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.