This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage.
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page.

Education Writers Identify
Top Issues Facing Public Schools
October 4, 1999

The biggest issue facing the nation's elementary and secondary schools is grappling with a clash of values: how to keep standards high and yet ensure access to all, four national education reporters said during a panel Friday.

The four, Ethan Bronner, of The New York Times, Tamara Henry of USA Today, Claudio Sanchez, of National Public Radio, and Kate Zernike, of The Boston Globe, said that determining exactly what kids need to know is also a critical issue facing our society.

They spoke during a panel September 24 on "The National Media and Education: What Drives Media Coverage of Major Issues in Education?" which was part of a day-long naming ceremony for the School of Education.

"There are two great forces clashing in education," Bronner said. "We want increasing standards and we want to provide as much education to as many people as we can."

He said society believes education generates prosperity and that schools are shifting from a "church-like quality" to a "market-like quality."

The market quality of schools means that accountability is the buzz word, Zernike said. "Schools are getting to be like a business. People are putting more and more dollars into them and they want to know what they are getting for their money." She said the strategy suggested by Presidential-hopeful George W. Bush of pulling funding from schools that don't meet a pre- determined level of test scores demonstrates the bottom-line approach. But it raises the issue of how to determine what the standards should be, and how long it might take to achieve them.

One solution may be a national curriculum, which 10 states are considering, Henry said. This is already working with math curricula, and may be expanded to include others.

Other issues facing schools include parental rights and the use of technology, according to Sanchez. "The most cutting-edge technology is in schools today," he said. "But it is used for watching kids. It is not used academically."

He said Colorado has had two referenda on parental rights but that after the shootings at Columbine High School the issue flipped from one of parental rights to one of parental responsibilities

Zernike said that the American public talks about education as a top concern, and debates issues such as whether or not the book Heather Has Two Mommies, about lesbians raising a child, should be discussed in schools. But the real issues for teachers, she said, are more mundane: whether or not peanut butter should be banned because some kids are allergic to nuts, for example, or whether or not kids should have showers after gym.

The culture of children really relates to dollars, said Bronner, who grew up in Storrs. "Consumerism is the essence of American culture," he said, "and kids are a multimillion-dollar industry." He said consumerism is encroaching on schools, and blunts the ability of teachers to reach the students.

Asked how they research their stories by moderator David Imig, president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in Washington, D.C., the reporters said they are often looking for stories on larger issues.

"I'm looking for stories on the lives of young people and what is influencing their behavior," Sanchez said. "I talk to my 12 year-old. And I struggle to get a perspective from kids." He said 80 percent of the time, he makes his own choices about which stories he covers.

Zernike said she finds that the public assumes issues relating to schools are clear-cut, when in fact they are not. For example, she said, people assume teachers use either phonetics or whole language to teach reading and writing. But she has found many teachers use both techniques.

Henry said her work is often driven by studies or polls.

Bronner said he chooses to cover education stories that are "animated by ideas larger than schools, stories that are about who we are becoming as a society."

Bronner, a graduate of E.O. Smith High School in Storrs, Wesleyan University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, has been an education correspondent for the New York Times since 1997. Three weeks ago, he was promoted to education editor. Bronner, who is the author of Battle for Justice: How the Bork Nomination Shook America, is the son of Felix Bronner, a professor emeritus of the UConn Health Center.

Henry, based in Washington, D.C., has also worked for the Associated Press, United Press International, and the Grand Rapids Press in Michigan. She is a graduate of Hope College in Michigan and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Sanchez is a former elementary and middle school teacher, translator and editor. He is a graduate of Northern Arizona University.

Zernike has been at the Boston Globe since 1995 and holds a degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is the recipient of the Benjamin Fine Award for Outstanding Education Reporting.

Imig, who began his career as a teacher in Tanzania, serves on a number of national panels and committees on education.

Karen A. Grava