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Five reasons why I am a bad education writer

It’s almost December, time to sum up and see if I added value to life on the planet this year. Others can assess my successes, if any. I prefer to dwell on my failures. There are many. Here are five I consider important.

1. I spent too much time covering political and ideological battles: Exhibit A is, of course, the controversy over Michelle A. Rhee’s tenure as D.C. schools chancellor, particularly the firing of hundreds of teachers. My colleague Bill Turque has done a terrific job following that story, but I could not resist butting in. The fight was drawing readers, after all. The distractions and disruptions hurt everybody in the short run, something worth noting, but in the long run such disputes rarely yield policies that raise achievement.

2. I wrote too few stories about parents and students in crisis: The most useful stories, the ones that sometimes inspire change, are about lives damaged by bad school policies, or administrative inattention, or bureaucratic sloth, or ill-considered assumptions.

I did a few columns like that. There was the Virginia mother who could not obtain special education services for her son, and the Maryland teacher with a law degree who was almost dismissed because accreditation procedures were askew. I should have done more.

3. I wrote too little about educators who have succeeded in raising achievement for students: I have spent many years looking for teachers and schools that attain our highest expectations for public education. There are relatively few that pass my test---significantly raising the educational level of impoverished students.

These include the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools, the Advanced Placement program as used at schools like Wakefield High in Arlington and Columbia Heights (formerly Bell Multicultural) in the District and the International Baccalaureate program as used in high schools like Annandale and J.E.B. Stuart in Fairfax County.

I have not mentioned them very often this year, because I know that readers (and maybe editors) will complain that I am repeating myself. I think I am wrong to give in to this feeling. There is much to be learned in the details of successful schools. On this blog, where I have much more space, I try to make up for this deficiency, even if some readers complain that I am in a rut.

4. I rarely wrote about private schools: This is partly because of laziness. It takes much time and effort to report on private schools because so many are reluctant to give out information that might hurt their reputations in their annual competition with other private schools for students.

I am also handicapped by the journalistic assumption, rarely discussed or debated in our newsroom, that paying attention to these private enterprises is like giving them free advertising. Fortunately this year we assigned recent college graduate Michael Birnbaum, too young to have been corrupted by these biases, to cover private schools. He has been producing an astonishing number of good stories.

5. I wrote about big studies by important people and not small studies by nobodies: Like most education writers, I tend to give more attention to research generated by large organizations, like the federal government, the College Board or the big think tanks. Their reports often have reassuringly large samples of data and well-known researchers. If the Post doesn’t write about them, our competition will.

But the most interesting and important study I saw this year came to me almost by accident, in a 198-page book by an unknown Seton Hall University assistant professor, Rebecca D. Cox. It is called “The College Fear Factor” and tells more about why undergraduates don’t succeed than anything I have ever read. If you know of more stuff like that I have missed, let me know and I will try to do better next year.

For more on Education, please see

By Jay Mathews  | November 29, 2009; 10:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Bill Turque, Columbia Heights Education Center, Knowledge Is Power, Michael Birnbuam, Michelle A. Rhee, Rebecca Cox, Wakefield High School, education reporting, private schools  
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Here's number six: you are obsessed with academic achievement measured by standardized test scores over quality of academic opportunities.

Posted by: Nemessis | November 29, 2009 10:19 PM | Report abuse

sorry buddy. there are more than five reasons you are a bad so-called education writer!

Posted by: stayone | November 30, 2009 4:17 AM | Report abuse

You possess one strength lacking in too many journalists: humility.

On number 3, above: The number of schools that raise achievement among impoverished students is not so small that education journalists wouldn't be kept busy covering their successes and what they do to achieve them. We have encountered quite a few successful schools that languish in relative obscurity. Journalists who pay those schools some attention won't be sorry. They'll find stories full of struggle and inspiration.

We at the Learning First Alliance would be happy to point you to those successful schools.

Posted by: ClausvonZastrow | November 30, 2009 6:33 AM | Report abuse

Jay is neither a bad nor humble education writer. He's a very clever guy who can find an attention-grabbing headline when he wants to.

Posted by: efavorite | November 30, 2009 8:09 AM | Report abuse

efavorite is not entirely correct, but may have to be banned from the site for getting too close to the truth.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 30, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

"Good" and "bad" are out of style. You should be "Racing to the Top" to be a world class Ed writer. To do this you need higher ed writer standards, better ed writer tests, basing your pay on merit, and turning around the Washington Post.

I've given up on traditional ed writers. Entrepreneurial venture funding of charter ed writers will provide the competition to generate quality ed writing.

Posted by: DickSchutz | November 30, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I love reading your column but you are WAY too much of a cheerleader for the AP and IB programs. While they are useful for certain students, they are not the solution to everything that ails U.S. high schools you imagine them to be...

Posted by: CrimsonWife | November 30, 2009 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Bravo, DickSchutz!

Posted by: pittypatt | November 30, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Two points: DickSchutz is a genius. I particularly like that funding aspect of his vision for my job.

For CrimsonWife: I plead guilty to being American journalism's biggest cheerleader for AP and IB and similarly challenging programs, and say they have been the best things that have happened to American high schools in the last 20 years. (Can you tell me of anything that has been better?) But that is very far from saying they are the solution to everything that ails high schools. I have said many times, particularly in defending the fact that many schools ranking high on the index still have many problems, that AP and IB provide no quick cure for low family incomes or low state test scores or high dropout rates. My last book, the KIPP book, doesn't mention either AP or IB, and instead explains what I think I have learned from great educators to be the clearest solutions to our deepest problems, for all K12 and not just high schools: higher expectations for all students, more instructional time, more intelligent focus on better assessment methods and a team approach to running the school and making decisions led by a skilled teacher with the power to make all important decisions. Only 2 of those 4 approaches (expectations and assessments) are very relevant to AP and IB.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | November 30, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Jay – regarding your comments about me - thanks for the good laugh.

Building on DickSchultz’s brilliant theme, I think all education writers should be evaluated on a system that requires training that only the newest journalists recently received in a special course for smart people who never considered journalism as a career and will probably leave in a few years.

Old journalists like Jay Mathews and David Broder will not receive the training and their long-standing successful practices will not count in the new system. If they can’t get a 2 on a 4 point scale by the end of the year, they’re fired no matter what their past success.

Their evaluators will offer tips, if asked, on how to improve their scores, but at no time will the old journalists be offered the training the new journalists received. Instead they will be expected to produce the same output as ever while picking up the new system on the side.

Posted by: efavorite | November 30, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Regarding evaluating Jay, I noticed someone wasn't taking notes
and that efavorite and DickSchultz were passing notes
and that Jay hasn't "work to instill the belief that I can succeed if I work hard.”

Posted by: edlharris | November 30, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you are way too modest in only thinking of five ways inwhich you have failed at your job this calendar year. You, in too many cases, have been blinded in your promotion of Rhee and KIPP. As you say in your column, only the very best for you.

If that was the case, most would be uneducated, as Rhee has yet to make one concrete change at DCPS that can be documented and KIPP is so small and costly, it will never significantly impact the large number of children who are in public education.

You would be better served to look for those superintendents and school systems that are doing a good job of serving families....some right here in our immediate area.

Posted by: topryder1 | November 30, 2009 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Jay, perhaps what you see as your failures are due to the Washington Post's failure to fully fund education journalism?

Then there's your readership over which you have no control. If people of low socio-economic status click on the link to your column and they're not pundit-ready due to hunger, family strife or the effects of social injustice is that your responsibility?

There. I trust the karmic sarcasm equilibrium of your column has been restored.

I haven't been reading your column for very long but if I were to pick an item for your list of regrets I'd add a failure to select, from time to time, some educational sacred cow and run it through a CAT scan. Or a band saw. It's a target-rich environment but these cows shoot back.

Posted by: allenm1 | November 30, 2009 10:51 PM | Report abuse

I don't think you are a bad education writer. I just personally wish you cover the children whose behavior makes them difficult to keep in school. There are children who should probably be separate schools that deal specifically with behavior problems, and not in the public schools. Often the behavior of these children really disrupts the general education classes in public schools and make teaching difficult.

Posted by: aby1 | November 30, 2009 10:59 PM | Report abuse

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