June 17, 2009 / Staff Management

NAA foundation study shows high school journalism matters

Written by Sandy Woodcock

For the past 20 years, advocates of high school journalism have relied on a study conducted by the Journalism Education Association to demonstrate the value of school newspaper and yearbook experience in boosting students’ academic performance and helping their transition to college.

Now, new research conducted for the NAA Foundation provides some fresh ammunition in the battle to ward off cuts in journalism programs because of budget pressures or opposition from administrators who question the value of a free, often critical, student press.

The 2008 NAA Foundation research mirrors the 1987 JEA findings and provides clear evidence that student journalists earn better high school grades, perform at higher levels on college entrance exams and receive higher grades in college writing and grammar courses than students who lack that experience.

Along with learning the practice and craft of journalism, photojournalism and publication design, these students also hone their critical thinking, leadership and self-management abilities.

The “High School Journalism Matters” study builds on previous NAA Foundation research showing that students who work on their high school newspapers or student-oriented sections of their hometown papers and who use newspapers in class or for homework are more engaged in civic activities, better educated and more involved citizens as they grow older.

The survey sample

Conducted by Jack Dvorak, Ph.D., director of the High School Journalism Institute and a professor of the School of Journalism at Indiana University, the 2008 research is based on high school grade point averages and ACT performances of 31,175 students who are attending or have attended colleges and universities in all 50 states and some foreign countries.

The ACT, formerly known as The American College Testing Program Inc., is universally accepted for college admission. It is administered annually to more than 1 million high school students.

The ACT is not an aptitude or IQ assessment. Instead, it is designed to determine what students have learned in their high school studies of English, mathematics and science. It also measures reading skills and includes a student profile section that provides a comprehensive look at a student’s work in high school, his or her areas of interest and plans for college and beyond.

One of the questions in the student profile section asks test-takers to respond to the following statement: “Worked on the staff of a school paper or yearbook.” In this study, 6,137 of the students or roughly 20 percent responded “Yes, applies to me” to that statement.

Using the data collected for the entire group of students, it was possible to compare the outcome for journalism students and non-journalism students in a number of areas, including ACT scores, collegiate performance, final high school grade point averages and grades in the last high school courses taken in various subjects.

A smaller subset of the overall group also had taken the Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency exams as sophomores, allowing the researcher to compare the results of journalism and non-journalism students for those tests as well.

The 2008 results showed a statistically significant difference in performance of the students involved in journalism compared with those who had no journalism exposure. In research of this sort, statistically significant results mean that the variance in the findings actually is caused by the factor being studied, not by chance or an unrelated element.

In the 2008 study, as was the case in 1987, students with journalism experience had higher scores than non-journalism students in these areas:

* High school overall grade point average
* ACT Composite score
* ACT English score
* College freshman English grade
* College freshman grade point average

Journalism students also had higher grades in high school mathematics, social science, science and English courses than non-journalism students.

“If you are engaged in your school newspaper or your yearbook in high school, the research suggests you will be better with critical thinking skills, better with your grades and a more rigorous contributor to society,” says Bruce Bradley, president/publishing group of Norfolk-based Landmark Communications Inc. and chairman of the NAA Foundation Board of Trustees.

In terms of the college entrance examinations, high school journalism staffers scored in the 64th percentile on the ACT Composite compared with scores in the 56th percentile for non-journalism students. With ACT English scores, journalism students finished in the 65th percentile compared with the 59th percentile for non-journalism students.

And those students with high school newspaper or yearbook activities also finished higher in the ACT Reading test, with scores in the 59th percentile compared with the 56th percentile for the non-journalists.

The researcher also looked at the entire sample to compare the academic performance of students from communities of different sizes once they arrived in college by studying their first-year college grade point averages and their grades in their first English courses.

In both comparisons, students from mid-sized communities received higher grades than students from small communities and did considerably better than those from larger communities. In terms of overall first college grade point average, students from mid-sized communities averaged 2.76, compared with 2.75 for those from small communities and 2.63 for students from large cities.

Individuals involved with high school journalism education say mid-sized communities, which often are suburban areas, are under less budgetary pressure than inner-city schools and small communities in terms of their journalism offerings and overall academic programs.

Journalism education

The NAA Foundation research is welcome news for the journalism education community, which has watched as more high schools eliminate journalism courses, school newspapers or school yearbooks due to budgetary pressures or the belief that a free high school press could prove embarrassing and do little to enhance the school’s reputation.

Candace Perkins Bowen, executive director of the Ohio State Organization of High School Journalism, runs a listserv for around 900 journalism teachers across the United States and regularly hears reports of trouble.

“Legal and budget are the biggest challenges on the listserv these days,” says Bowen, who also is director of the Center for Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University. “There are a whole lot of comments on the legal stuff – ‘Our principal says we can’t print this’ – and that kind of stuff. It is the kind of thing administrators are getting [told] in their legal classes. The angle there is protect your tail.”

On the budget side, there is pressure to offer the sort of classes that administrators, advisers and counselors think will result in good test scores that make it appear the school and its faculty are performing better.

“It s a combination of what is required for No Child Left Behind coupled with funding issues in a lot of places,” Bowen says. “School districts are not passing levies, so the schools are cutting frill stuff and going with bigger classes to streamline things.”

Mark Goodman, who spent 22 years as executive director of the Student Press Law Center before moving to Kent State in January as the Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism, says that too often, journalism is perceived as an extracurricular activity rather than a core educational offering.

“Many officials also see it as a headache,” he says. “When students are practicing good journalism, they are raising questions and discussing problems, so administrators not only have the budget incentive, but they also figure this could help get rid of a headache or a thorn in our side.”

What is lost, in addition to the students’ views, is the opportunity to learn about good journalistic techniques and develop an appreciation for the First Amendment.

“We know from our work at the First Amendment Center that we don’t educate students well about the Bill of Rights, and the First Amendment in particular,” says Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville. “In many schools, particularly those that lack a journalism program, there is no opportunity to see it in action.

“If schools want to motivate and have motivated students who are involved in a multiplicity of activities, clearly journalism is a significant component of that,” he adds.

Chicken or egg?

The study does not resolve the issue of whether students do better because of their journalism work or because students involved with journalism are better students. It is a classic quandary: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

“If nothing else, we can conclude that high school newspaper or yearbook staff involvement is an excellent outlet for talented, active and involved students,” Dvorak notes in his report about the study. “It also gives them a chance to apply their natural leadership abilities while also exercising their critical thinking, designing and writing skills.”

Heather McDonald, a former high school newspaper journalist who now is teaching composition to freshmen at American University in Washington, D.C., concurs.

“In journalism, you are constantly trying to research something and make sense of something, but it works both ways because journalism teaches all those skills that translate to other classes, things like making sense of arguments and writing more clearly,” she says.

Ultimately, whether journalism students are brighter because of their newspaper or yearbook work or whether they go after that experience because they are better students, the message to schools may be the same.

“If a school can say if we have a journalism program, chances are this is what the performance differential will be, it really doesn’t matter, because it attracts students who will participate at that level or creates students at that level,” Goodman says. “In this day and age, when school systems are so concerned about academic performance, no school can justify not having a student newspaper and yearbook.”

For more information on “High School Journalism Matters” and other NAA Foundation research studies, visit www.naafoundation.org.

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Sandy Woodcock