Twenty years ago, way back when education wasn’t nearly the hot beat that it has become, longtime Washington Post reporter Jay Mathews decided he wanted to cover education. Local education.
As he explains in this recent column (Why I wanted to demote myself), the 1996 request to return to the beat he had covered 25 years before wasn’t something most journalists did: “It was assumed that aging reporters like me who had covered foreign, national and business news in cities around the world did not return to the local staff unless we had done something wrong.” But, like a few hardy souls, Mathews couldn’t imagine covering anything else.
For decades since then, Mathews has been reporting and writing columns and books about education. (Above is a screenshot of his Washington Post column, Class Struggle, circa 2005.) For a while, he was probably best known for his Challenge Index, a ranking of high schools based on how widely they offered rigorous programs like Advanced Placement to students. He also wrote a widely-read book about the folks who started the KIPP network of charter schools, called Work Hard, Be Nice. Most recently, he’s stood out in his defense of Rafe Esquith, a renowned LA elementary school teacher who’s been accused of improper interactions with students.
To me, his biggest contribution to education writing may be the 1988 book about LAUSD math teacher Jaime Escalante he wrote. Escalante’s story was later told onscreen in the movie “Stand And Deliver.”
He also espouses the heretical-in-journalism notion of showing sources (the subjects of the story) writing ahead of time, without giving them approval. I took this approach in my 2011 book about the attempt to rescue Locke High School and it was invaluable in helping avoid errors and add insights that had not otherwise appeared. Read more about Mathews here.
In his column, Mathews says he’s glad he returned to the beat, and generally upbeat about the state of education journalism. So I thought I’d ask him some followup questions. His take on things — the current state of education journalism, what’s overcovered, how his views have changed on things like Michelle Rhee’s impact and newspapers publishing teachers’ scores, and controversial Post colleague Valerie Strauss — might surprise you. Or not. Mathews has always been known for has candor, willingness to admit mistakes, and passion for public education. I asked him some of the same questions in 2006.
What do you wish you’d known about covering schools back in 1996, but had to learn along the way?
Mathews: How important culture, a mysterious ingredient hard to measure, was in determining how well a school was run. This became obvious as I got into why some schools opened AP to all kids and others didn’t. Often there were no rules against doing that, but they were just in the habit of reserving such courses for strong B and A students. This also affected how much writing was offered, how students were disciplined and how teachers were treated. You can have socioeconomically similar schools in adjoining counties, such as Montgomery and Howard in Md., with very different cultures, which you don’t realize until you look very closely at numbers other than test scores, which we rarely do.
What’s your biggest contribution to education coverage?
Mathews: I am pretty sure my obit, if I get one, will mention the Challenge Index in the first paragraph. I was the first to focus on the importance of participation in incorruptible college level courses like AP and IB, and there is much more reporting on this than before. The two other high school rankings, US News and Newsweek (a shriveled relic that will likely die soon), adopted my measure, but it my view messed it up by adding other measures that give credit for high test scores, which means giving credit for having lots of affluent kids.
What if any major mistakes have you made?
Mathews: I think my major mistake was giving too much credit to the jump in achievement scores and the appointment of new principals under Michelle Rhee in the DC schools. The scores proved to be largely the result of test tampering and many of the new principals weren’t as good as they needed to be.
What’s great about education coverage these days, and what’s not so good?
As I said in the column, the ambitious use of data, smartly displaced, is a big improvement. That Tampa Bay Times series was impressive. Also the quality of the reporters is very high, particularly at the Washington Post, and they are more likely to see education as a hot beat where they can be noticed. Also, the Internet has connected us to readers in an amazing way. A good example is Valerie Strauss’s blog. They wouldn’t let me say how many page views she gets but it is a huge number.
What’s over-covered, and what’s sorely under-covered?
Mathews: School board politics is overcovered. it is boring and dull and usually unimportant. The Washington Post doesn’t focus on that much any more, but it did in my youth. But keep in mind that is a big paper perspective. If I were editing or reporting for a weekly I would say the opposite. I also think new classroom technology is overcovered. I have yet to see any new device that significantly raises achievement. Also coverage of 20th Century skills is a joke. What is needed is better teaching of 19th and 20th century skills, reading, writing, math, and presentation. Undercovered are the classroom techniques and teacher skills that raise achievement. The Teach Like a Champion books are important but get little notice. We undercover this because it takes time and does not lend itself to the grabby headlines that we need to survive these days.
Do you think media coverage of education tends towards hype, or hysteria, or does it depend by outlet or topic?
Mathews: Big stories in education have often had a hysterical edge—kids being abused, money wasted, parents objecting to the political content of lessons. That has not changed. We need those page views. But because of the developments I mentioned above, we have gotten deeper, and overall better.
Who’s your favorite education writer out there, of all time or these days?
Mathews: That would be Valerie Strauss. I don’t know anyone who works harder, knows more or has more influence than she does. I am very glad she works for the Washington Post.
Is education coverage responsible in any way for the never-ending debate and polarization about how to make schools better?
Mathews: It is heavily responsible, and I am glad of it. This is America. We only get things done when we are arguing about them. If we are not having big debates, we are ignoring the issue. My minister when I was a kid told me a wise thing—your biggest problems are the ones you are not worrying about.
What do you think about foundation-funded education outlets and coverage?
Mathews: The foundation-funded pieces I see in Edweek are excellent. If you make your sources of information and money clear, I say go for it. We need all the help we can get.
There’s lots of chatter online about Valerie Strauss’s blog — the byline policy, assigning her as a reporter, the perceived bias. What do you think?
Mathews: I think she is exceptionally good. She has a bias, as do I. Writers who don’t have biases haven’t gotten deep enough to see what works and what doesn’t.
What’d you think about the LAT and NYT publishing teachers’ value-added scores way back in 2010 — and what do you think now?
Mathews: Back then I thought it was a good idea. I have changed my mind since. The data show that those numbers are too often shaky, and don’t describe teachers well. I remain in favor of rating schools, but I don’t like the emphasis on absolute test scores there either. We have to have that, but we need more. That is why I think the Challenge Index is so useful in judging high schools.
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