Last month I posted a commentary about a new Brookings Institution report that chronicles the alarming decline in the quality and quantity of U.S. education news coverage. One way to push back against the trend, I asserted, would involve a kind of grass-roots writing spree on the part of school administrators and teachers. The theory holds – but in the weeks since the column ran, a number of readers and colleagues have responded with opinions on the issue. Their ideas seem well worth airing here.
At the heart of the discussion lies the question of local education reporting. The writers of the Brookings report admit that local journalists tend to cover the substantive work of schools better than national reporters, but they nevertheless takes a doom-and-gloom stance. The report concludes that “it is difficult for local outlets to maintain the quality of their coverage in the face of financial cutbacks and staff layoffs.”
Local papers certainly face many of the same challenges as the national news media, but whether or not their education coverage has been adversely affected seems to be up for debate. For example, Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews recently published a column in which he challenges the very premise of the Brookings report:
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 each day. […] Smaller papers are still devoting much of their space to schools.
Jay is not alone in his optimism. One reader responded to my column by pointing out the increasingly active and visible teacher blogosphere. Another, the managing editor of a local Denver paper, wrote saying that she has readers imploring her to cut back on her paper’s schools coverage.
The most striking response came from a friend in Indiana, who alerted me to an extraordinary series that has been running for six months in the Indy Star. The project began when columnist Matthew Tully decided to embed himself at Manual High, one of Indianapolis’s toughest public schools, and the results are nothing short of dynamite. Tully’s stories are colorful, incisive, and full of analysis that connects the school’s goings-on with changing conditions at the local and national levels. The project has garnered an impassioned following – so impassioned, in fact, that more than 2,000 people showed up to the school band’s winter concert after Tully chronicled the heroic efforts of its director.
This is the stuff of reporters’ fantasies and Hollywood movies, and it certainly suggests that local education coverage is still flourishing in some corners of the country.
My question, when it comes to the Manual project, is why nobody except for local Hoosiers seem to be in the know. Sure, a series focused around a specific school seems most directly relevant to local citizens. But given the lack of substantive national educational coverage, such a coherent and insightful series deserves to be brought to the attention of interested readers everywhere.
Maybe, then, national papers should start featuring a roundup of links to the best local stories? The industry has always worked in the opposite direction, with local papers relying on AP headlines to round out their content, but unusual times call for unusual measures. The roundup would take minimal effort and space, and it is hard to imagine that audiences would mind.
For this to work, of course, local education stories need to make their national relevance utterly clear. As far as I am concerned, this should happen anyway. Most of the interesting work happening in schools right now is either influencing or responding to national policy – oftentimes both. Journalists need to follow Tully’s lead and explore these two-way connections as best they can, connecting policies to classrooms and classrooms to policies. Only then might the public begin to fully understand the real, complicated, and exciting experiments that have begun to shift the landscape of public education in America.
Sarah Fine spent four years working at a charter school in southeast Washington, D.C. Her recent piece on the community schools movement appeared in Education Week’s February 3rd issue.
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