What stories most need your attention — and how to cover them — in 2018.
By Alexander Russo
Education news focused on controversial politics and policy during 2017, for all sorts of reasons. That was fine – maybe even necessary. Controversy coverage has its place. And some great reporting emerged in the process. But now let’s make 2018 the year that education coverage returns to real live schools and real-world experiences.
In 2018, education reporters – national ones in particular – should focus more on stories about things that are already affecting schools and kids and may or may not be interesting because of a controversy. Assuming the world doesn’t end, what’s actually happening in schools is way more important than the latest political debate, speculation about the future, or advocate-fueled controversy. The 2018 challenge for local reporters is to try and link what’s going on in their coverage areas with comparable issues in other places.
Here are nine timely, important and under-covered school story ideas to consider – and some ideas about how best to cover them. Many of them are important ideas that got somewhat lost in the frenzy of 2017. Others are new or emerging issues that warrant new or increased scrutiny. One or two might be longtime favorites.
9: Extreme weather, global warming, and the opioid crisis. Schools function as shelters and community centers and social services locations as well as places of learning. We learned this with the 2017 hurricanes, and with the early frigid temperatures in early 2018. One of last year’s top-read columns from The Grade focused on the impact of the opioid crisis on schools, which will continue to percolate throughout 2018. What’s being done to prepare schools for the next storm, hurricane, or heat wave? How are schools addressing drug addiction needs among students, parents, and – one can only assume – staff?
8: School board fights and education-focused campaigns. Politics are a big turnoff for many folks these days, but the people and the issues behind the yelling can be fascinating and the decisions they make are important. Ignore the talking points and fundraising numbers and talk to the candidate’s favorite teacher. Spend a few hours with campaign volunteers talking to their neighbors and see what’s really on people’s minds. Talk to likely voters and find out how their candidates and positions match up with their own experiences and family decisions.
7: Real-world school integration efforts. After three years of journalism about school segregation, it’s time to focus on real-life efforts to integrate them. Start with one of the great Vox explainers showing how segregation happens between districts and within them. Then find out where folks are attempting to address the problem through various mechanisms: attendance zone changes, district boundary changes, diverse charters, and legal challenges. Where’s it happening, what’s being tried, and is it working? We really need to know.
6: Common Core 2018. One of the most politicized debates of the past decade, the state standards known as Common Core have all but disappeared from education news in the last year. That’s fine. But the standards are still in place, embedded in state ESSA plans, and it’s time for reporters to start looking back into how they (and the federal ESSA law now being implemented) have changed classroom education on the ground level, and whether they’ve made a difference. Do schools and classrooms look significantly different? Are kids being exposed to – and hopefully mastering – more rigorous content and analytic skills? The differences may be subtle or substantial, but parents and the public should know.
5: Districts that beat their peers. New Stanford research by Sean Reardon shows dramatic differences in how well districts perform at raising student test scores, even when they serve similar student populations. A handful of news outlets have explored the implications, but not nearly as many as could do so. The new data is a great opportunity to delve into the differences between adjacent or competing districts whose performance is usually considered in isolation. How much better (or worse) is District A doing better than District B – and why? Readers will want to know. So should you.
4: Teachers union initiatives & advocacy. If the US Department of Education, governor of California, head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, or head of the NYC school system are doing something, we probably have a good shot at knowing what and where and how well it’s going. But the same can’t be said about the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers or the union locals that represent teachers in most school districts. What issues are they pushing for? Where are they most active? What are their accomplishments and their setbacks? Though their concerns often make it into stories, their efforts are remarkably under-covered.
3: The “typical” charter school. We know lots about relatively atypical kinds of charter schools – the no-excuses networks, the online alternative programs, the for-profit operators. That’s great. But for 2018, how about exploring charter schools that are more typical? How about reporting how they’re different than the district schools who serve similar students? What (if anything) do they do that makes them appealing to parents, or more (or less) effective at teaching kids? How closely or loosely are they connected to other schools in the area? I bet you (and your readers) aren’t even sure what a typical charter school looks like in your area. So exciting – and so important.
2: Unified enrollment systems. Letting parents choose among various kinds of schools and programs – magnets, thematic schools, and charter options — is popular, but the usual ad hoc design of these programs has often perpetuated racial and economic inequality. A growing set of districts have implemented so-called “unified” enrollment systems, which simplify and streamline the application procedures among different kinds of schools. It sounds so cool, but how well are these unified systems working? What if any impact are they having on segregation and inequality? Should more districts consider them?
1: Unaccompanied minors, Puerto Rican kids on the mainland, and immigrant students. Americans might move around the country less than they did in the past. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t all sorts of kids arriving in schools from all sorts of other places. An estimated 120,000 “unaccompanied minors” came to the US from Central America during 2014-2016. An estimated 35 school districts in 14 states tried to prevent them from enrolling in school. More recently, roughly 20,000 students have left Puerto Rico for the mainland, scattering up and down the Eastern seaboard. And the immigrant population in America is at a 100-year high. Where are these students going? How are they doing? What’s the impact on local schools, and what’re the lessons? There are some big, important education stories to be told here — trends and dynamics that go way beyond the Trump administration and the alt right movement — and some small, important ones as well.
Whatever stories you pick, let’s start moving toward a balance that more heavily favors current realities over the exceptions – pilots, innovations, or outliers – and speculation about the future. Your stories should give readers context and nuance rather than being superficial or simplistic, cherry-picking data, or creating heroes and villains. Real life is rarely that simplistic. Your readers (and your editor) can handle it. And at the end of the year, your stories should probably include a mix of stories about problems and progress – not predominantly one or the other. Only covering the car crashes is easy, but sort of sad. Even the most troubled districts have pockets of progress that warrant attention.
No matter what you do, try not to pass along bad information in your bylined work or on social media. Fake news, social media exaggerations, and frenzied speculation are all too common these days. Make sure you’re not part of that and don’t stand by when you see it happening. (Fair or not, nobody is going to care when you say you didn’t write the headline and aren’t in charge of social media for your outlet.)
Last but not least, be sure to connect your stories to what’s happening in other localities and across the nation. Local reporting is crucial but oftentimes what’s going on in your coverage area is happening somewhere else (or will soon). It’s super helpful and important for you and your readers to see trends and make comparisons.
Need more guidance? Last winter, The Grade compiled some big-ticket recommendations for journalists during 2017. Need some inspiration? Check out The Grade’s list of best education journalism for last year. Need some more, better story ideas? Send me yours at @thegrade_ or firstname.lastname@example.org.
*The AFT was one of the founding sponsors of The Grade.