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Insufficient attention to the implementation of  a new federal law illustrates a nagging coverage problem –and reveals a big opportunity for education reporters to tell a meaty national story.

By Alexander Russo

There’s a problem in education journalism right now. It’s not entirely new, and it’s not exactly a crisis. But it’s persistent enough that it needs to be addressed:

Mainstream news outlets are producing way too much coverage of low-hanging education stories that generate outrage (and page views) but don’t provide perspective or depth.

These stories often pump up the drama and immediacy to the point of near-inaccuracy, repeating advocates’ speculative talking points on results of preliminary events without giving readers the broader context or making it sufficiently clear that a process has just begun.

This is a challenge on the education beat and in journalism writ large. The appeal of these kinds of stories is understandable, but their prevalence is, I believe, eroding readers’ trust in what’s being reported and distracting from more important stories.

National news outlets’ response to ESSA during the latest key period.

The most immediate example of an often overlooked but nonetheless vital story is ESSA, the Every Student Succeeds Act passed by Congress in December 2015.

On Monday, roughly 30 states submitted detailed plans of action to the U.S. Department of Education (USDE). Other states had submitted their proposals in April.

Once reviewed, revised, and approved, these plans will shape the work that states and school districts undertake to narrow achievement gaps for low-income kids, which is the purpose of the law.

US News & World Report education reporter Lauren Camera described the Sept. 18 deadline as “a pivotal – if not yet final – step in how schools will operate under the new federal education law.”

But you might not even know about this flood of education plans and how they might affect low-income students’ lives if you’re tracking national news outlets.

Last month, the Grade took a look around and found that mainstream coverage of ESSA tended toward the skimpy and superficial.

But at that point, just 17 ESSA plans had been submitted. This should have been a temporary situation that changed with the filing of all these new plans. At last, the permanent replacement for the No Child Left Behind Act begins to take shape.

Yet US News’ Camera produced the lone nationwide look at the ESSA deadline that I’ve come across in recent days from a mainstream general interest news outlet.

Trade publications have been all over the story. Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum has written a handful of ESSA-related stories, The 74 has been covering the story abundantly, and EdWeek’s Daarel Burnette II has written some really strong pieces.

“The grinding, two-year process of drafting accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act has upended states’ K-12 political landscape and laid bare long-simmering factions,” he writes.

But these are trade outlets with relatively small, specialized readerships. They don’t reach large numbers of everyday readers.

The Boston Globe’s most recent ESSA story appears to be from last winter. The New York Times has covered New York State’s ESSA proposal, but as near as I can tell, has passed on the national story since the summer. The LA Times’ Joy Resmovits wrote about the troubled process of developing California’s much-discussed plan just last week.

It’s hard to know what every publication is doing on the subject, but as far as I can find, pillars of mainstream national coverage, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Associated Press and NPR, don’t seem interested in the story.

“There’s been almost no coverage of what’s actually getting approved,” laments Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman, who has been studying the state proposals. “Other than this EdWeek story, I haven’t seen much coverage at all on how the plans have changed over time (or not) and what that means for round two. There are some big policy implications there!”

If democracy “dies in the dark,” as the Washington Post tells us, ESSA is in danger.

Pillars of mainstream national coverage, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Associated Press and NPR, don’t seem interested in the story.

Instead, national education coverage has generally been infected by over-speculative stories on hot-button, high-outrage topics. There are lots of responsible, straightforward pieces being written, too – about hurricanes, back-to-school, and Charlottesville.

Perhaps the most vivid example in recent memory is coverage of the Common Core debate, which generally bought into the perception that states were abandoning the standards and rolling back state testing. There was indeed a lot of turmoil, but annual state testing remains the norm across the nation (and is still obligatory under ESSA). And as the Associated Press reported on Tuesday, the vast majority of states are still using the Common Core or some variation.

More recent examples include proposed changes to DACA (the Obama-era executive order that protects younger immigrants without citizenship from being deported), Title IX (which governs the treatment of sexual assault on campuses), and federal education spending.

In these instances, President Donald Trump or administration officials announced plans that were reported by the media as immediate, dramatic changes. Their treatment gave little attention to the actual process, the arguments for and against the proposed changes, and the full range of possible outcomes. DACA and Title IX remain in effect for now, and changes may ultimately be moderate depending on how Congress and the USDE act. Conservative education wonk Rick Hess correctly pointed out recently that the coverage of the proposed budget cuts “wallowed in hyperbole.” And indeed, Congressional spending committees have generally ignored the Trump blueprint.

Meantime, the ESSA process is actually well underway. The law has been enacted. The plans are in, more or less, with a 120-day review window for the USDE. And there’s plenty in them to cover – not just for individual states, but on how regulatory oversight is unfolding and how the plans propose to change, or not change, education for the better.

“Yes, these plans do matter, and they’re worth spending time on,” said EWA’s Erik Robelen during a recent webinar for reporters interested in learning more about the topic.

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So why the skimpy national coverage?

According to journalists and stakeholders interviewed for this piece, there are a variety of issues beyond the immediate distractions of the recent hurricanes and back to school stories. But most of them relate to the central belief that the law is complicated, diffuse, and hard to write about.

Related: How to explain the sprawling federal ESSA law to readers, editors, & friends

Related: Mainstream coverage of ESSA has been skimpy & superficial – so far

The relative lack of coverage is due to a combination of “summer slump, attention on other things, and DeVos approving a slate of ESSA plans without requesting many changes,” says US News’ Camera.

“In [journalists’] defense, it’s a bit hypothetical at this point,” says Mike Petrilli. “What matters most, in my opinion, is how states decide to rate schools (or really WHETHER they decide to rate schools). But that’s kinda hard to explain in advance.”

The Oregonian’s Betsy Hammond finds ESSA harder to write about because it’s more vague and less immediate than its predecessor, No Child Left Behind. “Most of the [ESSA] impacts, at least in Oregon, are theoretical and still a year or more away,” she said.

“My sense is that there’s really no cohesive story right now,” writes Brustein & Manasevit’s Julia Martin. “The debate over ESSA plan contents is extremely state-specific.”

essa who cares

Actually, there’s no shortage of potential attention-getting story lines out there on ESSA. But finding those story angles requires doing some reporting, and narrowing down the focus to an issue or two that seems particularly important.

Don’t write about ESSA plans overall, EdWeek’s Burnette wisely advises. That quickly gets too broad and diffuse. “Write instead about specific policies.”

Some possible story lines, both political and policy-oriented, that remain unexplored in the national media:

  • Many state plans have been confusing and vague, making it unclear what if anything they’re doing to produce better results. “States have had to choose between valor and vagueness,” said the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Phillip Lovell during the recent EWA webinar. “Mostly, they’ve been choosing vagueness.”
  • Easily interpreted single-measure school ratings appear to be on the way out. Only about half of the states in the second round will use A-F grades or some other clear, summative rating, reports the 74’s Carolyn Phenicie. (The 74’s Matt Barnum has also addressed this trend.)
  • Review or rubber stamp? The approval process has been fast and furious, according to EdWeek, which also reports that the USDE is conducting the review procedure through conference calls, not letters or memos. And Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has granted approval to states “with little to no request for changes,” noted US News.
  • What about the teachers? There’s been a general overemphasis on accountability provisions in media coverage that has been produced, says Elizabeth Ross of the National Council on Teacher Quality, leaving lots of opportunities for reporters to write about educator equity. She also points out that states haven’t pulled back from objective measures of student achievement [ie, growth measures] as part of teacher evaluations as much as might have been expected.
  • Disputed role for Washington. Lovell says the review process has been “smoother and more substantive” than expected, including a number of states forced to make changes to their initial plans. However, according to Democratic lawmakers, the USDE has “failed to adequately address several shortcomings” in states’ plans that had already been submitted, most of which have been approved.
  • Conflicts within states over leadership and strategy. “Given the political stakes surrounding public schools, it can’t be too surprising that the new authority states have to design and implement new education goals would generate conflict,” writes SI&A Cabinet Report’s Tom Chorneau about Wisconsin and Maryland. The LA Times’ Joy Resmovits also wrote recently about the intense push-and-pull over the state plan in California.
  • Codifying current practices. According to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, his state’s plan “does little to challenge the status quo for the benefit of Wisconsin’s students.” The proposed plan is “in many ways, an articulation of current policies,” according to reporter Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter Annysa Johnson.

Let’s be clear: It’s a good thing that ESSA is not receiving the kind of overheated, speculative coverage that the media has delivered to several hot-topic education issues in last few months. Nobody wants that. But nobody wants ESSA implementation to be ignored or treated superficially, either.

ESSA is not in crisis, but it may be in some state of uncertainty. State ESSA plans aren’t dead on arrival, but some of them appear unlikely to be implemented or to make much difference in disadvantaged students’ lives. There are large numbers of schools, teachers, and disadvantaged students who will be affected by this process, for better or worse.

Yes, ESSA is a bureaucratic story, and complicated. But sometimes bureaucratic stories are important, and it’s reporters’ jobs to make those stories comprehensible to readers. There are great national ESSA stories to be reported, and now is the time to do it.

Note: The description of states’ inclusion of student achievement in teacher effectiveness plans has been clarified to note that it pertains to growth measures .