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Concerns mount about the amount and depth of mainstream coverage of the new federal education law known as ESSA.

By Alexander Russo

The federal education law known as ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) turns two years old in December.

Sixteen states plus the District of Columbia have already submitted their implementation plans to the U.S. Department of Education (USDE), which has given preliminary responses to several states and has now approved four states’ plans.

Decisions being made now by states and the USDE will, among many other things, determine if and how marginalized students are supported in schools, which schools are identified as in need of remediation, and what efforts will be made to make them better.

And yet, mainstream coverage during the last 18 months has been much skimpier than during the early stages of previous national education efforts like the 2002 Bush-era education law called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) or the 2009 Obama administration Race to the Top initiative. According to many of those interviewed for this piece, much of the coverage has also been superficial and bureaucratic.

While journalists cite examples of strong work and give any number of reasonable-sounding explanations for the relative lack of coverage and depth, few argue that there’s been enough media attention and many of those working on the law’s implementation are worried.

“We are still completely surprised at how many policymakers are completely unaware of their state’s own ESSA plans,” says Michelle Exstrom, Education Program Director for the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). “I don’t think that reporters have the sense of where the [ESSA] story might be.”

Mainstream state and national media should have been more fully engaged over the past few months, watchdogging the process of states putting together their plans and figuring out what concrete changes they would likely mean for districts, schools, and kids. Informing the public so that it can take a robust role in government is one of the key functions of journalism.

The good news is that, despite the slow start, there’s still time for mainstream reporters to grab hold of the ESSA story.

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Last fall, it seemed as though ESSA would be one of the big education stories of 2017. An update of a statute first enacted in the 1960s, ESSA is the largest federal K-12 education law in the nation. The law hadn’t been overhauled in 15 years. Education reporters and advocacy organizations geared up to explain the complicated law to the nation.

But then came President Donald Trump’s surprise victory, and there was an eerie quiet when it came to ESSA coverage, especially among mainstream news outlets.

In April, the Collaborative for Student Success (which helps fund the Grade) released a report looking back at more than a year’s worth of news coverage and social media traffic about ESSA. “Education outlets like Education Week and the 74 have been the main drivers of ESSA media coverage,” according to the report. “However, national news outlets have not covered ESSA to a large degree.”

Things seemed to change at the end of June, when the Collaborative and Bellwether Education consulting group put out a report grading the 17 state plans that had been submitted so far. States where ESSA has gotten the most mainstream coverage are hot spots like New Mexico and Michigan, according to the Collaborative’s Blair Mann, who’s been tracking coverage closely. But she says the strong media response in late June and early July was short-lived.

Nationally, the Washington Post’s coverage has been more prolific than most others, including nationwide overviews, updates on state and district plans, and explanations of changes that the new law will bring. It published a helpful roundup of state school intervention plans just a few days ago.

In contrast, a look back at the last several months of coverage from the NYT reveals a smattering of pieces but no real drumbeat. There’s a March story about the new law’s regulations and an April story about early Trump administration efforts to rein in federal control over local governments. There are two July stories, one focused on the law’s implications for New York schools, the other focused on the initial responses from the USDE to state education plans. But that’s about it.

Coverage from NPR includes a handful of stories – an April story about the Trump administration’s efforts to limit federal oversight, (including education), and a piece about ESSA’s additional measures like curbing  chronic absences, a national overview last month – but no sustained, focused effort, either.

At the Wall Street Journal website, a search for “Every Student Succeeds Act” turns up just one entry, from May, an AP story.

“I think [journalists] miss out on how critical this time is,” says an advocate working on ESSA implementation. “In two years, are people going to say we did what?”

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There’s no shortage of explanations why ESSA coverage has evolved this way – many of them quite reasonable sounding.

At the national level, several major education teams (including the NYT and Washington Post) have been without a permanent, full-time editor in place. The reporters at the New York Times, AP, and Wall Street Journal are all still relatively new at the job. One of them is out on maternity leave until November, according to her away message.

At the state and local level, the number of mainstream journalists is way down, diminishing the time and resources reporters have to cover slow-moving stories no matter how important they may be. And the ins and outs of state oversight over federal funding may be unfamiliar to reporters who weren’t yet on the beat 15 years ago when NCLB came along.

Another major factor has been the disorganized and secretive federal agency run by Betsy DeVos, who has attracted an enormous amount of media attention and generated lots of conflict. “I feel like a lot of people are focused on Betsy DeVos and that’s it,” said the Education Post’s Lane Wright. “I honestly don’t think that’s the most important thing to be talking about right now.”

The state proposals are dense and lengthy, running 100 pages or more. The implementation process from federal statute to school-level changes is diffuse and prolonged. It’s not easy figuring out and describing the specific opportunities that ESSA provides to state agencies but also districts, schools, and students. It’s not easy figuring out what if anything will be taken away or diminished by the law.

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“I think ESSA is being covered fairly well by mainstream outlets,” says an education reporter who has covered the law. “I’ve been seeing some great local coverage and that’s awesome.”

Asked about national coverage, she responded: “Try convincing an editor that a story about ‘n-sizes’ is really important!”

Indeed, there have been some really interesting ESSA-related stories produced by mainstream outlets, including a Seattle Times story about the unintended end to subsidies for low-income students taking Advanced Placement tests, a late-2016 NPR story about chronic absences as an indicator, a June WPRI (Rhode Island) story highlighting 12 things parents needed to know about the state plan, a July New York Times story about surprisingly strong USDE responses to state proposals, and a recent Washington Post story about states’ struggles to figure out what to do with low-performing schools.

Anyway, not everyone thinks it’s been important to cover the law or the process closely up to this point.

“Right now, states are discussing highly technical issues like how to measure student growth,” says Maryland school board member Andy Smarick. “The stories coming later … will be more directly relevant to them.”

“You could argue that there hasn’t been much news,” says Fordham Institute president Michael Petrilli. State plans are essentially just “one bureaucracy telling another bureaucracy what it’s going to do in the future.”

However, some journalists — and the vast majority of the non-journalists interviewed for this column — would disagree.

A sampling:

“There’s been a lot of talk about the process and uncertainty about DeVos and not enough on the implications of the state plans,” says Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman. “There are actually some specific requirements in the law, and different policies will lead to different consequences for states.”

“It’s all focused on this incredibly insider-y stuff about the approval process and [departing USDE point person] Jason Botel and what conservatives think,” says education writer Jennifer Berkshire (formerly the anonymous blogger known as Edushyster). “There’s very little context.”

Too much of the coverage is “about the back and forth with the Department, hearings held, letters sent, rather than what the new law is going to mean for parents and educators,” says Margie Yeager, director of policy at Chiefs for Change.

“I was in Denver last week and speaking to teachers, and they don’t even know what ESSA is,” says the 74’s Emmeline Zhao. “Why aren’t reporters covering what their audience needs to know…?”

In addition, there are some observers like the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ Liz King who feel that the media framing of the ESSA story tends to focus on the concerns of middle class parents and educators, diminishing the voices and concerns of marginalized groups whose education the law is meant to improve. And there have been one or two flubs from outlets that we rely on to be authoritative.

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It’s easy to understand why ESSA hasn’t captured the imagination of journalists – or for that matter the public. Nobody’s winning journalism prizes – or going viral – writing about ESSA. At least, not yet.

The good news is that the mainstream media’s biggest opportunity will come in the next few weeks, as the USDE reviews and (presumably) approves the rest of the 17 plans already submitted, and 34 more states submit their proposals.

The challenges of covering an important but diffuse process will remain, as will the distractions and competing priorities. But there’s still time for mainstream news outlets to dig in on the new law – if they start ramping up now.

Toward that end, a follow-up column from the Grade will provide story angles and news hooks that will help reporters beef up their ESSA coverage and make sure that parents, teachers, and policy makers know what their states are planning to do before it’s too late.