Grand Experiment: A Public Editor for Education

The EWA’s first Public Editor, Linda Perlstein, discusses the state of ed reporting

As our newsrooms shrink, journalists working the education beat are often among the hardest hit. Not only are they working with fewer resources, but, due to newsroom restructuring, education writers often answer to editors who don’t fully understand the bureaucratic nuances of the school systems. To combat this problem, the Education Writers Association announced in December the creation of a new position, a Public Editor, to serve as an additional resource for education journalists. This week, the EWA announced the hiring of Linda Perlstein, a former Washington Post education reporter and currently a freelance writer and book author (see her CJR essay about why she left the Post to write books, here), to fill the unique new role.

As public editor, Perlstein will coach individual reporters, offering guidance on sourcing and content knowledge, and coordinating with their editors to assure that her work complements what they are doing. She will also write a regular column—to be published on the EWA Web site—monitoring the state of education coverage in newsrooms across the country. Perlstein discussed the state of that coverage with CJR’s Megan Garber.

Megan Garber: What are some of the biggest challenges facing education reporters?

Linda Perlstein: If you’re expected to turn out two daily stories a day, and you’re expected to cover every hiccup of your local school board, it’s hard to get the time to sit inside a classroom, talk to teachers, or get to know administrators as anything more than potential sources for react quotes. But we need to find ways to do that, because that’s what makes the most powerful reporting. It doesn’t have to be inside a classroom, but flushing out the data, the studies, and the statistics with how things work in the real world is the best thing we can do for readers.

MG: What about access? Schools are notoriously difficult for journalists to get into.

LP: It’s really hard. It’s particularly hard to get into big urban schools, high schools. That’s a huge problem in education reporting. A lot of people in education complain that the media doesn’t get it right, the media doesn’t tell the whole story. And I ask them, “When’s the last time when you were open and honest with a reporter?” There’s a huge, huge culture of fear in education among teachers and administrators. Principals don’t really want to hear what the teachers have to say, superintendents don’t really want to hear what the principals have to say, the education department doesn’t seem to want to hear what the state board has to say—and what that means for reporters is: everyone’s really afraid to be honest. Whether you’re being visited by a journalist, or by the lieutenant governor’s wife, or whomever, if someone comes into your school, you want to show them the best you have to offer. If I were a principal, though, I’d want to show people the worst—so they could really understand what’s going on and appreciate the challenges that I face. If you always put a sheen on things, we’re never going to understand what you’re going through as educators. And we need to start having honest conversations in this country about what’s happening in our schools.

MG: Why is that tendency so pervasive? And what are people afraid of, exactly?

LP: The school system is a bureaucracy like any other, and this tends to be the way bureaucracies function. We’re talking about teachers who, for all their great merits, aren’t always the people who rock the boat—and we’re talking about a certain institutional history of getting in trouble when they do. The greatest ideal these days is to be a team player. Culturally, in the school, you’re supposed to be a team player. And questioning anything is seen as not being a team player. You can get on the wrong side of your boss for doing that, and I see that happening all the time in schools. So, certainly, talking to journalists isn’t the first priority for someone who’s trying to keep her job and fly under the radar. That makes it extra hard for education journalists to show things as they really are, but no less important—in fact, more important, because if we don’t do it, I’m not sure who can.

MG: Has that culture changed at all with the implementation of No Child Left Behind?

LP: The stakes are higher, so people have more things they’re concerned with, more reforms they question, and more changes going on in classrooms. So, while it’s more important than ever that our country is having these honest conversations, it’s a little less likely that we are, unfortunately. But, hopefully, I can use this position not just to help reporters seek out openness, but to advocate for that openness among the people who are in a position to provide it.

MG: Are there any education stories that you’ve found particularly successful in moving that conversation forward?

LP: There’s a piece that appeared in The Washington Post a while back by Lonnae O’Neal Parker. She wrote a two-part series about a particular high school in D.C. Now, the D.C. schools have been notorious for forbidding access. You know, they have a new superintendent, there’s a new way of doing things, and I don’t know the details, but I can’t help but thing that made a difference in getting access to do this project. And the fact of the matter is, it’s not that it’s necessarily going to make the school look bad. I mean, what happens is, it looks real—and then you understand the depths of the problem, and the complications. You can empathize with the teachers, you can empathize with the students, you can empathize with the parents and the administrators. There’s no one bad guy. Things are a mess, but you understand more where that comes from. And journalistically, I think, that’s a great service.

And I was just reading something in The Oregonian today, a piece from a week ago about reading. Everybody writes these stories when there’s a new report out that says people are reading less or that, you know, people stop reading for fun when they get to the eighth grade. And Betsy Hammond just did a really nice job of showing why that happens. The piece is a really nice weekender that helps you understand the cultural reality behind the data. I’m sure readers don’t often understand the level of reporting that goes into just being comfortable to be able to make some assertions about why things are happening. But it makes the data so much more powerful.

MG: What are some questions or issues in education that aren’t getting enough attention in the press right now?

LP: Well, I think it’s less a matter of what topics aren’t being paid enough attention to than the way things are looked at. I think it’s very easy to break down debates in education into black and white. There are so many shades of gray, and it requires a sort of deft touch to get at those when reporting. It’s so easy to go to the obvious arguments, but the best education reporting transcends that.

MG: How?

LP: A lot of it involves good sourcing—having a broader Rolodex than most, for a start, so you’re not going to the same obvious people (“anti-testing voice,” “pro-testing voice”). It’s also having a good set of sources inside the education world, so you can understand the unintended consequences of education policy, and so you can really show how things play out in the classroom. A lot of very well-intentioned public policy doesn’t make a lot of sense when it’s put into practice. And the best reporting doesn’t just show that when it happens, but it anticipates it ahead of time—and lays it out to give people a head start in thinking about it in different ways.

MG: I’ve found it frustrating that education has been such a non-issue so far in this presidential campaign. Is that something you’ll be addressing in your new role?

LP: I’m glad you asked about that. The EWA has a blog where they track what the candidates have to say about education. The problem is, it’s not very much. You know, for an issue we all pretend to care an awful lot about, our presidential candidates don’t have a lot to say on it. And that’s kind of frustrating. It’s easy to say, “Oh, let’s scrap NCLB,” but no one’s explained what they want to do instead.

Early in the campaign, the EWA wanted the candidates to sit down for one-on-one talks with a panel of education journalists to discuss their thoughts on various issues. And none of the candidates really wanted to do any sort of unscripted talk with education reporters. They were more eager to have a pulpit when they were ready to introduce a proposal…although, since then, they haven’t introduced many proposals. So I, for one, would like to hear more from them about education. But I’m not holding my breath. At the very least, we’re going to have to wait until the general election to hear more about it.

MG: How exactly will the position work? Are you planning on having reporters reach out to you for help?

LP: I’d love to hear from reporters. I’m going to be writing tips and highlighting what works and what doesn’t for stories. If there’s an important issue in regards to education coverage that I want to weigh in on, I may write an op-ed or something like that. I certainly have plenty of ideas…but I want to hear from reporters and know what they want to know about. I’m really looking forward to hearing what reporters are working on, and to helping them figure out where to take things, how to make their reporting better. In the process, I’ll get to learn a lot myself.

I know when I was at the Post, I would have loved to have had a person like this to go to. The EWA has always been such an important tool for my reporting, through their list-servs, which are completely invaluable, and they also have great conferences and seminars. And their Web site has resources and story ideas, and also helps give a perspective of whether something you’re observing is a national issue or something that’s just in your school system. Hopefully this is just an extension of what they’re already doing very well.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.