Why one reporter left a newspaper to write books
September 18, 2007

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.

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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.

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.)

You can express your opinion, flat-out. It’s better to show than to tell, yes, but sometimes the strongest thing you can do is both. Instead of using the reporting trick of finding someone to give a quote that expresses what the writer really wants to say, the book author gets to just say it. So I state that it is inane to make teachers write the day’s objectives on the board, especially in the jargon that is encouraged; that educators should not blame No Child Left Behind for their own stupid policy decisions; that it is educationally unsound to expect every child in a grade to reach the same level of achievement in the same amount of time; that the basic readers assigned to kindergartners make Dick and Jane look plot-thick; that it is bad science to pay teachers based on their children’s test scores; that Tyler Heights students should learn more facts; that the math curriculum seemed to have been designed by someone with attention deficit disorder; that it is crazy that the same people who call the principal a hero for getting test scores up don’t seem to want her input on developing the curriculum.

And so on.

You benefit from a loosening of attribution. My work is by all means informed by data and the research of experts, but I don’t have to be as explicit about showing it, or I can tuck it away in footnotes. You can also get away with not attributing to anyone, basing your authority instead on your own accumulated expertise and a decade of immersion. You are allowed to say, “It’s hard to get parents to school in a poor community,” rather than, “Experts say it’s hard to get parents to school in a poor community.” With myself as the expert, I get to make some broad statements: that parents at Back to School night in low-income schools often speak mainly with each other, while at middle-class schools, parents interact with teachers; that those things most middle-class parents do as a rule to make sure their children learn often went neglected at Tyler Heights; that disadvantaged children need more than anyone to learn problem-solving and interpretation skills in their classrooms but are most often deprived of such instruction (while receiving the most test prep).

I make my own analyses, of how limited the Maryland state test is, of what I call the “imagination gap” between well-off students and poor ones and how that impacts their ability to learn; of how middle-class students have an exposure to the world that fuels motivation. I don’t know if there is a sociologist somewhere who explains that more convincingly and more scientifically than I do, but I’m glad I got to say it without having to find him.

Nearly every scene I paint in the book I witnessed myself, and with those I didn’t, I filled in the gaps by speaking to others involved, as anyone at a newspaper would. But in general, I get to be my own arbiter about whom to trust, about distinguishing gossip from reality. This is a weighty burden, but it becomes manageable when you get to know people well over a year. I did not ask Autumn’s aunt if the girl was enrolled in school after she had been pulled out of Tyler Heights; I was not there when Reggie’s aunt told the principal that his father accused him of “acting white” when he started improving in school; I did not confirm with the police that one mother instructed her youngsters how to steal diapers from Rite Aid; and I didn’t actually see Cairo choke his pre-K classmate. These are all mentioned in Tested, and I had no qualms about passing them on, because I was around when staff members discussed how to handle those events, and I calculated that they had no reason to make them up. Newspaper editors would be more cautious about passing on secondhand information, which makes sense. They have hundreds of reporters whose judgments they rely on. I have only myself.

You can use first person. The writer doesn’t have to rejigger or omit an anecdote just because he (and not “a reporter”) was involved in it. Some things are too awkward to put into third person but worth mentioning, like the warnings the black children gave me about visiting their housing project, or which of my long-ago teachers (some bad, some great) would have had trouble making it in today’s standardized classrooms. When I speak around the country about my first book, I am always asked why I chose the school I did. In Tested, I decided to explain directly why I wrote about Tyler Heights, because people always wanted to know. Newspapers sometimes include sidebars with this kind of explanation, but not always.

You don’t have to use the typical journalistic shortcuts in your field. When writing in the popular media about testing, a certain trope applies, in which phrases like “improving student learning,” “raising achievement,” and “closing the gap” are all merely synonyms for scores on state standardized tests. If I were still at the Post, I suspect that refusing to use those phrases as synonyms for test scores and introducing caveats to the numbers might have been seen as some sort of political statement on my part. In Tested, I avoid phrases like “test scores rose” when the truth is “the percentage of children who passed the test rose, though because the test changes every year, you can’t really draw a strong comparison.” In a book, I can choose to say “test scores rose” only when I mean test scores rose, and I can show how “gaps” and “achievement” have many more meanings than can be expressed numerically.

You don’t have to give equal (or any) time to arguments you think are baseless. Newspaper journalists don’t have that luxury, which is why articles about global warming usually include quotes from the rare scientist who doesn’t believe it exists.

You can change names. Both of the schools that allowed me to write my books conditioned permission on changing children’s names—a practice not allowed at the Post and many other papers yet often encouraged by the lawyers at publishing houses. Newspapers want to be considered the ultimate record of fact, and they gain more credibility as institutions by being able to insist that no matter what section, no matter what reporter, we have made nothing up. I always liked this about the Post. I would rather not change names. But the book reader and I both know there are truths that can be had only at this cost, and I’m glad I have the freedom to pay it. I stand only for myself, and people can judge my credibility as they wish; newspapers, collective endeavors after all, must be more careful.

You can risk offending people. The third graders featured in Tested were a particularly nasty bunch. Quite often they didn’t seem to want to learn, and they carried a lot of anger with them from home; it was hard to imagine children so consistently mean to each other holding a job one day, no matter how well they did on their math tests. So I said that. I also explained, in ways I knew never would be allowed into the Post, where their parents fell short. When I reported long ago for the Post about the growing behavior problems of elementary schoolchildren, everyone I interviewed, from the teachers to the administrators to the social scientists, implicated parents in some way, a point of view I passed along in the story. My editors let me know that I was being “too hard on parents,” and that part of the story was excised considerably.

You can be sarcastic. “You’re not going to be a scientist if you can’t read,” I quote a superintendent as saying, in defense of a pared-down curriculum. Well, I respond, you can’t be a scientist if you never learn science either; you can’t be a lawyer if you don’t learn critical-thinking skills; you can’t be a politician if you never get to speak in front of a group. When the principal went to a conference and heard about one way to build enthusiasm among her staff, I wrote, “I couldn’t wait to see the look on Miss Johnson’s face when she would be told to ‘clap fireworks’ when a colleague presented a good idea.” About the Bush administration’s inclination to call anyone who criticizes No Child Left Behind a racist, I wrote, “One suspects that if you suggested 90 percent might be a more reasonable proficiency goal than one hundred, you’d be asked why you hate 10 percent of America’s children.”

At a newspaper I probably would have had the benefit of an editor who would know a lot about education issues, who would talk deeply with me about content and language, who would challenge me in ways that surely would have improved my thinking. I would have had hundreds of thousands of potential readers, the barrier to entry being thirty-five cents and not twenty-five dollars. But I would have had to omit all those snarky cracks, which I imagine would have made it a far less engaging read, and far less fun to write.

I suppose newspapers could permit reporters to engage in more sarcasm, be looser with the rules, take up more space. Then fewer reporters would feel the need to leave, temporarily or permanently, to write books. I don’t think that’s the right way to go, though. The standards that would have made it impossible to write Tested at the Post, the dignity that comes with the territory, are a huge reason journalists are proud to work there, and why they can be trusted in the looser world of book publishing. They don’t leave that discipline behind in the newsroom. Carried away, blended with some freedom, it can make for some pretty good books.

Linda Perlstein is a former Washington Post staff writer and the author of Not Much Just ChillinÕ: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers and Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade.