What makes New York Times education reporter Erica Green so good?

Over the past decade, Green has emerged as a powerful, much-admired part of the education journalism world. Here’s why.

By Alexander Russo

Maybe you know New York Times education reporter Erica Green from her June appearance on the premiere episode of New York Times’ documentary series, The Weekly, in which she and fellow reporter Katie Benner feature prominently.

The segment was based on the duo’s November 2018 exposé revealing that the impressive and widely admired college admissions statistics of T.M. Landry College Prep were in part the product of administrators who repeatedly faked transcripts to help students gain admissions to Ivy League colleges.

It was a blockbuster story, and the Times was putting it and reporters Green and Benner front and center in its effort to replicate the success of its The Daily podcast. But it was far from Green’s first or only big moment in recent memory.

Over a decade in which she’s twice been tapped for major journalism jobs, Green has won numerous awards, appeared on NPR and numerous other broadcast outlets, and raised the ire of at least one United States senator. Oh, and she’s also written some amazing stories. I mean, seriously good stuff. Lots of it.

While it makes me uncomfortable to say it out loud, and Green may well hate me for doing so, Green’s work makes me feel optimistic about education journalism.

Go ahead, call me a fanboy. I don’t care. I’m just so glad Green is covering national education news at a big-reach news outlet at such an important time for both education journalism and public education.

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Green and Benner’s T.M. Landry story featured a heartbreaking montage of students at the moment they find out they are accepted to elite universities and colleges.

Despite her recent celebrity, even the most careful observer of education journalism could be forgiven for not knowing much about Green during her earlier career.

In April 2010, just two years into her journalism career, Green was tapped to cover Baltimore City schools for the Baltimore Sun, which had once been the home of legendary education reporter and columnist Mike Bowler.

“His were big shoes to fill on the schools beat, and I didn’t even try,” Green tweeted when Bowler passed away last year. “I just loved the days his joyous voice was on the other line telling me I did a good job, and how I should follow up.”

A good job she did, producing a long series of strong and important stories for the Baltimore Sun over nearly seven years.

Working alongside veteran education reporter Liz Bowie, who had previously covered the Baltimore City schools, Green soon became very well known in her hometown — eventually named one of the city’s best.*

One of my first recollections is of her field reporting of the 2015 unrest in Baltimore, when she found herself in the thick of things.

It’s an “all-out war between kids and police,” she tweeted with an accompanying video that some thought showed police throwing a brick at protestors. While I was concerned for her well-being, I was equally impressed that she was out there helping Baltimoreans and the rest of us understand what was going on. Covering street protests is not something that education reporters typically have to do.

I got to know her work a little better when, still at the Sun, she and Bowie produced Bridging the Divide, an impressive series on the realities of school integration.

Interviewing Green and Bowie for a column, I remember admiring how plainly Green was willing to put things, eschewing the careful ways journalists tend to talk in public. “Teachers don’t get into this business to screw kids over,” Green told me. “But bias is real and thriving in schools.”

You can read more about Green and Bowie’s award-winning work here: Strong start for Baltimore Sun’s segregation series

Shortly before her departure, the Baltimore City Paper named Green the city’s best journalist.

Then, in March 2017, barely two months into the Trump administration, Green was plucked from Baltimore to become a national education reporter for the New York Times, joining Dana Goldstein.

It was a big move and an enormous challenge. Green didn’t have a folder full of national clips. The Times doesn’t often bring local reporters in straight to the national desk. But some smart hiring editor clearly saw her talent, and Green bravely stepped into a high-profile job.

Initially, Green worried about how she was supposed to act as a New York Times reporter on the Washington desk. But that uncertainty didn’t last long.

“I decided not to be any of those things and just be my own damn self,” she’s quoted as saying at a recent journalism conference. “‘I’m the girl from Baltimore who cares about kids. Who are you?’”

It seems to have worked.

From this new perch, Green has emerged as an especially powerful voice in education journalism, producing standout work and by her example encouraging everyone else to do the same.

In addition to the T.M. Landry exposé, some of her strongest stories include an award-winning October 2018 piece about Charlottesville, which with ProPublica’s Annie Waldman, examined a school system with one of the biggest racial gaps in the country, a January 2019 investigation into mistreatment of Native American students in Montana, and her May 2019 profile chronicling the fledgling success of the LeBron James-supported IPROMISE school in Cleveland.

“We show up when a school is hailed a success, or when it is deemed a failure,” tweeted Green about the Cleveland story. “It is rare, and considered a risk, when we show up as they’re just starting to figure it all out. I think that should change.”

Just as important, she’s managed to avoid some common mistakes and tempting traps for a national education reporter in the current era.

Hired just months into the Trump administration, Green’s coverage of controversial Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been neither overly favorable nor overly critical — a healthy balance difficult to achieve during such polarized times.

Instead of finding stories that would generate easy outrage, Green went back and looked at DeVos’s own education experiences as a way to help readers understand the Trump cabinet member’s worldview.

In addition, Green has kept the never-ending war over charter schools at a healthy distance, limiting the number of stories she’s written on the topic to a handful and instead focusing on larger, more systemic issues.

In particular, she’s written a series of powerful stories about racial inequality in schools of which my favorite is probably 2018’s Why Are Black Students Punished So Often in Minnesota?

To learn more about how the media covers education, follow The Grade on Twitter and Facebook.

Green (left) and Benner, reporting on the T.M. Landry story, as depicted in The Weekly.

Green does more than pick stories wisely and avoid obvious mistakes.

She puts people front and center when she writes about policy initiatives, such as in this story about the effort to overhaul the criminal justice system published earlier this month, which opens with a depiction of an inmate graduating from college:

“Maurice Smith stood anxious and alone, as the crowd of graduates around him hugged and chatted a few feet away,” the story opens. “He was cloaked in the same black gown and donned the same black cap, but that was about all that he and the rest of Goucher College’s Class of 2019 had in common.”

In her Twitter bio, she describes her job as “translating federal education policy to real life.” It shows in her work. And, though she’s writing national stories that compel her to parachute into topics, her writing still has the feel of a local beat reporter.

She’s also passionate about her stories, but not overtly ideological. She’s not obviously advocating or taking a strong angle on a story to generate readers or social media traffic. Her story selection shows a strong point of view, but her takes on the stories she covers aren’t usually obtrusive or obvious.

For example, that means she’s going to write about school segregation and inequality, but she’s not going to be shallow or pedantic about it.

“I would like to see more about whether or not people really feel that desegregation is the answer or has delivered the promise it intended to deliver,” Green said during a 2018 EWA panel about writing integration stories.

That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some controversy about her work. Perhaps the most fraught story she’s written came out in March last year, when she displeased some on the right, including U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, by dismissing links between the Obama-era school safety guidance and the shooting in Parkland, Florida.

That’s Green (bottom right), along with several other standout journalists who have been profiled or interviewed in The Grade. See below for links to other stories. 

Most of all, Green has shown how to be empathetic not just to those who obviously warrant our concern but also to unpopular, easily caricatured figures such as DeVos.

There’s a scene at the end of the T.M. Landry story where Mike Landry, the school’s charismatic founder, is defending how hard he’s fought on behalf of his students and directly challenging Green and her colleagues.

“’Write whatever you want to write about us on the negative side,’ Mr. Landry told a reporter. ‘But at the end of the day, my sister, if we got kids at Harvard every day, I’m going to fight for Harvard.’”

By this point in the story, it’s clear that Landry has done kids a horrible disservice, no matter what he may think or say. But it’s still a chilling, horrifying encounter. Is Landry admitting wrongdoing? Is he threatening the reporters in the room?

But the simple, straightforward way Green describes the scene — Landry comparing himself to Christ and ordering his current students to perform a ritual call and response — doesn’t let readers off the hook easily.

We don’t know whether Landry is wily, desperate, or deluded. Possibly he’s all three. But the way Green and Benner depict him (and let him speak for himself) makes us see the villain in a much more human way than many other stories would allow.

To me, that’s at the core of what Green is able to do.

Read more about the T.M Landry scandal and the media blind spot it exposed: New York Times story exposes school fraud and media credulity

Do I have any quibbles about Green’s work? Not many, I have to admit — not so far, at least.

In a perfect world, I would have loved it if she’d written a busing story during the critical first days and weeks after Kamala Harris criticized Joe Biden for opposing busing when there was so much noise and so little clear-headed education reporting to be found.

I wish she’d waited a little longer before writing about the LeBron James school, which, while written carefully, was deeply triggering to someone like me who read too many silver bullet school success stories in the 2000s.

And, while I appreciate the amazing positivity she shares with other education journalists, I think that she could be a little more forceful about stories she wishes were better or thinks are problematic. Her influence could help push us all forward, without undermining her work.

But that’s all small potatoes. Mostly, I’m a big fan. My greatest fear is that she gets burned out prematurely, leaves the education beat, or gets grabbed up some gold-plated investigative unit. That might be good for her, but a big loss for the rest of us.

*Correction: The original version of this column stated that Green took the Baltimore City schools beat over from veteran Mike Bowler, but by that point Bowler had already become a columnist and then retired.


Widening the lens: What makes Casey Parks’ New Yorker story so good

Behind the scenes of the 10-part documentary series, ‘America to Me’

How Bethany Barnes became a star education reporter

Why reading went under the radar for so long – and what Emily Hanford is aiming to do about it

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Beyoncé of education journalism

From cheating scandals to broken schools, how New Yorker writer Rachel Aviv tells education stories

How ProPublica immigration Hannah Dreier reporter profiled a Long Island high school student trying to get out of MS-13


Alexander Russo is founder and editor of The Grade, an award-winning effort to help improve media coverage of education issues. He's also a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship winner and a book author. You can reach him at @alexanderrusso.

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