Education reporting is more than just what happens in the classroom or inside the U.S. Department of Education

As the editor of this work in progress, I have a distinct set of goals for it: Chronicling the battles between school reformers and defenders of the traditional ways of running public schools; spotlighting how policy meets reality in school districts and classrooms around the country; looking at how the nation’s high school dropout crisis impacts communities and intersects with other social ills in urban and suburban communities; even offering a post or two to grassroots activists whose voices are rarely heard in the local paper.

So  I was certainly intrigued by Jay Mathews’ declaration on Monday that the Brookings Institution’s report on media coverage of education overstated the importance of national news coverage. Not because I fully agree with either side, but because I think they are both overlooking some realities.

Mathews is certainly right that there is plenty of admirable work being done by ed reporters at the national level. He’s also right that the traditional coverage can often be of little use to the average reader. The problem is that is there isn’t nearly enough of it. Or enough variety. It would be great to see Politico‘s Ben Smith or Dave Weigel of the Washington Independent tackle the intersection between education and campaign politics. It doesn’t happen.

The reality is that the quality of national education reporting outside of a few national newspapers and Education Week is lacking. The major political affairs daily, including Politico offers little coverage of how NEA and AFT campaign spending influences state and congressional campaign, nor provides much of a commentary forum for writers on the subject. Save for National Journal and some of the political monthlies out there (The American Spectator to name one), education coverage of any kind gets short shrift.

Some of this, of course, can be blamed on the horse-race nature of political coverage; compared to healthcare reform, covering the battle over reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act or the discussions over common core standards seems rather dull. The fact that most of the reporters and editors working in these publications are, naturally, more interested in the dull sheen of politics than in the deep questions of education also plays a part. Then there is the fact that schools are one of the few institutions in which everyone has participated; if you excelled in school or could care less about it when you were attending, you’re not going to care about it as an adult in any meaningful way.

But this doesn’t let national education reporters off the hook. As much of the problem lies with how education is covered. Few think about education as it intersects with other aspects of life. In my time, I’ve written about the role of education in trade policy, political campaigns, criminal justice systems, public pensions, even immigration policy. Focusing on just Race to the Top alone (and yes, I’m guilty of this too) or No Child reauthorization will do little to convince a Roll Call editor (or even a national editor at the N.Y. Times) to devote more than just a few column inches to education coverage.

Local education coverage, on the other hand, is plentiful in comparison. Brookings does fail to realize the full importance of local coverage.  But local ed reporting is often just as shallow as that at the national level. The tendency is to focus on either the school board battle or the classroom. The problem of focusing only on classrooms is that what seems like good teaching may not actually be so. More often than not, local reporters think the classroom is the beginning and end; they fail to crunch numbers, analyze data or consider what can often be a dissonance between what appears to be working and what actually is. Classrooms are nice and so are teachers and kids, but it doesn’t offer nearly enough in terms of hard evidence.

So much of what shapes how teachers teach happens outside of the classroom. So do the consequences of that teaching on the children in their care — and the taxpayers who fund the schools in the first place. An inmate at Folsom State is as much a product of slovenly instruction and labeling by administrators as he is a result of desultory and abusive parenting. Property taxes in many cities are being driven up because of the cost of funding teacher retirements. The unwillingness of laggard veterans to leave the classroom is driven largely by the retirement benefits they have gained over the course of their careers.

Based on all this, local and national reporters need to look beyond classrooms and budget documents. They should go where they usually don’t: Local jails, state prisons, welfare offices, GED centers, even workforce training campuses and community colleges. More often than not, these are the places where the long-term effects of academic failure can be seen. This is because the average high school dropout isn’t simply a troublemaker; the average dropout is just as often the average kid who, despite his need for remediation, is often passed up the line from one teacher to the next. Until he reaches high school, when the proverbial rubber meets road and he must earn credits in order to graduate.

Education reporters also need to shed their fear of numbers-crunching and analysis. As proven by a number of reporters, including my former Indianapolis Star colleague Andy Gammill,  many of the best stories can be found in data that otherwise seems a jumble. It isn’t all hard work. Likely graduation rates for a school district, for example, can be figured out simply by dividing the number graduates from the population of 8th-graders likely heading into high school five years earlier. There is also plenty of information on teacher salaries within a school; if analyzed properly, you can get a sense of how districts finagle their numbers and how it actually plays out for students from wealthier and poor backgrounds.

What ‘s also needed are more Gotham Schools, more This Week in Educations, even more Dropout Nations. There should be a Catalyst in every city and a Hechinger Institute in every region. This would not only add to the diversity of coverage, it would also help convince editors and writers off the education beat to think more about the importance of education on the subjects their outlets cover.