Why education reporting will live on and thrive
A few months ago I trashed with some vehemence a report from the much-respected Brookings Institution about the future of education reporting. I thought the distinguished authors---Darrell M. West, Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst and E.J. Dionne Jr.---were too pessimistic about the prospects for my craft. I didn't like the fact that they focused almost all their attention on national education reporting, when the heart and soul of what I and education writers do has been, and always will be, local.
The three authors have followed up that 2009 report, "Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough," with a new and much better attempt: "Re-Imagining Education Journalism: How Innovative Business Models Could Save Education Media." But I still have a gripe. After making much sense, the authors in their very last paragraph descend into utter nonsense:
"Until people perceive education journalism as a route to long-term professional success, it will be hard to re-invigorate school-related coverage," they conclude. "Just as we undervalue the teaching profession, so do we undervalue education journalism."
Sorry, guys. It isn't going to happen. It will take the imposition of a dictatorship led by the officers of the Education Writers Association before any of us get a tenth of the airtime that Dionne--one of my favorite political columnists--gets on the cable news shows. Big-time respect these days requires exposure on TV and multi-million page view Web sites. Mass audiences aren't that interested in school news. They will always, in my view, prefer reporting on celebrities, business, sports and politics, unless of course the government makes them watch us.
So the new Brookings report loses points for being too optimistic, rather than too pessimistic, but I think the authors point in the right direction with an intriguing analysis of how education writers could find enough of an audience to pay our bills by letting the Internet bring us together. Once that happens, social forces not mentioned in this report will, I think, take education to a much higher level of respect, and thus bump up our page views. I will never get as many hits as Dionne, but I will feel good about the ones I get.
Brookings slyly softened me up by quoting my critique of the first report in this new report, and inviting me to be on a panel that discussed their new conclusions. I don't think I was a good addition to the group. The other three panelists were imaginative and accomplished leaders of three of the most important education news organizations in the country: Virginia Edwards of Education Week, Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed and Phil Semas of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
They described in detail what they were doing to spread education writing far and wide. They had good ideas about how to get readers to pay for online content, how free online content might still make money and how to partner with other players in the education field.
Authors of the new report also responded well to my view that national education reporting is less important than local education reporting. Find ways to get local and national education reporters working together, they said, and both parts of the trade will improve.
"National education coverage needs to learn from, be informed by, and more closely resemble local coverage," they said. "It's why good local coverage deserves more national attention, why pooling the work of education writers around the country may provide the most promising path to improving national coverage, and why we hope more ways can be found to encourage local education writers to work together on national projects."
Exactly. Also, I think that despite all the disadvantages of being a journalist these days---anemic advertising revenues, changing reader habits and massive staff cuts at big companies like mine---we education writers have one big advantage. Our story is getting better.
We are in the midst of a remarkable change in the level of passion for and optimism about raising achievement for impoverished students. In the last two decades, hundreds of public schools in urban neighborhoods, both charter and regular, have taken children achieving far below average on national scales and brought them up to levels hitherto seen only in schools full of the children of affluent suburbanites.
A generation ago a few educators were demonstrating how much untapped potential these children had. But they did not get far in spreading the word of what they had done. Jaime Escalante, a good example of a teacher who achieved great success, had neither the time nor the desire to launch a new movement in education. He preferred to stay in the classroom with his kids.
These days we have a critical mass of teachers who saw how much poor kids could do at the beginning of their careers and are leading a revolution in school organization and teaching methods. Most of them are in their early 40s, including Knowledge Is Power Program co-founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and many others. They have helped trained a new generation of school leaders, who in turn are passing on their methods and values to an even larger cohort of teachers, who will spread the movement to an even larger group of educators.
That's news. Even better, it's good news. It has convinced many young journalists of the satisfactions of education writing. They won't earn as much as their friends coming out of medical and law school, but their chances for getting up each morning excited about their day will be much greater.
Many of the energetic recent college graduates who sign up for programs like Teach For America won't stay in schools. They will choose other professions. But their interest in education, in this time of change, will not diminish, and they will be eager consumers of education writing.
These are very positive trends for those of us in this business. If we can come up with more effective and more creative ways of doing our work, as the teachers we cover are doing, education writing will have a big future. I might even suggest that my grandson---once he learns to talk---take a look at it.
Read Jay's blog every day at http://washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.
| May 14, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories: Trends | Tags: Brookings Institution, Chronicle of Higher Education, Darrell M. West, E.J. Dionne, Education Week, Grover J. Whitehurst, Inside Higher Ed, future of education writing, more optimistic now, too pessimistic before
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