Jay Mathews: Five strikes against an education writer
It's almost December, time to sum up and see whether I added value to life on the planet this year. Others can assess my successes, if any. I prefer to dwell on my failures. Here are five I consider important.
-- I spent too much time covering political and ideological battles. Exhibit A is, of course, the controversy over Michelle A. Rhee's tenure as D.C. schools chancellor, particularly the firing of hundreds of teachers. My colleague Bill Turque has done a terrific job following that story, but I could not resist butting in, both in this column and in my washingtonpost.com/class-struggle blog. The distractions hurt everybody in the short run, something worth noting, but in the long run, such disputes rarely yield policies that raise achievement.
-- I wrote too few stories about parents and students in crisis. The most useful stories, the ones that sometimes inspire change, are about lives damaged by bad school policies or administrative inattention or ill-considered assumptions.
I did a few columns like that. There was the Virginia mother who could not obtain needed special education services for her son, and the Maryland teacher who was almost dismissed because accreditation procedures were askew. I should have done more.
-- I wrote too little about educators who have succeeded in raising achievement for students. I have spent many years looking for teachers and schools that attain our highest expectations for public education. Relatively few pass my test: significantly raising the educational level of impoverished students.
These include the Knowledge Is Power Program charter schools; the Advanced Placement program as used at schools such as Wakefield High in Arlington and Columbia Heights (formerly Bell Multicultural) in the District; and the International Baccalaureate program as used in high schools such as Annandale and J.E.B. Stuart in Fairfax County. I have not mentioned them very often this year because I know that readers (and maybe editors) will complain that I am repeating myself.
I'm wrong to give in to this concern. There is much to be learned in the details of successful schools. On my blog, where I have more space, I try to make up for this deficiency, even if some readers complain that I am in a rut.
-- I rarely wrote about private schools. This is partly because of laziness. It takes much time and effort to report on private schools because so many are reluctant to give out information that might hurt their reputations in their annual competition for students.
I am also handicapped by the journalistic assumption, rarely discussed or debated in our newsroom, that paying attention to these private enterprises is like giving them free advertising. Fortunately, this year we assigned recent college graduate Michael Birnbaum, too young to have been corrupted by these biases, to cover private schools. He has produced an astonishing number of good stories.
-- I wrote about big studies by important people and not small studies by nobodies. Like most education writers, I tend to give more attention to research generated by large organizations, such as the federal government or the big think tanks. Their reports often have reassuringly large samples of data and well-known researchers.
But the most interesting and important study I saw this year came to me almost by accident, in a 198-page book by an unknown Seton Hall University assistant professor, Rebecca D. Cox. "The College Fear Factor" tells more about why undergraduates don't succeed than anything else I have ever read. If you know of more work like hers that I have missed, let me know, and I will try to do better next year.
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