The education beat is a wide umbrella, covering everything from preschool through higher education, and from school funding to learning outcomes. The beat has become even broader and more complex in recent years in part because of the expansion of charter schools, the increasing popularity of homeschooling, and federal achievement standards. These days, education stories are often political stories as well, and reporters on the beat frequently have to navigate overlapping layers of authority to get the information they need to understand what’s really happening in the schools.
If you’re on the education beat, you’ll probably spend time attending school board and PTA meetings, not so much to report on them as to look for sources and story ideas. Celeste Ford, formerly of WABC-TV in New York, once found a story by scanning the agenda for an upcoming meeting and noticing a proposed city resolution that would ask the state to tighten beeper requirements on school buses. At the time, the state required back-up beepers only on buses built after 1990, but thousands of city school buses were older than that. Ford located statistics through the Board of Education and the Department of Motor Vehicles. She did the math, determined how much it would cost to install beepers on the buses that lacked them, and then took that number to a city official for comment. Her story included the voices of schoolchildren, parents, a deputy chancellor of city schools, a school bus company executive and a representative of a school where a student was killed when a bus without a beeper backed over her.
Reporters covering education need to understand the structure, staffing and economics of the school systems they cover, which may vary widely. They should be prepared to decipher statistics and to compare budgets over time to see where the money goes and what happens as a result. Covering education also means tracking statistical data such as dropout and graduation rates, teacher retention and vacancy rates, principal turnover and the results of high-stakes testing. Following the numbers helped WFAA-TV in Dallas expose fraud by for-profit schools in a series of stories, Bitter Lessons, that won both a duPont-Columbia and a Peabody Award.
Some news organizations use education data to create their own measurements, like the Washington Post’s “challenge index” that ranks high schools based on the percentage of students who take Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or other college-level tests.
When education reporters cover policy issues like the certification process for teachers or efforts to end social promotion, they need to know how these issues have been handled in the past or in similar school districts, and what research has shown about the effectiveness of these policies. When they cover test results, they need to examine the details behind the data. Ranking schools’ performance without considering demographics like race, income or parents’ education, for example, will produce a misleading story.
One of the toughest challenges many education reporters face is a lack of access to schools and students; superintendents often cite privacy concerns to keep reporters out. It’s difficult to put a human face on education stories if you can’t shoot pictures in classrooms or talk to students and teachers on school grounds. Reporters who invest time in developing relationships with individual students, parents, teachers and administrators can eventually earn their trust and gain the access they need to tell compelling stories on the education beat.
As an education reporter, you should read school newspapers and websites, subscribe to parent newsletters and e-mail discussion lists, and check local university alumni reviews to see which issues are bubbling up. To stay abreast of national developments so you can put local stories in context, make a habit of reading Education Week and the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Classroom photo by Flickr user Judy Baxter