Insiders say that reporters are figuring out better ways to cover a massive and highly decentralized education law.
By Alexander Russo
Six months ago, insiders, advocates, and educators asked to comment on media coverage of ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) complained mightily that they weren’t getting what they wanted about states’ new school-improvement plans.
Over all, coverage was skimpy, superficial, and overly bureaucratic, they complained – especially from mainstream news outlets. By and large, they were right.
Six months later, complaints remain – you can’t satisfy everyone! – but a recent round of calls and emails generally reveals a substantially higher level of satisfaction with the coverage.
“I think on the whole I’ve been pretty pleased with the ESSA coverage,” says Anne Hyslop, an independent education consultant who worked at the USDE during the Obama administration. This is especially notable because reporters have been covering the law pretty well over a long period of time, she says. “They’ve had to keep this up for the better part of two years now.”
There is now a steadier supply of strong stories popping up, nationally and locally. The focus of the coverage has changed, too, in some small but important ways. Previously, reporters often tried to provide a holistic look at the sprawling federal law, or even of a many-faceted state plan.
Now, more reporters seem to be focusing on one or two things that their state has promised to do or change, and diving into that. And that’s exactly what’s needed: journalists writing about key elements of their state’s plan, providing a good look at what parents and the public should expect to see.
Previous ESSA coverage columns from The Grade: Mainstream coverage of ESSA has been skimpy, superficial – so far, How to explain the sprawling federal ESSA law to readers, editors, & friends
A major factor in the shift in coverage has to be that the long approval process for state plans is finally nearing an end. The law is no longer new and unfamiliar, and its effects are starting to take place in concrete ways at the district and school level.
“States are actually starting to put into place what they said they were going to do,” says Margie Yeager, director of advocacy at Chiefs for Change, a 24-member network of state and district education leaders.
All the state plans have been submitted. For better or worse, roughly two-thirds have now been approved. The expectation is that the rest will be approved in the near future, with changes. So the real action is starting.
Different state actions might be harder to combine into a national story but they’re eminently more substantive than a story about bureaucratic procedures or political bickering, says Yeager.
Who’s covering it best? Among trade outlets, EdWeek, Politico, and The 74 continue to do a strong job tracking ESSA developments, according to education advocates who live and breathe this stuff.
The implementation of ESSA as more than just a new law, says The 74’s Steve Snyder. It’s “the uncoupling of the system that was and the creation of an entirely new system.” And the real-world effects are getting closer. “This is no longer an exercise.”
A few journalists and advocates also mentioned two California-based nonprofit outlets: EdSource, whose work includes a nice piece on how ESSA is clearing the way for more educational focus on science in California, and CalMatters, which has reported about how some of the worst academic performers in the state might receive no extra help under the state’s new system. One expert cited an outlet I’d never heard of before, Inside Sources, as having strong coverage, too.
Some of my favorite recent ESSA pieces also include Jessica Bakeman’s four-part series on Medium, taking a look at the challenges of picking new tests and the rise and fall of the opt-out movement. You should definitely check them out.
Of course, there are still plenty of ESSA-related opportunities and angles left to be covered this spring and summer. Here are some of the most promising angles that have been suggested:
INNOVATION: Political coverage of last week’s DeVos speech at CCSSO focused on the perceived hypocrisy of DeVos’s criticism, given her own role in approving these plans. Some state chiefs also bristled at the accusation they weren’t being innovative enough. Left unanswered for the time being was the question just how much advantage are states taking of the flexibility they’re being given? That’s certainly worth a look.
One specific angle: So far just a couple of states have opted to use federal funding to create brand new programs for struggling schools, under a program called Direct Student Services, which could include Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment/early college offerings. What are these states proposing to do, and why haven’t more taken advantage of the opportunity so far?
STRUGGLING SCHOOL LISTS: Starting this summer and fall, states are going to roll out new systems for identifying the lowest-performing schools, but that doesn’t mean reporters should wait until they do.
One key issue is figuring out whether a state’s new rating system is as rigorous as it sounds, says the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Phillip Lovell. Just a handful of states have clear provisions to make sure that only schools that close achievement gaps get top ratings, he says. Journalists need to ask how the ratings compare to the past, or to other states. “An ‘A’ might not mean what you think it means,” says Lovell. Though written a year ago, a model story might be the LA Times piece by Joy Resmovits and Sandra Poindexter about California’s misleadingly optimistic school ratings tool (which has since been modified somewhat).
Whatever you do, don’t wait until the lists of struggling schools are rolled out officially, says Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman. “States are doing data runs on their new systems now behind the scenes, and reporters could be asking at least for de-identified information to help prepare the public.” How many schools – and which ones – are going to be on those lists? How are they different from previous versions of these lists, which were also required under No Child Left Behind?
SCHOOL-LEVEL FINANCIALS: Under the new law, districts are going to be required to provide school-level fiscal information about how much they’re spending. The development and publication of that data are likely to reveal wide gaps in how much schools in the same districts actually spend on teacher salaries. The official deadline for submitting the information is in December, but there’s no reason to wait. The 74 has written about how this new information might play out in 2018-2019, focusing on schools in two neighboring districts in Pennsylvania. But pretty much anyone could do the same – and probably should. Depending on how many rookies or veterans a school is able to hire, the spending differences between schools can be enormous.
OVER-AMBITIOUS GRAD RATES: Graduation rates and test scores are deeply controversial topics right now, and state ESSA plans give reporters an interesting way to come at the two issues together. That’s because some states are calling for high school graduation rates that are higher than state proficiency rates — meaning that some states are prioritizing moving students out of school over preparing them to be successful once they leave. This should be a red flag for anyone concerned about state standards, accountability, and public awareness, says the Collaborative for Student Success’s Blair Mann. “If that’s not the point of an accountability system then what is?” asks Mann.
CHANGING THE TESTS: A handful of states are thinking about piloting new kinds of state assessments, according to Yeager. This would create a system in which some kids take one test, and another take a different one. North Dakota has already approved it for districts. Other states like Arizona, Florida, and Oklahoma are apparently also exploring the option.
How’s that going to affect kids and schools, states moving towards a test meant to help differentiate among college-bound kids in place of tests meant to differentiate among low- and middle-achieving students? We have some clues. Several states already use the SAT or ACT as their high school assessment. Other states administer these tests to all kids but not for statewide summative assessment purposes. Achieve.org has all the data.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Improving struggling Pa. schools is department’s ‘highest priority’ — but it will take time
Whatever aspect of a state’s education agenda you end up deciding to look into, the key is to go deep rather than wide, says the Alliance’s Lovell. “These plans cover so much that it’s hard to have a lot of depth if you’re trying to cover everything,” he says, citing a recent Pittsburgh Gazette article that focused on school improvement plans as an example of high-quality coverage. “Strong coverage has to be focused because there’s just too much to cover if you take a wide lens.”
One other key things for reporters to remember, says Achieve’s Mike Cohen, is that – big as they are – state ESSA plans aren’t necessarily comprehensive overviews of state efforts to improve student outcomes. “From a journalistic point of view, the risk here is that you are seeing a very incomplete picture” of what states and districts are up to, says Cohen.
State ESSA plans aren’t the thick binders of the No Child Left Behind era. And even those plans didn’t contain everything states were up to. So don’t think everything’s in there. Cohen advises reporters to ask open-ended questions about a state’s plans for “getting better results for kids” and taking it from there, rather than focusing narrowly on what is in the ESSA plan. There might be other, little-noticed efforts taking place that aren’t part of the state ESSA response.
Let’s be clear. ESSA will never be the easiest law to write about. The law is most identifiable for what it doesn’t do, rather than what it does. Its implementation timeline has seemed glacial. And it’s highly decentralizing, meaning that different narratives are playing out differently around the country. In addition, much of the political heat and public concern around issues like testing, Common Core, and the validity of standardized test scores are greatly diminished at this point – easy jumping-off points for reporters in the past.
These are some of the reasons that coverage remains harder to find that you might otherwise expect from mainstream national outlets. NPR, the Washington Post, AP, and the Wall Street Journal have only occasionally touched on the issue in recent months.
But that doesn’t mean that ESSA can’t be covered from a national perspective. Take the New York Times’ Erica Green. Green doesn’t get to cover ESSA every day or week. For several months recently she’s been the sole national education reporter covering the beat. But she’s managed to turn out a handful of solid ESSA stories. In early February, she wrote about the near-dozen state governors – many of them Republican – who had refused to approve state ESSA plans. Last week, Green wrote about Secretary DeVos’s unexpected criticism of state ESSA plans she herself had approved.
Asked how she pulls it off, Green explains that her February story about governors disagreeing with state ESSA plans came from watching local coverage and identifying a trend. Her March story about DeVos was a logical follow-up, considering that DeVos had been so hands-off earlier in the process.
“It’s hard to cover ESSA from the national level,” says Green. But it’s not rocket science, either. “Usually if you pay attention you can find a story.”
To get The Grade’s free weekly newsletter, Best of the Week, sign up here. The week’s best education journalism, all in one place!
Some of the stories referenced in this piece and/or recommended by experts asked for standout ESSA coverage:
STATE & LOCAL
Tampa Bay Times: Florida’s accountability plan needs more work, federal government says.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Improving struggling Pa. schools is department’s ‘highest priority’ — but it will take time
For EdWeek’s ESSA coverage, go to the landing page. A big ESSA report is coming out from them early next month.
Related columns from The Grade: