Newspapers Neglect Pre-Kindergarten Education Issues, Study ... | Teachers College Columbia University

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Newspapers Neglect Pre-Kindergarten Education Issues, Study Finds

Pre-kindergarten schooling is considered one of the most promising areas of education, particularly for helping disadvantaged children. Yet a reader of The New York Times during a recent year would have been thirty times more likely to see a story about technology and six times more likely to see a story about innovations in mortgages than about early education, according to a newly released analysis of coverage.

Coverage is "Shallow and Routine," Says Report Funded by Hechinger Institute at Teachers College

Pre-kindergarten schooling is considered one of the most promising areas of education, particularly for helping disadvantaged children. Yet a reader of The New York Times during a recent year would have been thirty times more likely to see a story about technology and six times more likely to see a story about innovations in mortgages than about early education, according to a newly released analysis of coverage.

In their report,  "An Analysis of U.S. Newspaper Coverage of Early Childhood Education," researchers at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland wrote that newspaper coverage of early education tends to "fall through the cracks," overlooked as a newsworthy subject and leaving the public and policymakers with far less information than they need to make informed judgments. The report, released June 10th, was commissioned by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University.

The analysis of 1,176 articles in 25 newspapers found "a pervasive pattern of coverage that is shallow, routine, and only occasionally concerned with teaching and learning."  The study looked at stories published in 2000, a year when states were in relatively good shape economically, and 2003, when budgets were tight. The analysis found that when newspapers do publish stories on early education, they tend to deal almost exclusively with fiscal and political matters rather than educational ones.

This paucity of informed coverage comes at a time when advocates are campaigning vigorously for universal pre-kindergarten, arguing that it should be available at public expense to all families that want it. More than 40 percent of 3-year-olds and 66 percent of 4-year-olds already attend pre-kindergarten but only Georgia, Oklahoma and Florida provide pre-kindergarten to children irrespective of family income. However, according to the advocacy group Pre-K Now, 20 governors asked their legislatures this year to spend more to help young children get ready for kindergarten. Advocates hope that trend continues and that all children, eventually, will be given a chance to begin school at the age of 3 instead of the age 5. Advocates estimate that it would cost $69 billion annually to provide high-quality pre-kindergarten classes to all three-, four- and five-year-olds.

"There seems to be a growing consensus that pre-kindergarten is a good thing for all sorts of reasons," said Richard Lee Colvin, the director of the Hechinger Institute. "But just beneath the surface of this apparent consensus can be found a range of difficult issues related to quality, curriculum, accountability, governance, accessibility and cost. All of these issues involve real debates and real tensions and are ripe for probing by journalists."

The University of Maryland study was co-authored by Dr. Katherine C. McAdams and Tamara M. Henry, a doctoral candidate and a former education reporter for USA Today. They found that newspapers are failing to inform readers of pertinent research and are not equipping taxpayers with the information they need to sort through conflicting claims about universal pre-kindergarten. A main part of the preschool debate revolves around whether to target programs on the neediest pupils, which would cost far less, or make them universal, open to all.  A body of research points to the value of early education in boosting academic achievement and improving the life prospects of participating children.  Some argue, though, that these benefits, mostly demonstrated in programs aimed at economically disadvantaged children, might not be so impressive for children from advantaged families. 

In addition to analyzing the content of the nationally representative body of stories, the researchers conducted case studies of newspapers in five cities where changes occurred in the provision of pre-K and early education.  They also conducted interviews with 25 reporters whose bylines appeared on stories about pre-K. 

Taken together, the findings show deep concern on the part of newspapers with political processes and budgets, peripheral concern with teaching and learning, little concern with research-based knowledge of the field, and a lack of enterprise in mining the inherent news value in pre-K and early education.  This imbalance amounts to "missed opportunities to serve audiences" affected by this kind of news, the report says. More than 90 percent of the stories were either positive or neutral, focusing on the benefits of pre-kindergarten or the importance of a governmental role in pre-kindergarten. The stories evinced little skepticism about either of those ideas, although a range of critics dispute each of those claims.

The case studies of coverage were conducted in Atlanta, Buffalo, Los Angeles, Newark and Tulsa-all cities where publicly funded pre-kindergarten is either already available or was being widely discussed. Yet, even in those cities, teaching and learning got little attention. In Atlanta, 40 percent of the stories examined dealt with governance and 40 percent with funding. Only 10 percent dealt with issues related to education. Pre-K coverage, the researchers wrote, "is largely political because politicians appear to enjoy talking about how good they are for the people of Georgia. Serious coverage of teaching and learning in pre-K was not found." This was pervasive in coverage nationally. Almost half the articles examined-46 percent--did not include experts in education, especially early education, as sources, and many of the non-experts were politicians, reflecting the inclination to view the issues through political or fiscal lenses rather than an educational one

Findings of the content analysis dovetail with the results of a survey that Hechinger conducted last year of education editors and their attitudes about coverage of pre-K issues.  The editors believe their supervisors consider stories about these issues less important than they do, so they shy away from covering them. Responsibility for coverage tends to be diffuse, not fixed with a certain reporter or a certain editor.  In general, Hechinger's own survey found, pre-kindergarten is not seen as part of the K-12 beat and coverage is likely to run almost anywhere in the paper except the sports pages.

Expertise was slighted in another way in that only 8 percent of the articles cited research findings and survey results. 

So, just what do journalists have to say about the coverage?  This was not easy to determine as the researchers found when they contacted reporters whose bylines appeared on the stories that many were quick to say "that's not my job" or "I don't do that," responses apparently indicating that though they had written about pre-kindergarten, it was not a regular beat of theirs.  Pre-K simply got mentioned in articles they had written about, say, housing, social service agencies, or from the statehouse bureau or general assignment. 

This finding helps explain why the coverage falls between the cracks.  Few newspapers have a preschool beat or have incorporated that coverage into the K-12 beat.  People on other beats, journalists often lacking deep knowledge of the field or of its history, tend to pick up the stories.

The team of researchers led by McAdams and Henry consisted of faculty members and graduate students, most of whom are former journalists.  The Hechinger Institute commissioned the analysis in conjunction with work that it undertook with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to deepen the knowledge of journalists about issues in pre-K and early childhood education.

The Hechinger Institute was established at Teachers College in 1996. Its mission is to promote fair, accurate and insightful coverage of education. It does not take positions on education issues. The Institute's website is The study is available on the website.  

Published Monday, Jun. 13, 2005