Editor’s note: This article was originally published by PJMedia on September 14, 2016.
Many public schools are now assigning their students children’s versions of newspaper articles through a new company called Newsela. Newsela takes articles from outlets such as Washington Post and Associated Press, rewrites each one to fit five reading levels, and publishes them online.
The “ELA” part of Newsela’s name evokes the “English Language Arts” component of the Common Core State Standards, which has established national teaching norms for K-12 schools. One of the core characteristics of the Common Core is its emphasis on “informational texts” – its term for nonfiction. Thus, textbooks take primacy over literature in the English Language Arts world of Common Core.
News is the informational text par excellence. The creators of Newsela found an opportunity to profit from the Common Core standards by adapting news to the classroom and selling it to schools as “Common Core-aligned.” It offers grade-appropriate versions of newspaper articles as reading exercises, coupled with four-question quizzes to test students’ comprehension.
While this may seem a useful teaching tool, not everyone thinks of it favorably.
A Liberal Slant?
Leslie Wilson, a mother of a seventh-grader said by email that she is concerned that “the articles seem—to me at least—to consistently reinforce a very leftist political view.” She said that for example, “an article about returning the Elgin marbles to Greece quoted a variety of supporters of that view, but did not offer any viewpoint from the British Museum or other informed/interested party for keeping the marbles where they are.” The mother also said she believed that the material was of a poor quality and that her daughter had found two factual errors in them.
Do Newsela articles consistently reinforce a leftist point of view? A scan of its daily offerings would suggest this, but the articles were originally published by professional media, so the political slant reflects the original source’s as well as Newsela’s own bias:
- Newspapers such as The Washington Post, The Guardian, and AP, from which Newsela articles come, already lean left.
- Newsela cherry-picks the news in such a way as to emphasize ideas sympathetic to progressivism.
Many of Newsela’s articles are PBS-type material about animals, sports, science, and popular culture. Headlines from recent weeks include:
“Slow, sleepy sloths lead a relaxed life”
“McDonald's to change what it's made of, removes unhealthy ingredients”
“Popular ‘Pokemon Go’ game has been banned in Iran”
“Newly discovered planet may support life, scientists say”
But when Newsela chooses articles with an ideological flavor, that flavor is distinctly progressive. It abounds with articles that sound the alarm on global warming, pollution, or animal extinction (“The role of climate change in the Louisiana floods”); praise President Obama (“President Obama is protecting more water off the coast of Hawaii”); or focus on racial and ethnic grievance (“Indian tribe sues over river damage”).
Shrinking, Scrubbing, Simplifying
How does a Newsela version of an article compare with the original? The company’s article “A career as a costumed mouse? Not just for Disney World anymore” is the “1020L level” version of the September 6 Washington Post article “Japan is so crazy about mascots that ‘fluffy toilet character’ is a real job.”
The 1020L rating is matched to 7th graders. Newsela’s reading levels correspond to the Lexile Framework for Reading, which bills itself as “the gold standard for college and career readiness.” The highest Newsela level is labeled “MAX” and is the unaltered text of the original article. Second graders read articles around the 400L-450L level, such as “To many people, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is more than just a song.”
The 1020L level article about careers as Japanese mascots differs from itsWashington Post original in a few small ways:
- Vocabulary simplified. For example, it says “goofed around” instead of “bumbled around.”
- Vulgarity scrubbed. The Post article mentions a mascot name formed from a mashup of Japanese and English words that ends up sounding like the f-word. The Newsela version edits out this paragraph.
- Derogatory description deleted. Newsela purges the description of one interviewee as “a short, round 35-year-old with a lisp.” The only detail it keeps is his age.
- Generally the 1020L article retains the ideas of the full article but in fewer words. It appears that Newsela never changes the quotes it keeps.
Of course, the lower the reading level, the greater the tendency to oversimplify.
An article, “Future climate change doesn’t make Earth greener,” from AP serves as an example for comparison.
Opening paragraphs, AP:
In the course of a 17-year experiment on more than 1 million plants, scientists put future global warming to a real world test — growing California flowers and grasslands with extra heat, carbon dioxide and nitrogen to mimic a not-so-distant, hotter future.
The results, simulating a post-2050 world, aren't pretty. And they contradict those who insist that because plants like carbon dioxide — the main heat-trapping gas spewed by the burning of fossil fuels — climate change isn't so bad, and will result in a greener Earth.
Opening paragraphs, Newsela 580L (5th grade level):
Scientists in California know it will be even hotter in many years. They want to know what will happen to plants. They are growing many different plants. They are using extra heat, carbon dioxide and nitrogen.
They hope the elements will create an environment that is like the world in the year 2050. The scientists want to see how the plants react. So far, the future does not look good.
The scientists have been doing this for 17 years. They are creating the changes that come from global warming. The scientists say it is like having a time machine to look ahead.
While the AP article already takes global warming as a given, the 5th grade level version is even more explicitly partisan. It reads more as a predetermined judgment than an impartial reporting.
Who’s Driving Newsela
Newsela got a kick-start in 2015 with a $15 million infusion from venture capitalists such as Kleiner Perkins and Zuckerberg Education Ventures, the investment fund of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Another funder was the Miami-based Knight Foundation, which in 2013 apologized for paying an honorarium to a journalist for the New Yorker who had resigned in scandal after admitting to plagiarism and fabrication. The Knight Foundation was created “to promote excellence in journalism.”
The founder and CEO of Newsela is Matthew Gross. He has dedicated his career to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, beginning with Race to the Top. He worked for Education Secretary John King, Jr. while King was New York State Education Commissioner. Gross is also a professional fundraiser who raised over $9 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and other heavy hitters whose dollars enabled the Common Core to steamroll its way into states.
Teaching the News
Newsela boasts that “more than 800K educators around the world” pay for its services, and that students have read more than 97 million of its articles. Gross and his company are capitalizing on schools being shackled to the Common Core State Standards—and the company’s powerful funders have a vested interest in Common Core continuing to be the dominant educational regime in the nation. But as a number of states are voting to repeal Common Core and withdraw from tests aligned with it, schools’ demand for Newsela may dwindle.
Children should learn at a young age to read and understand the news. Young people have always been less apt to read the news than their elders, but the rise of social media has meant that newspaper-reading is in sharp decline across age groups. Cultivating familiarity with written news could help raise up citizens who know and care about the world around them.
Newsela, however, brings not just news but bite-size bias: tasty morsels of progressive propaganda for unwary little minds. As a company, Newsela has unseemly ties to the Education Department and the Common Core machine. Newsela currently has no viable competitor, though some publications, such as Time Magazine and Smithsonian, each have their own kid versions.
Parents and teachers who have noticed Newsela’s bias have valid concerns. Perhaps the only way to counter the one-sidedness in those articles is for parents to read the news with their children and talk about it at home. As for Newsela in the curriculum, one reason it is popular with schools is that it is well packaged and presented, minimizing extra work for teachers. Like Advanced Placement courses which stand in need of alternative choices, Newsela could use some healthy competition. Until then, as the Common Core’s afterglow fades away, Newsela may need to find a new way to market itself.
Image: No Title by Abhisek Sarda // CC BY