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How “narrowcast” is the education policy debate?


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Spring 2013 / Vol. 13, No. 2

People today are awash in news, commentary, analysis, and opinion. Whereas newspapers used to have a lock on the “public debate,” the field of play has now expanded infinitely, to incorporate blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and on and on. Anyone with a good idea, a flair for writing, and an Internet connection has a shot at influencing public opinion.

Yet amidst the flood of words and images, we information consumers are adapting in a predictable, if unsettling, way: migrating toward sources that share our underlying biases and prejudices, which is leading to less real dialogue and inevitably to greater polarization.

At least that’s the evidence from media researchers, who call this phenomenon “narrowcasting.” As columnist Nicholas Kristof put it in the New York Times a few years ago, “We generally don’t truly want good information—but rather information that confirms our prejudices. We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions, but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber.” Conservatives watch Fox; liberals watch MSNBC. Liberals read the New York Times, while conservatives peruse the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal. Views become more extreme, as do the policies promoted by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Is this happening in the education policy debate, too? Are proponents and opponents of reform having a spirited conversation, or are we not even listening to one another?

To find out, I downloaded the lists of people who follow Michelle Rhee and Diane Ravitch, respectively, on Twitter. This is a far-from-perfect indicator, to be sure; with its 140-character limit, Twitter debates are notoriously shallow. But like the wise fool who searches for his keys under the street lamp because that’s where the light is, I used Twitter because that’s where the data are. (But Twitter is one of the fastest-growing sources of information and analysis in today’s media industry, and everyone’s Twitter followers are publicly available.)

Following someone on Twitter is not a high-commitment decision, unlike, say, pledging to read the editorial page of a newspaper with which you often disagree. So, one would think, there should be a fair amount of overlap in the followers of these two most outspoken “thought leaders” in education.

Is there? In short, no (see Figure 1). As of October 2012, Rhee had approximately 39,000 followers, Ravitch about 37,000. Yet only 7,052 people followed them both, or 10.1 percent of the total universe (the people who followed at least one of them).

Click to enlarge

Still, it’s hard to know what to compare this to. How narrowcast is that? Ten percent sounds low to me, but is it? So I also looked at two figures in the broader political debate. I chose columnists Peggy Noonan, a conservative, and Eugene Robinson, a liberal. Like Rhee and Ravitch, they have roughly the same number of followers (about 55,000 each). And how many followers do they share? Just shy of 6,000, or 5.6 percent of their total universe. Now the Rhee/Ravitch overlap doesn’t look any worse than polarization more generally.

Another illuminating comparison could be with the overlap of followers of two people with similar views. To make the math work, I needed to find two pairs of education thought leaders with roughly the same number of followers. (Rhee and Ravitch have such massive followings that it wasn’t possible to find appropriate matches for them.) So I chose Jeanne Allen and Andy Smarick to represent “conservative education reformers” and Anthony Cody and Mike Klonsky to represent “progressive opponents of reform.” Each of the four has about 3,000 followers. Allen runs the Center for Education Reform; Smarick is affiliated with Bellwether Education Partners and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and served in the George W. Bush administration; Cody is a former Oakland teacher who blogs at; and Klonsky is a former Students for a Democratic Society leader and an activist in the Chicago small-schools movement.

Sure enough, there’s strong evidence of narrowcasting. Whereas Cody shares just 6 percent of Twitter followers with Allen, and also 6 percent with Smarick, he and Klonsky have a 16 percent overlap. And whereas Allen shares just 6 percent of her followers with Cody, and 8 percent with Klonsky, she shares a whopping 24 percent with Smarick.

This narrowcasting isn’t just a matter of ideology. There’s something else at play in the education debate, too: a schism between the policy community on the one hand and practitioners on the other. Twitter users are asked to write short descriptions of themselves. More than 1,100 of Cody’s (3,000) followers use the word “teacher” or “educator” in their descriptions; for Allen, it’s just 400.

The bottom line is that there’s a whole lot of talking past one another in the education debate, though maybe less than in the political debate writ large. Want to be part of the solution? You might start by following on Twitter people whose views you abhor and staying open to the possibility that they might, nevertheless, have a few smart things to say.

Or you might follow Education Next; its followers overlap those of Rhee and Ravitch by roughly the same amount (11.7 and 10.8 percent, respectively).

Comment on this article
  • Elisabeth says:

    So, as you admitted, your measure is not perfect for divining how willing folks are to hear conflicting opinions on policy issues. What I’m not sure you considered is that you happened to pick two figures who themselves seem to encourage polarized thinking and are advocates for fairly extreme positions. If I imagine where Rhee and Ravitch fall within the circles of debate that I think you want your Venn diagram to represent, it is certainly not at the center. One problem with this as a test for people’s willingness to simultaneously entertain multiple and potentially conflicting perspectives is that you have no means at tracking behavior of real centrists.

    Personally, I follow neither Ravitch nor Rhee on Twitter. I do follow AEI and Dana Goldstein. I suspect that those of us interested in education policy who really do want to hear multiple perspectives on issues would steer clear of polarizing voices and seek reliable data over rallying cries.

    I agree with the fundamental premise — our current media menu and consumption do reinforce polarized thinking, but I would try your test on some figures who are less polarized themselves.

  • Joy Pullmann says:

    But who really wants to annoy themselves constantly?

  • Jack Stansbury says:

    Sigh. OK, this better be good for me. I am now following Andy Smarick, Jeanne Allen, and Michelle Rhee.

  • […] is what happens when you start listening to folks who think the answer is square in the […]

  • Bill says:

    I’ve been following Rhee for a long time. It pleases me to see her vapid tweets. Stuff like “So happy to promote quality teaching in Podunk tonight…” I plead guilty to charges of schadenfreude.

    I follow Bruce Baker and Shankerblog for statistical explication. Jersey Jazzman and Darcie Cimarusti for investigative analysis and heated commentary. Leonie Haimson for news items, particularly in the NYC area. Stephanie Rivera for a more youthful perspective. Et cetera.

    And Diane Ravitch for pointers to news and opinion around the nation.

    Yes. We talk past each other.

  • Sally Canzoneri says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful analysis. A factor you didn’t mention, though, is that like-minded Twitter hashmark groups can be downright nasty to people who do not share their ideas. I’ve come to think of Twitter Land as a vaste plain with walled round villages where strangers are not welcome — unless they are somebody’s cousin.

    New to Twitter I somehow got myself (a liberal) into #tcot (Top Conservatives on Twitter) and tried to have some civil discussions of issues. All I can say is that #tcot is a tough town in which to be a liberal, though there are some brave souls who keep at it.

    I would hope that the followers of Rhee & Ravitch at least don’t hurl obscenities at one another. But there is no doubt that it is far easier to be nasty than polite in 140 characters.

    Another problem with these small villages is that people send tweets that do not inform or invite discussion; rather the tweets serve to reinforce the community’s shared opinions, to rally the group against outsiders, & to make dissenters feel uncomfortable. What a Radich follower may see as another dull tweet by Rhee, the Rhee supporters will see as affirmation of their views.

    I don’t have any great suggestions on what can be done about this. (Using Tall Tweets would at least permit longer Tweets.) But it is very troubling, as this kind of Balkanization of views and fear of Others seems to be undermining civil society in so many areas of American life.

  • […] That seems to be what’s happening on Twitter, as Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation demonstrated recently. Using Michelle Rhee to represent the right and Diane Ravitch to stand for the left, he calculated […]

  • D. Silver says:

    I used to teach “Intro to Critical Thinking” at the community college level. That doesn’t mean my assessment of this is blog post is necessarily correct but let me voice my reservations, anyway.

    You admit you’re using data from twitter because “that’s where the data are.”

    Well, kudos to you for admitting that this measure is imperfect. But I’d like to give you an off-setting demerit because you fail to consider the idea that the relevant data simply isn’t available.

    The question, “What data is salient?” is more appropriate. As a rough first approximation, I would overlay the related concept of political motivation. Since our educational policies are chosen mostly democratically, I personally would want to know “What moves the citizenry?” Expert opinion? The opinions of your neighbors? Media effects? Experience with one’s own child in the school system? Etc.

    My bottom line: Twitter data has minimal usefulness in this case.

  • CN says:

    I find some of the posted comments erroneous. Obviously, Mr. Petrilli did not frame his article as a research-based experiment; he simply aimed to explore whether there might be some form of “narrowcasting” in education policy debates. Therefore, dissecting his methodology is misguided. It’s not that it’s not a good point (proper methodology should be used in research); it’s just not the right point given the article is not research. It’s more important to focus on the author’s intention and main point: an openness to opposing ideas is needed, but absent in a lot of important policy debates. I think it’s a very good point. It deserves further discussion and thoughtful reflection. However, I do believe Mr. Petrilli missed an important solution: education policy organizations, advocates, and leaders can focus less on narrowcasting themselves, and more on broadcasting.

  • […] as an example of select media consumption by the ideologically driven he found that just 10% of Michelle Rhee’s and Diane Ravitch’s 75,000 combined subscribers follow both of them. After a slight admission of the unscientific […]

  • […] Tweet Thine Enemy, Education Next (no date), Michael Petrilli […]

  • […] rather than monologues. Because I do fear that each side of the education debate has become an echo chamber. Because I’m hoping to have a meaningful discussion between TFA alumni who have divergent views […]

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