeches residents of New Jersey, “We must somehow regain personal contact with our schools—give them a sense of identity, a sense of importance.” The program, funded by the New Jersey State Department of Education, attempts to build parent and community involvement in the state’s public schools.
In 1981, Secretary of Education T. H. Bell formed the National Commission on Excellence in Education to address “the widespread public perception that something is seriously remiss in our educational system.”55 Responding to the same impulse, public television stations began devoting more airtime to education coverage during the late 1970s and early 1980s. A few started series specifically to inform the public about the schools in their regions. Newsmagazines, which had become a staple of local public television stations, aired similar content. While some reports continued to focus on integration, public television stations increasingly aired series and programs devoted to curriculum, school funding, and special education reforms.
A Nation at Risk: The State of Education in the 1980s
After months of investigation, the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued a report in April 1983 called A Nation at Risk. In famously militaristic language, the report began, “Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world.” Declaring that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,” the report contended, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”56 The authors of the report feared that the test scores, literacy levels, and achievements in math and science of American students would not be sufficient to maintain economic dominance over countries like Germany and Japan.57 The report turned public focus from equality in education toward standards, teacher competencies, and excellence.58 Popular reformist books such as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s High School: A Report on Secondary Education (1983) by Ernst L. Boyer, A Place Called School: Prospects for the Future (1984), and Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma for the American High School (1984) by Theodore R. Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, reinforced the notion that America’s schools were not living up to their potential.59
Although the Commission advocated an increased federal role in the nation’s educational institutions, President Reagan was elected on a platform of cutting federal spending, including abolishing the U.S. Department of Education that had been established under his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. Instead, Reagan wished states and towns to solve the problems presented in A Nation at Risk.60 This presidential pressure accelerated the process of schools implementing testing programs to measure student learning that had started in the mid-1970s. After the report, two-thirds of states launched new testing regimes and a similar number began requiring teachers to pass exams before entering the classroom.61 As journalist Mary Ellen Schoonmaker commented, “[E]very state that didn’t have its own task force or study of education already in the works had to get one going in a hurry.”62
Covering the Crisis: Education Reporting in the 1980s
The growing focus on education in most states prompted the media to increase coverage of educational issues. Many contemporary commentators, however, noted the poor quality of this coverage in both print journalism and on television. E. Patrick McQuaid, writing in The Phi Delta Kappan, noted that after the publication of A Nation at Risk, “every entry-level graduate of journalism school who would ordinarily have been pounding out obits was assigned to the education beat.”63 Once these green journalists showed any promise, they would be promoted to other desks.64 When education stories did make the front page, they mostly appeared each year in September with the flavor of “youth at risk” sensationalism.65
George R. Kaplan, a frequent media commentator on education policy, pointed out one shining exception to this slurry of mediocre coverage. This was John Merrow, in Kaplan’s words, “the Michael Jordan of electronic media coverage of education.”66 After graduating with a doctorate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1973, John Merrow began his broadcast journalism career at NPR. In 1975, he produced a report for the National Institute of Education on the competency movement, an early 1970s reformist trend that required teachers to demonstrate aptitude in specific “competencies.”67 In 1984, Merrow produced a seven-part series on KTCA in Saint Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota, called Your Children, Our Children, which PBS distributed nationally. Merrow joined The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in 1985, where he produced more than 100 reports on education.
Merrow’s work distinguished itself through, among other things, his commitment to multipart stories.68 For example, in a four-part series titled “The Education of a Teacher,” Merrow followed two rookie teachers, Susan Holst and Lynn Robin, in their first year of teaching (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). He asked difficult questions, drawing out the successes and failures of the new teachers and the school system in which they work. The stories did not sensationalize, but they did instruct.
Local Education Coverage
While John Merrow covered education at a national level for public television, numerous news teams reported on similar stories at the local level. Several stations started regular series specifically devoted to education. In 1980, Louisiana Public Broadcasting began airing Education Update, a weekly magazine designed to inform teachers about education-related news. See the pilot episode here. As with Their School? Your School!, the program was jointly produced with the state Department of Education. As public television grew as an institution, many state education boards realized they could use the medium to build parent and community investment in their schools. Prime Time, a program begun by Rocky Mountain PBS in 1981, was designed, the series host stated, to give viewers the “opportunity to learn about the Denver Public Schools and become involved in the activities of the school, home, and community, which will help Denver school children to achieve educational excellence.” WCTE in Cookeville, Tennessee, produced Issues in Education, focusing on “innovative educational opportunities” created by the state’s recent “Better Schools” legislation, including an episode titled “Science Bowl, Computer Skills, Centers of Excellence.” Southern Oregon Public Television’s Focus on Education partnered with the Jackson Education Service District to produce a talk show discussing issues in local public schools.
Stations that did not produce weekly updates often aired stand-alone documentaries, panel discussions, and interviews designed to raise awareness of local educational issues. In Nowhere to Go but Up, Arkansas Educational Television examined the poor state of education in the state, with interviewees discussing needed improvements. In 1987, the station produced 3 Teachers, which followed three teachers from around the state through their days of work, revealing the difficulties and rewards of the profession. That same year, the station aired an interview with then-governor Bill Clinton in which he discussed education reform. In 1984, Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network aired At Issue: Public Education, a panel discussion responding to A Nation at Risk that evaluated Connecticut’s public school system. WGBH’s From Busing to Books: A Portrait of South Boston High revisited the school that was the site of much conflict just years before. Rather than focus on past violence, it took a hard look at whether the school was providing the quality education that reformers had hoped for years before.
Particularly after A Nation at Risk, local newsmagazines turned their cameras toward schools. Like Louisiana: The State We’re In, Idaho Public Television’s Idaho Reports was first designed to cover the state legislature. By the 1980s, the show had expanded to include talk show components and on-site coverage at other institutions, including schools. Idaho Reports covered topics such as home schooling, the state pharmacy school, the State Board of Education report, and student financial aid.
Iowa Press, a news talk show produced by Iowa Public Television that still is on the air, includes an in-depth news report followed by a discussion with experts on the selected topic. The show frequently has looked at problems at state universities, including funding, quality, and the need for reorganization (See episodes 1311, 1502, 1611, 1630). Iowa Press also reported on structural problems in K-12 education, including teacher pay, teacher shortages, and low enrollments (1424, 1617).
Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Front Street Weekly provided features on alternative education, covering Oregon’s School for the Blind, Deaf Education, and Fundamentalist Education. Front Street Weekly also examined statewide trends such as rising private school enrollments and school closures due to lack of funds.
Folks, a newsmagazine that focused particularly on issues affecting minorities within the state, ran on Louisiana Public Broadcasting from 1981-1985. This program covered topics such as the state’s Gifted Program, a Teacher Shortage in Louisiana, and the Community Association for the Welfare of School Children.
New Jersey Nightly News and WGBH’s Ten O’Clock News continued to cover educational issues during this period. In 1985, the Ten O’Clock News aired the three-part series “Boston Public Schools Update”, revealing changes in student demographics, dilapidated school buildings, and an evaluation of curriculum and educational standards.
During this time, WGBH began producing the investigative documentary series Frontline, one of PBS’s most famous programs. Since 1983, Frontline has aired more than 600 documentaries and has set the standard for in-depth television journalism.
While a few of these programs fit the mold of the “at-risk youth” headline story, the majority did not. Many local stories attempted to show what was going well in an area’s public schools. Those programs that revealed problems in the system did so not to shock, but to attempt to build community investment to fix local public institutions. Some of these programs, including Idaho Reports and Iowa Press, continue to this day. After his stint on MacNeil/Lehrer, John Merrow continued to set the standard for education reporting as he went on to produce stand-alone programs for public television, collectively called “The Merrow Reports.”