Hits, misses, & predictions for the 2018 Education Writers Association awards

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A look ahead at the annual education journalism awards prizes that will be unveiled next month.

By Alexander Russo

On Monday afternoon, seven different education-related stories or series were named Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists or given special commendation.

Three teams of reporters won Pulitzer recognition for education-related coverage. Two journalists won recognition for their individual efforts. And the student journalists representing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Eagle Eye were given a special commendation for their work following the school shooting there.

In this regard, it was a very good year. The only real complaint that could be made was that schools were the setting but not the focus of the Pulitzer-recognized stories.

That will not be a problem a couple of weeks from now when the winners of the annual Education Writers Association, or EWA, contest are announced. Though several of the Pulitzer-recognized efforts are included, the list of 55 EWA finalists features education journalism produced by mainly education journalists.

A handful of talented teams and outstanding pieces of education journalism won’t be among them. But the vast majority of the best education journalism of the year is going to be on display in Baltimore during the first week of May.

Sign up here for the week’s best education news and newsroom comings and goings.

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APM Reports’ Hard Words is among the EWA award finalists for 2018, as it should be.

As you’ll see from the list of EWA finalists, 2018 was a very good year for high-quality education journalism.

I’m especially happy to see APM Reports’ Hard Words among the EWA finalists for public service. The hour-long documentary about flawed literacy instruction is one of the stories I named as the best of 2018. Though it lacks the drama of school shootings and scandals, inadequate literacy instruction in American classrooms may be the big story of the year.

For some background on Hanford’s efforts, check out this interview we did with her not too long ago: Why reading went under the radar for so long – and what one reporter is aiming to do about it.

The South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Pulitzer-honored coverage of the Parkland shooting and aftermath is cited in several different EWA categories, including single-topic news and public service. This work has been heroic and comprehensive, avoiding the single-minded focus on gun control that hindered so much other Parkland coverage last year.

The New York Times’ education team is rightly being recognized by the EWA judges for its work exploring racial disparities in education. What an all-star lineup of stories and talent.

It’s also great to see major general-interest outlets like the New Yorker and NPR’s This American Life participating in the contest, which attracted more than 400 entries this year.

Related: Hits and misses from last year’s EWA awards finalists

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The ten-part documentary series America To Me is not among this year’s EWA award finalists, which is a shame.

There are, as always, some head-scratching absences from the set of EWA finalists – bylines, stories, and team efforts that apparently weren’t submitted to the contest or didn’t make it through the judging gantlet.

Some will note the absence of the LA Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series on the USC gynecologist accused of sexually abusing hundreds of women over 25 years. But for me there are more disconcerting examples.

NPR’s national education team can’t be found among the EWA finalists again this year. The absence of anything from The Atlantic’s education page is a similar disappointment, given how strong that page has been this past year.

Particular series and pieces that are missing include Back of the Class, a KING5 series about inadequate special education in Washington state that was recently named a Peabody finalist, WHYY’s Kicked Out, eye-opening look at suburban Philadelphia districts trying to make sure they’re not serving out-of-district kids, and Steve James’ award-winning documentary, America To Me.

The 10-part documentary series investigating the struggles inside an integrated school in a liberal Chicago suburb, America To Me was among the most nuanced and assumption challenging depictions of American education in recent memory.

Last week’s column, in case you missed it: The business of online learning: a blind spot in mainstream higher education coverage

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If you want to know who will win the EWA awards for 2018, look into this crystal ball.

Several categories will be especially tough to decide, with two or even three strong contenders going head to head. But I’m going to tell you who will likely win some of the key contests anyway.

For example, the New York Times, ProPublica, and the New York Times Magazine are up against each other in the single subject/large staff category. It’s a difficult call but the entry from the New York Times should win for its coverage of racial disparities in education because of the uniformly high quality of the work and the importance of the topic being addressed. Elizabeth Harris and Winnie Hu’s A Shadow System Feeds Segregation in New York City Schools remains one of the best pieces on systemic inequality I’ve read in a long time.

For best feature story from a larger newsroom, I’d have to give the award to Rachel Aviv for her masterful New Yorker expose of Georgia’s broken special education system over Hannah Dreier’s Pulitzer-winning coverage of Long Island teens and MS-13. They’re both great efforts, but Aviv’s story is more directly focused on education.

In the beat reporting category, Moriah Balingit is doing some great work for the Washington Post. But it’s going to be very hard to compete against the reporting and impressive writing by the NYT’s Erica Green in that category. In addition to being a finalist for beat reporting, her name appears in several other places among the EWA finalists.

For small staffs, the public service finalists are all strong, but the winner should be Hard Words. For larger outlets, two of the four finalists — ProPublica’s MS-13 coverage and the Inquirer’s Toxic City — are now Pulitzer winners or finalists. But for me the best is Miseducation, the collaboration among ProPublica, the NYT, and Chalkbeat that examines racial gaps.

My pick for audio storytelling is This American Life’s My Effing First Amendment. “Great tape, timely story,” note the EWA judges. “This is an important issue, and each side is presented fairly here.” Agreed. You should check it out.

In the visual category, my pick is Vox’ Is Your District Drawing Borders to Perpetuate Racial Segregation? It probably won’t win, up against three other finalists including the Washington Post and Sun Sentinel. But it gets at a crucial issue — neighborhood boundary lines — that is woefully under-covered.

One last prediction: Former NPR education reporter Claudio Sanchez is going to win the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Prize. I mean, come on.

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The winners of the 2018 EWA awards will be announced at next month’s annual conference.

As you can see, the EWA finalists include a lot of high-quality journalism addressing important topics. They include deeper, more investigative elements than may have been common in the past.

Other positive developments: The narrow and somewhat superficial focus on school integration of previous years has broadened out to a larger and welcome examination of inequality. And there aren’t any controversial stories included among them, such as the Arizona Republic’s Polk award-winning series, The Charter Gamble.

Overall, this year’s list feels like an improvement over what I’ve seen in previous years. Some of the work recognized is stellar and includes deeper, more investigative elements than may have been common in the past.

Do yourself a favor and read some of the judges’ comments, even if you’ve already read the underlying story. And try to check out at least one story that you never heard of before. You might be unexpectedly impressed.

For me, this year’s hidden gem is the Houston Chronicle’s Final Test: Students at One of Houston’s Most Vulnerable High Schools, a four-part large newsroom feature finalist by Maggie Gordon and Jon Shapley.

It probably doesn’t stand a chance against ProPublica’s Hannah Dreier or the New Yorker’s Rachel Aviv. But the judges loved it, and so did I. Maybe you will, too.

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ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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