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.
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.