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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

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By Jay Mathews  | 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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The report's authors begin with a false premise and go from there. We, the public who pay their salaries, do not "undervalue the teaching profession." On the contrary, today's public teachers are being paid so well that local and state governments cannot afford them. When an employee of any industry may retire - at full salary - with only 30 years of experience and get a full-paying job in that same industry next door - and this happens quite frequently (watch the exodus from Fairfax County, VA to neighboring Counties) - they are not undervalued.
Given that start, I'm not surprised they draw incorrect conclusions.

Posted by: LoveIB | May 14, 2010 7:57 AM | Report abuse

"Re-Imagining Education Journalism: How Innovative Business Models Could Save Education Media."

Well, it only makes sense that the business model be applied to education reporting.
Promoting using the business model for education has been the mainstay of educational reporting for over a decade.

Good education reporting needs to examine and compare what is being said to what is actually happening.
Did the test scores really go up?
Why are the teachers at a high school being fired when the kids they get score low in middle school and by the end of high school they are scoring better?
How success is the KIPP model when it takes and KEEPS all kids off Mississippi Ave and Stanton Street?

Posted by: edlharris | May 14, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

LoveIB, Great teachers are worth it. My son had a kindergarten teacher who was the greatest DCPS teacher I ever saw. She sold real estate on the weekends and another teacher told me between the two jobs she was making in the $300k range annually. And let me tell you, she earned that money, but it didn't stop her from asking for $100 from each parent for supplies in the beginning of the year. Don't ever let a teacher tell you they're underpaid or under appreciated. My kid's first horrible teacher spent the entire summer, 8 weeks in Spain because he got paid enough to live for 12 months over a 10 month period.

I find that the more I deal with teachers the more I find that the people who REALLY undervalue teachers are the teachers themselves. They paint themselves as victims, they devalue the work they do and the control they have in the classroom (their work products, they falsely claim, are controlled by the local and central administration), and they claim that parents do 99% of the education of their kids (if true, then just shut down the schools altogether and parents will pick up the extra 1% of teaching work).

In 2007 a teacher told me she had problems because she taught in "the hood." This "Hood" she spoke of featured three homes for sale, one 2 blocks from the school at $2.x million, one block from the school at $1.75 million and directly across from the school at $900k. In other words, DCPS teachers have no clue about the community in which they serve and over-inflate if not make up ideas of poverty in solidly gentrified upper class neighborhoods. The administration painted mixed-race kids as minorities over-inflating the school's minority enrollment so that a European kid was called Hispanic and only requested the lowest salary information from one parent, so that, as far as I know this was a real example, Dad makes well into 6 figures, Mom has a part time job and kid is listed as living in a family making only $50k per year. How many of those "single parent families" listed in DCPS rolls have been married couples for years, but AFTER initial DCPS enrollment. Why is it that I almost never meet single parents in DCPS even in Ward 1? DCPS wouldn't lie about that to get extra funding, would it?

I don't think the schools will improve until the teachers improve their self-esteem. Sadly the victim mentality amongst the teachers has been the culture for at least the last 20 years.

Posted by: bbcrock | May 14, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

There are interesting assumptions in this article, but the most critical one is the example of the late Jaime Escalante as an example of a teacher who preferred to expend most of his energy in a classroom rather than become an discussant in educational policy. S. T. Coleridge spent much of his early career bouncing between tutoring the scions of gentry and putting out pamphlets and prose. It was the choice between "the dibble and broadcast," or planting one seed at a time versus throwing great quantities of seed on the ground.

That's the problem with education reporting. You can visit a great teacher's classroom, report on the test scores, throw in some images of the enthusiastic and focussed students, but you can't always communicate what makes the classroom work--and a lot of times that's because the teachers can not articulate it themselves. Sometimes it's optimism, sometimes it's magic, sometimes just hard, hard work. Maybe it is replicable, maybe not.

But as these exemplars percolate up into policy-making, they get quantified and bullet-pointed and come back down as a cold flood of best practices and rubrics. Educational reporters have to wade into this, but yet keep an eye on the small stories. Go see some school plays, or marching bands, or school heritage festivals--not necessarily to report on them, but just to view students giving their best and working as a community.

This may provide some sort of leavening to make reporting more pertinent, and even reach some who might not yet have children or whose children are grown.

Or--you can just start a website called "School Sexting and also the Dumbest Answers on History Exams Ever."

One other note--national educational reporting may likely be a dead horse, but from looking at the results of tests and studies as shown by how the different states performed I think there may be a use for regional reporting. The country has basically reformed into five blocs based on educational priorities and results.

Posted by: gardyloo | May 14, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Coverage of education suffers from problems related to many important segments of American life, like health care. It's driven by often phony "crises" (e.g., the Post regularly makes much of ststistically trivial changes in test scores, a pattern evident across the country). The original and recent coverage of NCLB has been ambysmally shallow and mirrors the laughable coverage of health care reform which seemed to be driven by outrageous claims and a desire to present the horse race rather than the real issues (the Post was particularly egregious). Mathews makes an effort, but I recall reading a column several years ago where he clearly had no idea how decisions were made about services for special needs kids, a rpocess that is selled-out in law and carried out with varying degrees of fidelity and care by every school district.

There was a time when regional newspapers often had excellent people on various "features" beats. David Dietz, the long time science reporter for the Cleveland Press was much respected by scientists and also able to draw interest to a wide variety of topics to readers of a blue collar evening paper. Most papers seem to have less faith in their readers now, yet despite the rise of other media, feature area writers often have the most dedicated readers. I have more respect for Shales de Moraes than I do for most of the Post's political writers, most of whom seem struck in mindless recitations of Beltway chatter rather depth in issues or even politics. Even as the media environment changes, many pepaer, including the Post seem unable to see unique niches where they could inform the public and, instead, spend enormous amounts of money on expensive deadwood like the Post op-ed writers.

Posted by: thebuckguy | May 14, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Aargh. Why is this moment in education any more exciting than ten years ago or thirty years ago? Statements like that make me cringe. There are a few really successful charter schools just as there have always been a few really successful public schools. I get really tired of the KIPP schools and Michelle Rhee being held up as the saviors of public education. I recently caught the soon to be released film Waiting for Superman (in which Jay Mathews predictably sings the praises of KIPP schools) and was shocked by its lack of insight and unwillingness to probe more deeply into the matters it was purporting to investigate. I'm pretty sure Arne Duncan didn't pay for this trite Michael Moore rip-off, but it's as close to propaganda as any documentary I've seen. At best, it's a dishonest and lazy piece of journalism. Jay Mathews, if education reporting is going to live on, it needs to be better than this. And please don't misunderstand--I wont deny that the KIPP schools are clearly doing some things right, but the thesis that they've found some sort of one-size-fits-all magic elixir is offensive to all of the other hard-working teachers and academics who are doing amazing work in our field.

Posted by: bomphray | May 15, 2010 6:28 AM | Report abuse

"...We, the public who pay their salaries, do not "undervalue the teaching profession." On the contrary, today's public teachers are being paid so well that local and state governments cannot afford them. When an employee of any industry may retire - at full salary - with only 30 years of experience and get a full-paying job in that same industry next door - "

I beg to differ. I am not so overpaid that MCPS can't afford me. It has so many "new" and "old but still being forced on teachers" initiatives that they can't afford, our salaries are being hurt. I haven't had a raise in two years--how about you? I'm losing my step increases and getting more duties. How about you? And if I could retire at full salary, you bet I would! Show me the MCPS teachers doing what you claim.
Lastly, education reporting is only relevant to those who care. It is one thing to worry about your own child getting a quality education---it's quite another to worry about education in the nation being inadequate. If your child is OK, then many think that's all that's important.
The majority of people don't get the publications with "education reporting." They get their local papers with local education information. The whole picture isn't on their radar nor is it being given to them. If it's not an emergency, they don't care.

Posted by: goodjuli20031 | May 17, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

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