I never thought President Obama appointed Arne Duncan education secretary because he had done wonders in Chicago. Rather, he was a politically savvy choice whose approaches Obama approved of. Anyone who paid attention to Chicago media during Duncan’s tenure would have known that there was no consensus on the effectiveness of his reforms, except to say results were mixed. (Which seems to be the best you can say for any urban superintendent of the last decade, and anyway, who was the last education secretary who went into the job having had reformed a horrid system?)
So it surprised me to read in a Washington Post piece
yesterday that the bubble was being burst, because I guess I had forgotten that there was a bubble. The news peg was Chicago’s mediocre math NAEP scores. Don’t get me wrong; Nick Anderson’s piece was good and important, and I especially loved the quote in which Duncan, who judges a hell of a lot on test scores in his new job, tries to explain these ones away by saying he was more focused on “outcomes.” I did think the headline was overly ominous. But the main thing is this: The only reason this was news to the Post was that journalists outside of Chicago hadn’t done a good job of evaluating his record around the time of his appointment as secretary.
This is a problem in journalism: It is too easy to produce quick, glowing stories about the past accomplishments of the new principal, the new superintendent
, the new cabinet secretary, when the reality is far more complex. Of course
Obama had talked up Duncan’s deeds in Chicago. But in this case, balancing information was not hard
to come by
, if you paid any attention to local media.
As Alexander Russo points out
, the Post published a story
exactly a year previous about Duncan’s potentially “model” reforms. It was not the only paper
to leave out the more critical chunks. The 2009 NAEP scores should not have been the only reason readers outside Illinois eventually got a more balanced picture of the secretary.
Ten Best in 2009.
When I look back at 2009, my first thought is: What a bad year for the Academy to name ten Best Picture nominees! Long ago I tried to give up on contests of any sort, because I can’t stand it when the wrong person wins (Hosea over Stefan, Gwyneth Paltrow over Cate Blanchett) or when the right person wins for the wrong thing (David Finkel for his Yemen series
instead of the refugee love story
, Scorsese for “The Departed” instead of “Raging Bull”).
Yet I still care. Some of what I loved best at the movies this year will probably get noticed (the “Up in the Air” screenplay, Meryl Streep as Julia Child), some likely won’t (Adam Sandler in “Funny People,” “Every Little Step”), and a lot that I might have liked I never got around to seeing. Which means I probably never will, since I am the sort of DVD watcher Netflix loves and my husband hates. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” is not just the name of a Romanian abortion movie, but the length of time it sat on my nightstand before I finally mailed it back, unwatched.
So, yeah. Awards, lists, arbitrary, wrong, blah, blah, blah. That won’t stop me, though, from providing my highly personal, no-I-haven’t-read-every-single-thing-written-this-year take on the Ten Best Pieces of Education Journalism of 2009
. My favorites, by the way, have nothing to do with the EWA contest
(enter by January 22!), which I have no role whatsoever in judging.
(because “Top Eleven” sounds lame) goes to Sara Neufeld’s thorough profile
of schools CEO Andres Alonso for the Baltimore Sun. The paper lost a lot when Sara took one of its many eviscerating buyouts.
#10. “Taking the $ATs”
: There is so much to be written about who is making money off education, and I was glad to see Chadwick Matlin of the Slate spinoff Big Money investigate the reach, massive profits and awkward role of the College Board.
#9. “Schools and the Stimulus”: Education Week is always my first stop for clear and current reporting on federal issues, now more than ever. (Though I get the feeling they are relying more on AP lately.) Props to the Politics K-12 blog by Michele McNeil and Alyson Klein.
#8. “Many Dallas-Fort Worth graduates struggle in college”
: Holly Hacker at the Dallas Morning News wrote my favorite database story of the year, linking high schools to their graduates’ grades as college freshmen. My second favorite, “Case of the Missing Juniors”
by Tara Malone, Darnell Little and Stephanie Banchero of the Chicago Tribune, uncovered crafty maneuvers to game the state testing system.
#7. “Brain Power”
: Science writer Benedict Carey did his part to remedy the dearth of good journalism on preschool with a New York Times Magazine piece on the complicated, important teaching of cognitive and executive function to young children.
. “Just Like Us”
: Freelancer Helen Thorpe wrote a powerful, engaging book about a group of Mexican immigrant girls, two legal and two not, struggling to make it through high school and college in Colorado.
#4. “Men Struggling to Finish at Black Colleges”
: First Justin Pope of the Associated Press did the analysis to reveal the horrible graduation rates at historically black colleges. Then, more important, he showed readers what that means on campus.
#3. New Orleans coverage
by Sarah Carr: The Times Picayune benefited from great raw material—you ain’t seen restructuring till you’ve seen the Recovery School District—and one of the country’s best beat reporters. Runners-up: No city was better served in 2009 than New York, where Jennifer Medina
of the Times served up engaging features and dogged coverage of the mayor’s reforms, and the upstart GothamSchools
team’s relentless stream of news kept traditional journalists hopping.
#2. “Failing our Students”
: Diette Courrege of the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier reconstructed one boy’s entire public school education to show how he went 13 years without ever learning to read. The laborious, little-used approach to reporting really worked in this case.
#1. “Fifty-Fifty: The Odds of Graduating”
: The education team at Chicago Public Radio, primarily Linda Lutton, spent a year looking in-depth at the city’s dropout problem. Journalists often attempt big projects on dropouts, but rarely do they weave so interestingly through so many nuanced issues, such as the boredom factor
many dropouts claim as a factor and the dilemma of whether to give well-deserved F’s
that might act as hurdles to graduation. Linda followed up
on her subjects in a heartbreaking, only-on-radio segment.
Putting the X through Xmas.
When I was a Metro section reporter at the Washington Post and double-time pay meant more to me than a day off, I used to volunteer to work Christmas. The holy grail was a feature with live art, and one year I offered a piece I knew would deliver: I wanted to spend the day with someone who had just converted, making this their first year without Christmas. As a nominal Jew who coveted Christmas, I couldn’t possibly imagine choosing such agony. The Metro editor said, “Great idea! But instead, we think you should do it about someone who converted and this is their first year with
Christmas!” In other news, puppies and kitties are really, really cute.
I was relaying this anecdote recently to Jenny Medina of the New York Times, who asked why I had left the paper in 2004. (Really, I left to write another book
; the difference in holiday feature taste was just icing.) She said, I AM WORKING ON THAT STORY
I beg you: Please don’t write another story this fat-envelope season about a senior’s difficult decision between Penn and Columbia and Duke and Berkeley and Cornell. Seriously. Enough already.
Journalists do occasionally write about students accepted at college who then struggle to muster financial aid. Better, I would love to see a story featuring actual students who “undermatch
” simply because they assume
they wouldn’t be able to afford more rigorous and/or selective schools, to which they don’t bother to apply (or, years before, even aspire to). Time and again I teenagers from poor families tell me they wouldn’t ever be able to go to such-and-such school because it costs so much. They do not have the guidance and resources—attentive parents, good counselors, etc.—to learn how little of a college’s sticker price they would actually pay.
Another story to be told is how much flies out of the pockets of even students who receive a full ride. Realistically, how much does college cost beyond the aid package—books, bus fare, the winter parka a southerner buys to attend school in the North—and what kind of hardship might that be? Are there people for whom the tipping point between being educated and not is access to a few hundred dollars a year? I would imagine so.
If you REALLY want a writing job...
a gem! But if you are more of a dunker than a writer, there’s always this one
Jay asked me to slap him around.
Reporters frequently query EWA searching for expert opinions on pushing (I mean, encouraging!) AP classes for all students. I think the New York Times did a good job
yesterday of rounding up the prevailing schools of thought.
I think there’s a lot of reporting to be done on Advanced Placement, as its popularity grows so fast. Among the topics to look at: what students are and are not getting from AP classes (high- and low-achievers alike), whether teachers are well-qualified to teach them, how the test does or doesn’t change the college experience (credits, anyone?), and the degree to which schools are driving kids into AP because of academic value or their Newsweek rankings, or both.
I like my colleague Jay Mathews a lot, but he knows I am not a fan of his Challenge Index and what’s been made of it. Not only is it enormously shallow to rank schools by a single metric—how many kids take AP and IB tests—in order to label them the Best High Schools, it also implies that Advanced Placement courses as put forth by the College Board, as well as International Baccalaureate, are the only worthwhile ways to challenge students. I have not reported on this topic enough to offer firsthand counterarguments, but the questions are always forefront in my mind.
When I first started my blog and vowed not to single out reporters for criticism, Jay protested and offered himself up. So here you go, Jay! Happy holidays! And, as always, I look forward to the Mathews Christmas letter.
High school, meet college. College, meet high school.
More than half of Denver Public Schools students have to take at least one remedial class when they hit college, Jeremy Meyer of the Denver Post reports
. I am sure that is a pretty typical stat, one worth lots of exploration. This is a good story, or stories, for both higher ed and K-12 reporters. You can always write about students who thought they were smart till they landed in “developmental,” non-credit, community college math, but even more important is the massive, gaping hole between what states expect of their high schoolers (as evidenced in standards and exams) and what various colleges want their students to know and do. I can’t imagine the various parties communicate much about this huge systemic problem, but if they do, I would love to know.
No munching, please.
Words that you don’t use in real life, so you shouldn’t in your writing either:
, as a noun. My least favorite of all.
, as a verb. Dispensation for headlines.
as a verb. Again, headline dispensation.
4. Author as a verb.
4. Any form of munch,
except in zoo animal stories.
Students are always “munching hot dogs in the cafeteria” or something, and can you even munch something that is not crunchy?
as an adjective and, come to think of it, well-manicured.
I am not talking about fingernails.
Other suggestions? Some people hate the word educators
, and I totally get their point, but what other word comprises both teachers and administrators?
References available upon request.
A lot of people ask me to edit their resumes and cover letters. (Sure, send me yours!) I am no career counseling expert, but two things stand out to me:
1. Don’t use your resume to get into all sorts of jazzy detail about the specific attributes you bring to your work. That’s what the cover letter is for.
2. Of COURSE your references are available upon request. Can anyone give me one reason to include that line on a resume? It just takes up space, and chances are your resume is already too long anyway.
Hard to feel bad for a paper when it makes choices like this.
Maybe if the Washington Post didn’t have to pay Sally Quinn to advise people
to avoid wearing red and green to Jewish people’s houses, they wouldn’t have to, say, CLOSE THEIR PHENOMENAL NATIONAL BUREAUS. Just sayin’.
ISO: More reporting on for-profit colleges.
Justin Pope at the Associated Press has been doing terrific work
on for-profit colleges. On the face of it, it looks like they have an incentive to take lots of low-income students (and their associated aid) even if they have little chance of succeeding. Which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your perspective.
I love the Washington Post Company, I owe it my career and my social life, Don Graham is wonderful in many ways, and we can thank Kaplan for helping to subsidize the publication of a great (though thinning, grrrrr) newspaper. However, a 23 percent three-year default rate at Kaplan University? Default rates
aren’t everything, and they are going to be high when you enroll the neediest students, but there is a lot to plumb here. We need more in-depth stories, with real people. Who is attending these schools, why are they expensive, what makes it hard to finish and pay back loans?
The great thing is that people all around you are attending for-profit, online universities, so if you cover higher education anywhere, they are on your beat!
Mind the gap: Utah edition.
Year after year, Lisa Schencker of the Salt Lake Tribune had been seeing test scores that as a whole looked pretty good for her state, but she always noticed the disaggregated data didn’t stack up as well. “I suspected this was partly because of our unusually high proportion of white students (pulling up the state’s average), but I didn’t feel I personally had the statistical prowess to prove that,” she wrote me.
Recently, she asked that question during a teleconference about the NAEP math release, which again looked good for Utah. Someone in the media office e-mailed her afterward, attaching a name to her suspicions: Simpson’s Paradox
. Utah’s students rank above the national average in just about every academic measure—until you look at them subgroup by subgroup. Not even the white students (the ones whose overrepresentation bring the average up) outperform their white peers elsewhere in the country.
Schencker wrote a really good story
explaining this all. I only wish you could see the telling bar charts, which are only available to those who sign up to see the Tribune’s e-edition. (To all web editors, from a former graphics editor: Every chart needs to be online! They are not decoration!)
Speaking of statistical prowess: You don’t have to wait for a felicitous encounter with a national flack to acquire yours. Apply by December 21 to EWA’s statistics bootcamp
, which will take place at the journalism school at Arizona State University on February 25-28. Come because participants always tell us they love this seminar, or come because of one particular statistic: The average high temperature in Phoenix in February is 70 degrees.
I love this piece on teen moms.
N.C. Aizenman has a terrific piece
in today’s Washington Post about two girls who became teen mothers, on purpose. It’s part of a series on young, second-generation Latinos. A lot of reporters come to me wanting to write “something about dropouts.” I have a feeling Aizenman approached this more as wanting to write “something about people.” In the process she wound up with a story tells us volumes about dropouts—the girls can’t think of anything to say on the topic of college, but can go on and on about baby names—without even mentioning the word.
Which part of “PUBLIC schools” don’t you understand?
Major-league kudos to Michael Miner at the Chicago Reader, who writes
about the culture of fear in that city’s school system that shuts out reporters—and, by virtue, the public. Reporters around the country tell me it has gotten worse for them, nowhere moreso than in districts led by big-shot reformers. There is no justification for filtering every single contact between journalists and educators through PR people, or creating a climate in which nobody feels free to talk about ... anything.
Miner writes that the head flack at Chicago schools “spoke of the value of having ‘everybody on the same page.’” Ack. I could rant pretty thoroughly about how creepy and unproductive it is to want everyone in a massive organization to be on the same page—and foray into my loathing of how “being a team player,” which principals say all the time, has come to mean “not questioning anything”—but perhaps today is the day I should start trying to blog shorter.
I’ll just say two things:
1. The “same page” climate means that only the crankiest, most out-there gadflies have the guts to question or criticize, which is not as productive as an honest dialogue among everyone.
2. Reporters should write forthrightly, in the stories themselves or on their blogs, about every roadblock they face in this regard.
You looked! Really, do I need any more title than that?
The recent MTV/Associated Press poll
on teens and technology asked people ages 14 to 24 a very specific question: whether somebody had ever sent them, on their phone or computer, naked pictures of themselves. Eighteen percent of respondents said that had happened. I would say this is not specifically “sexting,” which semantically would refer to phones only.
But the important thing is the clarity of the question. “Naked” is more specific than “sexy” or “suggestive” or “semi-nude,” words pollsters used in a survey last year
for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. In some 14-year-old minds, “Hey babe!” might qualify as sexy and a swimsuit might qualify as semi-nude. Not surprisingly, that poll resulted in higher numbers.
The gift to give journalists this year.
Yesterday, Mary Ann Zehr of Education Week pleaded
for schools to provide journalists more access. And I taped an interview with Mike Petrilli
to be podcast on Education Next about the state of education journalism. Now, enough navel-gazing! Time to think about Chrismukkah presents!
People laud my massively talented friend Hank Stuever
for his clever pen and cleverer mind, and it is all totally merited. His work is one-of-a-kind. Everybody knows that. (He bakes well
, too.) What they don’t know, and what impresses me most of all, is the sheer intensity of Hank’s reporting.
Hank’s narrative about Christmas in the exurbs, Tinsel
, is getting great reviews. People love his writing and attitude. What’s less visible is how much legwork went into every detail in that book. How many experts Hank talked with, how many reports he read, how much history he pored through—no detail was too small to check out. Hank went back to Frisco, Texas, and to his subjects, again and again, far beyond what most journalists would endure. It sometimes seems like Hank writes off the top of his snarky head, but he reports the hell out of every single thing he writes about.
Make sure Tinsel winds up in the stocking of a journalist you love, or at least your own. It’s a master class in not just observing and writing but in reporting
. Whether you realize it or not.
The gap ain’t quite closed—but that sounded good.
what Geoffrey Canada is doing with the Harlem Children’s Zone: addressing simultaneously the school factors and non-school factors that so deeply disadvantage poor, inner-city children. (Yes, it doesn’t have to be—it cannot be—either/or.) But just as much as I love the project, I hate the misuse of statistics. Thanks to Aaron Pallas at GothamSchools for calling out an overstatement
of the HCZ schools’ success.
Everything that’s wrong with us, Part Two.
and their mother
has been bemoaning the decline of education journalism, with their eye trained on the journalists themselves. (Almost always the reporters. But of course my natural instinct leads elsewhere: blame editors! Reporters know national context is important; they are dying to cover the beat with breadth and depth. You think they are begging to cover Obama’s speech or a lunchroom brawl?) Anyway, we get it. Journalism is in bad shape. Ergo, education journalism is too.
But guess what? The biggest barrier to excellent education journalism has nothing to do with the institutional weaknesses of that clunky old mainstream media. Rather, it lies within the schoolhouse doors. And the boardroom doors. And the superintendent’s office doors.
Educators operate in a culture of fear. Schools bar access to reporters, and that is a problem. Always has been. Worse, though, is the paranoia that prevents anyone, from the top on down, from speaking honestly about what works and doesn’t in education, what policy might look like (or does look like) in action. If I were a principal and politicians were visiting my school, I would show them the worst
things in the building, so they could see our challenges. I would allow my teachers to speak with the press, without prepackaged messages to deliver. I would be starkly frank with my own bosses. But these days, there is no incentive for such honesty. (Except for “what’s best for the children”—whatever happened to that?)
So teachers only tell their principals what they want to hear, principals tell their superintendents what they want to hear, superintendents tell their boards what they want to hear, all the way up to the national policy makers. Given that calculus, of course, the truth that makes its way to the vast majority of journalists is varnished to a glow.
Education is a secretive world. (Not convinced? Think about the fact that we have built an entire system around the results of tests that in most states nobody outside the classroom is allowed to see.) But with access and honesty comes greater understanding. For ages, the Washington Post had so little access to D.C. schools that they only covered the district as the inept bureaucracy it largely was. Any problem with any student? Blame the system. Obviously, reality is far more complex, which was why I was thrilled to see a piece in the paper in 2007 that finally reflected that complexity. “Will Jonathan Graduate
?” did not exonerate the system, but it showed that the problems inside one high school were not the bureaucrats’ alone. There was blame enough for everyone: central office, school administrators, parents, Jonathan himself. That deeper kind of understanding benefits us all (protective bureaucrats and educators too)—and it can only be had through HONESTY and ACCESS.
Policy makers have advocacy organizations doing a great job to spread their message. Superintendents tell me that because they can control their own message through electronic media, they don’t “need” journalists anymore. That scares the crap out of me, and it should scare you too.
Story idea alert: children's health.
This blog is not—I repeat, not
—a place to air my personal gripes. But would someone please write a story about how practically no pediatricians in the D.C. area (and probably elsewhere) who take insurance are also taking new patients? Unless they are newborns, which I have on good authority is a totally arbitrary distinction. After all, if you are not adding patients because you are busy, why do you make an exception for the patients who need to see you every month?
I am totally willing to be your lead anecdote.
Behind a kerfuffle, important questions.
Last month I read Tom Toch’s commentary
and the related Education Sector report
on the scale-up problems of charter management organizations. Little did I know until I read Debra Viadero’s Ed Week piece
today: drama! It is no secret that the guys at the top of Ed Sector love them some charters. But I have always felt that when it comes to research, the organization shoots straightest, and aims best, of anyone.
I respect all parties in this disagreement, admire what they have built and don’t like seeing them spat (in the newspaper, no less). In the case of this report, I was glad to see these issues addressed at all. But I will say this: I really hope several of the more dramatic parts* of Tom’s original draft
of the report were removed because of space or research-related reasons, not because of ideology and an affiliation with people who have bet big on charters
, as he suggested.
Forget the gossip and think about the research, and the schools. Take the politics out of it; for financial and personnel reasons alone, it will be no small feat, if it is even possible, to replicate today’s most successful charters. Hell, it will be no small feat to even keep the existing ones going. So let’s discuss those challenges fully and honestly.
*“Historically, CMO people haven’t wanted to sit in the same room with school district people,” says Colby of Bridgespan, the San Francisco consulting firm. “They were the enemy.”
Says chief executive Toll: “Amistad is not sustainable with current funding. I wouldn’t start the school now knowing how much additional money the school has to raise to educate its students successfully.”
Many teachers and principals in leading charter networks respond to interviewers’ questions about their working conditions with answers like, “We’re exhausted.”
Everything that’s wrong with us, Part One.
I usually am not big on think tank panel discussions, but today’s Brookings event on the purported decline of education journalism
could not have been more in my wheelhouse. To have missed it would have been like Lindsay Lohan telling Tara Reid that no, thank you, she doesn’t feel like joining her for an absinthe binge in her hotel room.
Part of my job is helping reporters analyze research reports. If somebody came to me about this one, I would have had lots of questions about how it was conducted. The conclusion that 1.4 percent of “news coverage” over nine months this year dealt with education was based on an analysis that counted Rush Limbaugh (how dare he not delve more meaningfully into curriculum theory!) but ignored all newspaper stories that were not on A1. I loved that my former colleague E.J. Dionne said “Linda is an excellent methodologist” when I asked about that
—it’s the nicest compliment I’ve gotten in weeks—but I disagree with his and Russ Whitehurst’s responses that the A1-only calculus shouldn’t have skewed results.
That said. That particular factoid was not interesting to me. I did love the chart that broke down education coverage by topic. As much on hugging as on teacher training! More on swine flu than on ... almost anything! I could have done without at least 70 percent of the stories written this year about swine flu and Obama’s speech to schoolchildren (don’t ask for my methodology on that
), so I think a lot of what the authors talk about in terms of coverage priorities is worth thinking about.
More tomorrow. Right now it’s home to read the ever-thinning paper.
ISO an article that fills in the bubbles—I mean blanks.
Nearly a decade ago, only a few months into George W. Bush’s first term as president, Nicholas Lemann wrote a really interesting New Yorker piece
about how No Child Left Behind evolved and the key players behind it. He focused especially on mastermind Sandy Kress, whom we would learn a lot more about in the Texas Observer
I want to read the in-depth magazine piece about who exactly has been behind Obama and Duncan’s education policy and what their motivations are, and I want to read it soon! I want to read how Obama went from someone whose campaign platform railed against “preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests” to someone whose education reforms measure everything—everything
!—in terms of how well students are filling in the bubbles.
No matter where you stand on the substance of the policy, that is an interesting evolution. Wouldn’t you like to read that piece? Or write it?