Ten best in 2010.
A lot changed in 2010. My hairstyle
, my coast
, my child’s sleeping habits
. Oh, wait—this isn’t about me. Well, then. EWA got a new director
. Everybody and their uncle Raced to the Top. Hollywood discovered schools
, and I don’t mean as a backdrop for naughty
teacher antics. Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg bonded over the plight of our schoolchildren. National magazines like the Atlantic
wrote about education more, it seemed, than ever. Beat reporters faced their own trending topics: furloughs, Twitter, Tumblr, tra-la-la.
It was the year of the teacher, of course. (You matter
, you’re lousy, etc.) So it should come as no surprise that the topic shows up in so much of my favorite education journalism this year. The caveats here are multiple: One, this list reflects only my own opinion, not that of my EWA colleagues or the independent judges of our contest
, which has nothing to do with me and which you should enter, by the way—you have four weeks. Two, I haven’t seen every single thing produced this year. Three, I’ll forget something.
That in mind, here is my list of the Ten Best Pieces of Education Journalism of 2010
#10. “Cultivating Failure”
: I don’t hate schoolhouse gardens as much as Caitlin Flanagan does—who could?—and her analogy of children tending them to migrant farm workers went a little far. But I did found her Atlantic treatise against gardens in California schools convincing on many grounds. There is a world of improvement possible between federally ordained junk-food breakfasts and organic kale, which most coverage of school nutrition does not acknowledge.
#9. “When an A Isn’t Enough”: Charlie Boss of the Columbus Dispatch set out to write a piece about the rising number of A’s in her district but found out something more interesting: A great GPA doesn’t inoculate you from remediation in college. Boss’s database analysis allows readers to look up how much or little connection there is between high school grades and college success, school by school. College readiness and completion is one of the biggest policy issues of the moment, and Boss did a good job in this piece (and in the accompanying “Numbers Aren’t Adding Up to Success”) of showing how far we have to go.
#8. “Hope or Hype in Harlem?”
: Amid all the great attention the Harlem Children’s Zone has gotten, Helen Zelon and City Limits took a thorough look at the project and whether its efforts are assessable and replicable.
#7. “Talented and Gifted”
: Steve Hendrix, a Metro reporter for the Washington Post, stumbled upon his mother’s powerful legacy as a second-year teacher in 1976-77. She died a few months later, but only after influencing the course of many children’s lives. My honorable mention for storytelling goes to “Petty Tyrant,”
by Sarah Koenig of This American Life. Who would have guessed that in the year of the bullying story, the best-told one of all would concern a school district’s maintenance director?
#6. “When Layoffs Come to L.A. Schools, Performance Doesn’t Count”
: I’d imagine other best-of lists would include the original
Los Angeles Times value-added story and database, which I have mixed feelings
about. This later piece by Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith, about seniority-based layoff decisions and their disproportionate impact on certain schools, was a better use of the data, I think, with direct policy implications and a clearer presentation of repercussions on schools and children.
Teacher coverage by Stephen Sawchuk
: If it is the year of the teacher, it’s the year of the
teacher beat reporter, yes? But Sawchuk earned it. The Education Week reporter produces
solid explainers, parses
research clearly, brings
new angles to oft-told tales, tracks
new initiatives, takes
on under-covered topics, keeps
us abreast of the political contours and writes
a must-read blog on teacher policy. My favorite Sawchuk piece
this year explained how the different governance structures of the NEA and AFT impact their policy agendas.
The Washington Monthly College Guide
: My praise here is not for the school rankings, which I am ambivalent about. But the journalism is terrific: Daniel Luzer on one university’s purchase of prestige
on an innovative experiment
in higher ed, Ben Miller and Phuong Ly on dropout factories
, and Eric Hoover on the calculated orchestration of college tours
. Speaking of Hoover, his work on admissions for the Chronicle of Higher Education this year
has been especially good, above all “Application Inflation,”
which was co-published in the New York Times.
#3. The Hechinger Report
: Led by Richard Colvin, the project spent its first year seeding quality education journalism throughout the country. My favorite was the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel project “Building a Better Teacher
,” which shows that journalists do not have to wait for reforms to take place in order to write about them; they can instead explore why they have not. Other highlights: the Detroit News package
on worker retraining; the joint WBEZ
pieces on students pushed out of charter schools; the Journal-Sentinel article
about poorly qualified special ed teachers; David Jesse’s assessment
of the underwhelming track record of college “promise” programs; the Washington Monthly dropout package
; and HechingerEd
, a blog with solid reporting and analysis.
#2. “Building a Better Teacher”
: I can’t count the number of times I have been at a conference this year where some muckety-muck talking about teacher quality enthusiastically refers to Elizabeth Green’s New York Times Magazine cover story. With good reason. While nearly everyone else focused on teaching outcomes, Green, the editor of GothamSchools
, took a magnifying glass to inputs, thoroughly examining the issue of whether, and how, good teaching can be taught. It doesn’t hurt that Green is an unusually engaging writer, even (and especially!) when the topic is wonky.
#1. Daniel Golden
on for-profit colleges: If you are one of the many wealthy entrepreneurs making money on “career college” students, the last thing you want to hear is, “A reporter from Bloomberg is calling.” Well, second-last, anyway, after “The Justice Department is on the line”—a call they cannot duck as easily. Golden spent the year exposing for-profit recruitment of the homeless
and of veterans who may not have found quite the education they were looking for (here
). Other notable coverage of for-profits included “College, Inc.
,” a Frontline documentary by John Maggio and Martin Smith, and “Scrutiny Takes Toll on For-Profit College Company,”
by Tamar Lewin of the New York Times. I am not sure what Golden has up his sleeve next, but no doubt somebody is losing sleep over it.
Happy New Year, all. Now back to work.
Maybe we should call it an “unconfidence interval”
Sharon Otterman wrote over the weekend
in the New York Times about the complications of value-added scores for teachers, including teacher-of-record issues and a confidence interval that may give observers more pause than confidence. A commenter to my previous post on teacher-of-record noted the confidence interval issue, which is clearly demarcated in the Times story: A city teacher ranked in the 63rd percentile could actually stand anywhere from 46th to 80th. The metric may do okay identifying the worst and best teachers, but in the middle it is somewhat of a muddle, and it is important if you are writing about such systems to be clear about what they do and do not show.
“As a general rule, you should be worried when the people who are producing something are the ones who are most worried about using it.” This was from Douglas Harris, whose University of Wisconsin colleagues
produced the New York measure.
I’ll take “The Value of College” for $600, Alex!
Or should we say for $184,203 (so far!), for my friend Tom Nissley
, who had his sixth win on “Jeopardy!” last night and is already one of the top regular-season winners ever. Humanities PhDs certainly get their share of “What are you going to do
with that degree?” and “Well, that will come in handy at trivia night.” It comes in handy for Tom’s day job
too, though in a way that is not so instantly lucrative.
Van Wilder and graduation rates.
I totally do not get the appeal of Ryan Reynolds
, or for that matter the majority of People magazine’s sexiest men alive, but I always appreciate a good pop culture reference and applaud Ben Miller for a totally appropriate “Van Wilder” lede. It comes in an Education Sector brief
on how little difference measuring graduation rates over eight years makes, compared to the now-used six. (Or four and two, for community colleges.)
What Ben found doesn’t surprise me, but the quantification is powerful: People who don’t get a diploma six years after starting a four-year college are highly unlikely to have gotten it another couple of years later either. I’m sure that once you are off track to graduate, the complications of time and life and credit transfer conspire to intensively corrode your ability to complete—in a way tacking just another year or two on to the typical college experience does not.
There seems to be a pretty clear message here: Instead of just extending the finish line, figure out how to get people to it sooner. Journalists have a lot to add here by illuminating, through real-life stories, just what hurdles are standing in the way.
Depressed in college.
The same day I read this Trip Gabriel piece
on student mental health in the New York Times, I learned that someone I am close with is taking a semester off college because of depression. My young friends who have been in this situation—and there is a surprising number—have not abused Adderall, binged, cut themselves or engaged in other sorts of behaviors that capture the attention of RAs and journalists. They are outwardly pleasant, rule-followers who simply found their depression unmanageable on campus. If you knew them casually they would be the last people you would think of having such difficulties, which means they’re likely to face a sort of “buck up, this shall pass!” message from people who do not understand. Depression has indiscriminate, grippy claws.
This leaves me to wonder about the scope of the problem, and its nature. Is there something about college that makes previously manageable depression unmanageable? Is it easier for universities to send students home rather than to help them get well? Is it worth it, on the other hand, to stay in school when you are under a cloud? Do students whose depression sets them off track manage to graduate, and how did their universities facilitate that or stand in their way?
I look forward to learning more.
EWA’s higher ed conference.
for details on attending EWA’s higher ed conference in St. Petersburg, Fla., February 4-5. It is a great program, a great facility (the Poynter Institute), and an average February high temperature of 71.
Startling mobility statistics.
Did you know that 13 percent of all students in kindergarten through eighth grade change schools four or more times? That is a lot of kids, and a lot of moves. (And we’re not talking about progressing from elementary to middle school.)
If you are interesting in writing about mobility, check out this GAO report
that came out last month. And if you don’t already, subscribe
to GAO’s reports on education. They don’t come burdensomely often, but they are interesting when they do. And sometimes a juicy tidbit about your district will pop up.
Alabama criminals might curse Obama ...
... since stimulus funds has allowed the governor to keep more of them in prison. Education stimulus funds, that is. On a per-person basis, Alabama prisoners got three times as many education stimulus dollars than students in, say, Mobile schools. Reva Havner Phillips at the Mobile Press-Register analyzed the state’s stimulus disbursements
with the help of the EWA research and statistics bootcamp. Governors were allowed to spend 18 percent of the education dollars from ARRA in areas other than education; where did that money go in your state?
My Christmas gift to you: a value-added story idea.
If you go into a typical fourth-grade class—especially a high-poverty one—on test day in March, you might find a kid who arrived at the school in January, one who arrived in February, and one who arrived three days before. You’ll find several kids who receive most of their reading instruction from a pullout teacher, and others who do so in math. There will be students who spend large part of their day in a special ed room, and some in ESL. The class might have spent a large chunk of the fall with a student teacher. A couple of kids might have been swapped from the class across the hall because they had trouble getting along with their classmates.
So how much credit, or blame, for these kids’ scores on the test should be attributed to the classroom teacher? This, in a nutshell, is the “teacher of record” problem, and chances are HUGE that your state or district has not solved it, even if it is about to make (or already makes) high-stakes decisions about teachers based on those scores.
When I went to a Vanderbilt conference
on performance incentives this fall, TOR issues were the elephant in the room. In presentation after presentation, they were quietly acknowledged and just as easily dismissed. “We have not quite worked that out yet, but we’re confident in our data” was how one district official put it.
According to those in the know, it has become clear as states try to make good on their Race to the Top promises that they have no solutions to the TOR problem, if they have even considered it. If you are covering a system that is, or will be, basing any sort of meaningful decisions on value-added data, you should be writing about this. It’s a policy story that can be easily, and compellingly, illustrated with the fruits of one day’s reporting in a classroom, and given that these policies are still being shaped, you should not wait to pursue this.
Looking for teacher bloggers.
Know of any good teacher bloggers in Tennessee, Delaware, Tampa, Pittsburgh or Baltimore? Please point me to them.
Preschool by cell phone.
I could not sleep last night, so I stayed up downloading apps for my iPhone. I love the app store. It’s like Taco Bell—you order about seven different things, and it comes to, like, $4.89. Because, as Michael Aggers says in Slate
, denying my 2-year-old access to the amusing technology of the day would be like taking away my Simon in 1979, I am happy to let Milo play games on my phone, and I browsed the kids section delightedly.
I was taken, though, by reviews that focused on whether or not games were educational enough; some people lamented that the app where kids have to choose a monkey’s occupation is not as academic as the one where they are instructed to touch the purple fruit or the word beginning with “B.” One mom pleaded for more challenging games “to push my child even further.” Her daughter is 2.
If you rely on Monkey Preschool Lunchbox to educate your child—rather than to amuse her while you make supper—you might be interested in“Learning: Is there an app for that?”
, a report by Cynthia Chiong and Carly Shuler for the Children’s Television Workshop.
Center for Education Reform attempts to flood the zone.
If comments to your news articles become flooded by a new, probably articulate commenter who really, really loves charters and vouchers, the new managing editor of the Center for Education Reform’s
“Media Bullpen” is probably doing his or her job. I am not clear on what exactly this endeavor is going to look like, but the one thing that popped out at me from the job description
is the requirement to post “concise editorial responses to media stories from daily news feeds (up to 300 stories per staffer/per day).” Whoa.
Ginger Littleton: bringing a purse to a gunfight.
I don’t know if the National School Boards Association gives an award for awesomeness, but if they do they should probably move Bay District Schools board member Ginger Littleton to the top of the list. She is the woman who reentered the meeting room to whack
the Panama City, Fla., school board shooter, Clay Duke, with her purse. Our character is defined by what we do in the most difficult situations. So here we have ill-thought-out (“stupid” is her assessment) but so admirably brave!
Quick! A teacher-effectiveness-research contest!
For a project we are working on at EWA, a colleague and I have been digging into a lot of research on teacher effectiveness. Tracking soundbites back to their source can be pretty easy in some cases: Sanders 1996! Hanushek 2005!
But while collectively we think about this topic a massive amount, neither of us know what research, specifically, birthed the assertion that teachers are the biggest school factor in student achievement. Obviously we could get the answer in one phone call to the right person, but we would rather turn it into a contest. Those who answer correctly and first (there might be multiple answers) in the comments here will receive copies of new education books that I have already read but didn’t ruin in the tub or anything.
This whole thing got us thinking about other factoids—or possibly fictoids—that education writers are always trying to pin down, sometimes to no avail, sometimes from out-of-date sources. A third of all teachers leaving in three years, half leaving in five: this one comes up all the time. More?
Banning journalists from public schools.
Principals and superintendents and PR folks have been getting more zealous in their quest to “control the message” by making sure their employees do not talk to the press and keeping journalists out of schools. But one reporter’s distressed query to me recently took the cake: Her superintendent wanted to ban the media from entering schools when children are present.
God forbid we see students learning.
Down the road I will get into more depth about why this is horrible—and it is not just about making my colleagues’ jobs easier; that is the least of it—but for now, in order to gather cohesive and persuasive thoughts on the topic, I am collecting examples of limited access and dialogue. If you are a journalist whose district has clamped down, or an educator who has been directed to clam up, or anyone else who can help me understand the scope of the problem, please write to me confidentially at the e-mail address at right. And if access has improved where you are—well, I will eat my shoe, but be in touch as well.
What was the best education journalism this year?
I'm compiling my second annual list of my favorite education journalism of the year. This has nothing to do with the EWA awards, which I have no role in judging, and which you should enter. If there's something you want to call to my attention, by you or others, please e-mail me a link at the address at right, or post it in the comments.
If you ever dreamed of firing your kid's teachers and principal...
... move to California, because you can!
In general, I am of the belief that we elect people to make decisions for us, and that is democracy enough. So I find California’s reliance on referenda pretty maddening (Hey! Which class of citizens do we feel like discriminating against this year?!), and the new parent-trigger law that basically allows a community to overthrow its school strikes me as odd, even if there are appealing aspects of the spirit behind it.
But it is fascinating, I will give you that! Howard Blume and Teresa Watanabe of the Los Angeles Times have the most thorough account
I have seen about how Compton parents—nudged, or more, by organizers
—decided their elementary school should be dismantled and chartered, despite steady test-score increases. (Yes, they get to choose the remedy.) Precedent set, this is going to be really interesting.
The disconnect between charters and school districts.
I am not quite sure how far $100,000 goes in an urban school district, but it’s good to see somebody—in this case, the Gates Foundation—doing something
about the chasm between charter and traditional schools. The foundation has gotten nine districts to agree to collaborate with their charters, and vice versa, on data, best practices and so on. This makes all sorts of sense: students move back and forth, great ideas should not grow in isolation, and—oh yeah—they all have the same goal,
or should: helping students succeed.
Readers might not know just how uncooperative these relationships tend to be, how difficult if not impossible it is to track students from place to place, how innovations in one arena rarely make it to the other ... so it is up to you to provide the context. And it is a subject worth writing about even if you don’t cover one of these nine cities.
Want to meet up in Phoenix or the Bay Area?
I will be in Phoenix in mid-January and in the Bay Area at the end of that month. If you’d like to meet up and talk story ideas or anything else, e-mail me at the address at right.
Book your tickets to Shanghai.
The big news out of the PISA report is not the mediocre showing of American students—as if we didn’t know that
—but the impressive debut of the Chinese. Here’s
a useful piece by Sam Dillon of the New York Times. And if you want a little background on what PISA is, especially versus TIMSS, there are many explanations online; this one
is as good as any.
You can be sure that the story over the next six months will be: What the heck are they doing in Shanghai? Among the quick-off analyses I’ve read in today’s pieces: emphasis on teacher training, lots of studying, a push to get students to care about PISA (wow), and instruction in critical thinking, which is measured on PISA more than on other assessments.
There will be junkets. I so
want to be on them.
Learning about what teachers are learning.
I really don’t like to beg, people—but I will if I have to. Again: We NEED journalists to spend time in teacher education and show us the gaps between what teaching aspirants learn and what they need to learn to be successful in the classroom. It seems to me that this could fall under your beat whether you cover K-12 or higher ed.
Jane Roberts of the Memphis Commercial Appeal recently wrote a piece
about how Tennessee’s annual report card on teacher training programs showed that Teach for America members are getting good results from their students. What really caught my eye in the piece was a spokesman for the University of Memphis, whose graduates rank lower in improving student scores, saying that their education majors “are now being required” to take courses in math, language arts, science and social studies. As in, they weren’t before.
What they learn in their training programs. What they need to learn to do the job well. Help the public see where the dots connect, and where they don’t.
Michelle Rhee’s got a new gig.
Michelle Rhee has created a new organization, which you can find here
and which she describes in a Newsweek article here
. Seems they will lobby and support candidates and ... we’ll see. We continue to witness the genesis of a lot of collaborations and organizations devoted to education reform; it’s hard to discern what will distinguish them, and what they will actually do
, but obviously what sets this one apart is the woman at its helm.
As for the name: Though at times it may be the case, it is a particularly irksome form of rhetoric to insist that people who oppose your policies must not be thinking of the needs of children. As a former copy editor, though, my bigger problem in this case is that the group itself can’t figure out what it is called. In its own materials and Rhee’s article, they refer to themselves as Students First, StudentsFirst and Studentsfirst.
It pays to "friend" your school board members ...
... when they use Facebook to curse out the teachers union
. Catherine Velasco of the Herald-News in Joliet, Ill., covers a school board official who seems to be giving Chris Christie a run for his money.
Supes staying put (sort of).
The typical tenure of urban superintendents continues to increase, according to a survey
by the Council of Great City Schools. Any thoughts on why? It’s not like 3.64 years is a lifetime, but it’s a considerable jump from 2.33 years in 1999.
EWA's National Awards for Education Reporting
Did you do some excellent education writing in 2010? Then enter EWA’s annual contest. Here
is a little background on the contest, here
are the categories, and here
is where you enter. Note that we now have a category for non-journalists bloggers! Teachers, community members, wonks—have we got a prize for you!