Education reporting has never been better than it is right now. That said, there’s room for improvement. That’s the conclusion I have come to after 41 years on the beat and after attending the annual meeting of the Education Writers Association in Boston last weekend.
When I got into the game in 1974, EWA was gasping for breath. When I joined its Board in the late 70’s, I discovered that the executive director kept the organization’s financial records in a shoe box; moreover, there was no annual budget, just some numbers scribbled on a legal pad. The education beat itself was, for most reporters, a way station, a stepping stone to something with prestige. Only a handful of reporters like Mike Bowler, Anne Lewis, Ron Moskowitz and Fred Hechinger made a career out of reporting about schools.
When Lisa Walker became Executive Director of EWA, she and a revitalized Board brought EWA into the big leagues. Under current Executive Director Caroline Hendrie, the organization now stands alone as a model–and the education beat has become a beacon for reporters assigned to cover other issues. The EWA’s powerful ‘listserve’ allows reporters to stay connected and share insights and, when appropriate, sources.
National coverage is strong: Chalkbeat (now in 4 states and expanding), The Hechinger Report, Pro Publica and Politico Education are providing outstanding national and local coverage. NPR (National Public Radio) has a strong education team, as does the PBS NewsHour (the latter team includes my former colleagues at Learning Matters). Although Education Week is a trade publication, it remains a “must read” for anyone interested in the both the big picture and the weeds of the business. (One of my regrets is that when we negotiated the merger into Ed Week, I did not ask for a lifetime subscription!) There are more interesting education blogs than I could begin to count, and that’s a good thing.
When The Tampa Bay Times won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, that clinched it: education had become THE cool and significant issue to cover!
However, troubles continue. The reporting is generally better, but the audiences are smaller, particularly for the print reporting. Is the news hole for education still shrinking because advertising is the largest determinant of the amount of space devoted to news? As far as I know, only NBC has a national correspondent assigned to cover education (the estimable Rehema Ellis), and, if you think about leaving public radio and searching elsewhere on the dial for education reporting, forget it.
There are important education stories waiting to be told, of course. My own list includes, in no particular order:
1) The ongoing reliance of high schools on ‘credit recovery’ to boost their graduation rates. Yes, graduation rates have climbed, but how much of the increase is due to quickie, computer-based ‘courses’ that students take in a week or two?
2) The widespread failure of online K-12 programs, particularly the on-line charter schools…and the continuing growth of same because politicians don’t seem to care. Here I think it’s worth following the money.
3) The reluctance of charter school leaders to weed out scammers and profiteers in the world of non-profit charter schools. I have written about this on my blog.
4) The failure of the largely successful Opt-Out ‘Movement’ to say what it stands for (because we know what it’s opposed to). If the ‘test-and-punish’ regime is going to be overthrown, how will schools assess student performance? How should teachers be evaluated? Who’s getting it right?
5) How does it happen that school boards often are persuaded to spend lots of money on technology without a serious plan for using it? Los Angeles is the poster child, of course, but have other Boards learned their lesson? Hardware and software are a $15-20 BILLION business in education.
6) Why not look into intra-union power struggles between the national and state chapters and between state and local chapters? Chapters have been padlocked, and people have gone to prison.
7) Diane Ravitch against the billionaire funders of what she calls ‘corporate reform’ and others call ‘data-driven decision making’ is a superb feature story, in my opinion. She’s 76 years young….and she has Gates et alia on the ropes. How did this happen?
8) Speaking of Gates, perhaps a reporting team with an interest in history could dig into the connections between the Gates Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. The Foundation gave states big grants so they could hire McKinsey to help them write their ‘Race to the Top’ proposals. How did requiring states to use student test scores to evaluate teachers become of of Race to the Top’s ‘four pillars,’ a requirement for getting the bailout money that schools so desperately needed?
You may have other suggestions, and, if I have missed some solid coverage of the issues I have listed, I apologize.
In sum, education reporters are getting it right. Now keep on keeping on!