Best education journalism of 2017

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The Grade’s annual roundup of the best stuff we’ve seen all year – plus some suggestions from other folks we trust and admire.

By Alexander Russo and Kristen Doerer

What a year it’s been, right? Even as the industry continues to go through enormous transition, the topics that education journalists are addressing keep growing. And, from outlets big and small, for-profit and otherwise, they often do it remarkably well – making it a pleasurable challenge to pick from among so many strong efforts.

As you’ll see, many of these selections come from The Grade’s own “Best of the Week” newsletter (you can sign up here) and monthly Best and Worst roundups. But they also include stories from year-end reviews that have already come out from places like Longreads, Bloomberg Businessweek, LongformSports Illustrated, Chartbeat, and FOLIO – and also from lots of people we know and trust.

These are the kinds of compelling and memorable stories most of us aspire to produce, if we only had the time, the determination, and creativity. They are nuanced, smart, fair-minded – extremely difficult to pull off and sometimes troubling to read. Most of all, they are full of carefully reported data and real-life experiences, rather than spin or speculation or shallow storytelling.

Like last year, the result is a highly opinionated list. There are nine categories, 43 standout stories, and a handful of surprises. Take a look, check out some stories you might have missed — and tell us what you think we missed or got wrong:

DEVOS, VOUCHERS, & CHARTER SCHOOLS

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This segment from This American Life will deepen your understanding of DeVos.

Of all of the coverage given to Betsy DeVos and the Trump education agenda this year, the pieces that stand out as most nuanced and insightful are Erica L. Green’s coverage for the New York Times, including Charter School Founded by DeVos Family Reflects National Tensions, Tim Alberta’s in-depth profile in Politico, The Education of Betsy DeVos, NPR’s team-effort series on the Promise and Peril of Vouchers, and – most revealing of all – Susan Burton’s little-noted “This American Life” segment, Vouching Towards Bethlehem. Focusing on DeVos’s five-year stint as a volunteer Grand Rapids reading tutor, the segment the paints a picture of DeVos that is both strangely sympathetic and also deeply disturbing for anyone whose vision of education is focused on traditional public schools.

For more about DeVos coverage, check out Covering DeVos.

SEGREGATION & INEQUALITY

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“A landmark Supreme Court case. A civil rights revolution. Why has everyone forgotten what happened next?”

Just like last year, there were numerous strong pieces related to school integration and inequality. Who did it best? US News’ Lauren Camera deserves enormous praise for having been among the first to report the ripple of district secession efforts going on around the country. For visual journalism on this issue, Alvin Chang’s Vox piece School segregation didn’t go away provides an eye-opening picture. Erica L. Green and Liz Bowie’s four-part series in the Baltimore Sun, Bridging The Divide, will make you think twice about how integration really works and who really wants it.

But the most memorable school integration story of 2017 has to be Malcolm Gladwell’s half-hour retelling of the devastating and unintended impacts of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, in an episode of his Revisionist History podcast called Miss Buchanan’s Period Of Adjustment.

As Gladwell reports, the Brown family memorialized by the Supreme Court decision were actually happy with the black school their children attended, Monroe Elementary. “They just thought that the Topeka School Board shouldn’t be telling them where they could or couldn’t send Linda to school, particularly if the only reason the school board could come up with was the color of Linda’s skin.” However, the Court decided that Monroe couldn’t be any good because it was segregated. And when schools integrated, white school boards fired black teachers en masse, depriving generations of black students classroom role models.

For more on integration coverage, check out Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Beyoncé of journalism

GUN VIOLENCE & SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

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After the shooter was apprehended, a school bus transported shaken students to a nearby church. From ‘Twelve seconds of gunfire.’

It’s a sad reality that reporters have to cover gun violence affecting kids and school shootings, but important that they do it well. In Twelve seconds of gunfire, the Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox revisited Townville Elementary in South Carolina, where a shooter took the life of one child and injured two others in 2016, detailing what happened to surviving children who returned to school with deep emotional scars. In Why no children died during the Rancho Tehama school shooting, the LA Times’ Sonali Kohli detailed the importance of preparation and timely action when an active shooter appears at a school, determined to gain entry.

THE OPIOID CRISIS AND SCHOOLS

Video from the Hechinger Report/Christian Science Monitor segment on sober high schools

When we talk about the opioid crisis, we mostly talk about the addiction of adults and the effect their addiction has on their children; but kids are addicted too, and students and teachers are deeply affected by the opioid crisis. In At an innovative high school, students get support battling their addictions while they learn, PBS NewsHour’s Pamela Kirkland takes us to Hope Academy, a public charter high school in Indianapolis where staff treat students’ addiction as a disease. “If I had to be in a regular high school, I don’t think I would even be alive,” said one current student. The Hechinger Report, in partnership with the Christian Science Monitor, produced its own story about one of the nation’s 33 sober high schools, in Brockton, Mass.

For more on opioid coverage, check out Opioid addiction and schools.

POVERTY & INEQUALITY 

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Don’t miss this New York Times story about big differences among different school districts.

The most important examination of poverty and education this year was probably Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy’s recent New York Times story How Effective Is Your School District?, which does a remarkable job of exploding all sorts of education myths about raising student test scores, based on new data from Stanford. (For starters, Chicago public schools come out looking the strongest.)

But there were several other don’t-miss stories: The Bay Area NBC News investigative team explored discipline disparities in local schools in its series Arrested At School, which recently won a duPont-Columbia award. “Raising Kings,” NPR and EdWeek’s eye-opening series about an attempt to implement restorative justice in a new all-boys DC high school, was a lively and in-depth look at social inequality.

Linda Lutton’s long-awaited radio documentary for WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, The View From Room 205, took a deep, humane look into the lives of students surrounded by poverty. Lutton’s narration and interactions with children are a delight. The pain she exhibits about the limits of what schools can do is palpable.

EDUCATION TECHNOLOGY

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Slate/Teacher Project stories about online credit recovery.

This year’s standouts: The New York Times’ Natasha Singer continued her impressive Education Disrupted series with pieces like How Google Took Over the Classroom and Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues. EdWeek’s Benjamin Herold made The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning. The Slate/Teacher Project collaboration produced another big series in May, focused on the issue of online credit recovery programs.

For two different perspectives on edtech coverage, check out Problems with the New York Times’ Google takeover story and Audrey Watters shares thoughts on education journalism.

HIGHER EDUCATION

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Jay Caspian King’s NYT story about an Asian-American student’s fraternity hazing death is on lots of other 2017 “best” lists

This year also produced some stellar if depressing journalism on college student hazing deaths. Combing through hours of security cam footage, Caitlin Flanagan’s Death at Penn State unveiled the level to which national fraternity chapters insulate themselves from legal risk while fully aware of their members’ egregious behavior. Published in The Atlantic, the story is a punch in the gut. In the New York Times Magazine, Jay Caspian Kang reported on the hazing death of Michael Deng, a freshman at Baruch College, whose initiation ceremony for an Asian-­American college fraternity turned out to be fatal. Both stories have appeared on several “best of the year” lists.

INVESTIGATIVE PROJECTS

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Accountability journalism in education had a strong year, including The Oregonian’s coverage of how Portland Public schools sexual misconduct allegations for years (by Bethany Barnes), and WAMU/NPR’s What Really Happened At The D.C. High School Where Every Senior Got Into College (by Kate McGee), which exposed practices that made adults look good but undercut the students. There were several excellent stories on Camelot, the for-profit education company that runs alternative schools that don’t seem to do very much for their students. WBEZ Chicago ran one of themProPublica ran anotherBuzzFeed ran a third. (Speaking of ProPublica, its story about districts using alternative schools to hide dropouts and game the system  is another 2017 must-read.)

Perhaps the most delightful and immediately effective journalistic investigation of the year was produced by a handful of Kansas high school students who took a hard look at their new principal’s resume. (Hint: There were problems with it.)

IMMIGRATION, REFUGEES, & ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS

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This was another big year for reporting on refugee students. Helen Thorpe’s new book The Newcomers is an impressive and timely piece of book-length journalism. See also Chicago magazine’s Welcome to Refugee High by Elly Fishman.

The needs of English language learners get too little attention, but the Jacqueline Rabe Thomas’s Language Wars series for the CT Mirror does an impressive job detailing how much Connecticut’s English learners are struggling, the state’s lack of strategy for improving the situation, and ideas from other states about what might work.

The impact of deportations on schools and kids produced several touching stories. Simon Thompson’s PBS NewsHour segment, This New Mexico school welcomes families who live across the border, focuses on some of the strategies schools employ, such as using streaming video for parent conferences and school performances. Nearly every general-interest roundup of 2017 magazine stories includes California Sunday’s Losing Gloria, about the far-reaching impact of one mother’s deportation on her kids’ lives.

For more on coverage of ELL students, check out English-language learners make the front pages – but that’s not enough

THESE STAND ALONE 

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The student known as Q is getting older now. 

*Some of the best and most important education journalism features students, teachers and parents rather than policy issues or political conflicts. For example, What My Students Taught Me, the fascinating StoryCorps-like podcast series from the Teacher Project and The Atlantic, Yasmeen Khan’s return visit to check in on Q, the transgender student she reported on two years ago for WNYC, and Sierra Mannie’s Hechinger Report look at how little students are taught about the Civil Rights era in some schools.

*EdWeek deserves a special shout out for its impressive hurricane recovery coverage. Shelby Webb at the Houston Chronicle did amazing work covering the school system’s response to Hurricane Harvey.

*The federal ESSA law didn’t get nearly the coverage it deserved, but Emma Brown’s Washington Post overview of the challenges of giving states more control over intervening in struggling schools was a standout example.

*Education politics coverage got short shrift this year, but a couple of exceptions were Rob Kuznia’s Washington Post piece about the crazy LAUSD school board race and Eliza Shapiro’s deep dive into charter advocates’ search for a new direction in Politico NY. (The best political explainer of 2017 – Darren Sands’ BuzzFeed story, What Happened to Black Lives Matter? – isn’t about education but it’s too good to leave out.)

That’s our list. Nine categories. Forty-two recommended stories. Now tell us what we got right and wrong. Snubs? Surprises? Bad calls? We want to know.

Kristen Doerer is a freelance journalist who can be reached at @k2doe.

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Coming in January: Unsolicited story assignments, ideas for deepening shallow writing school integration coverage, the Bay Area’s remarkable lack of education coverage, and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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