If you launch the link in this post, you can feast your eyes on the impetus, thought process, and reasons this site is being developed as a response to my evolving personal vision, mission, and values. Beware, it’s wordy! Click for more…
Contemporary discourse surrounding public policy is characterized by the confluence of several factors. Three trends prevail in the domain of mass media. First, technological changes have prompted vast changes in media and press coverage, leading traditional mass media to justify a declining investment in in-depth reporting, closure or consolidation of local news outlets, and an increasing reliance on pre-fabricated content. In tension with these trends, the ease of communication through technology has led to an increase in so-called “citizen journalism,” which both threatens the traditional media structure and presents significant ethical questions in methodology and yet challenges the hegemony of the fourth estate by empowering reporting that emerges from a non-dominant perspective. Second, as the investigative resources of the press dwindle in the face of market pressures, so too do market influences rush in to fill the void. Investment in public relations by the private sector has led to “sponsored content,” a tactic in which companies provide news stories and articles about their product, presented as though they were original reporting being done by the journalistic entity. Third, cable news and the Internet have transformed societal expectations related to the consumption of news: content must be provided constantly, whether or not it is new or substantive. As it is expected it will be consumed in small pieces, the content becomes recursive and appears in sound bites, further limiting in-depth analysis.
The implications of this evolution in media converge with the world of education in multifarious ways, too. First, despite its fundamental position in this country’s democratic imaginary, public education has not been immune to the market logic pushing for the deregulation and privatization of long-assumed state functions. Movements such as charter schools, school vouchers, and Teach for America have challenged the status quo in public education through effective mobilization on common sense logic. Second, these privatizing forces have harnessed the media landscape described above to effectively persuade the public of their new logic of education, and as their sponsored content and public relations write the new discourse, they harness the power of rhetoric to frame these changes as fundamentally democratic in nature, artfully eliding their neoliberal logic. Conversely, as funding for traditional public education comes under heightened scrutiny for its resource allocation, it is far less likely that public systems will invest in robust public relations. Finally – and perhaps most pervasively – as federal education policy increasingly focuses narrowly on reading and math, coursework in social studies, history, civics – and indeed the study of journalism itself – is at the least de-emphasized and at worst completely removed from the curriculum. In turn, students leave school less equipped to critique the media narrative being presented.
Evolution in thought
I could write dense, discursive stuff like that forever. It’s great fun to look to the likes of theorists like Foucault, Derrida, Gramsci, and Žižek for inspiration, systematically dismantling contemporary trends in a wash of post-modern fervor. And yet, where does that leave us? I look out my window and watch children walking to and from my neighborhood elementary school each morning and afternoon. And, well, I’m pretty sure my discourse analysis and post-modern critique isn’t doing anything for them, no matter how sound the logic or relevant the content.
I’m teetering on a tightrope between two distinct terminals. On the one end, I am seeped in systems thinking about the impact of forces of globalization on media, education, social change, democracy, and culture. On the other, I am a resident and participant in my local neighborhood and community, finding ways to build and reinforce networks that improve the quality of life for my community and myself.
Public policy impacts what sort of children live in my neighborhood. It impacts whether they walk, bike, or get a ride to school in a car or bus or taxi. It impacts the funding that comes from local, state, and federal taxes, and the additional funds that come from parent input and private donors. It impacts the content of their curriculum, the architecture of their school building, and the food they eat at lunch. It impacts the languages they speak, the way their teachers are compensated, and the degree to which their school is responsive to their individual and collective needs. It impacts their health. It impacts their ability to play outside. In short, it pretty much impacts everything.
Dominant discourse about education tends to fail on multiple fronts, but much like my personal tightrope, it fails most strikingly by remaining in the middle, never harnessing the strength of either terminal. On the one end, the discourse about education is strong when it is situated within the context of its public policy brethren in housing, transportation, agriculture, health, environmental, tax, immigration, labor, and more. Of course, this is also incredibly overwhelming. On the other end, the discourse in education is strong when it is rooted in the telling of individual stories, when it is devoted to the hyper-local focus of the systems impact on one neighborhood, one school, one teacher, one student. Of course, this is so specific as to be criticized for its lack of generalizability, or for its tendency to focus relentlessly on small successes to the elision of larger problems. At the most basic level, however, discourse about education fails when it does not speak in the language of the general public, when it remains in the language of policymakers, scholars, and analysts. Unless the public narrative harnesses the power of strong and simple rhetoric, it will continue to fail to connect with the parents, teachers, neighbors, and astute students traveling to and from school each day. Before you can understand, you have to care. And to care, you have to connect with the power of a good story.
Through the latent power of social networks, I discovered the Education Writers Association. Via Facebook, I discovered, sometime in early March, that a friend of a friend had won an award granted by the association for reporting on high school students in Philadelphia. Inspired by their mission to provide support for journalists covering education, and in particular in their “Story Starters” section, I felt like I had finally found a place for my skills and thinking to converge. Through years of working for the Nebraska Department of Education, I had developed a significant base of knowledge in this state’s education landscape. And while my film production label has existed since 2005, I had never invested the time and energy in learning how to build a website to showcase and explain my work. Now, I had a purpose. Nocoastfilms.com was coming into focus.
In assembling the site, I developed a statement describing the trajectory of my documentary work and parallel or intersecting projects. I began with three ideas for story starters, two of which have since developed to include video interviews and simple explanations of the topic at hand. Additionally, I spent an inordinate amount of time working to extract all the tweets I had written including the hashtag #gradschool throughout the semester, as they served as a mini-diary on my thought processes, stress levels, and general trajectory. Embedded in the sidebar, they offer a curious complimentary psychological insight into my research.
At this point, there are three stories in development, influenced primarily by coursework and discussion in both TEAC 908E: Debates in Teacher Education Policy and SOCI 860: Education and Society. The most developed is about the Accelere program in Omaha Public Schools, to which I was introduced by way of my research for Dr. Ted Hamann. Video interviews with program director Shari Koch and students at the school are couched in an explanation of the program, particularly from a sociological and structural perspective. The second story relates more specifically to teacher education and social justice, and includes a video interview with Greg Keller, a teacher at Lincoln High School. The third, which is in its infancy due to the volume of new readings influencing its development, centers on the idea of participatory democracy and public involvement in education.
As my work on this project develops, at the core, I am attempting to distill diverse sources, books, research articles, and press coverage into simple, clear, relatable language. It is an attempt not only to engage members of the media and community in learning about education issues in their neighborhood and state, but also to provide them with the extended resources to pursue topics of interest further. It is my hope and intention that this project will grow to include a forum for discussion and networking, resources for local mobilization, and a robust multimedia environment for civic engagement.