the grade hed

By Alexander Russo

What a busy month October was for education journalism! Here’s a quick look back at the best (including Raising Kings) and worst (including the New York Times’ coverage of Betsy DeVos’ work calendar) as we head on to November.

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BEST

There were three education journalism standouts this month (well, including one from September):

RAISING KINGS

Raising Kings, the three-part collaboration among NPR Education/EdWeek/Code Switch portrays the dramatic first year of an all-boys high school in Washington, DC, that’s trying to emphasize restorative justice instead of no excuses. It’s full of fascinating, flawed characters – not all of them students – and an exciting if extremely difficult to implement approach to making schools feel safe without resorting to suspensions and expulsions.

For education journalists, there’s the added bonus of some sharp self-reflection from Cory Turner, noting the role reporters too often play in focusing on setbacks and problems in urban education: “Big-city schools tend to get a bad rep, and we education reporters are partly to blame. We tend to focus a lot on what’s not working, but why not on what IS working?” We hear this all the time from educators and parents, but to hear it come from inside education journalism makes it especially powerful.

Part 3, Irreconcilable Differences, is live as of midnight. You can also watch a five-minute conversation between the two main reporters about the experience of reporting the story.

BETSY DEVOS, COMPLEX HUMAN BEING

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For all the coverage DeVos has received over the past 10 months, none of it I’ve seen has gone so deep as This American Life’s segment about her stint as a school volunteer in a traditional Grand Rapids elementary school for roughly five years.

Critics often claimed during the nomination process that DeVos had never stepped foot in a traditional public school. But that turns out not to have been true. In the This American Life piece, called Private Geography, we get to meet some of the teachers and students she worked with. Fan or foe of the controversial Education Secretary, you’ll appreciate the details and the care provided here.

What we learn about the wealthy benefactor from how she helps some of her favorite kids is also pretty revealing. DeVos purchased books for some kids, found jobs for the parents of others – and she helped a handful of kids attend private schools. Plus, there is a DeVos high school yearbook picture that I don’t think we’d seen before. (Don’t be mean.)

It came out in September, but everyone seemed to miss it (or perhaps didn’t want to deal with the nuanced story it tells).

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES, EWA ACTION PLAN, & NEWSROOM DIVERSITY

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After lots of meetings and discussion, the national Education Writers Association board of directors approved an “action plan” from the Diversity & Inclusion task force, committing the organization to support and lead education journalism on a key set of issues. Meanwhile, NYT writer Nikole Hannah-Jones (whom the Grade featured as The Beyoncé of Journalism) won a MacArthur “genius” grant.

The timing couldn’t have been better, because shortly afterward, the annual ASNE (American Society of News Editors) newsroom diversity report came out: How Diverse Are US Newsrooms?  (Answer: Not nearly enough.) There’s lots of work to be done, and education teams and outlets have some challenges ahead of them. All eyes will be on the hires Chalkbeat makes for Newark and Chicago, and the person WBEZ Chicago hires to replace Becky Vevea (who’s moved on to another beat). (More about that in the Friday newsletter.)

For impressive examples of innovation in education journalism, check out a recent roundup of experiments here. You can also read all the back issues of the Grade’s newsletter, Best of the Week, here. (Don’t forget to sign up while you’re there.)

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WORST

There were a handful of candidates for worst-executed education story of October, but last week’s coverage of the detailed DeVos schedule was problematic for me in several regards – especially since it was produced by the New York Times. They should know better. They should do better. Perhaps there are some lessons here.

FLAWED TIMES COVERAGE

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It’s not that coverage of DeVos is unwarranted, or that there aren’t any worrisome aspects of her tenure. And it’s interesting to see how DeVos spends her days when she’s not giving speeches or visiting schools.

But the Times piece (initially headlined “Betsy DeVos’s Schedule Shows Focus on Religious and Nontraditional Schools”) isn’t very deep or helpful, either. And its narrowness and seeming bias (against school choice and the involvement of religious organizations involved in education) doesn’t do much to reclaim journalism’s reputation for fair, steady coverage.

I’m told by American Oversight that the Times had the DeVos calendar for roughly a month. They could have done so much more.

The Times version of the story seems to want to make the DeVos schedule into something exciting, but it is fettered by a lack of exciting information. The result is a bit of a nothing burger.

The piece notes that the Trump appointee’s calendar “is sprinkled with meetings with religious leaders, leading national advocates of vouchers and charter schools, and players involved in challenging state laws that limit the distribution of government funds to support religious or alternative schools.”

But we already know all about DeVos’ public calendar (school visits, speeches). And we already know DeVos is an avowed fan of school choice. Nothing really unexpected or outrage-worthy is in the schedule. (She didn’t meet with the Russians, far as I can tell.)

So where’s the news? The Times story notes that DeVos’ calendar shows a focus on “the same kinds of alternatives that Ms. DeVos promoted when she was a conservative philanthropist.” That’s not really a gotcha! kind of moment.

The Times appears to pump up the findings as best it can, but at the cost of balance.

As noted by longtime DeVos ally Matt Frendewey, the story focuses on meetings with religious groups but downplays or outright ignores DeVos’ meetings with land grant colleges, state boards of education, and state education chiefs. It highlights meeting topics that are in fact “offered by the party requesting the meeting” (not DeVos). In some cases, notes Frendewey, the Times story fails to mention that Obama’s education secretaries also attended some of the same meetings it highlights DeVos as having attended. Over all, writes Frendewey, the Times story “insinuates that somehow advocating for choice is inherently wrong.”

The Times story does mention a phone call and school visit with American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten and a few other noncontroversial events. However, seemingly in support of Frendewey’s contention that the Times story overemphasized the visits to religious schools, NewsDiffs, a site that tracks changes in NYT stories after they are posted, indicates an effort to soften the headline. Religious schools are no longer said to be a  focus of DeVos’ schedule. Instead, they are an emphasis.

MISSING CONTEXT

Spellings, Paige, Duncan, KingPrevious education secretaries Margaret Spellings, Rod Paige, Arne Duncan, and John King, whose work calendars are not mentioned by the Times.

Perhaps most notable, there’s no mention in the Times story of what previous inhabitants of the office (Margaret Spellings, Rod Paige, Arne Duncan, John King) have done with their workweeks. The likely reason is that such information has never been provided before.

A former Duncan staffer told me that the FOIA office provided Duncan’s calendar to reporters who asked for it during the Obama administration. But I know personally that the USDE declined to provide anything comparable to what we have about DeVos via FOIA request during the Obama administration.

The absence of comparable information – whom Duncan met with, visited, talked to on the phone, etc. — is important for readers to know. Even better would be for an outlet to obtain such information and present it publicly. The Times story says nothing.

AMERICAN OVERSIGHT?

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A March 2017 tweet from American Oversight: “Pruitt, DeVos, Mnuchin, Price, and Sessions may have made false statements to Congress. We need accountability.”

Just as important, the Times missed an opportunity to tell a deeper story about American Oversight, the shadowy, little-known organization that dug up the 326-page DeVos calendar in the first place. (See what I did there?)

The Times identifies the source — “a liberal nonprofit group, American Oversight, which sued the Education Department for the records and provided a copy of them to the New York Times” — near the bottom of the piece, in the third to last paragraph. But that’s it.

What else do we know? On its website, American Oversight says it’s a nonpartisan 501(c)3. But there’s no list of donors that would usually be posted by this kind of nonprofit, and its head declined to name its funding sources. Since the organization is so new, it hasn’t had the chance to demonstrate its equal-opportunity approach to transparency when a Democrat is in the White House (or file an IRS 990 form).

According to a USA Today story in March, however, the nonprofit was launched to hound Trump administration agencies “much the way similar actions by conservative group Judicial Watch produced emails from the State Department that dogged Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”

That sounds like more than just an equal-opportunity do-gooder group filled with former Obama and Clinton staffers. That sounds like a partisan advocacy group on a mission. And the way it’s pushing the DeVos calendar on Twitter the past few days seems to confirm that impression.

Asked about how the Times ended up running the American Oversight story, reporter Lipton responded in a statement Tuesday afternoon that the paper “has been doing FOIAs itself and communicating with nonprofit groups that are doing FOIAs.” But the Times had not sued to get the information, and tried to verify its accuracy before publishing it. “Often other groups get responses before the New York Times.”

Hey, at least the Times identified American Oversight by ideology. In its piece about the DeVos schedule, CNN describes them as “a government transparency group.”

That’s it for October. For other recent examples of problematic education journalism last month, see a Wendy Paris column about how the NYT exaggerates the challenges of getting into high school in New York City. Or, check out this Rachel Cohen piece about economic mobility and education that fails to identify a Berkeley professor as having consulted for the teachers union. Last but not least, there were some questions about how Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum interpreted new research on Newark schools.