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Early Ed Watch

A Blog from New America's Early Education Initiative

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Ignoring Early Education

Published:  December 2, 2009
Issues:  

Today, the Brookings Institution released a new report on media coverage of education. The report’s title—Invisible: 1.4 Percent is Not Enough—pretty much gives away its big finding: education stories account for only 1.4 percent of all national news coverage. That’s a pretty striking statistic.

But we were equally struck by something the Brookings team didn’t feel was worth drawing attention to: Of all the levels of schooling, from preschool through graduate school, the preschool years get the least media coverage. According to the report, only 2.2 percent of media coverage of education focuses on education of preschool-aged children.* In contrast, 12.3 percent of coverage focuses on elementary schools, 10.7 percent on middle schools, 20 percent on high schools, and 27 percent on colleges and universities. Even community colleges—which the report singles out as receiving little media attention—get more coverage—2.9 percent of all education coverage—than preschool.

We’re hardly surprised to see preschool—and early childhood more generally—getting the short end of the stick when it comes to media attention. In large part, that reflects the continuing bias within our education system, and broader society, to view programs for children under age 5 as child care, rather than education. We can’t help wondering if the Brookings Institution’s failure to highlight the lack of coverage for preschools reflects a similar bias. When early childhood stories do make it into the media, they’re often in the society, health or family section of the paper, told through the lens of the mommy wars, or work-family balance, rather than from an education perspective.

But there are several other factors that also undermine both the amount and quality of media coverage of early education:

  • A dwindling number of education reporters, stretched thin and working under tight time pressures: Dedicated education reporters at local and regional outlets are an endangered species, and even when they still exist, they are often covering a wide range of topics—at all levels of schooling from preschool through grad school, across a large number of school districts. Under those circumstances, reporters need to carefully choose what issues and areas to prioritize for coverage, and early childhood stories often lose out.
  • Limited expertise in early childhood: The education beat is often an entry point into journalism for young reporters, so there is a lot of turnover and many reporters don’t have an opportunity to build up real expertise before moving on to more prestigious beats. But even reporters who do have a deep knowledge of education often don’t know much about the early childhood years. As a result they are ill-equipped to cover early childhood issues or think up interesting story ideas for early childhood.
  • Bias towards covering public school districts: As Jay Matthews notes in this recent piece, many education reporters tend to focus on public school districts in their area and are reluctant to cover private schools or education that takes place outside the established school system. This is particularly a problem when it comes to early childhood coverage, because most preschool-aged children—even many in publicly funded pre-k—are not in public school settings. The diversity of settings in which children do receive early education—family home care, child care centers, private preschools run by churches or non-profits, Head Start, and the public schools—can be confusing to reporters and make them less likely to cover early childhood programs.

The lack of media coverage for, or expertise in, early childhood education is particularly problematic at a time when the Obama administration is proposing large new investments in early childhood programs and these programs—whether operated in school- or community-based settings—are increasingly becoming part of our public education system. Organizations like the Hechinger Institute and the Education Writers Association have done some important work to educate reporters about early childhood and support them in covering early childhood issues. Early Ed Watch also seeks to serve as a resource for education reporters.

In addition to better coverage of the political and policy aspects of early childhood education, media outlets should also think about opportunities to improve service-oriented journalism focused on early childhood issues. Because of the diversity of early childhood options and providers, there is a real need for more and better information for parents about the options available and how to access and choose amongst them. And as states move forward in implementing or strengthening Quality Rating and Improvement Systems and other state level infrastructure, these should provide additional information reporters can draw on to inform parents about early childhood program options and quality.

A growing number of policymakers, business leaders, educators, and parents have recognized the importance of the early years in creating a strong foundation for children’s educational success. Unfortunately, that message doesn’t seem to have reached the media who cover education issues. We sincerely hope—and are doing our part to ensure—that the next time Brookings takes a look at education coverage, early childhood will get more than 2.2 percent!

*And, based on my unscientific estimate, nearly half of that coverage is New York Times articles about affluent east coast parents trying to get their children into elite preschools. (Snark)

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