Making headlines: The problem of wide coverage and narrow reporting

28 February 2016 by Rob Webster

In February 2016, I had the pleasure of being one of the keynote speakers at the first ever NetworkEd at the University of Gloucester. This blog is based on that talk.

What happens when provocative findings from educational research get wide coverage, but are narrowly reported? We rely on the media to interpret research findings accurately. This is, after all, how many of us encounter important research, and how it's reported often informs our initial (and perhaps only) reaction to it. Occasionally research is conveyed in headlines that researchers hadn’t intended. At best, this is mildly annoying. At worst, it can be really troublesome. Especially when headlines about research, rather than research itself, are used as the basis for policy. Here's an example.

North Carolina is one of the worst places in the USA to be a teacher. In 2015, the Tar Heel state was ranked 50th on measures of teacher salary, job opportunities and working environment, and 51 out of the 52 states for teacher quality. North Carolina has been haemorrhaging good teachers to neighbouring states for years, so policymakers decided on seismic action. Concluding that poor teacher pay was the main cause, the state senate drew up plans to raise teachers’ salaries by a handsome 11%. With no new money, the pay hike was paid for by reducing spending on teacher aides (TAs), cutting their numbers by a third. As far as anyone can tell, the justification for this controversial move was findings from UK DISS study, which cast doubt over the value for money schools derive from TAs.

However, as one of the study’s authors, I think it’s hard to see how this policy was based on the actual research we did, given the lengths we went to stress that reducing TAs would very likely cause more problems than it solved. Instead, it seems to based on headlines about the research, much like the ones below that we’ve seen in the UK media.

All this would perhaps matter less if it really were a case of today’s headlines being tomorrow’s fish ‘n’ chip wrappers, but there are some really important matters stemming from the North Carolina case of which educational researchers and practitioners – two constituencies caught in the crossfire of the media reporting and policymaking functions – should be cognisant.

The media and policymakers, for understandable but slightly different reasons, need to convey complex messages in ways that make instant, intuitive sense to the public. When campaigning, the former US president Ronald Reagan had a maxim: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing”. George Osborne, for example, frequently refers to his aim of creating a ‘low tax, low welfare, high pay’ economy. It’s a punchy, immediately comprehensible statement, and one which, if the polling is anything to go by, resonates with the public. Yet it hides multiple layers of complexity and ambiguity that the electorate at large probably doesn't want to hear and to which the Chancellor would most likely not want to admit. After all, to do so would risk losing voters’ confidence.

It’s in both researchers' and practitioners' interests to challenge the media’s interpretations of educational research; to be healthily critical of what we read. Take the way the Reform think-tank used the findings from the DISS study to propose a mass reduction in TAs in English schools, and how this was reported in; Sunday Times and Daily Mail. Much like the situation in North Carolina, this may not fall into the category of ‘research abuse’ (the act of misrepresenting research to power policy), but it’s certainly not helpful.

I’ve got quite good at defending the headlines about TAs when challenged by those working in and with schools, but it’s something of a distraction to the essential work of addressing the important issues raised by the research. For the avoidance of doubt, my colleagues and I have never, ever said that schools should axe TAs. Anyone familiar with the Maximising the Impact of TAs work that I lead will know our view is that schools stand to gain far more by rethinking their use of TAs than by doing away with them altogether.

Of course, we could try to defend or correct for the troublesome headlines and policy proposals that utilise research in unintended ways via the same mechanisms. Our experience of achieving this in terms of influencing policy has, alas, been limited, though we've been successful getting the messages across in the education media. But our direct engagement with schools has been perhaps the most fruitful way of setting the record straight, getting underneath the headlines and really exploring the research, its interpretations and its implications together, and crucially, to co-create, test and revise strategies that would otherwise elude us asresearchers.

For me, working directly with schools on making best use of TAs is immensely gratifying and, in all the right ways, challenging. Not just working with, but learning from education professionals to strengthen thinking and action. It also informs further areas of enquiry and development, and is beginning to create a virtuous loop of research, development and practice.

For now, it’s rewarding working with schools to help them write their own headlines.


Postscript. Of course, not all media reporting about the impact of TAs is negative! As the stories this week here and here show, new findings from trials funded by the Education Endowment Foundation provide more compelling evidence on how deploying TA in the right ways can really improve pupil outcomes.