A roundup of great long-form journalism from over the years — and what makes them so memorable.
By Kristen Doerer
Most education reporters yearn to write memorable stories, the ones that go beyond the routine, make a deep impression and stick in readers’ minds.
But what makes for one of those standout stories?
In an attempt to answer that question, The Grade asked education journalists and others for their personal favorites.
Those who answered provide more than a list of outstanding reading and listening material. Their responses show what spectacular pieces of education journalism tend to have in common.
Almost all of the stories examined topical issues in education — racial, economic and gender disparities, dropout rates, high-pressure testing, gun violence and trauma — through a personal prism. They relied less on talking heads and more on the people living the stories. They avoided simplistic representations of these people or the issues they faced, leading to deeper understanding and empathy among readers.
Three of them are investigations that revealed in unsparing detail wrongdoing by school administrators that cheated students of their right to a decent education.
Here, then, are those memorable stories:
Wrong Answer, by Rachel Aviv, published July 2014 in The New Yorker. Nominated separately by Danielle Dreilinger, Knight-Wallace Fellow, and Mario Koran, California correspondent at The 74.
“I dream of writing this article,” Dreilinger said. “It answers the question I always have when someone breaks the rules big-time: What is the story they were telling themselves?”
The New Yorker story describes how, under tremendous district pressure to raise student test scores, educators in the Atlanta Public Schools system cheated on state-administered standardized tests by changing students’ wrong answers. When the full breadth of the systemic cheating was uncovered in 2011, it was labeled one of the largest cheating scandals in U.S. history.
Aviv tells the story of the educators who participated and perpetuated the cheating at Parks Middle School in Atlanta and zoomed in on two in particular: Damany Lewis, a math teacher, and Christopher Waller, the school’s principal.
“Stories about schools and education are often framed around heroes or villains, good actors or bad,” Koran said. “But this piece in The New Yorker shows us how educators with good records can make bad decisions, regardless of their intentions.”
The resulting story revealed teachers’ inner conflicts and added nuance, empathy, and understanding of how matters spiraled out of control. A feature movie based on Aviv’s story is in the works.
‘It’s Like You’re Climbing Everest’ by Erika Hayasaki, published February 2006 in the LA Times. Nominated by Linda Shaw, western region manager at the Solutions Journalism Network.
“The scenes in that story have stuck with me, and still break my heart,” Shaw said.
Hayasaki’s series on high school dropouts followed a group of 11 boys who called themselves the Outsiders and whose families immigrated from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. They entered Birmingham High School together in Los Angeles in fall of 2001. By late spring of 2005, only four of the 11 were still enrolled.
In one scene, Hayasaki follows the Outsiders to what they had hoped would be their own high-school graduation.
“Inside the stadium,” Hayasaki writes, “joined by Isaac, Andy and James Moreno, they slid under a rail to find a private spot away from celebrating families: six Outsiders watching what was supposed to be their graduation ceremony from behind a metal fence … Isaac flipped through the program. Suddenly, he spotted his name: ‘Isaac Carlos Castillo.’ School officials had not removed it. Isaac pinched his eyes with his fingers, trying to stifle tears. He shook his head and glanced at the field decorated with gold balloons. He cried.”
That scene, 12 years later, still sticks with Shaw.
“Hayasaki did what education reporters often say we should do more of: Put students’ stories and voices front-and-center in our stories,” Shaw said. “By doing that, Hayasaki explained more about what’s behind the high dropout rate than any other story I can recall.”
(Others articles in the series include A Formula for Failure in L.A. Schools and Back to Basics: Why Does High School Fail So Many? Hayasaki followed up with the Outsiders in High School’s `Outsiders’ Are Dropping Back In and A Day for Second Chances.)
The Problem We All Live With, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, aired July 2015 on This American Life. Nominated by New York Times reporter Farah Stockman.
In this much-admired episode, Hannah-Jones follows two school districts in Missouri that in 2013 experienced an accidental desegregation program. Through a glitch in state statute, students from Normandy High, the majority black, low-performing school that Michael Brown attended, were allowed to take a bus 30 miles away to Francis Howell, in a wealthy and majority white district.
The piece follows a student from Normandy High whose mother is on a quest to find her daughter a good education. We sit in on them discussing transferring at the kitchen table. We hear white parents saying they don’t want their district to enroll students from Normandy High School.
A Pulitzer Prize winner for her series on school segregation in Boston, Stockman calls the segment “eye-opening.”
For more on “The Problem We All Live With” and Hannah-Jones’s other reporting on segregation, listen to Longform Podcast #197: Nikole Hannah-Jones, nominated by The Oregonian’s Bethany Barnes. She calls the interview with Hannah-Jones “a love song to old-school beat reporting.”
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No Child Left Behind by Stephanie Banchero, published July 2004 in the Chicago Tribune. Nominated by Greg Toppo, a senior editor at Inside Higher Ed.
In this series, Banchero follows 9-year-old Rayola Cardwell, a student from the South Side of Chicago who is allowed to transfer to a better-performing school across town thanks to a provision in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
On her first day, Rayola decides to be known by her middle name, Victoria, explaining that Rayola “sounds too black,” as Banchero puts it, for her new, integrated school. Banchero follows Victoria through her first days and weeks, describing how she will “face obstacles that the law does not address, obstacles her mother cannot seem to overcome and sometimes aggravates with her own impulsive behavior.”
What Toppo especially likes about the story: “It really opened a lot of people’s eyes to the complexities of life as a child in a modern urban school system and the unintended consequences of big federal mandates.”
Harper High School by Linda Lutton, Ben Calhoun, and Alex Kotlowitz, aired February 2013 on This American Life. Nominated by Spencer Fellow Kalyn Belsha.
“I’ve used this story many times in my reporting classes because of the masterful way it introduces its topic,” Belsha said.
The topic examines the ways in which Chicago students are affected by gun violence in their city.
Based on five months of reporting, the story opens on the first day of the school year, when Harper High Principal Leonetta Sanders calls for a moment of silence during the back-to-school assembly to honor students who had been shot the previous last school year. In fact, 29 recent and current students had been shot that year, eight of whom died.
“I think it does a great job illustrating the important relationships between students coping with trauma and school staff,” Belsha said. “The end of the second part, where it zooms out and plays audio from many schools dealing with gun violence across the country, not just Chicago, is extremely powerful; it shows the true scope of this deep dive into one high school.”
Failure Factories, by Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner, and Michael La Forgia, published in 2015 in The Tampa Bay Times. Nominated separately by Education Week reporter Evie Blad, the Houston Chronicle’s Mónica Rhor, and the Solutions Journalism Network’s Linda Shaw.
“In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning series begins. “First they abandoned integration, leaving the schools overwhelmingly poor and black. Then they broke promises of more money and resources.”
The piece “deconstructs how and why schools are failing students of color,” Rhor said.
The investigation laid bare facts that could not be ignored. In April 2016, the U.S. Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into whether the school district “systematically discriminates against black children.”
The Pulitzer board called it “a distinguished example of reporting on significant issues of local concern, demonstrating originality and community expertise.”
The cookie monster of P.S. 224, by LynNell Hancock, published February 1989 in the Village Voice. Nominated by Sam Freedman, former education columnist for The New York Times and a professor at Columbia University.
“During the late 1980s and early 1990s, LynNell Hancock’s articles in the Village Voice laid bare the tragedy of New York’s experiment in giving community control to K-8 schools,” Freedman said. “In one investigation after another, Hancock showed how the political hacks took over neighborhood schools and made them machines for patronage, embezzlement, and other corruption.”
Nearly 30 years later, “The Cookie Monster of P.S. 224” stands the test of time.
“In one of the poorest neighborhoods of New York City, this is how an elementary school principal teaches the ABCs of capitalism: she sells her students junk food illegally at 200 per cent and 300 per cent above cost, and then refuses to account for the profits,” Hancock begins the piece. The principal’s “lucrative snack business is just part of a larger pattern of entrepreneurial zeal.”
“Hancock here connects the personal, human aspects of the story with a keen understanding of the systemic forces at work,” Freedman said. “It is both bottom-up and top-down journalism of the highest order.”
Although it has not been archived online by the Village Voice yet, Investigative Reporters and Editors members can order Hancock’s story here.
The Wiz, by David Finkel, published June 1993 in The Washington Post. Nominated by former Tampa Bay Times reporter Cara Fitzpatrick.
The story profiles Elizabeth Mann, a brilliant student at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, MD – a student described by her teachers with such words as “incredible.”
It opens during Elizabeth’s third-period quantum physics class, in which six boys talk loudly and confidently about “the failings of Euclidian geometry,” and Elizabeth – the only girl in the seven-person class – waits for her moment to interject her idea into the discussion, eventually doing so by turning her statement into a polite question.
“I admire the way that Finkel deftly explores issues around girls in math and science — a recurring theme in ed reporting — in a beautifully written feature,” Fitzpatrick said. “He does a great job of letting the kids’ own words speak for themselves.”
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Three Miles by Chana Joffe-Walt, aired March 2015, produced by This American Life. Nominated by Sara Mosle, editor at Chalkbeat Newark and New York Times contributor.
“I remember hearing this piece and just sitting in my car afterward stunned and overwhelmed, thinking it was unlike anything else I’d ever read or heard,” Mosle said.
In it, Joffe-Walt looks back 10 years later on a 2005 program that brought together a group of students from two New York City high schools just three miles away from each other in the Bronx: University Heights High School, a public school, and Fieldston, an elite private school.
“For so many University Heights kids I talked to, seeing Fieldston was shocking because of the stark difference,” Joffe-Walt narrates in the episode. “It was a surprise. They could not have imagined a place like Fieldston.”
The episode focuses on a University Heights student named Melanie who disappeared soon after the University-Fieldston program began.
“For Melanie, it wasn’t that. Melanie had imagined it… Melanie knew there was no innate difference between her and a kid born into wealth. She could see that this division we’re all so inured to was not a reflection of her inferior worth or ability.”
Mosle particularly admires the ways in which the story gave one girl’s story a much bigger meaning. She calls it “a superb example of how a really good reporter can get at fundamental truths about American society and education policy through faithful, dogged reporting about a single person’s life.”
Celebrated school accused of cheating; Exclusive: TAKS results too good to be true at Houston elementaries, Joshua Benton and Holly K. Hacker, published December 2004 in the Dallas Morning News. Nominated by Eva-Marie Ayala, an education reporter at the Dallas Morning News.
At Houston’s Wesley Elementary “desperately poor students outscored children in the wealthiest suburbs.” This is the school that George W. Bush and Oprah Winfrey visited in the 1990s and upheld as an example for others to follow. But a data investigation by a team at Dallas Morning News found evidence that much of that success came from widespread, systematic cheating. Analyzing Texas’s 7,700 public schools test scores, the newspaper found unusual gaps in scores from 2003 to 2004 in nearly 400 schools. Former teachers and an ex-principal revealed what was the data said – cheating was widespread.
Holly Hacker and Josh Benton laid bare cheating in Texas public schools and kicked off a data-investigation trend in education journalism. “That’s the first series I saw how in-depth data digging could shine a light on schools,” Ayala said. “Almost right after that, is when I signed up for Excel classes at the public library.”
Against All Odds: In Rough City School, Top Students Struggle to Learn, Escape, by Ron Suskind, published in May 1994 in The Wall Street Journal; nominated by Lori Crouch, assistant director for the Education Writers Association.
“Recently, a student was shot dead by a classmate during lunch period outside Frank W. Ballou Senior High,” Suskind began his story. “It didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone at the school, in this city’s most crime-infested ward. Just during the current school year, one boy was hacked by a student with an ax, a girl was badly wounded in a knife fight with another female student, five fires were set by arsonists, and an unidentified body was dumped next to the parking lot.”
That’s the context in which 16-year-old Cedric Jennings is working his way through a public high school in Washington, D.C. in 1994, with hopes of attending MIT. Cedric is dedicated to staying on the straight and narrow, at a school where those who get good grades are bullied and hope is elusive. His classmate 17-year-old Phillip Atkins, is bright, scoring as well as or better than Cedric on standardized tests, but he doesn’t let on that he is smart. “The best way to avoid trouble,” he tells his younger sister and her friend, “is to never get all the answers right on a test.”
The student voices allow readers to understand the obstacles for students of poverty and to see how Phillip, who could easily be tagged as a bully, is trying to get by in a place where people tell him he won’t amount to anything.
Suskind won a Pulitzer for this story and two others on Ballou, which laid the groundwork for Suskind’s book, “A Hope in the Unseen.”
If you have your own favorites to add to this list, please send them along; it’s inspiring and instructive for all of us to learn from the best.
Kristen Doerer is a freelance journalist, based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @k2doe.