Framing Education: Why Does NPR Repeat the Conservative Production Model?

This article was originally published by Eric Haas of the Rockridge Institute on July 9, 2007.

With the Democrats now in charge of Congress, how might Congress change NCLB when it is re-authorized this year? Probably not much. Individual legislators are still formulating their positions, but if a recent broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) is a sign of the progressive mindset, then nothing substantial will change. It appears that the conservative production frame is so much of our political thinking, that even supposedly progressive media, like NPR, use it.

In 2002, when the Republicans controlled the White House, the House of Representatives, and 49 seats in the Senate, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was passed into law. With the Democrats now in charge of Congress, how might Congress change NCLB when it is re-authorized this year? Will there be an education law that conforms more to the progressive nurturance frame of education than to the current conservative production frame?

Probably not. Individual legislators are still formulating their positions, but if a recent broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) is a sign of the progressive mindset, then nothing substantial will change. It appears that the conservative production frame is so much of our political thinking, that even supposedly progressive media, like NPR, use it.

[I discuss both frames in detail in my recent post, The Framing of No Child Left Behind (6/15/07).]

A recent broadcast on NPR about education (7/6/07) is informative for two reasons.

First, the story is built on the gardening and factory metaphors, which was the subject of my previous piece. While the garden metaphor is explicit, it is the logic of the factory metaphor and the production frame that dominates and makes to seem illogical the nurturance frame of education built on the explicit garden metaphor.

Second, these broadcasts demonstrate the power of framing. Though the gardening metaphor is explicit, it is discredited because the journalist subtly (and likely unconsciously) applies the production frame to the gardening metaphor. This makes the effect of the gardening metaphor closer to the idea of a factory farm, than your local organic farmer. Frames, and the meanings of the words and metaphors from which they are constructed, can change; they are not set in stone.

The use of framing by NPR further exemplifies its power—if NPR is known as the flagship of the liberal media, why are they using an education frame usually associated with conservative thought? I believe the answer is that the production frame has become so pervasive in our political discourse on education that the NPR journalist used it unconsciously. He applies its logic as if it were natural, rather than a conservative frame constructed and disseminated actively for several decades until it became the “common sense” frame for understanding education.

Explicit Gardening, Dominant Production

Beginning with the introductory statements, the broadcast is cast explicitly within the language of the gardening metaphor through grape vineyards.

It’s MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I’m Steve Inskeep.

A school in California’s wine country is hoping to gain from the same techniques that improved California wines. Wine growers constantly monitor their grapes and they collect huge amounts of data about things like sugar content as those grapes grow in changing weather.

Educators have been slow to use data to achieve improvement in schools. But now that’s catching on, especially in districts where the number of minority and low-income students is growing.

NPR’s Larry Abramson reports on a technique that is helping some schools, even though it’s making some teachers uneasy.

Though it uses the gardening metaphor, which often forms the basis of the nurturance frame, it is actually the logic of the production frame, not the nurturance frame, which is operating. This occurs in two key and related ways. First, this broadcast sets up the production frame by making data collection the dominant aspect of its use of the gardening metaphor (the key is gathering numbers, like sugar content, that are indicators of future good taste). We will learn later in the broadcast that the only data that matters for improving student learning—in fact, the only data that is considered to be data—is standardized test scores. In this case, it is California’s STAR test.

Second, the broadcast undermines the credibility of teachers who actually follow the gardening metaphor to its usual nurturance frame conclusion (“Educators have been slow to use data to achieve improvement”; “a technique that is helping some schools, even though it’s making some teachers uneasy”). Teachers who understand education through the nurturance frame are presented as impediments to using the presumably proven technique of standardized test analysis. Thus, their understanding of education in terms of the nurturance frame must also be wrong by this logic. The idea that we need to use multiple assessments of which some must be real-life applications if we are to fully understand each one of our children and make the individual adjustments necessary to help them achieve true, rather than rote, understandings of reading—must be flawed for it is part of the old world of failing schools.

This initial production framing guides the listener in how to interpret the remainder of the broadcast. In the next section of the broadcast, the listeners are introduced the workings of data analysis. The school collects lots of data about discrete bits of knowledge that relate to the standardized test that the students are required to take.

LARRY ABRAMSON: At El Verano Elementary in Sonoma, California, Principal Maite Iturri knows every face and she knows exactly how they’re doing in school. She takes me to a kind of data command post, a room where the importance of assessments is written all over the wall. There’s a big timeline that follows her kids throughout the year.

Ms. ITURRI: So in kindergarten, for example, 50 percent of the kindergarten students in the bottom quartile would move out into the third quartile – learning 14 to 52 letter names. This will be measured and expected by January 26th.

ABRAMSON: Iturri uses that assessment data to marshal her troops and refocus them on weak spots.

Through the production frame of the article, this link between test results (what quartile of correct answers the students fall into), what is being learned (de-contextualized letter names), school activities (most likely practicing the recognition of lists of letter names), and what counts as student achievement (increases in the percentage of correct letter names on the standardized test) makes perfect sense. It is based on the idea that learning is linear and composed of the assembly of rigid pieces of information, like a factory, where little discrete pieces, say pieces of metal and plastic, are assembled together until a complete product, say a car, appears at the end.

Research on reading makes clear that isolated letter recognition activities promote only the most superficial levels of learning—essentially the memorization of facts, in this instance letter names. Recognizing letter names alone does very little toward helping students understand what they read. More importantly, a student’s score on the letter recognition part of a test tells little about student’s true reading aptitude or their reading strengths and weaknesses. This seems obvious from the nurturance frame, but is completely at odds with the production frame. Research strongly supports the nurturance frame over the production frame as the basis for literacy development, as well as all learning. (For examples of how to teach reading and writing through a research-supported nurturance frame, see Calkins, L. (1986). The art of teaching writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann; Cambourne, B. (1988). The whole story: Natural learning and the acquisition of literacy in the classroom. Auckland, NZ: Scholastic).

I am confident that most parents would agree with the reading research that this production model of teaching holds students back, inhibiting their ability to learn how to read. Most parents, I believe, want their kindergarteners and elementary school children to learn how to read by actually reading: first having good books read to them and slowly letting them read more and more as they are able. Yes, learning to read involves word and letter recognition, but it is so much more than that. Learning to read involves being taught how to make meaning with words. One would never teach basketball by only doing free throw drills and never scrimmaging. One would never require students to shoot free throws until they were old enough to make 90% of them before they could play a real basketball game. Likewise, one should never teach kindergarteners children reading through lessons dominated by dittos of letter and word recognition exercises and with little experience listening to great stories and trying to write their own. Both need to be learned together—one needs to understand the whole and the individual parts simultaneously. It is the same for reading as it is for basketball.

The NPR broadcast approvingly states that activities similar to the letter identification activity are common at this school. De-contextualized skill development permeates all that the school does, for this makes sense under the production frame for education. The same approach, NPR presents positively, is used also for word recognition.

ABRAMSON: This 16-year veteran says she and her colleagues do have the skills. What they’ve needed is a system that let’s them target kids’ weaknesses in an efficient way. Cusick [the teacher] calls out a color-coded detailed chart of her first graders’ performance as they try to master the 100 basic words they must read on sight.

Ms. CUSICK: Tackling them in increments of 25 and then each different color here represents a different testing session and the students’ growth.

On the other hand, there are no examples in this broadcast of the teachers or students doing any real reading or writing, both of which make much less sense from within the production frame of education.

One important result of seeing schooling within the production frame is that the measure of learning comes to be confused with learning itself. Increased test scores become the goal, not real life abilities for which the scores are only a proxy, an incomplete indicator that should be part of an array of measures. Recognizing words on a standardized test becomes the measure of being able to read, not how well a kindergartener is beginning to read an actual book or use words to write a simple story. By the middle of the NPR broadcast, test results become synonymous with learning.

ABRAMSON: That’s why there’s so much at stake in schools like El Verano. Teachers want to show that kids with limited language skills can make the grade. Their scores have been improving. But here’s the big question: Can this [they] succeed on the one test that really matters, the statewide STAR Test. Those results won’t come out till August.

And later,

ABRAMSON: To smooth the transition, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District has been working with Springboard Schools, a non-profit consulting group that specializes in teaching low-performing schools how to get their act together. Springboard gets teachers together at meetings like this one, an end-of-the-year get-together where teachers share the strategies that have boosted test scores.

By now in the broadcast, the goal discussed is no longer teaching the students to read, but increasing their test scores. The assumptions of the production frames are driving the narrative logic of the NPR broadcast.

This is not to say that the reporter did not “balance” the broadcast with a teacher speaking about education from a nurturance frame. However, her comments seem out of place for two reasons. First, they go counter to the production frame that dominates the rest of the broadcast. Second, another teacher, who enthusiastically supports standardized testing and the larger production frame, immediately contradicts them.

Ms. DIANE DALENBERG (Academic Coordinator): I can’t wait to see [how] we do on the STAR because this year more than any year I feel like we have really played the game. And I hate to admit that.

ABRAMSON: Why do you hate to admit that?

Ms. DALENBERG: Because I don’t like playing the game. I don’t believe that we should have one single measure that assesses how our students are learning because there needs to be multiple forms of assessment.

ABRAMSON: So it’s not fair to say somebody’s proficient and somebody’s failing and…?

Ms. DALENBERG: Right, which is how every student at this school is measured.

ABRAMSON: But for other teachers, getting all these data has been invigorating. Craig Madison teaches third grade at El Verano. He says the process encourages him to experiment until he gets results.

Ms. CRAIG MADISON (Teacher): And so it’s kind of like a scientific process of – okay, we’re shooting the rocket off. You know, that one didn’t work. Let’s go back to the drawing board. What ideas work? We’re going to add, you know, better fins. We’re going to streamline this thing. We’re going to put a parachute on it.

Different points of view are present; however, within the production frame of the broadcast, only one makes sense.

There is an irony in all this that further demonstrates the power of metaphors and frames. Using the logic that data analysis that is good for grapes is good for students, NPR overlays production logic onto a gardening metaphor to end up with a production rather than a nurturance frame. Bear in mind that sugar content is an indicator of grape quality, but the goal—the true measure—is taste. Sugar content always remains just an indicator of likelihood of good taste. But for the kindergarteners who are the subject of the broadcast, and millions more like them, actual ability—in this case, reading, is no longer the true measure of achievement. It is the standardized test scores. Students are treated less accurately than grapes. This poor assessment of literacy only makes sense in the production frame.

Pervasive Production Frame

Finally, why would NPR present education in this way? I think there are two related reasons, which I will touch on briefly. First, it appears that the conservative logic of the production frame has so dominated the political discussion on education that it is taken as natural, common sense, even by people who think of themselves as progressives. Second, journalists are concerned that going against the current public consensus on a topic will be perceived as “bias.” Since the production frame has been “legitimized” through its codification in NCLB, they may not believe it is appropriate to challenge its logic by presenting the topic from another frame. Both reasons seem to be at play here.

This NPR broadcast further demonstrates that the conservative production frame of education is a well-settled part of the political discussion. Whether you generally consider yourself to be progressive or conservative, you likely understand education more through the production frame, than through a nurturance frame. This is likely true for the Democratic majority in Congress, as well. If this is so, then it is likely that no significant challenges, let alone changes, will occur during the NCLB re-authorization. For under the currently dominant production frame, NCLB makes perfect sense.

If federal education policy is going to change, it will likely begin with a move away from the production frame and toward the nurturance frame. For then, students and real life learning activities will make more sense than standardized tests.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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