I have a personal back-to-school story. This is the 20th anniversary of the moment I asked Washington Post assistant managing editor Jo-Ann Armao to demote me at age 51 from Wall Street correspondent to reporting on Washington area schools as I had done when I joined the paper at age 26.
It was assumed that aging reporters like me who had covered foreign, national and business news in cities around the world did not return to the local staff unless we had done something wrong. Had we cheated on our expense accounts? Had we insulted the ancestry of the executive editor? Whatever it was, we were being punished.
Armao, thankfully, understood that I had fallen in love with education reporting while writing two books about high schools. I thought I could get beyond the usual school board coverage to find newsworthy happenings in classrooms. She assigned me the Arlington and Alexandria schools, and said I could also search the rest of the region for interesting stuff.
Other journalists at that time had the same idea. Many schools were in trouble. Voters said they wanted action. Reporting on teaching and learning required repeated visits to classrooms and conversations with teachers and principals, who were often delightful and candid sources.
We education writers have reported many changes in the years since, and continue to debate their meaning.
In 1996, I started rating U.S. high schools based on their participation in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses and tests, the best college preparation I know. At first I found just 243 public schools — slightly more than 1 percent — that had at least half of their juniors and half of their seniors taking at least one AP or IB test. That number has grown to 2,772. That’s still just 13 percent of all U.S. high schools, but I think that’s progress.
In 1996, we had hardly any charter schools. Richard Whitmire, in his new ebook “The Founders: Inside the revolution to invent (and reinvent) America’s best charter schools,” reports there are 6,700, 20 percent of them high-performing because they share best practices. Is that an improvement? Many people, including Whitmire and me, say yes, but we might be wrong.
Mixed reviews also apply to the long-term National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math results. Scores for 9-year-olds and 13-year-olds have gone up. Scores for 17-year-olds are flat. High school graduation rates are higher, but that could be caused by quick-fix credit recovery courses that actually don’t teach much.
Amid our disagreements, the level of conversation about schools has become more sophisticated and thoughtful, helped by people such as my former boss Armao, who writes The Post’s education editorials. Compare online comments about schools with those about sports or politics and you will see what I mean. Because of the Web and email, I have learned more from educators, parents and students in the past decade than I ever did in the old telephone era.
We sift information more efficiently. “Data analysis at varying levels of intensity and sophistication, along with powerful data visualization, now routinely lend breadth and depth to education reporting,” said Caroline Hendrie, executive director of the Education Writers Association. One good example is what the Tampa Bay Times did to win a Pulitzer Prize this year for exposing neglect of students in Pinellas County.
I am glad I came back to schools, although I did get an odd email from a California publicist who knew me when I was a national correspondent and saw one of my education stories. “Say hi to your dad for me,” he said, assuming this person writing about classrooms had to be one of my sons.
I wasn’t insulted. The education beat makes me feel younger, even if I look quite the opposite. I am going to try to stick with it as long as I can.