The relentless education journalism beat 

 

Although the traditional academic calendar year is closing, the news about education will no doubt keep on coming. Education reporting, once limited to the non-summer months, is now a serious full-time beat for many news outlets. Back in the day, education reporters would typically write big bookend stories for the start and end of the school year, and in the middle months they would do a few stories about school board meetings and winning sports teams. If you were lucky, your story might make it to the front section of the paper, but only if it was a really slow news day. Stories that received national attention were rare. 

In 2018, a never-ending news cycle provides us with a litany of tragic or infuriating stories about education. There is no summer break for education reporters anymore. Whether it’s gun violence shattering the lives of students, teachers, and families; graduation rate scandals; or the missteps of the current secretary of education, the news about education is constant and rarely good. And in many cases, teachers and students are both the victims and the heroes of the story.  

The Parkland shooting 

The biggest education story of this year is, of course, the events at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. News about school shootings travels fast, and the media tend to follow the same road map each time. But in this situation, the students themselves changed the narrative. Unwilling to play the role of victims, the Parkland students demanded to be heard and have been leading the #neveragain movement since the February shootings. This media-savvy generation has effectively used its social media skills to get its message out and keep it out. Parkland students declared themselves masters of their fate, and, in doing so, they have forced the hand of many recalcitrant adults, including their own governor. In March, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed into law the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a gun-control bill that would have never seen the light of day before the Parkland shooting.  

The conversation about teachers after Parkland has been less empowering. For some, the first idea for how best to keep students safe in today’s chaotic world was to arm teachers. Indeed, the Florida bill included a provision to do just that. As I’ve listened to the conversation around this idea, I’ve been struck by one question: Out of all the stakeholders in this situation (including administrators, school board members, parents, legislators, law enforcement, and gun sellers), why are teachers the first people we identify to address this problem? Like they don’t have enough to do already? Every time something happens in a school, the knee-jerk reaction seems to place all the responsibility for fixing the problem at the feet of teachers. Everyone else involved seems to get a pass.  

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Thankfully, some passionate and eloquent teachers spoke out against the idea of arming teachers, reminding the public that their job — the one they were trained to do — is not about enforcement. It is about opening up young minds. In their view, the suggestion that an individual can play the role of both teacher and security guard is not only ludicrous, it’s downright insulting. Since any discussion about arming teachers is guaranteed to be incendiary, the media will likely keep on it, but it is hard to imagine this idea will ever gain nationwide traction. And if it does, the first time an armed teacher uses a weapon for something other than protection, a whole new uproar over school safety will follow, and once again the media will be there, for better and worse. 

The D.C. graduation scandal 

Another education story that has kept gathering steam is the high school graduation rate scandal in Washington, D.C. This depressing story was uncovered thanks to scrappy reporting by Kate McGee, a journalist from D.C.’s local public radio station, WAMU. Her reporting revealed that the District’s much-lauded high school graduation rates were masking chronic absenteeism among as many as one-third of all 2017 graduates. This soul-crushing revelation stopped all those who believed D.C. to be a shining example of school improvement dead in their tracks and prompted an ongoing conversation about how and why this situation came to be. Clearly, the public’s trust in their local school system is now in jeopardy. Additional revelations about the now former D.C. schools chancellor Antwan Wilson using his position to game the district’s lottery system for his own child have not helped.  

These stories about the state of public education in D.C. are important for a few reasons. First, revelations like these force a dialogue about the need for and value of transparency in education. They also demand that the public pay attention to the local education system and its leaders, something the public is not always keen to do unless it impacts their child or their school. Finally, it reminds editors and others in the media that education is an important beat that requires capacity and resources if it is to be covered in a meaningful way. The kind of reporting done by McGee and the WAMU team does not just happen. It is the result of expertise and an investment of time and effort.  

DeVos’s public stumble 

And finally, we come to the ongoing saga that is the tenure of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. At this point, writing about DeVos feels a bit like piling on, but her interactions with the media are significant because they have a very real impact on education. In a March interview with 60 Minutes host Lesley Stahl, DeVos fumbled some fairly basic questions and seemed totally unprepared for a standard line of questioning for the nation’s educator-in-chief. The backlash over her performance was swift and went far beyond the usual boundaries of education commentary. It seemed everyone had something to say not only about the interview, but also about how the secretary comported herself in the aftermath. Instead of acknowledging that she did not answer Stahl’s questions and seemed muddled about key issues, she went on the offensive, accusing 60 Minutes of cutting the tape to make her look bad. This stunning lack of self-awareness (not to mention dignity) made the secretary look even more unfit for the role.  

The last two decades have wreaked havoc on public education systems and Americans need to understand more about the details behind the headlines. 

DeVos’s weak public image and her inability to control her own messaging may make her uncomfortable, but it hurts public education far more. At the federal level, both the message and the messenger matter. With a system that is largely based on local control, Americans need a national leader who can effectively unite people around public education. DeVos has instead used the office to preach her own personal ideology about education and, in doing so, has drawn far too much attention to herself, thus diminishing any national momentum to solve real education problems.  

Which brings us back to why the growing interest in education news is important. If the 2016 election taught us anything, it is that Americans tend to take their public systems for granted. As citizens, we are far too willing to follow those whose answer to complex policy problems is merely to declare “The system is broken.” It is the media’s job to push back on people who make these claims by asking, “Why is the system broken?” and “Who is responsible for the damage?” Education reporters are increasingly doing just that, and the timing could not be better.  

The last two decades have wreaked havoc on public education systems and Americans need to understand more about the details behind the headlines. If the first half of 2018 offers any indication of what we can expect from education reporters in the months ahead, then we should all fasten our seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy year.   

 

Citation: Ferguson, M. (2018). The relentless education journalism beat. Phi Delta Kappan 99 (8), 74-75.

 

 

MARIA FERGUSON (mferguson@gwu.edu) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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