The Grade Hed

By Alexander Russo

All things considered, January wasn’t so bad when it comes to education journalism. Or at least that’s how it looks now that the long month is finally over.

There were some low points, sure – the New York Times school shooting coverage was really, really flawed.

But there were more than enough high points, too. There was the Portland Tribune story about the long struggles to remove a troubled teacher from the classroom and get him off the district payroll and the New York Times piece about the Bronx teacher who was also a drug addict.

All in all, let’s call it a win.

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THAT CREEPY TEACHER

One particularly memorable piece from January was Beth Slovic’s story about a troubled Portland teacher and the long delays in getting him away from kids and off the district payroll. It’s a fascinating and horrifying story. And the district sued the reporter over her records requests, which adds an extra dynamic.

BETTER WRITING ABOUT SCHOOL GUN VIOLENCE

It’s horrifying that covering schools and guns is now apparently a part of covering education, but reporters are doing better at not glorifying the shooter or spreading misinformation. Reporters like USA Today’s Greg Toppo avoided exaggerating school shootings in his overview. The 74 and EdWeek have now started tracking data on school gun incidents that result in injury or fatality – though their methods differ, which could create additional confusion.

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE OPT-OUT MOVEMENT?

WLRN Miami public radio’s Jessica Bakeman produced a notable (and very Politico-esque) story about the rise and fade of the opt-out movement that’s well worth reading. The rest of us just moved on, but it’s good to know how a story ends (or at least shifts).

TEACHER, DRUG ADDICT

Michael Wilson’s New York Times story about a high school teacher who was also a drug addict is an intimate and powerful read. In it, a veteran teacher struggling with his addiction overdoses in the faculty restroom of his special education high school. The opening – “the needle was so small beside the big man” – lets you know you’re in for something intense. (Contributor Joyce Tsai wrote last September about all the ways the drug crisis is crossing paths with schools and encouraged more reporters to cover the issues.)

THE #METOO FALL OF JEREMIAH KITTREDGE

After an initial story that I thought was short on verified information, Politico NY’s Eliza Shapiro teamed up with Caitlin Emma and detailed the downfall of Jeremiah Kittredge, the head of a charter school advocacy group. One memorable quote from one of his accusers that Shaprio and Emma provide: “Was I scared? No. Was I intimidated? No… But his effort to intimidate me and show me who had power was real. And weird. And pathetic. And shameful.” A highly incomplete list of

STUDENT JOURNALISTS RULE

Kudos to the student journalists at Ithaca College who dug into the background of the top candidate to head the institution and found some disturbing information. According to Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, the situation highlights the problems of secret hiring processes that search firms often employ to find candidates. He calls it “the corrosive toll that secrecy takes on the college presidential selection process.”

SCHOOL ATTENDANCE ZONES ARE THE WORST

The best story of the month might have been Alvin Chang’s deep dive for Vox into the demographic effects of school attendance zones, which are an important factor contributing to racial segregation in schools along with residential segregation, district boundary setting, and individual methods (private schools, magnet programs, moving away, etc). As I noted in one of the weekly newsletters (hint, hint), someone should cobble together a map or calendar of big districts going through rezoning processes, so that more reporters can get in on the story.

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MISLEADING SCHOOL GUN COVERAGE

There are some big problems with how some news outlets including the New York Times have covered gun incidents at schools over the past couple of weeks, largely created because they’re using an overly broad definition of a “school shooting.” The Times is not alone, alas, and it doesn’t seem to have learned its lesson, misleadingly describing this week’s accidental discharge of a gun at a Los Angeles middle school as “one of at least a dozen” school shootings on campus this year. No, that’s not really true. Please stop saying it.

LAZY SPECULATION

Predictions are journalism in its laziest, least accountable form. I hate myself for gobbling them up. Some examples from early January include NPR’s Claudio Sanchez and EWA Radio (featuring Scott Jaschik and Gregg Toppo). EdSource’s John Fensterwald does it right by revealing how he did on last year’s predictions. Accountability, folks. We are all about it. So we should be modeling it. I expect a review this time next year of everyone’s 2018 predictions.

ANOTHER BLINKERED LOOK AT NYC CHARTERS

The NYT’s Metro Section was back at it in January with another blinkered take on charter schools. This time, the Times was focused on Achievement First. Hidden deep in the bowels of the story about kids struggling to complete college after they graduate is the news that Achievement kids graduate at two times the national rate. Missing from the story is that traditional schools also struggle mightily with creating a compliance-oriented mentality among students. Context, please. And why is so much of the Metro section’s coverage focused on charter schools again?

CHALKBEAT STUMBLES (AGAIN) ON NATIONAL COVERAGE

I’m not sure what’s going on over there, but a January Chalkbeat story about teacher shortages was another instance in which great reporting got undercut by breathless writing. Reporter Matt Barnum did admirable working getting teacher vacancy numbers from a bunch of big-city districts, showing that most of them had rates of about 1 percent. But the original version of the story hypes things – emphasizing raw numbers rather than percentages, for example – to make the vacancy numers seem big. The newsletter version of the story is focused on the percentages rather than the raw numbers and seems much more solid to me.

More? Here are the January “Best of the Week” newsletters, from which many of these best and worst nominees are taken:

📧 Best stories of 2018’s first week, edtech coverage challenges, & top-read columns of 2017

📧 Problematic school attendance zones, USDE on Texas SPED program, & diminished education coverage in the SF Bay Area

📧 Shutdown fever, unsolicited story ideas, a rocky year for Betsy DeVos coverage, & all the best education journalism of the week

📧 Addicted teachers, misleading school shooting coverage, & all the best education journalism of the week

The Best and worst for December 2017 can be found here.

Follow @thegrade_ to learn more about media coverage of education issues. Sign up for the newsletter here.