The Detroit News stayed with the story by filing a massive FOIA request with the state’s Department of Technology, Management and Budget, with a particular interest in emails between the agency and the governor’s office about the working group. Beyond a report on the email contents, this move led to a new education story in late May. Livengood discovered that the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA)—a controversial, experimental state-run school reform program in which Michigan takes poorly performing schools and puts them in a statewide school district—“embellished” its status and authority in a successful $35 million federal grant application. According to a May 24 article co-written by Livengood and reporter Jennifer Chambers, among other embellishments, “the application to the U.S. Department of Education for a five-year teacher merit pay program claimed the reform district with 15 Detroit schools had legislative permission to grow to 60 schools in 10 urban districts by 2017, which it doesn’t.”
The News’s “skunk works” and EAA reports both generated a great deal of debate in Michigan. Snyder ultimately turned the working group over to the state superintendent, who disavowed the voucher-like program; the group is now simply talking about improvements to classroom technology—and, with a promise of greater transparency, invitations to join the group have gone out stakeholders in the education community.
The Detroit News should be proud of its strong reporting. But the education reform story is a many-headed monster, full of overlapping characters, wonky details, and less-than-transparent power dynamics. School reform is still a top priority for the state government—at the Mackinac Policy Conference in May, which featured reform advocate Michelle Rhee as a keynoter, the state announced that it raised $59 million dollars for the EAA’s expansion. No doubt there are more stories out there, waiting to be broken.
Here, then, are a few ideas for how the The Detroit News and other news outlets might do more with their reporting on this topic, helping it resonate with regular folks as well as insiders:
Explain your terms high up (and/or in a sidebar)
In The Detroit News’s Educational Achievement Authority story, for example, it isn’t clear what the EAA actually is. The reporters refer to it, in the fifth paragraph, as a “school reform agency,” but that’s still pretty foggy for anyone who hasn’t been closely following the initiative that has been operating for less than a year. Despite previous coverage of the EAA, plenty of people likely still don’t know what it is. Or they need a reminder. And they won’t get past two paragraphs about it without some kind of anchoring explanation from the writer.
A decent model of an explanation, neatly integrated into a news story, is in this Macomb Daily piece, which, in the first sentence, describes EAA as “a new independent statewide education system for failing Michigan schools.” Even better, a recent Crain’s Detroit Business piece clearly describes the system in its third sentence: “The EAA is a new school system that began operation last year and put Detroit’s 15 worst performing schools under one administrative roof and designed a whole new model for educating those students.” It might only be improved by noting that the new school system is state-run.
Clarify how the story impacts regular folks
What’s really at stake for people? How do these wonky debates and political machinations take shape in the real lives of citizens—particularly parents with a stake in understanding what can realistically be built into quality education alternatives, and what values are embedded in them? Livengood’s startling Detroit News reports were published in late spring, just at the time when many parents are making decisions about where to enroll their children for the coming school year. Did these news pieces serve to guide parents at all in understanding their options—the benefit of an EAA or non-EAA school, for example?