Local education reporting is alive and well
Those of us who write about schools were supposed to rise in anger and frustration when the Brookings Institution revealed that during the first nine months of 2009 "only 1.4 percent of national news coverage from television, newspapers, news Web sites, and radio dealt with education." A headline on the Brookings Web site said: "Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough."
I'm not feeling it. To begin with, the headline was misleading. Brookings probably learned that trick from us newspaper people, but still, get real. Maybe national education news is hard to find. Maybe it deserves to be, as boring and repetitive as it can be. But education reporting, at least the local kind that fills most of my days, is alive and well and provides more than 1.4 percent of what Americans read in their newspapers.
Granted, there aren't as many education reporters as there used to be. There aren't as many newspaper reporters of any kind. But The Washington Post still has nine local education writers (once we fill an empty slot). Smaller papers are still devoting much of their space to schools. The inflated importance of national school news is not just a footnote. It is my life and illuminates a widespread misunderstanding of what education news should be.
Like many new reporters, I covered local schools in the early 1970s for The Post. Then I was assigned to Hong Kong, Beijing and finally Los Angeles, where I ran into a high school teacher doing unbelievable things in an inner-city school. Before long, I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing about educators who helped kids like that.
When I returned to Washington in the 1990s, I was a senior reporter with two books about high schools on my résumé. In big-newspaper culture, the logical job for me was national education reporter. Instead, I asked to return to the Metro staff and cover two of our smallest school districts, as I had done when I was 26.
This was considered odd. Local school reporting was thought by many to be a kid's game. People looked at me suspiciously. Was I slipping into a second childhood? One publicist who knew me when I was the big deal West Coast reporter assumed The Post's local schools guy with the same name was my son and called to tell me to say hello to my dad.
National education stories have a place, but too often they are about ideology, politics and budget fights (Will the Adequate Yearly Progress rules be changed? Who will get the Race to the Top money?). The most important changes, I learned long ago, occur in classrooms because of the actions of educators, not members of Congress.
The distinguished authors of the Brookings report recognized the importance and depth of local education news but still reached debatable conclusions. They said the lack of national education coverage "makes it difficult for the public to follow the issues at stake in our education debates and to understand how to improve school performance."
Really? How much can one learn about what teachers and students are doing from a story on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress scores or a fight in Congress over vouchers?
The national education reporters we have, particularly The Post's insightful Nick Anderson, do splendid work. But it would be a better use of their talents to relieve them of listening to speeches and interviewing the secretary of education and let them poke around schools, as we local reporters get to do, rather than make occasional stops. Why is that child not learning to read? Could we find some way to let that precocious 8-year-old take algebra? Why has that principal lost so many good teachers?
Let novice reporters cover national education news. It won't take many of them if it's only 1.4 percent of the total. Let the rest of us report the more valuable story of learning at the local level, for which there is still a lot of space in the paper.
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