Thank god for the Sunday Star-Times
Journalism as high art: She is a camera
National standards: the freedom to use different colours for reports
Sunday Star-Times editor, Catherine Woulfe, has once again demonstrated that when it comes to education journalism, she has the satiric feel of a Waugh and the cunning of a Machiavelli. A story on national standards and school reports (September 29, 2009) based on an exclusive press release from the ministry of education shows that the Sunday Star-Times has deceived the ministry once again. The subtlety of the editor in her stratagem is without parallel in the annals of New Zealand journalism. What she does, in an example of journalism as high art, is take the puffery from the ministry and, except for the lightest of heightening touches, plays it straight – the effect is so striking it has the teachers of New Zealand reeling with a mixture of laughter and horror along the corridors of pedagogy.
As we know, education reporting in New Zealand (leaving aside the Sunday Star-Times) is based on the idea that the ministry is to be trusted implicitly and, that without this excellent government agency, those self-serving teachers would be free to organise education to their own lax ways. This trust is reinforced by the readiness of the ministry to provide reporters with copy that has repeatedly proved to be spot on; to make clear at the click of a press release what has been opaque – been made opaque by those teachers and their organisations – thus sparing reporters in all conscience from the awkwardness of actually having to dig into that tortuous, febrile world of education controversy. Only the Sunday Star-Times has resisted this shameless manipulation. Thank god for the Sunday Star-Times.
But the beauty of the Sunday Star-Times’ stratagem is that the ministry has not realised what the paper is up to, how it is making a dick of them, and continued to supply the editor of that paper, Catherine Woulfe, that Bob Woodward of education journalism, with ample copy. As a case in point, the press release for the newspaper’s current coup, being an exclusive.
The ministry thinks they are playing the old game of providing copy to editors they believe they can rely on to print what they get more or less as received. Some have called this plagiarism, some slack journalism, others simply protecting official sources to ensure an endless supply of such copy.
Catherine Woulfe, though, has reversed the situation to establish a unique case of official source entrapment.
Imagine the scenario: the SS-T starting to receive an autumn-leaf fall of press releases from the ministry and hangers-on (Hattie); press releases of the most abject kind. This was picked up in a deep-throat flash – Catherine didn’t get to where she got, by not recognising an opportunity for suckering a government department.
‘I’ll take it from here,’ she would have said to her admiring senior staff. ‘They’ll think it is the old honey trap of a busy editor taking over education issues because of the ease with which ministry releases can be re-released with just enough tarting up to make them passably fresh. What I’ll do, though, is virtually no tarting up at all – this will both surprise and delight the ministry, while the near unchanged copy will be source of endless fascination to certain readers.’
‘What we must guard against,’ she said, the atmosphere suddenly becoming serious, ‘is letting on how much we have researched the education issues of the day and allowing that affect our presentation. A particular concern is that the insights gained from this research do not seep into tone. There must be no hint of scepticism, no hint that any serious alternative to the ministry line exists.’
‘And remember, if we have to get a comment from outside the ministry press release – some principal, teacher, or academic – ask the ministry who they would suggest, though in the case of an academic, the ministry always recommends John Hattie. Remember to associate him in your writing with the ‘holy grail’ (though in your mind with that other John and his association with the ‘silver plate’.
Woulfe turns round the DVD monitor to her assembled staff. ‘Watch this carefully. In education matters, I want you to express in print what you see in the visual.’
The DVD ended.
Our editor said, ‘Remember, when it comes to writing about education matters, which means dealing with ministry handouts, think Buster Keaton, think poker faced.’
‘Or think Candide, keep the tone matter-of-fact, and to the facts that matter – the ministry of education facts.’
And as the staff were getting up to leave: ‘Or think hyper reality, with the observant reader being moved to ask: What is going on here? this is too perfect, too convincing.’
A sample of Catherine Woulfe’s journalism as high art, of playing the official straight, except for a slight heightening that brings irony into play, is her covering of the Hattie book Visible Learning (January 4, 2209) (since re-titled Visible Shipwreck by one critic, and rubbish in, rubbish out by an eminent professor). This was done in concert with the ministry which is using Hattie as an ideological cover for their right-wing education policies. The headlining article has proved, as Woulfe slyly intended, to be a source of huge embarrassment to both Hattie and Anne Tolley. Tolley’s waxing lyrical about Hattie was played for all it was worth by Woulfe (by hardly playing it at all), as was the quote describing Hattie’s book as a ‘holy grail’.
Not content with that, Woulfe followed up by reviewing Hattie’s co-authored book on school discipline Adolescent Reputations and Risk, highlighting the idea that ‘early in primary school (or perhaps even at preschool) they make a decision that can shape the rest of their lives – to either follow rules or break them.’ As Woulfe was writing this out, she must have been laughing as much as teachers did when reading it. Her decision to hang out to dry the ministry’s golden boy using his own press release words (except for the ritual ringing up of the nominated principal for a brief comment) was superb.
In her current journalistic sally, in an article headed, ‘Plunket-style tables for school reports’ Woulfe writes:
‘Earlier this year, the Education Ministry consulted around 5000 parents nationwide on school standards. They were strongly in favour of such a chart, released exclusively to the Sunday Star-Times last week’.
By using the expression ‘released exclusively’ Woulfe is achieving a number of things: she’s acknowledging, as she is ethically bound to, that she has received an exclusive from the ministry – but she is only acknowledging the chart as being received exclusively, not the whole item.
But she was also having a bit of an in-joke with teachers and the attuned, who she knows will well know the truth of the matter. She is really saying to them that the whole piece is a bit of public relations puffery and not to believe a word of it. But the subtlety and savagery of it – truly a one in lamb’s clothing. The daring too, because, if the irony is not picked up on (after all the ministry haven’t), and the editor of a major newspaper is seen as a purveyor of press release bullshit – what damage to her reputation. Oh well, there’s always the Listener.
The Plunket-style item is based on what the parents said in submissions from the consultation referred to.
Woulfe, of course, as part of playing it straight but even more so, accepts what the press release says the parents say. But she would know, as we all do, that the New Zealand Council for Education Research (NZCER) was contracted to write a report on the parental submissions (and teachers’) and that this report has been in the hands of the ministry for some months, but they refuse to release it, much to the confusion and disappointment of NZCER.
There has been much criticism of the wording of the referendum question in the recent referendum, but the wording of the questionnaires and the setting up of the discussions, tightly controlled by ministry officials, have been absurdly biased against schools and in favour of Tolley’s anti-school crusade – and anti-children, when you dig into it. But who cares? (Thank god Catherine does.) Education populism is always the resort when a government intends to cut back on education spending.
This is why I’m so pleased, that in her unprecedented style, the editor of the Sunday Star–Times has recognised that superficiality and career-enhancing journalism in education has a victim – that victim is the child.
Woulfe says ‘parents have told the government they want to see three or four (Plunket-style charts) each year so they can keep a close eye on their children’s progress.’ She goes on to say that the ‘similarity to the Plunket chart is understood to be deliberate by the Education Minister, as they are familiar for parents.’ Woulfe repeats this rubbish with remarkable control: not a shimmer in tone.
This is truly great journalism. When as a young girl dreaming of Catherine Woulfe: journalist – it is inspirational moments like this that would have been part of her idealistically-laden reveries. Look at the deft use of the phrase ‘understood to be deliberate’. Woulfe doesn’t want to be seen copying the press release exactly; she wants to convey every now and then, against surface indications to the contrary, a phantasmagoric complexity, hence the use of the phrase ‘understood to be’ when the press release would have said ‘is deliberate’. What a touch of deceptive journalistic verisimilitude, known in the trade as the sprinkling of the bull dust.
The ministry via Catherine informs us that the new reports ‘will also include sections that give parents a summary of their children’s learning and practical steps they can take at home to help their children improve.’
Our editor, of course, has read the ministry’s report model, and found it hugely diverting. The transparent absurdity of it momentarily tempted her to stop playing it straight as high art and call the ministry of education a bunch of two-timing, self-serving twerps – but the control for which she is justly famous reasserted itself. If she referred to the report model, even though reported straight, that might have roused suspicions in the ministry – raised suspicions that she wasn’t the easy touch they took her for.
The following is a sample of how she responded, not in her writing (because of the stratagem), but in her mind as a caring and informed New Zealander and journalist:
Reading – Summary of Manu’s progress at the end of Year 4
Manu, she read in the plain language summary of his reading at the end of Year 4, ‘has met the expected standard National Standard in reading’ which means, the report states that ‘he can talk about story plots and structures’ and he can ‘re-read … to work out the meaning of unknown words.’ (I would have thought, Catherine conjectured, such reading behaviour to have begun somewhat earlier. But I suppose they are the experts.)
Reading – Next steps at school
In the next steps at school she read that he will be helped to ‘read and find information from more complex stories and articles’… and ‘express his opinions about the stories and understand what the author was thinking.’ (‘More complex’ – you could drive a bus through that one – is that how standards are defined? Anyway, I was expressing opinions about stories and authors when I was five but, then, I always was a forward little thing.)
Reading – Next steps at home
Next steps at home would include ‘watching a movie together and talking about the story – what bits he liked or didn’t like, which character he liked best and why.’ (A sardonic smile flickered across her editor lips.)
Writing – Summary of Manu’s progress at the end of Year 8
Catherine would have read in the prescribed plain language (yes – she has already picked up on the absurdity of this claim) that Manu, four years later, in his writing, is above the national standard, which means he can be expected to be ‘able to use strategies like mind mapping’ and ‘ask for feedback on his writing, and then respond to that feedback’.
(I’ll read your story later Manu, she imagined the teacher saying, put your exercise book on the pile over there.)
Writing – Next steps at school
For next steps at school he will be ‘encouraged to use new skills to work out what was required and be able to plan his writing’ (which apparently, Catherine puzzled, he wasn’t encouraged to do up to then.) Also, he will be ‘encouraged to re-read and proofread his writing to check that it matches the purpose for writing and be able to find and correct any problems.’ (What was he encouraged to do four years earlier so that the current encouragement represented an advance?)
Writing – Next steps at home
Manu’s writing should be supported ‘by reading different types of writing together (such as newspapers, magazine articles, advertisements), talking about the style of writing and discussing your opinions about it.’ (Just knowing parents were reading books, magazines, and newspapers regularly, and watching the TV news would be quite sufficient she thought. ‘Style of writing?’ even she wouldn’t venture there with children, and she was a newspaper editor. Come to think of it, she wouldn’t even venture there with her own staff. The last time she tried it she nearly lost her inside back-page magazine writer.)
By this stage Catherine was doubled up with laughter: the idea of this language being considered plain, bizarre; the summary of progress, jargon accretion; the suggestions for next steps ambiguous or ludicrous; the value for parents miniscule; and their advantage over present school reports nil, at best. Over time, she knew the whole process would become highly formulaic.
How did it come to this pretty pass she asked herself? And then our perspicacious editor struck on Hattie. He does the research, patronises teachers in the course of it, passes this to a grateful National government who, under the ideological cover that Hattie provides, and the pretext of being what parents want and children need, use the opportunity to extend their powers deep into the functioning of the classrooms of the nation. Meanwhile, the person who did the research, Hattie, gains the contracts for instructing teachers how to suck eggs, also, the increased sales for the asTTle measurement tool which will form one of the bases for the national standards and their unappealing offspring, the new reports.
Goodness knows what the research was like our ever sceptical editor pondered – probably it revolved around an axis of questions like: Would you like to know more about how your child is doing at school; Would you like to know more about how your child compares with other children – and all expressed in plain language. Any parent, if asked, would like to know more, and in plain language – they are questions with implicit infinite repetition of response. As well, did Hattie take into respectful account the talk and continuing contact between teacher and parent in delivering information about child performance? And is there a conflict of interest between Hattie the researcher, and Hattie head of the commercial arm of education department of the University of Auckland?
Having delved into the irruption that will be the new reporting system, our intrepid editor found her news’ hound faculties on high alert. How sound will the national standards be on which the new reports are based?
What she found confirmed the courageous and informed stand she was taking against national standards.
Her first resort was to how national standards had fared overseas. The Times headline read: ‘Dropping primary school literacy and numeracy strategies long overdue’. The BBC agreed, adding that ‘dropping the strategy would save 100 million pounds a year in consultancy fees’. The Guardian capped it off by reporting that ‘literacy and numeracy standards had dropped decisively in the eight years after the strategies came into effect’.
No wonder, she thought, the ministry prevaricates when evidence for the efficacy of national standards is sought.
And from what she heard in the media (Hattie’s outburst in the Herald, in particular) and reading between and around the lines of ministry releases, she could sense that the process for establishing national standards was a dog’s breakfast, as was the process for working out where individual children stood in relation to them. It’s all being done on a whim and a prayer, she decided.
What satisfaction teachers and the attuned will have with my latest ministry release – there’s another Qantas in the bag here. What bureaucratic absurdity exposed, what stirring of debate in the staffrooms of the nation. Journalistic integrity: priceless.
She ran her eyes her down the columns of what she had written and savoured the reading.
Catherine knew there was a joke within a joke in the ministry release because the expression ministry release was a cover for the reality that the release did not come from the ministry proper, but the ear-whispering political press officers advising the minister improper. No professional educator would have come up with the distortions, saturated emotiveness, and deceptiveness of the release. It was the obviousness of this that made it a classic in the series she was running on education.
How teachers and the attuned, she thought, will be taken aback when they learn that Plunket charts that for height and weight were to be used to illustrate the massive complexity of children’s learning. But even better, the inappropriateness of this association will be picked up by those beyond teachers and the attuned, serving to draw in a wider constituency to the joke that was her plan so cunning.
[This reminds me of the time when Lockwood was minister and also wanted children to be given an individual number and a have lot of information accrued to it. ‘I can do it with my bull calves’, he pointed out to the three senior ministry officials in front of him. ‘In that case,’ said one of the officials, ‘would you like us to investigate the ear-tagging of children?’ The grin appeared and the matter was never mentioned again.]
‘It will let (schools) set schoolwide and student specific goals, and identify any areas of weakness that need to be targeted.’ (Wow! We hadn’t thought of that, she could hear teachers respond.)
‘Parents’ submissions show they are overwhelmingly in favour of the new system.’ (If so, why has the NZCER report, long in the hands of the minister, not been released? Anyway, as she well knew, the ministry set up the consultation as a set up. And they still didn’t get the unblemished positivity they sought.)
‘But principals and unions have been highly critical saying it will lead to league tables.’ (That is a caricature of what they have been saying: they have been principally saying national standards are bad education. I’ve read too many NZEI press releases not to know that.)
‘(National league tables) are pored over by parents’ (They also, she averred, add to failure in literacy and numeracy by ghettoising the children of Maori, Pacific Island and the poor.)
‘Such tables … are loathed by many in education, who fear they will push schools to “teach to the test” ’. (She knew the word ‘fear’ unloaded the loathing because such tables would lead to such testing there was no ‘fear they will’ about it. She also knew it would detract from all the other components of the curriculum like creative thinking, and curriculum areas like science. That research she’d put into the issue was really paying off, she thought.)
‘Tolley has been quoted as calling this “scare-mongering” and saying “the best disinfectant is fresh air” ’. (She well knew the league tables were a ploy which the minister was using as a bargaining point to draw the teacher organisations into sharing responsibility for the standards’ policy as a whole.)
‘Last week principals’ groups asked for schools to be given more time to phase the standards in as they are already rolling out a new curriculum next year.’ (Another such ploy to draw the teacher organisations in.)
‘(Schools) will be allowed to adapt the reports … for example, they may be able to use different colours.’ (This surely, she declared, will communicate to those well beyond teachers and the attuned what a mess this whole business was. How does this sit with the philosophy of Tomorrow’s Schools? How can schools go from this to showing the imagination, creativity, and flexibility called for in the curriculum? This is a nadir for New Zealand education. Oh precious and hard-gained insight!)
Catherine sat back in admiration at her handiwork in selecting from the ministry release the most insulting, condescending, and prattling quotes. She particularly sought out quotes that presented as new and about to be imposed, that which were already established in schools.
‘ “I don’t want to leave it 12 months to find out there’s a problem,” one parent said. “Tell me how he’s really doing,” another parent said.’
‘Parents also put forward ideas such as parents’ workshops, liaison parents and mentoring schemes to help them with their children.’
Our editor, by repeating a ministry false warm fuzzy, was particularly pleased with how she finished her effort: ‘Some parents wanted the charts to show how their child ranked against others in the class, school or country, but officials are clear that this type of competitive data will not be released.’
How that unctuous insincerity, she thought, would inflame the passions of teachers – rolling mauls of protest action were at hand. A gratifying response, she figured, for all the work she’d put into the stratagem and the continuing concern she’d demonstrated for the children of New Zealand.