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What journalists need to know about covering education reform

Scott Elliott, incoming president of the Education Writers Association, is the education reform reporter at The Indianapolis Star.

That’s a pretty unusual job title and a beat that Elliott pretty much carved out himself. During a live chat, Elliott talked about how he crafted that beat and why it’s increasingly important and relevant. He addressed the complexities of teacher evaluations and education reform, and offered tips on how education reporters can navigate the challenges of covering these topics.

The chat was held in advance of a Specialized Reporting Institute workshop, Grading the Teachers. You can find out more about the McCormick-sponsored workshop and apply for it here.

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schoolmakeovers

Journalism that works: Telling the story of school deterioration, rebuilding

Many of America’s school buildings are in disarray, with leaking roofs, toxic air and termite-infested walls. Parade Magazine decided to tackle this issue in a 2,000-word story, but one that editors and freelancer Barry Yeoman chose to tell through a lens of success rather than as an unrelenting diatribe.

“It was a story that was reporting on a very difficult problem, but we also knew if we didn’t have a solutions piece of it, that it wouldn’t have the impact on readers who tend to gloss over stories that are just unrelentingly depressing,” Yeoman told Poynter. “If you tell an uplifting story, you’re more likely to get readers to be able to focus on the underlying problems.”

Jennifer Marquez, Parade’s articles editor and daughter of a public school teacher, pitched the story after coming across a statistic from the group “Rebuild America’s Schools” about how many millions of students attend class in deteriorating buildings. Her own experience in worn-down school buildings, plus the statistics she found, enhanced a natural curiosity about what she described as a national problem that needed local solutions.

Yeoman, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Mother Jones, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Glamour and countless other publications, says while the idea didn’t originate as a positive story, it quickly grew in that direction.

“While obviously it’s very important to be unflinching in talking about how bad many of our nation’s school buildings are, it made sense to travel to schools that were doing it right,” Yeoman says. “It’s easy to document poor conditions from a distance … But what I needed to see firsthand were schools that were reversing the trend, that were finding solutions and actually creating really inspiring school buildings.”

One such school was California’s Santa Ana High School. The community filled with immigrant families working multiple jobs banded together and raised the money to renovate the dilapidated 1935 building. Yeoman reports:

Raising taxes would not be easy in a city that in 2004 was ranked No. 1 for “urban hardship” by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. But in 2008, Santa Ana residents voted two to one for a $200 million bond issue that would improve the city’s 56 public schools. The resulting property-tax increase—less than $100 per year for a modest house—meant collective belt tightening. “We saw parents picking up recyclables just to make ends meet,” says Maria Cante, the high school’s community and family outreach liaison. But relatively few complained, she says—they knew that better schools would give their children a surer shot at higher education.

Journalists are hardwired to tell the gritty, dismal, stark stories of injustice. What draws us into the profession – the urge to expose wrongdoings and educate readers or listeners about social and environmental problems – can make it almost unnatural to approach a story from a positive angle, Yeoman says.

“We become journalists because we feel called, because we have a sense of mission,” Yeoman says. “We are more oriented toward telling stories of social problems because we want to see them corrected. Otherwise, why would we stay in a field that is shrinking before our very eyes and has never offered the type of livelihood that other college educated professionals might expect?”

At the very core of many of us is the impulse to write about what is wrong with the world, Yeoman says. And that generally comes in the form of stories that are not uplifting.

But that urge to drift away from the inspiring is also a byproduct of pushing back against the onslaught of spin and agenda thrown at us from publicists daily.

“So many of the positive stories that cross our desks have built-in reasons for suspicion,” Yeoman says. “And when that sets off our alarms, we run in the other direction.”

While reporting this story and figuring out what schools to highlight, Yeoman said he relied on what he calls a “pretty good BS detector.” After covering politics and government, he developed a knack for telling when a source is being honest.

“I know when I’m being sold,” Yeoman says. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. At the first warning sign of somebody spinning me, I can detect it.”

Richardsville Elementary, just outside Bowling Green, Kentucky, before and after it was transformed. (Courtesy: Parade magazine)

In order to tell the “good” news but avoid the PR slant, Yeoman made sure to vet all the schools before he even set foot on an airplane. He checked them against multiple accounts from the media and third parties to make sure there were no red flags. And regardless of whether he felt a source was being open and honest, he made sure to fact check everything they said.

That need to assess transformed schools was what made being on the ground and seeing them in person so important, Yeoman said. By visiting Richardsville Elementary, a school in Kentucky that built green to meet district policy and save money, Yeoman was able to see firsthand the impact of the new facilities on the students:

But what really makes Richardsville Elementary stand out—beyond the sunlit corridors and cutting-edge technology—is how conservation is woven into the fabric of everyday learning. Geothermal temperature gauges are exposed for children to monitor. So is a pipe that collects rainwater for nourishing a garden. There are hallway displays about solar power and recycling, and even first graders can explain how renewable energy works. Warren County is doing more than saving money and keeping kids healthy—it’s producing students who are literate about environmental issues before reaching puberty.

In order for a positive story to be successful, it has to have a gripping narrative, Yeoman says. And it also needs to illuminate a bigger issue or inspire a reader to make a personal life change.

But with stories such as these, sometimes a positive outlook helps illuminate a societal flaw while also providing readers with insight on how to fix it.

Fundamentally, Yeoman says, this is a story about a social ill. And writing a story with aspirational examples wasn’t sugarcoating it, he says, but instead providing readers with a look at actions that helped these school systems counter a very real problem.

“It felt to me and it felt to my editors like we could tell both halves of the story with real integrity, while not scaring off an audience as general as a Parade audience,” Yeoman says.

Because Parade is a general interest magazine, Marquez says the staff is always thinking about offering readers a good mix in terms of content and tone, especially cover stories over the span of a month or year.

“We know that a positive story that is heartwarming or uplifting is going to engage people on a Sunday morning, but we won’t turn a good story away just because it doesn’t have a happy ending,” Marquez says.

This report is part of an occasional series on journalism that works, in partnership with “Huffington Post Opportunity: What is Working.” Read more

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Education think tank urges media not to publish teachers’ names with performance scores

Center for American Progress
The Los Angeles Times won an IRE Philip Meyer Award for publishing teachers’ individual performance scores in 2010, but the Center for American Progress says that’s counterproductive. It says the Times “maximized the controversy—and perhaps the number of hits it drew to Web pages with advertising” by publishing teachers’ names. Publicizing individual scores just causes parents to try to move their children out of certain classrooms rather than spurring broader reform, the organization argues. “Any public association between teachers’ names and their value-added estimates will create a kind of vicious circle. Instead of tethering performance evaluation for current teachers to the goal of improving students’ academic achievement, value-added estimates will help preserve the status quo.” A court battle has been under way over a similar disclosure for New York City teachers. || Related: Parents ask LAT to remove teacher’s rating after he commits suicide (Poynter.org) Read more

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Ex-DC schools chief: USA Today probe ‘absolutely lacked credibility’

USA Today
Michelle Rhee says USA Today’s investigation into test scores “is an insult to the dedicated teachers and schoolchildren who worked hard to improve their academic achievement levels.” The former D.C. schools chancellor refused to talk to the paper while it was working on its probe. Read more

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Education Writers Association announces contest winners

Education Writers Association
The Beat Reporting (Large Market, Print) award goes to the Washington Post’s Bill Turque, while a team of Bloomberg News reporters wins the Investigative Reporting award in the large market category. NBC News was recognized for its Education Nation series. PLUS: Many more winners. Read more

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Arguments For and Against Longer School Years

This week, President Obama repeated his support for longer school years, pointing out that in many countries, kids attend school a full month longer than American kids. Of course, in some ways, it does not matter what the president thinks of this. School years are set on the state and local level. The federal government could provide some incentive funds for such an idea, but largely the issues of money and teacher union contracts affect the issue.

But, as you will see in some of the material to follow, there is far from conclusive proof that longer school years produce better students. No doubt, the studies say, some poorer performing students would benefit. But not all would. And a longer school day might produce even better results than a longer year would. Look at the information in the chart from this report by Edu in Review.

The 180-day calendar is shorter than that of other industrialized countries, and some schools even find ways to shave days even further. A story on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website said:

“America’s traditional 180-day school year is more myth than reality in Illinois, as a jumble of state laws, rules and waivers allow districts to chip away instruction time, shorten school hours and cut the number of days students come to school.

“While Illinois requires 176 days of ‘actual pupil attendance’ already fewer than most states the vast majority of public school districts dip below that by one or two days and sometimes more, a Tribune analysis has found.

“Some 400,000 students in Chicago Public Schools attend school 170 days, with permission from state lawmakers. A similar waiver allows a suburban district to shave eight days off its calendar so teachers can work on improving student achievement when students aren’t there.

“What’s more, the Chicago Tribune found that in many districts, a day isn’t necessarily a day.

“Hundreds of districts send kids home early or have them come in late even as much as once a week to give teachers time to get training, meet with parents or collaborate. Districts can count these shortened days toward attendance requirements.”

Other voices on this topic

A fair number of studies question whether longer school years really would result in higher performance. The students who might benefit most are the students who have special needs or need remediation, two researchers found. Longer school years would cut down on how much students forget from the end of one school year to the start of the next.

Here is a briefing paper presented in 2009 [PDF] by the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine. The key research points included the idea that extending the school day could be more beneficial than extending the school year:

Quality Versus Quantity
  • “The issue isn’t time per se, but how it is spent
  • “The key to increasing achievement is not necessarily more time in school but maximizing the amount of academic learning time
  • “Any addition to allocated time will only improve achievement to the extent it is used for instructional time, which must then be used for engaged time, which, in turn, must be used effectively enough to create academic learning time
  • “Quality is the key to making time matter … Educators must — to the greatest extent possible — make every hour count
  • “Improving the quality of instructional time is at least as important as increasing the quantity of time in school
Costs
  • “Most calculations suggest that a 10 percent increase in time would require a 6 to 7 percent increase in cost but could save parents money in child care costs”

Similarly, a researcher in Germany found that a shorter time in school did not affect average students’  learning of material in the core academic subjects [PDF]. But a report by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and Massachusetts 2020 had good things to say about longer school years.

USA Today reinforced the fact that views on this topic are mixed:

” … in Miami-Dade County, Fla., a three-year program in 39 underperforming public schools that included an extended school day and a longer school year produced mixed academic results, according to a final evaluation released last month. Administrators and teachers experienced fatigue and burnout, and many students did not attend class in the beginning of the summer, the report said.

” ‘Principals and teachers also reported that proficient students felt stigmatized by the mandatory additional time, which was viewed as a punishment rather than enhancement,’ program evaluators wrote.

“Other report findings showed students scored lower on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests in reading or math compared with other students in the county. So it is not enough to ask how many days a kid is in school. You also have to ask what they are doing while they are in class. Half of the teachers who were part of a test group to get 300 more hours of teaching time in a school year said there was adequate time to cover the curriculum.”

So it is not enough to ask how many days a kid is in school; you also have to look at what they are doing while they are in class.
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College Health Insurance Plans Rank Among Worst in Nation

Whatever you think of the new health care reform laws, the one thing all sides probably can agree on is that college student health insurance plans, with a few exceptions, are fairly awful.

Eighty percent of college students, representing 7 million individuals, are covered. In one state last year, health insurance companies made profit margins from college students that were five times bigger than the other plans they sold.

As The Wall Street Journal described it:

“There is broad consensus that, as a group, college health-insurance plans rank among the worst in the nation for consumers. Many college plans come with remarkably low benefit ceilings — in some cases as little as $2,500. Others limit areas of coverage, such as preventative services and chemotherapy.

“The upshot: Students are often much less insured than they think they are. In extreme cases high-school seniors with health issues might be advised to consider a college’s health plan before attending.”

Some companies spend surprisingly little on mental health coverage, even though counseling is a big need for college students. The Journal said online sites such as eHealthInsurance.com can make comparing college plans easier. 

It can be complicated to keep a kid on a parent’s work-provided plan, especially if the student is going to school out of state.

A money management blog on The Boston Globe website also warns parents:

“If you have recently sent a son or daughter off to college, it is critically important that you have a signed Health Care Power of Attorney (HCPOA) in place. This document is important because once your child turns 18, they are legally recognized as an adult and the colleges they are attending generally cannot share medical information with you.

“It is not that the colleges don’t want to share information, but under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a patient’s health information must be kept private once the patient is recognized as an adult. And this privacy extends to the parents of the student. So, if your child becomes ill at school, you might not be able to get any information on their health status.” Read more

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Study Assesses How Much a College Education is Worth

A new study, sponsored by the College Board Advocacy & Policy Center, tries to put a dollar figure on how much a college education is worth [PDF]. It is the center’s third such effort, following editions in 2004 and 2007, and purports to document “the returns both individual students and society as a whole receive from investments in higher education.”

There are lots of ways to measure the value of a college education. Students learn independence, self-confidence, job skills and critical thinking skills. They learn how to live and interact with a new range of people. But without a doubt, to be really valuable, a college education should also pay off financially.

The Chronicle of Higher Education offers a related graf and reports:

“Over the course of a 40-year career, the average college graduate earns about 66 percent more than the typical high-school graduate, and those with advanced degrees earn two to three times as much as a high-school graduate, according to the report.”

The study found that college graduates are far less likely to rely on food stamps or be in jail/prison. College grads are far more likely to have employer-paid health insurance, graduates are more likely to be involved in charitable efforts to help their community, and college grads generally live more healthy lifestyles than those who only graduate from high school. College graduates are less likely to smoke, more likely to read to their children and say they are more satisfied with their jobs than those who stop their formal education after high school.

The study’s authors say:

● “Median earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients working full-time year-round in 2008 were $55,700, $21,900 more than median earnings of high school graduates.
● “Individuals with some college but no degree earned 17% more than high school graduates working full-time year-round. Their median after-tax earnings were 16% higher.
● “For young adults between the ages of 20 and 24, the unemployment rate in the fourth quarter of 2009 for high school graduates was 2.6 times as high as that for college graduates. The financial return associated with additional years of schooling beyond high school and the gaps in earnings by education level have increased over time.
● “In 2008, median earnings for women ages 25 to 34 with a bachelor’s degree or higher were 79% higher than median earnings for women with a high school diploma. The earnings premium for men was 74%. These earnings differentials were 60% and 54%, respectively, a decade earlier.
● “The median hourly wage gain attributable to the first year of college, adjusted for race, gender, and work experience, increased from an estimated 8% in 1973 to about 10% in 1989, and 11% in 2007.”

And you are way more likely to have a job if you have a college education, according to The Chronicle. Read more

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More Women Earn Doctorate Degrees Than Men

Several years ago, colleges and universities saw that female students outnumbered their male counterparts. Now, that reality has made it all the way through the educational system. More women than men are earning doctorate degrees.

The Washington Post reported:

“The number of women at every level of academia has been rising for decades. Women now hold a nearly 3-to-2 majority in undergraduate and graduate education. Doctoral study was the last holdout — the only remaining area of higher education that still had an enduring male majority.

“Of the doctoral degrees awarded in the 2008-09 academic year, 28,962 went to women and 28,469 to men, according to an annual enrollment report [PDF] from the Council of Graduate Schools, based in Washington.”

But a few paragraphs later, the story said:

“Men still hold the majority of faculty and administration positions. Women earn less than men at every level of academic rank, according to the American Association of University Professors. Male faculty members earned $87,206 on average and their female counterparts made $70,600 in the 2009-10 academic year. Starting salaries for newly minted faculty members are nearly equal.” Read more
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Student Debt Exceeds Credit Card Debt

The amount that Americans owe on their student loans now surpasses what we owe on credit cards. There are some back-stories to this headline.

Americans have been paying down credit card debt. And a leading advocacy group says that is the issue journalists tend to cover. StudentLoanJustice.org estimates that for every 15 stories journalists do on credit card debt, they do one on student loan debt.

FinAid.org offers some help:

  • “Borrow federal first. Federal loans are cheaper, more available and have better repayment terms than private student loans. The unsubsidized Stafford and PLUS loans are available without regard to financial need, so you don’t have to be poor to qualify.
  • “Live like a student while you are in school so you don’t have to live like a student after you graduate.
  • “Do not borrow more for your entire education than your expected starting salary after you graduate. Otherwise you will find it difficult to repay the debt and will be at higher risk of default.
  • “If you are borrowing more than $10,000 per year for college, switch to a less expensive school.
  • “Submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at www.fafsa.ed.gov to apply for federal and state grants and search the Fastweb scholarships database to find scholarships for which you are eligible. Every dollar you get in grants and scholarships is a dollar less you will need to borrow.”

Some have seen their situations get out of their control quickly. And unlike other forms of debt, such as mortgages, student loans are difficult to wriggle out of.

As an additional reference to help localize a story, StudentLoanJustice.org has chapters for individual states. Read more

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