When I left a reporting job at The Washington Post several years ago, I lost an institution I loved—not to mention free LexisNexis and an affiliation that pretty much guaranteed that my phone calls were returned right away. But I gained the opportunity to immerse myself in a project that I’m sure could never have been created for the newspaper.
From the time I started writing about education for the Post in 1998 until I quit in 2004, I was given a lot of freedom to delve into issues I thought important, and a lot of inches, too. In addition to my daily duties covering school systems, I wrote 3,000-word magazine pieces; I wrote A1 trend stories; I wrote a four-part series about life in middle school, a topic I pursued further in book form, on leave from the Post. But neither I nor even the paper’s greatest stars would ever have been able to write for the Post what I thought the country really needed at the time: an honest, sweeping, in-depth criticism of how elementary education has changed in the era of standardization and testing.
The simplest reason that project wouldn’t have happened at the Post is, ironically, the paper’s influence. In 2004, I approached two major school systems with my idea for Tested, and both quickly agreed to participate. Tina McKnight, the principal of Tyler Heights Elementary in Annapolis, Maryland, the school I ultimately chose, later told me she never would have done so if my work was intended for the Post instead of a book. The Tyler Heights Elementary School teachers said the same thing: We trusted you, but still
Still what? Well, there’s the time factor. Books are usually published years after first contact with the people you’re writing about, which somehow eases the nerves. Then there’s the intimidation factor of a name like The Washington Post. People have had more opportunities to feel crossed by a paper rather than by a book. They assume, as one teacher told me, that newspaper reporters have hidden agendas. Books, it seems, have a better reputation than papers, not that I think it’s deserved: nobler, more responsible, more exciting, more forever.
“And there’s the chance of your friends seeing it,” Alia Johnson, one of the teachers I write about, told me. “With a book, you have to know about it, go into a bookstore and look for it, buy it. Everyone reads the newspaper. It’s more in your face.”
Anyone who has done immersion journalism, for a paper, book, or magazine, knows that when your subjects are more relaxed, they are less likely to put on a show. To me, Tina McKnight expressed skepticism and anxiety—about the superintendent’s promise to close the achievement gap in less than two years, the scripted curriculum the county handed down, the subjects the students didn’t get much of—and was honest about her school’s warts. It’s not the same approach she would have taken with a reporter who was going to put this stuff in the newspaper she knows her bosses read every day. Her bosses will read Tested, too, it’s certain. But it was easier for her to forget that.
In the long run, I think it would behoove educators to be utterly honest about the difficulties they face: “Here’s our toughest group of third graders. As you see, they come to us with so few social skills that just getting them to sit and listen is a time-consuming chore every day, a chore that cuts far into the time we have to teach. That, combined with the poor skills they arrive with, means that these kids miss out on a lot.” But principals and elementary school teachers, not a rebellious bunch by nature—middle managers and line workers of a big bureaucracy, after all—can’t afford to be that forthcoming with reporters they barely know. That’s especially true with a prominent newspaper like The Washington Post, where a glowing mention can buoy a school community for months.
And so in articles in the Post, as well as the Baltimore Sun and the Annapolis Capital, Tyler Heights Elementary is portrayed simply as a model of school reform done right, headed by a cheerleading, effortlessly optimistic principal. The stories don’t delve into the heavy costs of the success; they rely heavily on interviews with the principal, and why would she have wanted to discuss the messy stuff?
Even if the school had given a newspaper access for a year, the reporter still would lack many of the advantages that a book author enjoys.