Race and reporting: Why more journalists need to take us inside schools

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A former superintendent urges reporters to go beyond school demographics and test scores.

By Joshua P. Starr

While superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, I once visited an elementary school that, on paper, was quite diverse. Fifteen years earlier, as part of an ongoing effort to stem white flight from the county, the district had created a magnet program within the school, and it had succeeded in attracting kids from a wide range of backgrounds.

As the principal led me on a tour of the school, I noticed that in one classroom after another, all of the students were Black and Latino, until, finally, we came to a room where almost every student was White.

“Oh, so this is where you keep the White kids,” I said to the principal, my New York sarcasm breaking through.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by what I saw. Across the country, numerous districts have tried to promote “integration” by using strategies that lead to diverse enrollments at the school level while providing separate and unequal educational opportunities within the building.

White, Black, and Latino kids may enter through the same schoolhouse door, but once inside, some turn down one hallway, and the rest go down another.

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Fewer AP classes more suspensions Being black in suburban schools Twitter Search

This recent USA Today series explores some of the realities for nonwhite students in increasingly diverse suburban schools.

In recent years, I’ve been encouraged to see more journalists reporting on the continued plague of segregation in our public schools. And some news outlets have done great work covering the ways in which segregation has actually intensified in many places, as court-ordered consent decrees sunset, courts back away from enforcing desegregation orders from the 1970s, and affluent white communities attempt to secede from diverse districts.

But it strikes me that very few journalists have looked to see what happens inside schools that, outwardly, appear to be reasonably well-integrated. That’s a story that needs to be told more often: To what extent are students segregated within the building, and which students are getting what kinds of educational resources and opportunities?

Moreover, journalists need to tell the stories about what’s happening inside of segregated schools, whether they are the much-desired schools like New York City’s Stuyvesant and Bronx Science or neighborhood schools that serve a predominantly Black or Latino community.

Without a deeper examination by the media, assumptions about integrated and segregated schools just get reinforced.

See also: New documentary highlights the need to deepen school integration coverage

Rethinking What Gifted Education Means and Whom It Should Serve The New York Times

This NYT piece explores how advanced programs are accessed and distributed in one suburban school system.

It’s tempting to assume that highly demanded high schools serving White and Asian-American students provide world-class instruction to the students who’ve made it in. Test scores are high. Parental demand is strong. But in fact, dozens of researchers who have spent time in affluent or selective schools report that there’s nothing special about the classroom instruction that goes on in those places. The students may have higher test scores, but their teachers tend to use more or less the same classroom practices — including a lot of traditional, rote instruction mixed with some amount of engaging, discussion- and project-based work — as their peers on other campuses.

Personally, I’ve visited many well-regarded, “high-performing” schools where the teachers droned on all day at bored and listless students. When the kids arrive at school already on track to get into fancy colleges, there’s little impetus for teachers to take risks or change their routine. Often, their only priority is to avoid doing anything that might slow their students down. I call these first-do-no-harm schools with just-add-water kids.

For that matter, one shouldn’t assume that bad teaching is especially rampant in schools that serve high percentages of Black, Latino, or poor kids. Even in struggling schools, where test scores are low and dropout rates are high, it’s easy to find examples of expert instruction, strong leadership, and impressive work of all kinds. I’ve been to many schools considered undesirable and have seen evidence of powerful teaching and learning. The challenge in many of these schools has been to provide additional supports that go beyond what even the most expert teacher can do in one class period.

To write these deeper kinds of stories, education reporters need to question their own assumptions about what makes a school “good” and what policies will lead to better teaching and learning. Like most Americans, journalists may be looking at education as a zero-sum game, in which certain variables, such as socioeconomic background, reputation, and graduation rates, automatically determine which schools are better and which are worse. And because they serve as the main ranking and sorting mechanism for American society, schools may be subject to such zero-sum thinking more than other institutions.

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america to me poster horizontal

The documentary series America to Me explores inequalities inside a demographically diverse school building.

In particular, journalists should be careful to distinguish between how exclusive a school is and its intrinsic qualities. I understand why real estate agents would want people to associate home values with school quality, but education reporters and editors have no good reason to do so.

Again, to get the full story, they need to report about what’s happening inside schools and classrooms, describing what teachers, administrators, students, parents, and other people are actually doing: How do teachers teach, and what do students learn? What kind of professional environment is there? How do administrators make decisions? How do students interact on the playground and in the cafeteria? How does the school respond to bullying? How are parents involved in the school?

These are the kinds of questions I always ask myself when visiting schools (and I’ve visited more schools than I can count over the last three decades). But when I read journalism about school quality, equity, integration, and similar topics, I rarely see those questions raised or addressed in detail.

Too often, I get the sense that reporters have taken for granted that high-quality instruction must be the norm in high-demand, predominantly white schools, that bad teaching must be prevalent in schools serving black and Latino students, and that “integrated” schools must be equitable places. And I find myself wishing that those reporters would drill down to the classroom level and take a harder look at the quality of the instruction, the experiences students are having, the extent to which school-level integration translates to the individual classroom level, and the ways in which resources and opportunities are distributed through magnet schools, gifted and talented programs, honors classes, and so on.

Getting these stories can be difficult — frankly, when I was a superintendent, I was hesitant to give reporters that kind of access. Nonetheless, I’m sure persistent journalists can find creative ways to tell those stories, helping parents and the larger public to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the schools to which they entrust kids.

It’s critically important for journalists to cover the structural, organizational, economic, and political sides of public education: who gets to attend which school, how much money it costs to educate them, which policies might lead to school improvements, and so on.

But we also need reporters to tell stories and challenge assumptions about what’s really happening in the classroom, the cafeteria, the playground, and the other places where the everyday life of schools play out.

PDK International is the nonprofit entity through which The Grade receives foundation support.  

JOSHUA P. STARR (@JoshuaPStarr) is chief executive officer of PDK International, Arlington, Va. 

One Comment

  • Mike G

    Great points.

    Do you think we’re swimming upstream, though? Two big changes.

    Twenty years ago, local reporters regarded the “school visit” as a big part of the job. Shoe leather was valorized by editors. Now, they operate almost entirely from their laptops: collecting comments from Twitter and other online outlets is a substitute for the visit (recent NYT Summit story may be in this category, though didn’t read closely enough to recall).

    Second, “school visit” stories tend to get fewer clicks. Schools are complex, so some good, some bad, nothing easy. Stories now are meant to reinforce the tribe’s beliefs, nuance is the enemy.

    This is a larger reporting problem (appeal to tribe to maximize clicks), but it affects the value of a “school visit” story in particular. Why put in the time if it’s an inefficient way to get a pre-set narrative, and it’s unpleasant as a reporter if you see things that cut against your narrative, add nuance, and therefore subtract from clearcut “this is good” / “this is bad” stories?

    I wonder what old guard reporters would say.

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