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 http://washingtonpost.com/education
| 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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