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National ed reporting overrated

Those of us who write about schools were supposed to rise in anger and frustration when the Brookings Institution revealed that during the first nine months of 2009 “only 1.4 percent of national news coverage from television, newspapers, new Web sites and radio dealt with education.” A headline on the Brookings Web site said: “Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough.”

I’m not feeling it. To begin with, the headline was misleading. Brookings probably learned that trick from us newspaper people, but still, get real. Maybe national education news is hard to find. Maybe it deserves to be, as boring and repetitive as it can be. But education reporting, at least the local kind that fills most of my days, is alive and well and provides more than 1.4 percent of what Americans read in their newspapers each day.

Granted, there aren’t as many education reporters as there used to be. There aren’t as many newspaper reporters of any kind. But the Post still has nine local education writing slots (including higher education). Smaller papers are still devoting much of their space to schools. The inflated importance of national school news is not just a footnote. It is my life, and illuminates a widespread misunderstanding of what education reporting should be.

Like many new reporters, I covered local schools in the early 1970s for the Post. Then I was assigned to Hong Kong, Beijing, and finally Los Angeles, where I ran into a high school teacher doing unbelievable things in an inner city school. Before long I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing about educators helping kids like that.

When I returned to Washington in the 1990s, I was a senior reporter with two books about high schools on my resume. In big newspaper culture, the logical job for me was national education reporter. Instead, I asked to return to the Metro staff and cover two of our smallest school districts, as I had done when I was 26.

This was considered odd. Local school reporting was thought by many to be a kid’s game. People looked at me suspiciously. Was I slipping into a second childhood? One publicist who knew me when I was the big deal west coast reporter assumed the Post’s local schools guy with the same name was my son and called to tell me to say hello to my dad.

National education stories have a place, but too often they are about ideology, politics and budget fights (Will the Adequate Yearly Progress rules be changed? Who will get the Race to the Top money?). The most important changes, I learned long ago, occur in classrooms because of the actions of educators, not members of congress.

The distinguished authors of the Brookings report recognized the importance and depth of local education news, but still reached debatable conclusions. They said the lack of national education coverage “makes it difficult for the public to follow the issues at stake in our education debates and to understand how to improve school performance.”

Really? How much can one learn about what teachers and students are doing from a story on the latest NAEP scores or a fight in congress over vouchers?

The national education reporters we have, particularly the Post’s insightful Nick Anderson, do splendid work. But it would be a better use of their talents to relieve them of listening to speeches and interviewing the secretary of education and let them poke around schools frequently, as we local reporters do, rather than make occasional stops. Why is that child not learning to read? Could we find some way to let that precocious eight year old take algebra? Why has that principal lost so many good teachers?

Let novice reporters cover national education news. It won’t take many of them if it’s only 1.4 percent of the total. Let the rest of us report the more valuable story of learning at the local level, for which there is still a lot of space in the paper.

Read Jay’s blog every day at

Follow all the Post's Education coverage on our PostSchools Twitter feed, our Facebook fan page and the Education web page,

By Jay Mathews  | January 17, 2010; 6:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Brookings Institution, Nick Anderson, local education reporting, national education reporting  
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You say,

"The most important changes, I learned long ago, occur in classrooms because of the actions of educators, not members of congress."

I could not agree more. National and state education policy often do little more than restrict fabulous teachers.

Posted by: TheReflectiveEducator | January 17, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse


Last week we had Randi Weingarten's speech, Texas essentially passing on Race To The Top monies, Education Week publishing its report of "Quality Counts," as well as your column regarding the future of No Child Left Behind.

For me, all those stories trump some second grade teacher in Fairfax County piloting some new reading series.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 18, 2010 7:43 AM | Report abuse

What's missing is reporting that connects the national education policy to individual classrooms. For instance, RTTT is gong to mandate standardized formative assessment. A lot of this assessment is already happening in DCPS elementary schools. Why haven't you or your colleagues done any reporting on the what all this BURST/DIEBELS/TRC testing is doing to the educational opportunities of DC students?

Posted by: Nemessis | January 18, 2010 9:06 AM | Report abuse

For Nemessis, great question which makes my point. The reason why we have not tried to answer yr good question is because it is unanswerable. It is virtually impossible to generate any data that would show a connection---too many variables, not enough money to test a big enough sample. My own view is that it has very little impact. We could report a lot of opinions, but that doesn't get us very far. It is much clearer and more reliable to look at what the teachers who have had the best results are doing, and try to understand what there is in their methods that make a difference. But if you know of data that shows what any change in testing is "doing to the educational opportunities" of anybody, let me know. I think the emphasis on assessing low income kids under NCLB has helped them, but I can't prove it with any data. It is hard to report on something that may not have happened.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 18, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Mathews, you get 'two thumbs way up.' from me on this post. Just as I implore my principal to video my class for a week, a reporter needs unfettered access to a school and classroom to see where all the education policy gets mauled by reality. Many principals don't know what's happening in their classrooms regularly, and frankly many parents don't WANT to know, as long as their child comes home and 'has homework.' The 'big stuff' (AYP, API, NAEP, etc.) sounds good to folks because it's adult-to-adult; anything dealing with children is difficult for adults, because we know children are challenging, even if (especially if) you're a parent.

Posted by: pdfordiii | January 18, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

On January 7 you wrote about Quaker Valley igh School in a Pittsburgh suburb as amodel of what education can be. I know you've written before about HB Woodlawn in Arlngton VA, but I wonder if you're aware that it embodies the traits you praised in Quaker Valley. I was fortunate to have all three of my children graduated from HB (a lottery admission school with no sibling preference) and their free wheeling HB education equipped them to be great engaged students and outstanding young adults.

Posted by: mmchurchman | January 18, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

With the staggering amount of immigrant students in the Washington Metro area, why so few stories about English language learners? It's the fastest growing student population in our region and across the country... It's also the most neglected student population in the "Class Struggle" column.

Posted by: hennessyc | January 18, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you totally missed my point. Forget about data. Go into some classrooms and report on what students are doing while their teachers are doing one-on-one testing.

Posted by: Nemessis | January 18, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

and one more thing, Jay, stop equating educational opportunity with test data. They are two different things.

Posted by: Nemessis | January 18, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

I find many problems in this article.

First, the federal government has no authority over education. The Constitution does not mention education as one of its powers; educational authority rests in the states and with the people.

Second, one of the major problems in education is politicians. They have to criticize the education systems as they stand, so they can say they will solve all the "problems" and improve the systems. The yearly Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll on education routinely finds that Americans give their local schools (which they know well) grades of A and B, and rate schools across the nation as D and F. It's the critical politicians that create this impression.

Next, education journalists and politicians think they are experts on education because they have spent a dozen years in school. Most of them think about education through the narrow lenses of their own experiences, as do most people - just read the comments here with all the personal references.

Actually, I think 1.4% reporting on education at the national level is not bad. It would be even better if it were less than that.

Posted by: JudyBird | January 18, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

My apologies, Nemessis. Your message did not say that you were interested in what kids who were NOT being tested were doing. Give me something I can use to interest editors. What are they doing? How do you know?
as for opportunity and test data, sometimes they are not related and sometimes they are. If you see two schools of identical demographics, one where kids are testing very well and one where they are not, wouldn't it be fair to say that raises the possibility that in one school the kids are not being given an opportunity to learn?
And sometimes not---that's why my challenge index ignores test results.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 18, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget the work being done by student journalists. They're your eyes and ears on a hyper-local basis.

As a Blair HS alum, I still check in on Silverchips from time to time to see what's new, in all aspects from changing student perspectives, to how MCPS level decisions will impact Blair specifically, to new fashion trends.

Posted by: tfp_wnc | January 18, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse


Of course, I can't speak for Nemessis but I believe the point he/she was trying to make is this: every minute used for assessment, test prep. and testing takes time out of other classroom instruction. For example, all 28 of my 4th grade students must be formally assessed for reading levels each quarter. Because other colleagues pitch in, I have to assess only 16 of the 28. But each assessment takes 15-30 minutes. I think the assessment are valuable, but there is no way around the amount of time I'm NOT teaching because I'm assessing.

Add to that the amount of time we spend preparing for MSA and some instruction, activity, project, etc. has to be thrown overboard.

Now, I know, in theory there should be a seamlessness between the MCPS curriculum and the MSA, so no targeted test preparation should be necessary....but then I return to the real world.

Posted by: daveairozo | January 18, 2010 10:42 PM | Report abuse

Jay, you said, "If you see two schools of identical demographics, one where kids are testing very well and one where they are not, wouldn't it be fair to say that raises the possibility that in one school the kids are not being given an opportunity to learn?"

The school with higher test scores might not be teaching any history, geography, literature, art, music, or physical education. These students might not be getting any recess. Their school day might be devoted to test prep in reading strategies and math. The school with lower test scores might be teaching all of the subjects and concentrating more on providing well-rounded educational opportunities than prepping for tests of dubious validity.

So no, I don't think higher test scores indicate high quality educational opportunities. They may, in fact, indicate the opposite.

That's why we need reporters to actually go into schools and classrooms to report on the quality of the educational opportunities being offered.

Many years ago, you visited several charter schools and described what was taking place in the classrooms. What you described wasn't all good. Some of it was terrible. That article was one of the more informative pieces you've done. It told us more about charter schools than any test score data could. I wish you would do more of that type of reporting.

Posted by: Nemessis | January 19, 2010 6:37 AM | Report abuse

I am posting this for Caroline Grannan, who is having trouble posting here. PLEASE email me at if that is happening to you too.

Caroline said:

It's not quantity but quality education reporting that's needed -- byline counts are not just silly but harmful.

Also, in my view, reporters should spend time -- lots and lots and lots of time -- in classrooms, and THEN go listen to Arne Duncan's speeches, and analyze them in light of what the reporters have learned from all that time spent in classrooms.

Another big problem with education and journalism is editorial writers and op-ed page editors who make influential pronouncements and choose op-eds without knowing a thing about education issues; without ever spending time in classrooms or making any effort to understand the issues. Education reporters I know have an eye-rolling "whattayagonna do?" attitude about the clueless editorial writers who don't even appear to read the education coverage in their own publications before they pontificate. But it shouldn't be like that.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 19, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

tfp_wnc is so right about student journalists, particularly those at Silver Chips, an amazing student paper at Montgomery Blair High in Silver Spring, Md.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 19, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Nemessis is of course right. Getting inside is the best way to go. And there is some good non-test score data that helps a lot. Check out next Monday's column.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 19, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Who actually reads the education stories and who is the target audience? Surely most people don't like to read numbers and statistics and the general public either wants to read scandal in the schools or "feel good" stories. I think one problem is much of the reporting is not about things that people understand and/or care about. I also don't think enough educators read the paper in general, much less keep up with educational theory, advances, methodology, etc. Lastly, it's hard to report on education and appeal to those not in the field or those who do not have children.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | January 19, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

I agree that what we hear about the condition of education from national sources is too often about "ideology, politics and budget fights." The average reader has little appreciation of the underlying strategies, agendas, and variables not mentioned, which influence these reports and statistics. The validity of all school-reported data is still to be verified, but, most likely will never be, despite anyone's assurances.

However, it would be naive' to believe that local reporters would be allowed the freedom to "poke around" schools, asking questions about why Johnny can't read or Kathy didn't graduate, despite passing her VAAP test with 100%. Parents can't even get in to observe their own children in class without leaping through hoops. Surely you're aware of the delicate privacy issues at stake (or so we hear). Transparency at the local level looks good in print and on TV, but it doesn't make it into the classroom.

Posted by: Notyourmomma | January 20, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

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