How the Washington Post missed the DC schools graduation rate scandal so badly, for so long

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The Post’s troubling tendency toward feel-good coverage and a revolving door of reporters obscured what many describe as an ‘open secret’ in DC public schools.

By Alexander Russo

Give the Washington Post credit for being on top of last week’s District of Columbia Public Schools scandal, which led to the resignation of schools chief Antwan Wilson.

From the announcement that Wilson had obtained special treatment for his daughter to transfer to another school to his resignation, Post reporters dogged the trail of fast-breaking events.

Ditto for this week’s scandal, which focuses on revelations that substantial numbers of students were fraudulently enrolled in a highly-coveted DC public school.

If only the Post had been so aware and tenacious about a much broader and more far-reaching scandal facing the DC school system. As it turns out, educators and administrators have been reporting inflated graduation rates on a large scale – committing academic fraud right in the Post’s (and several public agencies’) back yard.

This failure to catch and report what was going on inside DC schools is a serious disservice to local parents, an illustration of how hard it can be for reporters to penetrate dense bureaucracies like DCPS, and an example of how relentless turnover on an important beat can result in missed opportunities.

Most of all, it’s a substantial journalistic failure by a news outlet that should — and could — be doing much better work.

post ballout

Last March, the Post’s Metro section produced an uplifting story (see above) about how the seniors at Ballou, one of Washington DC’s lowest-performing high schools, had all applied to college.

There’s nothing wrong with a feel-good story. But for the Post especially, it was the latest in a long stream of glowing pieces about DCPS.

The pattern had become obvious to many and troubling to some. And the Ballou story would turn out to be one too many.

In the months after the Post’s story, it would be revealed that many of the students at Ballou should not have graduated and that the district’s graduation rate – which had been touted as a record-high 73 percent for 2017 – was wildly overstated.

In remarkably short order, the DC public schools would transform from a much-admired school success story to a major embarrassment for everyone involved. “The much-celebrated success of education reform in the nation’s capital turns out to have been a lie,” wrote the Manhattan Institute’s Max Eden in National Review, a conservative-leaning outlet.

How had this happened?

One popular explanation put forth by Post education blogger Valerie Strauss was that policymakers and school reformers had chosen to “ignore warning signs that were there all along.”

That may well have been true. But they weren’t the only ones.

The Post’s education team also missed the signs. And when the graduation rate scandal finally broke, it wasn’t even broken by the Post.

post learning to ride bikes

Perhaps the most memorable of the feel-good stories the Post ran about DCPS kids learning to ride bikes.

Under Kaya Henderson, who ran DCPS from 2010 to 2016, DC public schools were generally considered to be a success story. School reform advocates such as former Obama education secretary Arne Duncan called Henderson one of their own and generally joined in the cheering.

By and large, the Post and other mainstream news outlets that cover the District seemed to go along.

There were occasional hard-hitting investigative pieces, but positive press dominated the Post’s coverage. DC schools were so good that nearby suburban parents were faking residence in order to get their kids into District schools. The new professional development program for teachers was really good! The District was sending every student to study abroad! It was teaching every kid how to ride a bike!

You get the idea. There aren’t many big-city school districts that can regularly pitch and place good news stories with that kind of frequency, and without much skepticism. Ask the heads of the school systems in New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles.

The district’s communications office “got very close with some of the former beat reporters [at the Post] and was able to pump out positive stories,” according to Democrats for Education Reform-DC head Catherine Bellinger.

There aren’t many big-city school districts that can regularly pitch and place good news stories with that kind of frequency, and without much skepticism.

To be fair, the DC public school system is especially challenging to cover, given its byzantine governance structure and parallel systems of charter and traditional schools. Dealing with the school system bureaucracy was particularly hard, according to Bill Turque, who covered DCPS for the Post between 2008 and 2012. “Every success was overstated, and every setback was downplayed,” he said.

At the same time, mayoral control whittled public comment and questioning down to annual oversight hearings, notes Ruth Wattenberg, a four-year member of the DC state board of education. Lacking monthly school board hearings like there are in many other cities, those concerned about problems within DCPS “didn’t have any place to go.”

The Post was joined by many others in touting the district’s accomplishments and treating Henderson with kid gloves, including this interview I did with her for Scholastic.

Seeming ever more confident, DC public schools started calling itself the fastest-improving big-city school district in the nation, and nobody in a position to inform the public about nagging questions seems to have raised the alarm.

Asked recently if she could recall any education reporters asking tough questions about the district’s reported graduation rates, former DCPS head Henderson said, “I don’t.”

npr grad rate series

NPR’s massive 2015 graduation rate series did not, alas, focus on the DC public schools.

High school graduation rates have become a favorite number for school districts to use in recent years, to some extent replacing standardized test scores as a leading indicator. A number of states have reported steep increases in reported graduation rates.

Just like test score results, however, graduation rates can be manipulated to make schools look better than they really should.

And so, as districts around the nation have been implementing questionable programs to get their graduation numbers up, including so-called “credit recovery” programs for students who had fallen behind in their coursework, questions about graduation rates have been popping up everywhere in the media. Several states have experienced unwelcome news about graduation rates. In some cases, the problems have been unearthed by news outlets. In others, that hasn’t been the case.

Three years ago, NPR and more than a dozen member stations including WAMU collaborated on a series focusing attention on the many ways states and districts were reporting higher graduation rates. Alas, the series did not shine a bright light on the problems with DC’s reported numbers.

NPR touched on the problem last year, though. In a dramatic scene from the NPR/EdWeek series on a single-sex boys school in Washington, teachers were pressured to pass and promote kids who hadn’t attended class or done the required work.

The Post’s own education columnist Jay Mathews even raised the issue as a national concern.

But the story went unreported in the Post’s local coverage. And none of these stories about questionable graduation rate increases focused on DC public schools.

It was an open secret that many DC public school students regularly skipped school. The district’s truancy problems had been made public in 2012. In 2015, the district started requiring students to attend class in order to pass, which should have – but didn’t seem to – affect graduation rates. Graduation rates continued to rise steeply.

The reported rate hit 73 percent in spring 2017 — a 20-point gain over six years. Student test scores? Not so much. Something was clearly off with the graduation rates. This disconnect would sometimes pop up in the Post’s coverage, such as this story about how at one school with a 76 percent graduation rate, only 1 percent of students met the math standards and just 4 percent met them in reading.

“Any of us could have done [the graduation rate investigation],” said longtime Post education columnist Mathews. Asked why they hadn’t, his only explanation was that everyone else – including himself – was either “too busy or too lazy.”

It took a reporter new to the DC schools beat to break the story – though only after she’d fallen for a Cinderella tale the spring before.

ballou mcgee

WAMU’s feel-good story about Ballou and reporter Kate McGee, who eventually broke the graduation rate scandal.

During the past year or so, the Post’s local education coverage became somewhat more aggressive.

The Post and others reported that Henderson had placed the kids of DC VIPs into coveted schools – an eerie preview of the scandal that would doom Wilson’s tenure just a year after he arrived.

Over the summer, the Post ran a pair of stories raising questions about the system’s achievement gaps and student suspension rates. There was a story about high rates of principal turnover. There was even another one about high teacher turnover – at the same high school (Ballou) that would eventually become ground zero for the scandal.

“I feel like the Post came around,” more recently, says think tanker Max Eden about coverage including coverage of student suspensions. “That’s exactly the kind of watchdog press that school districts need, now more than ever.”

But none of these efforts focused on suspiciously large citywide graduation rate increases. And the Post was still producing feel-good stories like the one about Ballou.

Then, in June 2017, came what would turn out to be the event that triggered a series of revelations. The local public radio station, WAMU, published its own version of the Ballou story, noting that the entire senior class had now been accepted to college.

Reported by WAMU education reporter Kate McGee, with help from NPR’s Acacia Squires, it would be criticized later by several observers including NPR’s public editor for lacking sufficient reporting. But the experience would also lead McGee to dig deeper into what was really going on at Ballou – leading to a blockbuster story that would transform perceptions of DC public schools.

McGee’s November 28th follow-up piece exposed the fact that many chronically absent seniors at the school shouldn’t have graduated and that teachers and students knew what was going on.

An independent report conducted in response to the WAMU story found that a full third of 2017 District graduates were absent for most of the school year or otherwise ineligible to graduate. At some schools, 70 percent of the kids who were allowed to graduate shouldn’t have.

These revelations led to a series of reports and hearings that continue to the present – and forced the Post to play catch-up on a major local education story. Not for the first time.

post reporters editors DC coverage

Some of the many Post education reporters and editors responsible for covering DC Public Schools over the past six years.

So, what happened to prevent the Post from covering DCPS more aggressively and report the district’s suspiciously-high graduation rates?

We don’t entirely know. The Post and many of the reporters involved have not responded to repeated attempts to get their insights. Which is a shame, them being journalists and all.

What we do know is that there have been longstanding questions about the adequacy of the Post’s coverage of DC public schools.

Veteran education reporter John Merrow described the Post as “a consistent cheerleader for Henderson.” Certainly, its editorial page has been favorably disposed toward the efforts of Henderson and former DC schools chief Michelle Rhee.

A 2010 City Paper piece chronicled the antagonistic relationship between then-DCPS beat reporter Turque and the editorial page, which the reporter described as “a print version of the Larry King Show” for DCPS.

And, for all the media firepower gathered in and around Washington, much of it is focused on national issues. Journalists may live and work in the DC metro area, but local news coverage is not something most ambitious journalists moved to town to do.

That may help explain the history of the Post getting scooped on major stories that reveal problems at DCPS. It was a blogger, not anyone at the Post or another newsroom, who in 2011 debunked Rhee’s oft-repeated claim of astronomical test score increases when she was a young teacher. And it was USA Today, rather than the Post, discovered the cheating scandal at DCPS during the Rhee years.

“I didn’t pursue the test score story the way I should have,” says Turque, whose coverage was generally perceived as aggressive. “I wrote about it early, then got caught up in a lot of the other stuff that was happening…. Not excuses, just what happened. It was a mistake.”

For all the media firepower gathered in and around Washington, much of it is focused on national issues. Local news coverage is not something most ambitious journalists moved to town to do.

But the biggest factor limiting the Post’s coverage was likely something much more concrete: rapid turnover. It’s been nonstop on the DCPS beat: Five reporters in the past six years, with fill-ins at times by reporters who covered national or suburban education beats.

Reporters who have covered DCPS for the Post over the past six years include Turque, Emma Brown, Michael Chandler, Alejandra Matos, and Perry Stein. Moriah Balingit, now the Post’s national education reporter, has also covered District stories at times. So have Joe Heim, and Donna St. George, who covers suburban school districts. Even blogger Valerie Strauss gets pulled in sometimes.

Of course, the Post would not be the first national newsroom to give local education coverage short shrift or to use the beat as a training ground for reporters heading towards “bigger” (national) or “better” (non-education) assignments. And reporters who came and left the beat for other assignments would not be the first journalists to make those decisions. In some cases, they may not really have felt like they had a choice.

But the high-turnover staffing seems especially unfortunate given the recent rebirth of the Post’s national coverage. And it seems clear in retrospect that the Post didn’t take education coverage seriously enough to staff it appropriately. For whatever reasons, nobody who got the job covering DC public schools stayed there long. The paper – and the community it is supposed to serve – paid the price.

wamu ballou blockbuster

WAMU’s blockbuster investigation into inflated graduation rates at Ballou high school

Of course, others share responsibility.

WAMU radio host Kojo Nnamdi recalls that he had been “somewhat dismissive” of questions about DCPS claims he heard, largely because the questions were coming from a disgruntled former teacher. Nnamdi also notes that the local teachers union did not make inflated graduation rates one of its primary concerns and that the Post wasn’t the only outlet to miss the story. “Maybe I should have listened more carefully,” said Nnamdi. “We all probably bear some guilt.”

That sounds about right. There are many who bear some responsibility for the scandal having gone unreported for so long. But the Post is the big paper in town, and so the list has to start there. Perry Stein was recently named by the Post to cover DCPS going forward. It will be interesting to see how long she stays.

Related columns:

NPR’s “Grad Rates” Shows Us How Well Education Journalism Can Be Done

NYT & Washington Post Losing Top Education Reporters

The Washington Post’s confusing and unfair byline system

Washington Post journo reflects on 20 years covering education

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

26 comments

  • Caroline Grannan

    I’m a mainstream journalist but have never covered education as part of my paid career. During a long break in my journalism career, I was a volunteer education advocate and activist, blogger and commentator. Debunking “miracle” hype became one of my specialties.

    The D.C. schools story was a tale of success by the education “reform” sector. Even people who don’t follow education closely have mentioned to me how the D.C. schools became successful after Mayor Adrian Fenty took them over (part of a larger “reform” false tale of the supposed success of mayoral takeovers of school districts) and brought in Michelle Rhee to run them.

    As a volunteer activist who often challenged education “miracle” hype, I know from ugly personal experience that the powerful, billionaire-funded “reform” voices will turn on you and call you a racist. You don’t believe that low-income children of color can succeed!

    That’s a pretty powerful deterrent to challenging and digging into those “reform” success stories, whether it’s a “miracle” charter chain or a “miracle” school district.

    Alexander Russo, I read your book on Locke High School, and you mention — merely in passing — that (correct me if I have the percentage wrong) 1/3 of the students walking the stage in the first post-charterization graduation ceremony hadn’t fulfilled the graduation requirements.

    The New York Times Magazine did an admiring story on the SEED school, a charter boarding school serving low-income students, and it mentioned — merely in passing — that 70 percent of the students who started at the school were kicked out or pushed out along the way, leaving a small number of them actually graduating.

    New York Times reporter Paul Tough wrote an admiring book about the Harlem Children’s Zone charter school, and he mentioned — merely in passing — that the entire seventh grade was expelled one year.

    Mentioning these glaring issues *merely in passing* seems like another form of refusing to ask the tough questions and missing the story — all in response to a strong impulse to hype miracles and to avoid inviting accusations of racism by questioning them. Sooner or later it has to blow up in people’s faces, though.

    • Stephen Ronan

      Caroline G: “New York Times reporter Paul Tough wrote an admiring book about the Harlem Children’s Zone charter school, and he mentioned — merely in passing — that the entire seventh grade was expelled one year.”

      The class of middle schoolers that you’re apparently alluding to was not”expelled” but instead graduated after completing 6th, 7th, and 8th grades. As chapter 10 concludes: “In unison, grins on their faces, they made a show of shifting the tassel on their mortar-boards from left to right. And then, with a shout, they all tossed their caps straight up in the air, as high as they could throw them.”

      Confusion potentially arises from the fact that the school and students had hoped that they could attend a new high school that HCZ had planned to open. But the board of directors feared that the HCZ schools were expanding too quickly; they weren’t confident that they were sufficiently successful (partly reflected by test score analysis) and decided to hold back until they were more confident. As it turned out the final official test scores when they arrived weren’t too shabby. In sixth grade, just nine percent of the “class had scored on grade level in math. In seventh grade, 34 percent of them did. Now, in eighth grade, the number had jumped all the way to 70 percent.” Overall, the city’s subsequent Report Card gave Promise Academy middle school an A. Of course, without a clear understanding of attrition patterns (at least one kid had been expelled) it would be a mistake to put too much stock in test score gains.

      Understandably, there was some serious disappointment at the failure to start the promised high school on time. But to say that the kids were expelled suggests an uncritical reading of sources other than Tough, unreliable sources that like to promote that misapprehension.

    • Stephen Ronan

      Caroline Grannan: “The New York Times Magazine did an admiring story on the SEED school, a charter boarding school serving low-income students, and it mentioned — merely in passing — that 70 percent of the students who started at the school were kicked out or pushed out along the way, leaving a small number of them actually graduating.”

      I wouldn’t say they mentioned it “merely in passing”. The 2009 article stated: “The high attrition made the school’s much-lauded college acceptance rate less impressive.” And went on to state: “Adams, who became the head of SEED two years ago, has been improving the attrition rate by reducing the number of staff members with authority to dismiss students and taking a more nuanced view of dismissal-worthy offenses. During this past school year, the attrition rate dropped by more than 50 percent.”

  • Bob

    As a former DCPS teacher, I can certainly attest to the fact that the school system is terrified of negative publicity, puts a stranglehold on its social media presence, all but imposes a blanket gag order on educators and other staff members through its Draconian evaluation system, and relies heavily on political connections and patronage to communicate very carefully crafted messages, through very favorable media outlets who themselves operate on political connection and patronage. Additionally, education journalism, if that is actually a concept worth naming, suffers the same status that schools of education do on college campuses. That is, the lowest form and least prestigious. Additionally, there seems to be no requirement whatsoever that reporters actually know anything about the field on which they are reporting. You like kids and want to write about kid stuff? Great! You’re on the schools beat!

    There is a tremendous amount of political, financial, and social capital invested in DCPS, particularly buried within the private contributions made to the erroneously labeled “public” charter school system, which is in itself an investment vehicle profiting from the lives of poor black and brown students in Wards 7 and 8 only. Educators have been screaming about these red flags for years now, only to be dismissed as “disgruntled,” “hysterical,” or even “unionist.” Ultimately, as far as journalism goes, coverage of the schools has been a massive failure, from both a professional and ethical perspective. Any journalist who has been charged with covering DCPS specifically over the years, quite frankly, should be laughed out of any newsroom.

  • Jwhitehead4040@hotmail.com

    Cmon man. Reporters; DOYOUR JOB.

  • Mark

    Great piece, Alex. The role of the Washington Post in creating an atmosphere in DC where politicians fear negative coverage if they’re not part of “cheerleading” reform, as you put it, has been an unnamed problem. Parents and teachers who could see on the ground that the emperor had no clothes have been disenfranchised. Thanks for naming the problem with press coverage and for doing a deep dive into it. This is a moment of opportunity to start being honest and calling for greater transparency in DC. It remains to be seen whether anything will change.

  • A

    I think Kate McGee at NPR is particularly bad at this re: spouting DCPS PR and not having enough background knowledge that in the field. Her story yesterday about DC schools have changed security protocols made it sound like all schools have high tech security procedures— that might be true for schools that have been modernized but schools that haven’t been modernized have serious gaps that teachers are concerned about. Additionally, she made it clear on Twitter that she didn’t understand that schools are classified as “100% free and reduced lunch” once they hit a certain threshold; this is critical information that is needed to assess need accurately across the district.

    • russo

      She’s very new, it’s true, and she regularly admits that it makes it harder for her to do the job.

  • Jeff Canady

    As the disgruntled former teacher Kojo Nmandi just recently learned I was an illegally fired teacher. That DC politicians were running a racketeering scheme was well known from the beginning.. With the exception of Bill Turque every educational reporter in Wash DC should be laughed out of town and permanently barred from the public trust of safeguarding the interests of parents and schoolchildren nationally.

    • russo

      That was you? Wow. What’d it feel like to read Nnamdi admitting that he hadn’t paid enough attention?

  • mimi turner

    Look at the photos of the Wash. Post reporters who have covered DCPS. What’s missing? Not a single one is black or Hispanic. That’s a problem. Racial minority kids are the ones being hurt by the system. Send people who look like them into the schools and neighborhoods to see what’s going on.
    Another problem: former Wash. Post publisher Donald Graham fell hook, line and sinker for Rhee’s B.S. He totally backed Rhee and later Henderson. He publicly spoke in support of them and wrote op/ed columns praising the great strides made in the classrooms. I as one of those teachers who repeatedly contacted Post reporters and editors alerting them to all of the problems. I was ignored.
    There was even a middle school principal who physically attacked a student at Johnson Middle School. Teachers complained, Principal was simply moved to Ron Brown Middle School in northeast as a literacy coach and later promoted to asst. principal at another school. The kid’s parents didn’t sue or make a stink — as so often happens in poor neighborhoods — so Henderson thought she could do whatever she wanted. Can you imagine any teacher being allowed to stay in the system after battering a child? That woman is still an administrator in DCPS. The same tactics DCPS officials used on the press was used on teachers, i.e. you are a bad teacher because you don’t think these kids can excel. How can they say that to African American teachers, many of whom excelled far beyond the dreams of their family and friends. While I doubt that DCPS will ever have a 90% graduation rate, I think 70% is achievable. But that will take a total reorganization of the system. At this point, it’s just not realistic to expect students entering high school reading on a 3rd or 4th grade level to be able to pass algebra, geometry and physics classes and proficiently read and analyze great literature in four years. We need to work towards making sure students are proficient in math and reading, so if it takes 6 years to finish high school, then so be it. DCPS should come up with creative ways of dealing with this problem, possibly year-round school, where high school students are also learning a trade/skill while attending school for three or four hours a day. They should be paid for their work. The jobs should provide skills that translate to the real world, so it would be more desirable to stay in school than to leave for a job flipping burgers. The world has changed; the old school calendars and schedules created for an agrarian economy are not ideal for this urban population. The city also should take the millions used for useless projects and direct that to improving social services. If a lot of folks who suffer from addictions, mental illness etc. were getting comprehensive treatment, you would have a lot fewer students showing up at school shell shocked from what they saw the night before. A brain that is constantly rattled by violence and forced to endure the degradation of poverty is one that’s not ready to learn, in most cases.

    • russo

      Thanks for the comment — I agree with you entirely about the importance of newsroom diversity, and do an annual roundup of education reporters that highlights this issue. At least one of the Post DCPS reporters is nonwhite. However, she was only on the beat for a year – a short-term “fellow” working on her Master’s degree.

  • Miss the signs? It was worse than that. For a decade, former Wilson High School history teacher Erich Martel had been telling anyone who would listen about how student records were altered, how easy it was to do it, and how lots of students were being graduated who should not have been. Eventually, it cost him his job.

    He was able to get some coverage of the issue, even from the Post, but the story was never considered very serious, and he had to grind, grind, grind to get the little attention that he got. He was paid nothing for all his efforts, of course, and he paid a professional price. Why is it so many journalists place more trust in those who are paid to manipulate them?

    • russo

      Thanks, Richard — I didn’t know this part of the story. Is he the person Kojo is referring to at the end of this piece?

  • I couldn”tagree more that the problems lately revealed in DCPS graduating students who shouldn”t have been does begin long before high school when the problem is being years behind in subject matter, and not just getting caught in a tangle of rules and regs about attendance and related matters. One thing Wilson did that gave me the impression he understood that not learning K-8 was leading to the problems of students being unprepared for high school level work was to make it a goal of the five year plan that all second graders would be reading at grade level by the end of second grade. Of course, if that were done in the same spirit and approach of being simply about better numbers with all the hollowness and pressure that engenders, it may not have been successful in improving true learning. But it was something I gave him credit for as I had never seen any of his predecessors look at DCPS as a whole system providing the continuum for accumulating knowledge, skills, and abilities from the kindergarten level step by step or grade by grade up to graduation. It seems instead they saw the system too much in terms of the “autonomy of individual schools, math and reading test scores and specialized schools in a “portfolio, not unlike the chartered schools.

    • russo

      Thanks for the comment — what did you think about the Post’s coverage?

  • John Merrow

    This is a very important story, Alexander, and thanks for doing it. My only addition would have been a contrast with Atlanta, where an aggressive team of journalists from the Journal-Constitution went after the cheating story. There is one other key difference between DC and Atlanta, a Governor. DC has a weak checks-and-balances system, because the Congress, which supposedly provides oversight, does not. That left Mayor Adrian Fenty free to pay attention, or not, to Rhee.
    The responder who mentions Post Publisher Donald Graham’s support of Rhee is spot-on. I spoke with him about this, and he conceded that he probably should have listened to Jay Mathews. And Bill Turque was doing a terrific job on covering Rhee when the Post, out of the blue, assigned him to another beat. I think we can conclude that the supposed wall between editorial and real reporting had been breached.
    I appreciate your mentioning my blogging about Rhee and Henderson. I wish this piece had received more attention when I wrote it in December 2015: https://themerrowreport.com/2015/12/08/a-premature-celebration-in-dc/

    And readers who want all the details of Rhee’s deceptions should read this: https://themerrowreport.com/2013/04/11/michelle-rhees-reign-of-error/

    • russo

      Thanks, John — much appreciated. Helpful comparisons with ATL coverage.

  • David Mott

    Maybe the problem is that the Post is so relentlessly leftist that no one can imagine that the whole city administration is hopelessly corrupt, not the least its school system. The Post is trying to compete with the NYT in a race to be THE newspaper of the farthest left.

    • russo

      Thanks for the comment — interesting idea re newsroom bias.

  • McChuck

    The actual statistics about DCPS students was published several years ago. They were so shocking that they stuck in my memory.

    Only one in six DCPS sixth graders will eventually graduate high school.

    Two thirds of DCPS high school graduates are functionally illiterate and innumerate.

    This is educational malfeasance of the highest order.

  • Greg Bryan

    Alexander, great story! Of course, Rhee and Henderson got all the credit and are celebrated while poor Wilson is the one left holding the bag and gets all the blame.

  • John Koppisch

    This story explains some of the reasons for the poor coverage — high turnover among ed reporters, often-young reporters who don’t know much about education and who are on their way to other beats — but it misses the nub of the matter. With some notable exceptions, such as the Atlanta paper’s coverage of the cheating scandal you mentioned, virtually all mainstream papers tend to have terrible coverage, and especially the major metros, such as the Post, the NY Times, the St. Pete Times, and others. Ed reporters for newspapers are only rarely not in the pocket of the local teachers’ union. The Post’s Valerie Strauss is a prime example of this. She actually won an award a few years ago for being the worst ed reporter in the country at a major outlet. The unions work hard to cultivate the local ed reporters, and the reporters, who are generally liberal (as are most reporters) and often union members themselves, are easily cultivated. There’s rarely an opposing organization making sure the reporters hear the other side, so reporters are hearing only how great the teachers are, how allegedly underpaid they are, how good they are at boosting graduation rates and test scores despite enormous hurdles, etc. This part of the story was very telling: “WAMU radio host Kojo Nnamdi recalls that he had been “somewhat dismissive” of questions about DCPS claims he heard, largely because the questions were coming from a disgruntled former teacher. Nnamdi also notes that the local teachers union did not make inflated graduation rates one of its primary concerns.” Of course the union would never make inflated graduation rates a concern — they were in on it! And any objective journalist knows that the best stories often come from disgruntled sources. At the same time the ed reporters endlessly hear from the union about how bad charter schools are, how they divert resources from the public schools (which actually isn’t true), how they refuse to take the worst kids (also not true), etc. So ed coverage is almost universally antagonistic toward charters, vouchers, any reform the unions don’t agree with, Betsy DeVos, efforts to evaluate teachers, etc. The Washington Post is right in line with this mindset. The only papers I’ve seen that consistently cover education objectively are the Wall Street Journal and the NY Post.

    • russo

      Your description of education reporters being easy to cultivate is hard to read, but I can’t say it doesn’t seem possible. There are reform groups on the other side of the teacher/union perspective, but they are many fewer.

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WP_User Object ( [data] => stdClass Object ( [ID] => 4 [user_login] => russo [user_pass] => $P$BpKmMvWeGEporGqZWX8UQmwrN84I5Q/ [user_nicename] => russo [user_email] => thegrade2015@gmail.com [user_url] => [user_registered] => 2016-11-09 20:17:42 [user_activation_key] => [user_status] => 0 [display_name] => Alexander Russo [type] => wpuser ) [ID] => 4 [caps] => Array ( [administrator] => 1 [wpcf_custom_post_type_view] => 1 [wpcf_custom_post_type_edit] => 1 [wpcf_custom_post_type_edit_others] => 1 [wpcf_custom_taxonomy_view] => 1 [wpcf_custom_taxonomy_edit] => 1 [wpcf_custom_taxonomy_edit_others] => 1 [wpcf_custom_field_view] => 1 [wpcf_custom_field_edit] => 1 [wpcf_custom_field_edit_others] => 1 [wpcf_user_meta_field_view] => 1 [wpcf_user_meta_field_edit] => 1 [wpcf_user_meta_field_edit_others] => 1 ) [cap_key] => wp_capabilities [roles] => Array ( [0] => administrator ) [allcaps] => Array ( [switch_themes] => 1 [edit_themes] => 1 [activate_plugins] => 1 [edit_plugins] => 1 [edit_users] => 1 [edit_files] => 1 [manage_options] => 1 [moderate_comments] => 1 [manage_categories] => 1 [manage_links] => 1 [upload_files] => 1 [import] => 1 [unfiltered_html] => 1 [edit_posts] => 1 [edit_others_posts] => 1 [edit_published_posts] => 1 [publish_posts] => 1 [edit_pages] => 1 [read] => 1 [level_10] => 1 [level_9] => 1 [level_8] => 1 [level_7] => 1 [level_6] => 1 [level_5] => 1 [level_4] => 1 [level_3] => 1 [level_2] => 1 [level_1] => 1 [level_0] => 1 [edit_others_pages] => 1 [edit_published_pages] => 1 [publish_pages] => 1 [delete_pages] => 1 [delete_others_pages] => 1 [delete_published_pages] => 1 [delete_posts] => 1 [delete_others_posts] => 1 [delete_published_posts] => 1 [delete_private_posts] => 1 [edit_private_posts] => 1 [read_private_posts] => 1 [delete_private_pages] => 1 [edit_private_pages] => 1 [read_private_pages] => 1 [delete_users] => 1 [create_users] => 1 [unfiltered_upload] => 1 [edit_dashboard] => 1 [update_plugins] => 1 [delete_plugins] => 1 [install_plugins] => 1 [update_themes] => 1 [install_themes] => 1 [update_core] => 1 [list_users] => 1 [remove_users] => 1 [promote_users] => 1 [edit_theme_options] => 1 [delete_themes] => 1 [export] => 1 [wpseo_bulk_edit] => 1 [wpcf_custom_post_type_view] => 1 [wpcf_custom_post_type_edit] => 1 [wpcf_custom_post_type_edit_others] => 1 [wpcf_custom_taxonomy_view] => 1 [wpcf_custom_taxonomy_edit] => 1 [wpcf_custom_taxonomy_edit_others] => 1 [wpcf_custom_field_view] => 1 [wpcf_custom_field_edit] => 1 [wpcf_custom_field_edit_others] => 1 [wpcf_user_meta_field_view] => 1 [wpcf_user_meta_field_edit] => 1 [wpcf_user_meta_field_edit_others] => 1 [wpseo_manage_options] => 1 [administrator] => 1 ) [filter] => ) 4 | 4