Tag Archives: accountability

Local Journalism Matters–And We’re Losing It

Ever since the 2016 Presidential election, most Americans who follow the news have been fixated on Washington, D.C., and the antics of our increasingly surreal federal government. That’s entirely understandable–but while we’ve been tuning in to the national soap-opera, we have continued to lose track of equally important matters closer to home.

Americans depend upon local news sources–newspapers, broadcast news organizations–to tell us what is happening in our communities. How is local government responding to challenges from potholes to policing? How is the local school board addressing deficits in civics education? Is the Secretary of State purging voter rolls, and if so, is that process being handled properly or with partisan intent?

The measures taken by our state legislatures and City Councils affect us more dramatically and immediately than even Trump’s disasters (assuming he doesn’t blow up the world). Recently, the Shorenstein Center held a symposium exploring the continued loss of local news and the consequences of that loss.

When Setti Warren first took office as mayor of Newton, Massachusetts in 2010, the local paper, the Newton Tab, had an editor, a publisher and two reporters dedicated to covering the mayor’s office.  When he left office after his second term in 2018, the paper had lost its editor; its one remaining reporter covered multiple cities. Also during this time, the Boston Globe eliminated its regional editions, including the Globe West, which covered Newton and other parts of the MetroWest region.

The problem isn’t limited to Newton, Massachusetts.

Nationwide, many local news outlets have shuttered entirely – a March 2018 study published in the Newspaper Research Journal finds that from 2004 to 2015, the U.S. newspaper industry lost over 1,800 print outlets as a result of closures and mergers. As Warren suggested, this portends danger — studies show that areas with fewer local news outlets and declining coverage also have lower levels of civic engagement and voter turnout.

Lack of local news can occur without the complete shuttering of a local newspaper; here in Indianapolis, the Star now devotes its (dwindling) column inches primarily to sports and “the bar beat.” Coverage of city hall and the statehouse is sporadic and woefully inadequate.

As I noted in a previous blog, lack of local journalism doesn’t simply frustrate accountability; it even translates into higher costs for taxpayers. “Due diligence” by institutions that purchase municipal bonds  includes investigation of the fiscal probity of the issuer. When no local journalists are covering city hall, buyers demand a higher interest rate to offset the increased risk of the unknown.

At the symposium, Mayor Warren was blunt:

I am gravely concerned about the fact that we don’t have journalists covering city hall, policy decisions, political decisions in an in-depth way, because the citizenry of my own hometown, Newton, Mass., as well as the citizens of the Commonwealth, if they don’t have the facts, they can’t make sound decisions on what directions they want their politicians to go in. So if there’s an absence of good investigative journalism, and there’s a vacuum of having data and facts and reporting, what could get filled into that vacuum is information that is not accurate. Misinformation, disinformation and opinions, not straight reporting. So we are in danger, at the local level, at the state level, and certainly at the national level if we don’t have journalists on the ground doing the interviews, double, triple checking sources. We’re not going to make sound decisions on our policy, whether it’s housing, education, transportation or the ability to protect.

In the absence of good information, a dangerous combination of social media, special interests and people who simply have an ax to grind will fill the void, making it nearly impossible to deliver genuinely responsive governance.

Without legitimate journalism–what has been called the “journalism of verification”–we can’t hold elected or appointed officials accountable.

When no one is watching the store, it’s easy to rob.

When no one is watching government, taxpayers, too, can be robbed. Even under the “best case” scenario, however, if no one is watching, it won’t function properly.

Why News Matters

Regular readers of this blog know that I am semi-obsessed with civic literacy–with the level of civic knowledge necessary to the operation of a representative democracy. And it could hardly have escaped notice that I’ve been pretty hard on what passes for media these days.

The two issues are inextricably entwined. We depend upon verifiable, credible journalism to inform us about our government and to allow us to hold our elected officials accountable.

My belief about the importance of this relationship has recently been confirmed by Pew.

The relative decline of local news — a result of slashed budgets and staffs at newspapers, where the majority of original reporting is still generated — has been an area of grave concern for members of the media as well as everyone who cares about civic health, from policymakers and social scientists to community groups and citizens. A lot of inputs are required to keep communities vibrant, and widely disseminated factual information — a common set of issues and understandings — turns out to be a key ingredient. The Federal Communications Commission spelled out some of these dynamics in its comprehensive 2011 report “Information Needs of Communities.
Academic research backs up these concerns, too. A 2014 study by Lee Shaker of Portland State University, “Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement,” finds that at the national and local level there is a positive relationship between newspaper readership and civic engagement as measured by contacting or visiting a public official; buying or boycotting certain products or services because of political or social values; and participating in local groups or civic organizations such as the PTA or neighborhood watch. Likewise, a recent paper by Danny Hayes of George Washington University and Jennifer L. Lawless of American University, “As Local News Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement: Media, Knowledge and Participation in U.S. House Elections,” notes important implications for democracy: “Citizens exposed to a lower volume of coverage are less able to evaluate their member of Congress, less likely to express opinions about the House candidates in their districts, and less likely to vote.”
The million-dollar question, of course, is: What do we do about this situation?


The Devil in the Details…..

Charter schools have become the flavor of the day for education reformers, and they clearly have some virtues. Unlike voucher programs that divert public school resources to private and parochial schools, charters are public schools, although operating under more flexible guidelines than their more traditional counterparts.

Philosophically, I have no quarrel with charter schools. (I have big problems with vouchers.) But I do have real issues with the very American tendency to prescribe one-size-fits-all solutions to complicated problems, and too many people have decided that charters are that quick and easy solution.

Charters were initially designed to be experimental–to try new approaches, to innovate in the classroom–and to offer parents a wider array of choices of educational philosophy. So far, so good. But as charters have proliferated without much in the way of accountability or evaluation, some of the reasons we need to tread with caution have emerged.  When Indianapolis’ Project School was closed for failure to perform, for example, parents who had chosen the school and were invested in its approach were furious and their children were uprooted. Ball State University, which had chartered some 20 schools, abruptly closed seven of them, with equally disruptive results.

And then there’s this…

While public schools must provide due process to students when making decisions about suspensions or expulsions, most states exempt charter schools from school district discipline policies. This lack of protection may have enabled some charter schools to suspend and expel students at much higher rates than their public counterparts. In San Diego, Green and his coauthors report, the city’s 37 charter schools have a suspension rate twice that of the public schools, while in Newark, the suspension rate in charter schools is 10 percent, compared to 3 percent for the city’s public schools….

It’s not just discipline, though; charter schools may be exempt from constitutional protections in areas like search and seizure and the exercise of religion. It’s obviously one thing for a Catholic school to require religion classes, but does the same logic apply to a charter school like Arizona’s Heritage Academy, which last month was criticized by Americans United for the Separation of Church and State for requiring 12th graders to read books claiming that God inspired the drafting of the Constitution.

So often, it isn’t what we choose to do. It’s how we choose to do it.

Charter schools–properly conceived, prudently financed and carefully monitored–can be part of the solution to our education woes. But they are not–and cannot be– a substitute for the hard work of fixing our public school systems.




I’ve been watching school reform efforts for several years now, and I’m depressed.

Most of the organizations that have formed to improve our public schools are populated by wonderful, well-meaning people, and most of the men and women who have chosen to teach in those schools are caring, dedicated professionals. So you’d think they would all be talking to each other and working together to identify and eliminate the barriers to better schools.

Instead, they seem to be at war with each other.

Now, I understand that focusing on common goals has been made more difficult by  the “take no prisoners” attitudes of ideologues like the departed-but-certainly-not-missed Tony Bennett, whose arrogance and autocratic tactics created a backlash of resentment among the teachers he regularly and unfairly bashed. (It shouldn’t surprise us when people who’ve been told they are overpaid and underperforming nitwits are unenthusiastic about collaborating with those who leveled the accusations.) But Bennett and his equally tone-deaf boss are gone, and the folks on the front lines–the teachers–need to help the real reformers understand what they need.

I haven’t been a high school teacher for nearly 50 years; neither do I have mastery of the reform literature. I’m just an interested observer who believes that public education is an immensely important public good, so you should take the following observations with the appropriate amount of salt.

Reformers are absolutely right to want teacher accountability. But teachers are absolutely right that high-stakes testing is not accountability.

Testing to figure out what kids know is a time-honored necessity; testing as a way to evaluate teacher performance is deeply problematic. For one thing, poor people move so frequently that turnover in many inner-city schools exceeds 100% during the school year, and the kids being tested at the end of the year aren’t the same kids who were tested at the beginning. Tests in such classrooms are meaningless.

Even in more stable environments, the current testing regime does significant damage–to students, who are being taught that there is always a “right” answer, and to teachers who are forced to focus their efforts on the subjects being tested and neglect other, equally important lessons. Furthermore, years of research demonstrate that more affluent kids test better for lots of reasons unrelated to the quality of classroom performance. If teachers are going to be evaluated and paid based upon test results, a lot of good teachers are going to leave the poorer schools that need them most and head for precincts where the students are better off and easier to teach.  (And yes, I know the theory is that we are testing for improvement, not absolute knowledge, but that theory is too often just that–theoretical.)

Here’s a heretical thought: before we engage in programs to assess accountability, let’s see if we can achieve agreement on what we mean by “education” and “quality instruction.” In other words, let’s be sure we know what instructors are supposed to be accountable for.

Too many of the self-styled “reformers” (not all, but too many) equate education with job training and quality instruction with (easy to test) rote learning.  For that matter, too many teachers agree with those definitions.

The people who genuinely want to improve public education–and there are a lot of them in both reform organizations and classrooms–  start by tackling the hard questions: what do kids really, really need to know in order to function in 21st Century America? What skills are essential? What are the barriers to imparting that information and those skills?  What additional resources do poorer kids need?  How much money does it take to provide a  good education, and how much does ignorance cost us?

Here’s how you can separate out the genuine education reformers from the ideologues and shills: real reformers understand the importance of public education’s civic mission. Because they understand the constitutive function of the public schools–because they understand that education is more than just another consumer good–they want to fix public education by working with teachers and parents and policymakers to make our public school systems work.

The genuine reformers aren’t the ones insisting that we  privatize or abandon those schools.




The Deficit That Matters

I know I’ve been beating this horse for awhile now, but I am firmly convinced that the most troubling deficit Americans face is not fiscal.

It’s our deficit of civic literacy.

Only 36 percent of Americans can correctly name the three branches of government. Fewer than half of 12th grade students can describe the meaning of federalism. Only 35.5% of teenagers can correctly identify “We the People” as the first three words of the Constitution. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) 2006 report on civics competencies found that barely a quarter of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics, with only five percent of seniors able to identify and explain checks on presidential power.  Things haven’t improved since then; the 2010 results were released earlier this year, and student performance at the 12th grade level showed a statistically significant decline since the 2006 test. Average scores for female, White and African American students declined, and the percentage of 12th grade students who reported studying the Constitution dropped by a statistically significant five percent. A list of all the additional literature documenting the extent of civic ignorance would be too lengthy to include.

The consequences of this ignorance are profound. The most important predictor of active civic engagement is greater civic knowledge–according to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, greater civic literacy trumps even a college degree, and “no other variable, including age, income, race, gender, religion, or partisanship was found to exceed both the breadth and depth of civic literacy’s positive impact on active political engagement”.

Our research team conducted a survey of state departments of education, as part of an effort to determine the content and extent of civics instruction the various states are requiring. We identified two basic problems: first, there is no generally accepted definition of “civics” or “civic literacy.” Definitions ranged from knowledge of the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights and their historical antecedents (our preferred meaning) to approaches that implicitly conflate community “good works” like planting trees or picking up trash in the parks or by the side of the road, with the production of “good citizens.” Depending upon a state’s particular view of what civics encompasses, civic education requirements might be met by taking a government course, a separate course called “civics,” an American history course, or some combination.

The second problem we found was that, with a few notable exceptions, even in states with very good civics and government standards, like Indiana, those standards are essentially aspirational. The requirements aren’t part of the current high-stakes testing regime, with the result that they are not taken seriously. Public schools’ focus remains firmly fixed upon those subjects being evaluated under No Child Left Behind, and the result is that large numbers of American students graduate from high school profoundly ignorant of the history, philosophy and architecture of their government institutions.

Scholars have identified a number of theorized consequences of our civic deficit: loss of civic identity; loss of public accountability; a paralyzed/polarized politics; a loss of personal agency, and unfortunate effects on the study of religion and science.

  • Civic identity. America is one of the most diverse countries on earth. Our citizens do not share a political history, a common religion, or a single race or ethnicity. As a consequence of immigration, we frequently do not even speak the same language. In the absence of such cultural ties, we require what Robert Bellah calls a “civil religion” in order to forge a common civic identity. In the United States, that civil religion has centered upon our constituent documents and the governing philosophy they embody, on what I call “The American Idea”. When Americans don’t know the contents of that Idea, when they are ignorant of the history, philosophy and evolution of our constitutional form of government, they may share a common national geography, but they don’t share a civic identity.
  • Public accountability. We hear a great deal about the obligation of government to be transparent and accountable. We hear less about the obligations of citizens to be sufficiently informed so that they can respond appropriately to information about the way in which government is conducting the people’s business. True accountability requires that those in power report adequately on the laws and regulations they have enacted and the other actions they have taken; it also requires a populace able to measure those laws and activities against the standards prescribed by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. When either half of that process is not functioning, accountability is compromised.
  • A paralyzed, polarized politics. We can see the consequences of our civic deficit every day, in presidential debates and campaigns for city councils. The loss of civic literacy is a loss of the ability to communicate. We can talk at each other, but no longer with each other, because we are not speaking the same language. American politicians on all points along the political spectrum constantly refer to the Constitution, but you only need to listen a short while to realize that very few of them seem to be talking about the same document.   This lack of a common frame of reference makes productive dialogue impossible.
  • Loss of personal agency. In a country where citizens constantly interact with public organizations—from the Social Security Administration, to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles, to the local zoning administrator—a basic knowledge of one’s rights and duties as a citizen is essential to a sense of personal empowerment and efficacy. This is especially important to people who have limited personal and fiscal resources.
  • Science and religion. What is rarely noted, but important, is the relationship between students’ civic knowledge and their appreciation of the roots of both the American religious experience and the Establishment Clause. This is equally the case with science; both science and our particular conception of liberty and personal autonomy emerged from the Enlightenment, and some scholars have argued that science cannot flourish in a society in which that relationship is unrecognized.

The question is: what should we do? How do we fix this problem, which is at the root of so many other problems?

First, we need additional research.  What are the reasons for our current deficit? Why haven’t we been able to sustain previous efforts to strengthen civic education? What elements of civic literacy lead to civic participation and action? What curricula have demonstrated effectiveness? What do citizens absolutely need to understand in order to be empowered participants in our civic conversations? What do they need to know in order to hold government accountable?

Second, we need a campaign to draw increased public attention to the nature and extent of the problems caused by our deficit of civic literacy. We need to “connect the dots” between our impoverished civic understanding and our political gridlock and polarization, and we need to make the case that citizenship requires more than a birth certificate (short form or long!).

Deficit reduction needs to begin with sound civics education.