You get more space. In Tested, I wanted to explain how outside influences, from federal education policy to county directives to family life, affected the school days of children and teachers and transformed the ecology of a school. There are a few newspapers that devote massive resources and space to education projects, but more do not. Even a huge newspaper project is a fraction of the length of a typical narrative nonfiction book, limiting the scope of an effort like this.
Freed from the strictures of space, I was able to focus on issues I felt were crucial to understanding the inner workings of a school, which are the types of topics a newspaper editor is likely to consider inside baseball and the first things that get cut from an overlong newspaper article. Too often, education is covered as a consumer issue, with stories geared only to what editors think readers want to know about how their own children spend their time. Kids losing recess because of test prep and art: yes! Teachers told they need to pass a test or else their students will receive letters that they’re not qualified: meh. A “news you can use” approach to stories is fine in many cases, but not when it crowds out the comprehension that can come from seemingly wonky stuff. Teachers’ battles with bureaucracy, after all, are news a reader can use when the reader wants to understand the climate of schools and why teachers are losing enthusiasm for their profession. A book allows you to show consultant visits, curriculum decision-making, meetings where teachers discuss the mundane details of each special-education student or struggling reader or chronic misbehaver. These situations may be administrative in origin, but the impact on real lives is compelling—if you get to really know the characters involved.
You get more time. A paper like the Post spends a lot of resources on education, with at least ten reporters devoted to the topic. But those reporters almost all cover local school systems, and when they do tackle projects, they usually must tend simultaneously to their regular beats. For a project of the depth and breadth I was setting out on, the Post would have had to allow me a massive, impractical amount of time away from my daily beat. Two years elapsed from my first contact with the Tyler Heights principal to the completion of the editing process, including ten months when I spent nearly every school day at Tyler Heights and the remainder of the afternoon and evening at home transcribing notes, reading, and interviewing.
Why so much time? Powerful newspaper pieces, after all, are composed in months, or weeks, or days, or hours. But for what I wanted to accomplish, I needed to paint pictures that could only be created through the kind of direct, rote observation that allowed every tiny piece to be put into perspective, and I needed to see enough to be convinced of my own judgments. To know anything, I have always thought, I must see everything—the same approach I took when I spent the year with five children for my first book, which explored the lives of middle schoolers. I had to watch kindergartners take a certain literacy test thirty times before I felt comfortable drawing conclusions about the assessment and before picking one scene that both represented the students’ experiences and illustrated my concerns. I sat through dozens of practice sessions for the state exam the students would face in March; I attended nearly every staff meeting; I ate lunch with children or teachers every day—in all, the kind of attention that can only be paid when you are truly focusing on nothing else. (My husband can attest to that.)