Why education reporters are missing the grade

“Billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad’s proposal to double the number of charter schools threatens the financial stability of the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to LAUSD’s board president.”

So opens a recent story from the Southern California public radio station KPCC LA, which goes on to give readers predictable reactions to the proposed $490 million charter school expansion. First comes the boilerplate quotes from charter supporters, then the heated responses from critics.

Lacking in this second-day story was any real sense of whether there is a need for more choice and charters in Los Angeles, what parents say they want, or how recently-opened charter schools have fared. And that’s too bad.*

Now that the annual torrent of forgettable back-to-school stories has passed and the new school year is underway, it’s a good time to assess the current state of education coverage.

It’s regularly suggested that education journalism is both shallow (when it comes to depth of understanding) and narrow (when choosing issues to address). Longtime education guru Patrick “Eduflack” Riccards says the media increasingly leaves out subjects that most teachers and parents care about—and any semblance of nuance in how issues are addressed. “We are now treating education like the latest political campaigns,” he says.

The narrative that gets covered most often centers on the pros and cons of so-called “reform” efforts—usually including charter schools, education technology, academic accountability, teacher evaluations, etc.— and which “side” is winning at any given moment.

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Are charters good or bad? Does test-based accountability help low-income kids or not? Does Teach For America help kids or hurt veteran teachers? Is private philanthropy good or bad? Are Newark or New Orleans or New York schools better or worse than they were before?

But if there’s too much narrowing-down and over-simplification on these issues, then what’s being left out?

Listen to Jonathan Zimmerman, a history and education professor at NYU. “What we’re missing is what’s really happening,” he says. The most popular subjects for media coverage represent a tiny fraction of the American education system. Charter schools remain a relatively small part of the education landscape. Ditto for alternative teacher preparation programs like Teach For America. It’s the “great middle—the vast majority of American students, parents, and teachers—who are left out of the picture.”

Underlying structural issues like poverty, economic mobility, local control, school funding, neighborhood-based school assignment, and traditional teacher preparation don’t fit easily into the skirmishes between reform advocates and opponents.

Journalists getting pulled into stories about conflict isn’t anything new. These types of stories are easier to write—and often have some initial appeal to readers. As on other beats, journalists and editors are inundated by pitches and announcements. Communications professionals, along with activist parents and teachers, outnumber working journalists and aren’t shy about telling them what they think warrants coverage.

On the subject of politics, Vox’s Matt Yglesias recently made the case that politicians and the media have become obsessed with the possibility of robots displacing human workers and increasing income inequality. The consequence is that there’s been diminished attention to issues that need genuine attention, like productivity gains.

In general, education journalism has been elevated to more of a national debate thanks to issues like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top (which encouraged states to join Common Core). But with this national platform has come emersion into a rancorous, polarized world of domestic politics—and in particular the bitter intra-Democratic debate between progressives allied with teachers unions and moderates allied with civil rights groups.

What’s more, education reporters tend to be young and thus new to the beat, sometimes lacking the knowledge or experience to write a more nuanced piece. “There are some people who call you up and really know the field,” says Levine, now head of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. “Newer reporters are in trouble after the second question.”

Not everyone agrees that education journalism is failing the grade.

“News is about change, and so to the extent that change in schools is frequently connected to the “education reform movement” then it makes sense that a lot of news coverage would be about that,” says Philissa Cramer, one of the co-founders of Chalkbeat, a network of education-focused nonprofit news sites begun in 2013. What’s more, she believes the overall quality of education coverage has “never been higher.”

Indeed, the past year has seen a small surge in coverage of these broader, more structural issues, such as school segregation, and education funding.

A recent Chicago Public Radio series about a newly-hired teacher trainee working at the school he graduated from focused on the experience and challenges of becoming a teacher. More predictable coverage might have focused on the fact that the school he teaches in was a charter school and that the teacher preparation program he’s going through is a so-called “nontraditional” program that veers from common orthodoxy.

Other outlets are also bringing attention to the controversy while still giving depth and nuance to broader issues. A recent ChalkbeatNY story by Patrick Wall is a worthwhile example, opening with a description of a protest in front of New York city hall but then focusing in on how the protesters and city hall officials communicated before the event to soften their roles as antagonists and allies.

WNYC’s education editor Patricia Willens says the challenge to balance coverage is real but so are the efforts being made to improve. “We try really hard to make sure to give adequate coverage to the ‘real’ stakeholders in education,” says Willens, by which she means the students, families and educators in the classroom. She and her reporters still do the reform stories but resist the temptation to pump up the drama around dueling parties.

“In every recent school board election, the forces that faced-off were either pro- or anti-charter schools,” notes Los Angeles Times education editor Beth Shuster in an email. Covering reform efforts and issues like bilingual education, student discipline, and college admissions is a balancing act, she says. “But I believe it’s vitally important to scrutinize and explain the reform efforts underway here.”

*KPCC responds: We at KPCC (Southern California Public Radio) agree with your critic that education coverage needs to explore issues in depth and detail. That’s why our supporters have helped us establish a five-person education team including beats producing steady news and enterprise coverage of K-12, early childhood, higher education, and arts education. It’s why we devote special attention to what’s happening in classrooms and among students and their families, especially those in low-income neighborhoods and struggling schools. And it’s why our coverage includes radio stories, data resources, information tools, and live events such as a recent convening that drew hundreds of people to Occidental College to explore the weight of college student debt. We’ll pick up on the old joke that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” and use the opportunity to invite people to visit our education page and judge us on the scope of our coverage rather than on a single daily news story. Constructive criticism is welcome.

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Alexander Russo is founder and editor of The Grade, an effort to improve the quality of mainstream education coverage, in partnership with PDK International. He is the author of Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors, which chronicles the attempted rescue of South Central LA’s Locke High School. His previous pieces for CJR can be found here.