When good news goes missing

What questions about how journalism covers public institutions are revealed by the delayed attention and lack of depth that have marked media coverage of Chicago schools’ dramatic progress?

By Karin Chenoweth

Journalists generally agree that one of their most solemn responsibilities is to expose the failures of public institutions so citizens can demand improvements and exert accountability.

But what if a public institution improves? What is the responsibility of the press then?

Here is what gave rise to these questions: Over the past two decades, the Chicago schools have undergone a sustained period of remarkable improvement. Yet the media has been exceedingly slow to respond; when it has, most of the coverage has taken the form of shallow, gosh-here’s-a-surprising-man-bites-dog coverage.

This is more than a missed opportunity.

If the public does not hear about improvement, politicians who want to deprive schools and other public institutions of money can argue that they are not just dysfunctional but unfixable.

Journalists generally agree that one of their most solemn responsibilities is to expose the failures of public institutions… But what if a public institution improves? What is the responsibility of the press then?

Back in late 2016, I began working on a podcast for the Education Trust, ExtraOrdinary Districts. I had written previously about individual schools that were either high-performing or rapidly improving and served students of color and those from low-income homes. This was the first time I had tried to look at the larger ecosystems in which schools reside.

I picked Chicago, where the data were so compelling that old newspaper reporter worries of being scooped kicked in.

A huge, politically dysfunctional district that had been perennially starved of resources had slowly made improvements that helped more kids learn and find their way through high school and into college.

There was nothing sexy about Chicago’s improvement, no disruption backed by huge national foundations pursuing a theory of “reform.” It was just the piece-by-piece rebuilding of a massive public institution in a district where 80 percent of students come from low-income homes and about 85 percent are Hispanic or African American.

When the podcast’s release was delayed until November 2017, I was convinced someone would publish something that would make my podcast look like old news.

I needn’t have worried. Nearly two years later, the city’s schools are still awaiting adequate media attention into the reasons for their success.

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I cover the schools every day and tend to focus more on the bad than the good. For that, I have to say, “I’m sorry.” But I’m also not convinced that this is a golden era. 

— Former WBEZ education reporter Becky Vevea in a 2015 WBEZ Chicago piece acknowledging the progress.

The data on Chicago Public Schools (CPS) tell an important, underreported story.

From 2002 to 2017, the district’s 8th graders improved their reading performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by 10 scale points. Instead of a 14-point gap, there’s now a 7-point gap between Chicago’s 8th graders and the nation’s. In math, Chicago improved 22 points, cutting the gap to 6 points. Some researchers equate 11 points on NAEP to a grade level. Though that equation is problematic, it gives a sense of the serious scale of improvement.

Meanwhile, looking at the results on the state assessments, Stanford University’s Sean Reardon reported in late 2017 that Chicago was the only large or medium-sized district in the nation to post almost six years’ worth of academic growth from 3rd through 8th grade. Even though 3rd graders in Chicago were well below the national average, 8th graders were just about at the national average. When Reardon talked to education researchers, you could sometimes hear gasps from the audience when he got to this part. He would often cheerfully reassure his audience that he hadn’t believed it himself until he reanalyzed the data and reached the same results.

These data are all the more striking because Chicago has been widely considered a cauldron of dysfunction for more than three decades — and continues to give reasons for that impression. Former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel closed 50 neighborhood schools in a brutal way in 2013, leaving children and families to navigate the violence that stalks the city. A revolving door of hapless superintendents culminated with one of them going to prison in 2017. The teachers union seems to be perpetually either striking or threatening to strike.

But by 2016, Chicago could boast that nearly every demographic group outperformed its counterpart in the state. That is to say, white students in Chicago outperformed white students in Illinois, African-American students outperformed their counterparts statewide, and so forth. The high school graduation rate had risen from 57 percent to 75 percent, and college-going rates just about matched national rates.

Chicago insiders knew that the schools were improving. In an interview, Jesse Sharkey, now president of the Chicago Teachers Union, told me that he doesn’t pay a lot of attention to test scores but that all the teachers he knew sent their children to Chicago Public Schools — in stark contrast with 20 years before.

But the only media coverage I could find that laid out any of this important information was an impassioned plea for coverage from advocates in a Chicago Tribune op-ed from October 2015. Robin Steans of Advance Illinois and Stephanie Banchero, a former education reporter for the Chicago Tribune and the Wall Street Journal who’s now a program officer at the Joyce Foundation, wrote:

“Amid the frequently facile national caricature of Chicago as homicide central, political corruption run amok and terrible schools, there is a nuanced tale of educational momentum. The fact that this storyline gets drowned out by the intense fascination with failure does a disservice to students, teachers and the national conversation about school improvement.”

Their plea went largely unanswered.

Chicago insiders knew that the schools were improving. In an interview, Jesse Sharkey, now president of the Chicago Teachers Union, told me that he doesn’t pay a lot of attention to test scores but that all the teachers he knew sent their children to Chicago Public Schools — in stark contrast with 20 years before.

In my scans of press coverage, I found mentions of Chicago’s test scores improving, but little effort to explore the steps that had brought Chicago to this point of progress.

The emphasis in the press went quite the other way.

In May 2015, NPR affiliate WBEZ — one of the news powerhouses of Chicago — ran a story in answer to a listener’s question: “Were Chicago’s Schools Ever Good?”

The reporter, who found evidence of dysfunction going back to the 1940s, said: “We’ve searched for a time when CPS schools were good. And the latest trends tempt me to say that time is now…. I cover the schools every day and tend to focus more on the bad than the good. For that I have to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ But I’m also not convinced that this is a golden era. There is a lot of work to be done. And that bad stuff I report on? It really happens.”

A major project between WBEZ and the Daily Herald in June of the same year analyzed achievement data from across Illinois and found that poverty and achievement were highly correlated. One reporter who worked on the project said in a later interview that Chicago schools were performing “better than you would expect for their demographic level.” But that didn’t become the basis of a major story.

A March 2017 New York Times column by David Leonhardt credited school principals for the improvement, picking up on a theme advanced by then-major Rahm Emanuel. Instead of prompting more coverage, his piece met the same kind of news silence the 2015 Chicago Tribune opinion piece had.

A June 2017 WBEZ piece reported that Chicago was doing better in comparison with the state. That was, according to senior editor Kate Grossman, “The first piece that questioned the narrative that Chicago is sucking. That was a deeply reported piece. I thought it was a table-setter and quite important…It’s not our fault no one picked up on it.”

Still, the story didn’t delve into the complex reasons behind the data.

Finally, in November 2017 my work was released under the title Chicago: The Work of a Generation. I later made the argument in the Washington Post that if we’re interested in district improvement, we should study what’s happened in Chicago.

And once my podcast was released, I was eager for others to cover the story. That started in December when the New York Times’ Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy wrote about Reardon’s findings.

Their story seemed to launch a small flurry of coverage in such outlets as Christian Science Monitor and PBS. Lauren Camera of U.S. News and World Report conducted an interview of the new school system head in April 2018.

These were national reporters and writers trying to cover an intensely local story and none, in my opinion, dug very deeply.

There is nothing easy about coming in from the outside to tell Chicago’s story. It is a big, complicated story with a lot of moving parts. If I had to attribute its improvement to one thing, I would say it’s because CPS has responded to the intense observation of serious education researchers at the University of Chicago’s Consortium for School Research, elected local school councils at every school, and education-specific media coverage like Catalyst (and now Chalkbeat Chicago).

Camera, a thoughtful reporter, was well aware that she was “parachuting” in and unaware of local nuances. “You really have to spend a lot of time to feel confident,” she explained when asked about the challenges of writing a story about institutional improvements.  “The rebound takes a long time to happen and doesn’t usually have a report. It isn’t a shiny thing that you can hold onto. It takes a lot of backstory.”

Staffing problems at national news outlets don’t make things any easier. Camera is the only reporter covering education for U.S. News and World Report, an outlet with a dozen news reporters altogether. It’s noteworthy that she paid attention to Chicago at all.

WBEZ reporter Sarah Karp told me she can’t even imagine going to her editor to say she wanted to report a story on “why CPS is good. She’d say, ‘Good luck with that.’ ” The story is too complicated and time-consuming.

“How many press conferences have we covered with score increases?” Karp said. “But why is not something you can get to in one sentence or paragraph.” Karp says reporters try to balance bad-news stories with good-news stories, but they tend to focus more on individual successes. “A lot of times I’ll do something about students doing something phenomenal, or a teacher or principal doing something phenomenal. That’s not systemic, but it adds to the discussion of how things are going well in general.”

One rare attempt to tell the deeper story was from J. Brian Charles of the now-defunct Governing in July 2018.

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This 2017 story “was a deeply reported piece. I thought it was a table-setter and quite important…It’s not our fault no one picked up on it.” — WBEZ education editor Kate Grossman. 

Why were the media so late on the story and apparently reluctant to give it the full examination it deserved, beyond the challenges of telling a complicated story?

One answer might be contained in this 2018 Chicago Tribune editorial lauding the improvements: “Many Chicagoans greet snippets of good CPS news with skepticism. For good reason. The district has exaggerated its improvement in the past — and apologized for it. City Hall and CPS leaders have a habit of casting statistics in rosy terms, downplaying any doubts.”

Reporters are so accustomed to politicians spinning and even outright lying to make the schools look better that they are unwilling to be suckers who believe good news.

As a result, when Reardon presented his findings to reporters at the Education Writers Association conference in the spring of 2018, the Chicago reporters in particular weren’t buying. “We don’t believe it,” said one.

Part of the issue was that Reardon’s data was from 2009 to 2015, a time of turmoil that included a revolving turnstile of superintendents, teacher strikes, and school closings. It was hard for Chicago reporters to believe such a time could produce improvement. But also there was nothing really clear to hold onto as an explanation.

“Here, locally, every time the mayor talks, every time the [School] CEO talks, they talk about academic improvement” WBEZ’s Grossman said. “We have tried to figure out the why, and there really is not an answer. The school district points to partnerships with universities, stronger principals. You go into schools and don’t see a something.

And, of course, Chicago Public Schools still has plenty of problems. A sex abuse crisis in the schools going back many years caused the U.S. Department of Education to put the city under an improvement plan. Far too few students are graduating even today. It remains a highly segregated system. And those students who go to college don’t graduate as often as their peers nationwide.

The larger question of whether those failures represent fixable flaws or inherent, institutional weakness has a big effect on whether the public believes that public institutions are worth investing in.

But the larger question of whether those failures represent fixable flaws or inherent, institutional weakness has a big effect on whether the public believes that public institutions are worth investing in.

One way this plays out is in battles over state funding formulas. Chicago’s schools have been massively underfunded for decades, receiving thousands less per student than even its near neighbors. In 2017, a new funding formula went into effect that, in theory, will eventually equalize funding for Chicago and other underfunded school systems, and it is notable that this new funding formula was put into place only after so much improvement.

But across the country, one of the underlying arguments in state funding fights is, “Why send more money down a rat hole?” Many state legislators argue that urban systems like Chicago — systems that serve children of color and children from low-income homes — are so broken that it doesn’t make sense to give them more money.

This is why it becomes important for journalists to understand and report on institutional improvement as well as they do institutional failure. Without such coverage, journalism becomes another weapon in the propaganda war that says that democratic institutions are hopelessly corrupt and inept and do not deserve the public’s money.

Related coverage:

What’s happening to national coverage of big-city school systems?

The promise and peril of “solutions” journalism

‘Complicating the narratives’ in education journalism

Breaking free from the hamster wheel of daily news coverage at WBEZ Chicago

 

Karin Chenoweth is writer-in-residence at the Education Trust, the author of Schools that Succeed: How Educators Marshal the Power of Systems for Improvement, and creator of the ExtraOrdinary Districts podcast, which will release its second season in November 2019. She is a longtime reporter and education writer and for five years wrote a column on schools and education for the Washington Post.

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