Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

How to Write a News Story about School Reform

vonzastrowc's picture

Do you want to write a news story about school reform? Here's how you do it.

Choose two neighboring schools: a successful charter school and a struggling traditional public school. Then choose one student from each school. Profile both students' humble or even tragic beginnings, but then compare the charter school student's great efflorescence with the continued struggles of the other student.

Use the two students to contrast the promise of charters in general with the problems many urban public schools face. Toss in a sentence somewhere about the uneven quality of charter schools, but don't belabor that point.

That has become a tried-and-true formula for quite a few national journalists lately. The Wall Street Journal ran the most recent variation on the theme last Sunday. It's not a bad article on its own merits. The two students' stories are gripping, and the piece drives home the vital message that a school can change the odds for low-income students.

But can you imagine a national news outlet carrying the reverse story? Can you imagine a tale of two schools in which the traditional public school outshines the charter school down the street? Such stories surely exist, but there is apparently no need to write them in the current political climate. The media are, by and large, turning a blind eye to non-charter public schools that are succeeding against all odds. And they're feeding the canard that public schools are hopeless by definition.

I worry that, taken together, the flood of stories about charter schools is creating unrealistic expectations of the charter movement. Charter schools could be especially valuable as incubators for new and effective practices that many schools in the traditional system could adopt. They could shed light on the policies and regulations that help or hinder student growth. But too many people in the media have become enamored of the very charter-ness of charters. Banish regulation, remove central controls, and prosper. Now how'd that work out for the banking industry? How about the oil industry?

The fact of the matter is that public school systems and charter school networks face many of the same problems. It's hard to fund the enterprise. It's hard to find and retain the staff we need for our most troubled schools. And it's hard to spread the wealth beyond islands of excellence.

But we have to clear all those hurdles together, so it probably doesn't do us much good to drive such a massive wedge between charter schools and other public schools. While a tale of two schools may have its place, let's not make it the dominant mode of education journalism.

David Warsh takes on the New

David Warsh takes on the New York Times for their reporting here: http://www.economicprincipals.com/issues/2010.05.30/1146.html. The Times uses some of the same compare/contrast tactics you write about.

"Can you imagine a tale of

"Can you imagine a tale of two schools in which the traditional public school outshines the charter school down the street? Such stories surely exist, but there is apparently no need to write them in the current political climate. The media are, by and large, turning a blind eye to non-charter public schools that are succeeding against all odds."

Something you haven't considered is that charter schools and their networks tend to be far better at public relations/marketing than traditional public schools (in reality, they're far better at overall communication with all stakeholders than traditional publics, but that's a large topic for another day). Charters get the stories to the education media more often than an ed journalist pulls Woodward'n'Bernstein duty.

If you want to see a reverse story - and there are several that could be written - look at where the stories come from and why. Or, where/why they aren't coming from.

Matthew, you make a good

Matthew, you make a good point. You're quite right to note that charters and (more likely) their networks are more effective at PR. I can't begrudge good charters their good PR. But can't we hope for a few more Woodwards and Bernsteins among journos for the major national newspapers and weeklies? Couldn't a few more people come at the issue with a few more questions in mind--and not just the throwaway line that charter quality is mixed?

Yes, public schools and districts could probably do more to spread the news of what's working well, but a number of major charter networks have a whole lot of money coming their way for PR. That has been amply demonstrated in recent New York Times articles--and I'm not just referring to Brill's recent piece (which also indulged in the good charter/bad public juxtaposition).

Again, I applaud good news stories about good charters--but I would also like to see substantive stories about traditional public schools that are doing effective work. (And, by way of disclaimer, I'd like to see substantive stories about academic success.)

As for whether charters do a better job of communicating with their communities.... Maybe, and maybe not. I don't think we have the data to prove that one way or the other.

Finally, I found your last sentence a bit cryptic--but it's been a long day, and I'm a bit slow....

Apologies, I was unclear -

Apologies, I was unclear - the last few lines were terrible. I'll try again.

If we want to see the 'local public outperforms local charter' story, public schools will have to ramp up PR. It really is that simple.

It would be nice if we could rely on the education media to dig up interesting stories and do great reporting. The reality is that most of the education media is useless. A few excellent journalists stand out; most cover nothing of significance, and when they stumble onto a real issue, they write nothing of value.

Alexander Russo posed an interesting question on Twitter today - who did Race to the Top coverage better, Hechinger Report or the Education Writers Association? HR had a map which showed some RttT stats on mouseover. EWA had some relevant links.

They both lost. They both stink. They offered little to no value to the education information consumer - and these are two important, well-funded organizations, not a pair of basement bloggers.

... and that was on a front-burner, national, significant issue.

The moral of the story? We can't rely on the education media for great coverage. I hope that changes eventually, but it isn't going to change in the short term.

Where did they go wrong? ...

Where did they go wrong? ... It's dismaying that the press is so susceptible, en masse, that they are easily manipulated by a PR blitz. Didn't everyone go into journalism intending to comfort the afflicted (like beleaguered, resource-starved public schools and teachers) and afflict the comfortable (like billionaires and the happy charter operators on whom they bestow their bounty)? Did anyone decide to make a career of parroting press releases, trustingly believing what they were told and choosing not to ask tough questions? What happened?

I have to admit that I'm not

I have to admit that I'm not quite as down on the education media as you are, Matthew and Caroline. I'm very partial to the education media--EdWeek and EdDaily, for example. Local papers also run some good stories on education, which is a challenge, given the financial strain they're under.

I'm most concerned by sins of omission--both in individual stories run by national newspapers and in the general coverage most stories are receiving. It's what people decide to write about--again and again--as well as what they don't write about that concerns me most.

In general it's the sins of

In general it's the sins of omission that bother me most too. Another issue is that the charter folks are really canny about pitching their stories to non-education reporters, and newspaper and newsmagazine management are fine with assigning complex education stories to unschooled (so to speak) writers, who are then total suckers for the lies.

Love your viewpoint and the

Love your viewpoint and the resulting comments. There really is an "all things charter" push right now as if that idea is the new kids on the block, the one to envy. But there are some quality public schools with workable solutions that need to be front and center in the news. I'd appreciate any suggestions you might have about how to spread the public-schools-that-are-working news!

The Wall Street Journal piece

The Wall Street Journal piece wasn't bad, but it left the impression that the student bodies of the charter and the neighborhood school were comparable. Capital Hill is tied with my school as the lowest performing in the state. They are majority Hispanic and we're majority Black. They have more ELL students and we have more on IEPs. In both of our schools though, 1/2 of students are on IEPs, ELLs,or some other paperwork.

The suspension rate at the neighborhood school, Capitol Hill, is 135 times greater - not 135% but 135 times greater.

No current principal would say this to the press, but we have an unwritten rule which was explained to me by a former Capitol Hill principal. All neighborhood schools have large numbers of students who are on parole. But only the toughest cases wear electronic bracelets. Those students ALL end up at Capitol Hill. (we face a similar dynamic where Northside students facing Long Term Suspensions will go to our school rather than go through the process in our school.

When the principal talks about all of the rules he must follow, only a small portion come from union contracts. And the cheap shot against the union was awful. The union leaders have been working 80+ hours a week on the RttT, SIG grants, etc. EVERYONE is overwhelmed by the rapid change - change that the union is supporting.

And why are the toughest schools in Oklahoma City so bad. Families can choose from 18 or so school districts, private schools, 13 charters, magnet schools, and neighborhood schools that still have viable honors programs. That leaves behind a critical mass of the most troubled kids who have no choices.

And Matt, the student performance of charters and magnets and enterprise schools (which are basically unionized charters) are identical. In every subject the pass rate is high and within one percentage point. Yes, we have about 20 schools that are failures but we have many many more that a great. In my experience, teaching quality in the two groups are mostly comparable. Yes, the bad schools have more bad teachers, but if you fired them (and we should fire them) you couldn't find or keep replacements. These are schools that chew up and spit out great educators.