Best Education Journalism Of The Year (2016)

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With 2016 quickly winding down, let’s take a look back at the year’s education journalism gems.

As you will see, there’s no shortage of quality work. Clearly, there are lots of smart, hard-working, and extremely devoted reporters and editors working to bring stories about American schools to readers.

Short of time? The 2016 story with the most real-world impact is probably the Houston Chronicle’s expose of state-led limitations on special education. The most explosive story might have been the NYT’s story about a Success Academy charter school teacher’s outburst, captured on video. The most memorable piece is probably Nikole Hannah-Jones’ first-person essay on choosing a majority-black school for her daughter.

But you’ll be missing a lot if you stick to those three 🙂

NATIONAL / POLITICAL

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With the late-2015 passage of ESSA and Common Core and standardized testing being all but ignored in Campaign 2016, this wasn’t a big year for education on the national scene. But there are still several pieces worth highlighting.

The untold story behind Bernie Sanders’s 1963 arrest http://ow.ly/k2X6307hwTL

The dramatic black and white pictures, combined with the fascinating and little-known tale of Sanders’ involvement in school desegregation efforts, made this Chicago Reader piece something everyone who came across it wanted to read.

Meet The Organizer Behind Education Protests Sweeping The Country http://ow.ly/4nfLfS

This Think Progress story takes us behind the scenes and helps us understand the people and dynamics that are shaping what’s happening on the streets or at press conferences. (For more behind-the-scenes coverage, see The Atlantic’s story titled The Ambitious Education Plan of the Black Lives Matter Movement http://ow.ly/wwGO307jnb2 and NPR’s Questions Of Race And Charter Schools Divide Education Reformers http://ow.ly/p8dJ307jIqf.)

Crushing defeat leaves charter-school movement in limbo http://ow.ly/imSB307hGap

This Boston Globe piece gives the fascinating backstory behind the Massachusetts ballot fight over charter schools, in which outside money was trumped by a massive, methodical, teacher-led ground game. For more about Question 2, see Money at the heart of the Mass. charter debate http://ow.ly/1rZ3307gugQ.

The Education of Barack Obama http://ow.ly/TNLi307goZB

The Nation takes a big-picture look at the Obama education agenda as it evolved over time – from a focus on charters, standards, and accountability to a more recent emphasis on integration and school discipline. (For more high-quality campaign coverage, see also The Atlantic piece titled Hours Before Campaigning With Obama, Clinton Tries to Distance Herself on Education http://ow.ly/Gl0r307jmVh.)

TEACHERS, STUDENTS, & PARENTS

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The best education stories generally focus on individual teachers, parents, and students whose lives are most directly affected by the education system:

Denied: How Texas keeps tens of thousands of kids out of special ed http://ow.ly/AzGX307gqfX

This Houston Chronicle series, telling the story how an obscure state memo limiting special education services had innumerable effects, has already led to real-world changes and seems to be the consensus pick for education coverage of the year. (For real-world impact, see also ProPublica’s report: New Jersey’s Student Loan Program is ‘State-Sanctioned Loan-Sharking’ http://ow.ly/RLoH307jh23.)

These Teachers Think Donald Trump Can Make America Great For Kids Again http://ow.ly/U3Fu307gtWQ

The Huffington Post introduced us to some of teachers who, like many other union household members, apparently thought Trump could get the job done better than Clinton. Who knew?

Maryland couple fined more than $500,000 for sending kids to D.C. schools http://ow.ly/YB9M307gsd4

In this piece, the Washington Post gets at two under-explored phenomena: how parents who can’t move get their kids into better schools, and how DC Public Schools’ reputation has changed over the past decade or so.

Broken discipline tracking systems let teachers flee troubled pasts http://ow.ly/6p7s307hD2T

This USA Today package — complete with an animated interactive showing how one troubled teacher moved from state to state — didn’t get the attention it might have deserved.

Saving Dobson https://t.co/rAsfrOSfcL

This late-December entry from WHYY Philadelphia tells a fascinating story about how some parents respond to the disturbing possibility that their school is going to receive more emotionally disturbed students than it has previously served.

SEGREGATION (INTEGRATION, DIVERSITY)

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This was a big year for school segregation stories, no doubt, creating challenges for reporters who wanted their stories to stand out. Some of them managed to do so:

Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City http://ow.ly/BYeD307gffn

It’s not common — and not always wise — for reporters to make themselves part of a story, but the NYT Magazine’s Nikole Hannah-Jones really had no other way to write about the segregation and integration issues roiling gentrified Brooklyn and wrote a powerful first-person piece about her own difficult decision as a parent. (For a related story, see Chicago Public Radio’s seven-minute piece, Why A White Family Sent Their Daughter To A Black Public High School http://ow.ly/n4Aj307jo2E.)

School Integration 2.0: How Could New York City Do It Better? http://ow.ly/St5m307gfEp

In a year dominated by coverage of integration issues, WNYC’s series was among the best. Among the best segments in the series were ones about a massive 1964 protest and current attendance zone rules that promote segregation.

Mendez: The CA school deseg case you probably never heard of https://t.co/UtHj9ueVFI

There was so much coverage of race and schools this year it was hard to find a story that hadn’t been told already, like this LA Times piece, which tells us about a California-based case that few know about.

“River City,” the anonymous town that was the model of desegregation in the Civil Rights era http://ow.ly/tizh307gCUz

In an invaluable history lesson, this Hechinger Report story takes us back to the original city where desegregation seemed to work — but didn’t last.

Tomorrow’s Test http://ow.ly/OVxB307gfMo

Though the package name was confusing to some, Slate’s series (produced by Columbia J-School’s Teacher Project) took readers all across the country and told stories from the inside. (See also the Bloomberg News story titled Even in Diverse Evanston Schools, Black Students Don’t Get an Equal Education http://ow.ly/8Bm0307jiFd.)

Why Brooklyn’s Middle Schools Are So Segregated http://ow.ly/w2Bt307gGjL

Produced by Chalkbeat and published in The Atlantic, this piece – and several others like it – looks deeply at why New York City schools remain so segregated despite the city’s ostensible liberalism and affection for differences. (See also John Oliver’s 20-minute School Segregation https://youtu.be/o8yiYCHMAlM.)

MONEY

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The year 2016 was a big year for money in education stories, including a major lawsuit in Connecticut and new research suggesting that money might matter more to student achievement than many of us had been long led to believe:

Money, Race and Success: How Your School District Compares http://ow.ly/9z41307gdWq

This NYT story, with interactives that let readers see whether their district did better or worse than comparable places, showed the intertwined relationships of education, race, location, and money. No surprise, the piece stayed atop the “most-read” list for months after it was first published. (For more about money and schools, see also the Seattle Times’ series Why are Massachusetts schools so much better? http://ow.ly/mVDd307l3kA and NPR’s big School Money project http://ow.ly/19yC307hIBj.)

An F-Minus for America’s Schools From a Fed-Up Judge http://ow.ly/YG0y307gGQi

This New York Times piece conveys the urgency and extremity of the situation in Connecticut, where a judge’s decision found vast and systemic inequalities – all the while staying within the bounds of a mainstream news story.

$2.6 Billion In Federal Poverty Funding Going To Wealthier Districts bit.ly/282Q3Vn

The US News education team went deep on federal funding formulas and found a way to make a tough topic more appealing to readers. (They also braved Reddit to get their story to as many readers as possible.)

When poverty permeates the classroom https://t.co/HWsIGejG6O

The CT Mirror spent months digging into the September court decision slamming the way Connecticut raises and distributes education money. This first piece in the seven-part series hits hard. (For an equally important and comprehensive series, check out The Hechinger Reporter and the Jackson Clarion-Ledger’s Mississippi Child Care Crisis http://ow.ly/a2Dx307gGxU.)

Uncovering a major security hole with the SAT: http://reut.rs/1Uqu99O

Reuters has been bird-dogging the College Board’s rollout of the new SAT all year, and whether you’re pro- or anti-standardized testing this was one of their several big stories about the flawed effort you should read. (Another story that took us behind the scenes and helped us understand the business imperatives involved was this NYT piece: Rejected by Colleges, SAT and ACT Gain High School Acceptance http://ow.ly/Nt1g307k7CK.)

DISTRICT & CHARTER SCHOOLS

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At times in 2016 it might have seemed like there was no other story than charter schools vs. district schools. Done superficially, that’s a narrative that doesn’t particularly help inform readers. Done well, it makes clear the power and limitations of the charter school era.

At Success Academy School, a Stumble in Math and a Teacher’s Anger http://ow.ly/zFp6307k8JM

One of the biggest and most controversial education stories of the year was this NYT piece and the accompanying video. (Politico NY also reported several important pieces about Success Academy including Success Academy documents point to ‘possible cheating’ among challenges http://ow.ly/f6SE307kUcN.)

NYC Charters Retain Students Better Than Traditional Schools http://ow.ly/Nhy0307gjMZ

One of the most important things that education coverage can do is to challenge conventional wisdom, as this WNYC/Schoolbook story did. But doing so is controversial and difficult.

Letter from Detroit: Held Back http://ow.ly/X2tn307gpQy

This pre-election Harper’s Magazine story about Detroit schools is long and largely historic in its focus, but it doesn’t take simple sides and includes some exquisite details.

If you saw this meeting agenda, you’d never guess this charter board was going to close a school http://ow.ly/feGa307goG0

New Orleans’ The Lens has done a great job highlighting failures at public accountability in the charter sector. Here’s just one example. (On the accountability front, see also BuzzFeeed’s Inside The College That Abolished The F And Raked In The Cash http://ow.ly/njB0307jhZG.)

Learn Different http://ow.ly/eqZw307grwQ

With this story about AltSchool, the Silicon Valley model that’s proven unfailingly appealing to education editors and writers, The New Yorker gets at both the fascination with novelty and the flaws in the unproven tuition-based approach.

SAFETY, DISCIPLINE, & VIOLENCE

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It was a big year for stories about balancing school safety against the cumulative effects of institutional racism – as well as for the school-related effects of gun violence in American society.

Rethinking School Discipline http://ow.ly/je3A307guzY

This smart American Prospect feature looks at the rationale behind revisiting school expulsions and the likely problems if it’s not done well (some of which are already appearing in places like Fresno). See also the NYT’s  An Effective but Exhausting Alternative to High-School Suspensions http://ow.ly/q5pK307gGdd.

How Baltimore School Cops Are Trained to Be “Warriors” http://ow.ly/TcNC307hwUT

Mother Jones brings some depth to the school discipline/cops in schools story with a look at how poorly school police are trained to deal with kids.

TCPalm: Orlando shooter’s violent, disruptive behavior a pattern stretching back to elementary school http://ow.ly/Tb78307gf2Q.

It took the Orlando tragedy for some education reporters and editors (myself included) to realize that federal privacy laws don’t apply to the deceased.

Sexual abuse at New England boarding schools http://ow.ly/TarP307gpA5

With this series, the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team returned with another amazing story of powerful institutions preying on the helpless while adults look the other way.

MN shooting victim was an adored school cafeteria manager – https://t.co/wDxMZEARU6

The Washington Post did something smart with a national news story, finding and reporting the education angle and in the process humanizing the victim and public schools.

REFUGEES, IMMIGRANTS, & COMMUNITIES OF COLOR

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There were so many opportunities in 2016 for education journalists to link general issues like immigration and foreign policy to what’s going on in schools, and no shortage of reporters and editors eager to jump in:

For Syrian Refugees in New Jersey, a Bumpy Adjustment to School http://ow.ly/10bFzi

This WNYC segment was one of the first attempts I came across to capture what it’s like for the handful of Syrian refugees who make it into the US and public schools. See also the NYT Sunday Magazine’s photo-heavy package of stories The New High-School Outsiders http://ow.ly/63E9307grXK.

Large bias against black students surfaces in national study of teacher opinions http://ow.ly/ALdg307giOa

Pretty much every outlet covered this study showing implicit bias against kids of color, but the Seattle Times’ version got deeper into the nuance with a Q and A. (For another look at how hard things can be for students of color to make it through the education grinder, see NOLA.com’s series: College nearly breaks KIPP grad, financially and spiritually http://ow.ly/N3T2307jjkM.)

13, right now: Growing up in the age of likes, lols and longing http://ow.ly/1H16307go5M

Sometimes it’s especially important for readers to understand what schools are like from a student perspective, and this Washington Post piece was among the best at relating the social experience. See also the LA Times’ A transgender 9-year-old tells her story http://ow.ly/4wWw307jhm2.

That’s one list. What were your favorite mainstream education stories of the past year?

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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