02.The Grade FB Banner

The Post’s troubling tendency towards 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