Thursday, January 20, 2011

New to the education beat? Read this.

When a reporter hops on the K-12 beat, here are some resources I recommend. They are pretty basic and  give a local beat reporter a good start on staying current on national stories and issues.

—Sign up for e-bulletins, including Education News, Public Education Network and ASCD.

—Get on the U.S. Department of Education press release e-mail list by calling 202-401-1576. There’s rarely anything fascinating there, but it can’t hurt to stay in the loop.

—Pay attention to these think tanks and blogs that are helpful for keeping up with the national scene, no matter their point of view: Education Sector and their Quick and the Ed blog, the three education policy blogs from New America Foundation, Education Gadfly and Flypaper from the Thomas B. Fordham institute, Eduwonk and This Week in Education.

—You can’t cover the education beat, even in the tiniest district in America, without reading Education Week. They are a little stingy about the paywall and courtesy subscriptions, but no matter what, you can at least read their excellent blogs and sign up for their e-bulletins.

Oh, and join EWA. It is free. Our journalist listserve is a great place to hear what other reporters are working on and place your districts’ issues in broader context.

What other resources do you think are must-reads for reporters new to the beat?


  1. Dear Ms Perlstein,

    Your advice to the newly minted "beat reporter" in education is precisely upside-down. Would you recommend the budding geologist to first keep her eyes on the clouds? That is the effect of your advice. Yes, true, there is a story to be told of the Great Wonk-Land of Education in the Sky, and what the deities there say and do for amusement, but the neophyte reporter is sadly misled if she thinks that this is where her business begins instead of on the ground where her district's classrooms and buildings and students, teachers and administrators daily do their business. How out of touch the Wonkers so often are is neatly illustrated in a piece of misleading journalism recently published by your recommended Wonk-tanks, Education Sector, on January 11: "Unlikely Allies: Unions and Districts in the Battle for School Reform," by Silva and Headden.

    ...Reads wonderfully doesn't it? Ah, that old staple of educational reporting that never fails to excite the readership and stimulate the politicians; that old perennial: The Story of "Something Truly New Under the Sun in Education;" in this instance the tale of the "innovative" and utterly "new" and "collaborative" relationship "forged" just last year---The Year of The Central Falls High School Debacle---between the latest superintendent of the Providence, RI schools and the head of the district's teacher union. What the "report" leaves you with is a powerful impression that
    the old "factory model" of contentious labor-management relations has at last been transcended and a new day is a-dawning for the long suffering students of the system as administration and union agree, at last, to cooperate. For a journalist, certainly a great story to follow and milk again and again as the drama unfolds with the future...

    And yet, for all the veracity of most the factual edifice, Silva and Headden, (a Pulitzer Prize winner!) got one tiny factoid wrong, and a former teacher in the system, a veritable prole, has un-covered the mistake, pulled on the thread, and brought the whole magnificent pile crashing down. Readers, go the the blog, Tuttle SVC, and read Tom Hoffman's letter to Silva and Headden titled, "In Which I Ride My Favorite Hobby Horse to the Education Sector." You will discover how badly Silva and Headden missed the bigger story, the sad, dreary story of the Perpetual Education Reform Machine that constitutes the real monster that must be slain if there is ever to be hope of a better public school system in our country. Reflect, too, how the story, as written, functions superbly as a tool of propaganda for the politicians and their appointees, and as promotional literature for the educational entrepreneurs.

    Hoffman was a teacher in the Providence schools during the "Before Christ" era; that is, the dimly remembered period of time immediately preceding the arrival of the latest Superintendent of Schools.(Stop and absorb this "BC" metaphor, neophytes, because it is a universal in the real story of Educational reform in America: objective Number One of the typical new Superintendent of schools and new state Commissioner of Education is to erase history.) Hoffman's testimony points to a totally different story, an alternate history entirely of school reform in the Providence during the past two decades. (Headden, I should think, especially having reached the summit of her profession, owes Hoffman the courtesy of a letter.)

  2. William, anyone familiar with my advice knows that to me the most important thing an education reporter can do is visit schools and talk with actual students and educators. These days, though, national education policy and politics have very local implications, so reporters who previously did not have to pay much attention to that sort of thing can't get away with that anymore. They need to know the context for some of what's happening in the schools they cover.

  3. Yes, as a regular reader of this blog I am familiar with your admirably sensible view. I only wish others in your business would adopt it. Being a teacher in Rhode Island, one of the epicenters of the current reform story in a number of ways, I and my colleagues have a lot to complain about. The ed journalism here has been very weak as Mr. Hoffman has demonstrated. The most obvious-to-a-teacher-or-administrator-questions are not asked of the officials in power. Reporters appear to be, frankly, dumb! So you struggle for a theory to explain the phenomenon. One is that reporters are mesmerized by wonkie rhetoric and the people who speak it because they are of the same social class---they went to the same colleges and professional schools and essentially speak and look at the world in the same way and even share the same speaking accent that is different, of course, from the local accent. So who does the reporter trust? (How might experimental psychology answer that?) Where once upon a time a local reporter got his breakfast, lunch and half his story leads at the local diner, (We still have plenty of them in RI;) today's reporter with a master's degree starts the day doing what? Talking to people? No, having coffee-over-her-laptop at the local Starbucks or equivalent, anonymous and unknown, reading, you guessed, educational blogs. Isn't there a case to be made that the steady erosion of social linkages has damaged local journalism? Sure seems to be the case to me when I read such prominent local ed stories as the Central Falls High School saga. The reporters are not in touch on that one at all. They appear to not have a clue how an effective school is run, how students are managed, what skills it takes to successfully teach or administer a teaching staff, and what bureaucratic and clerical structure is necessary underneath. Instead their reporting seems to be diverted or critically limited, bound, choked, or circumscribed by the "reform" rhetoric from above. Everything is couched in that language! There is no other conversation. Plain English, simple logical thought, obvious questions seem off the table. And, as Mr. Hoffman trenchantly demonstrates, there is backstory--- History has, indeed, gotten strangled as always seems to be the case in educational reporting everywhere. Why? Why can't education reporters learn from experience?

  4. Opps. That should read, "And, as Mr. Hoffman trenchantly demonstrates, there is NO backstory---"and etc.

  5. A friend in his late 70s who's a very veteran old-school daily-newspaper reporter and college journalism teacher explained to me that there's a newsroom culture of not believing that sources would dare lie to you. I think reporters assume that it's obvious that an untruth would backfire once it got into print.

    Let's just say that's naive.

    As the quote goes (possibly Mark Twain): A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

    Amusingly, when I Googled hastily to check that quote, I found it in a Thomas Friedman column. Friedman, who knows nothing whatsoever about education but fearlessly comments on it anyway, is one of the biggest patsies ever for education reformy hype and falsehoods.

  6. Thank you, Caroline, for the references. They prompt me to add that, in addition to taking your morning coffee at the counters of your neighborhood diners, I would advise the newly minted education reporter to avoid ed blogs until she has immunized herself from their dulling effect with a sound dose of history. An essential to start with is Dr. Ravitch's "Left BacK: A Century of Battles Over School Reform." As an editior, I wouldn't assign anyone to the ed beat unless they were conversant with that history, especially the sub-story of the history of reading instruction, ignorance of which is especially crippling to forming a critical view of the current popular reform agenda. I'd also assign that classic dissection of the hubris of American liberalism, "The Best and the Brightest." (You know---and I say this tragically, not flippantly---the first instances of "fragging" are not far off in this reform struggle where more and more teachers are conceding the hopelessness of their position.)

  7. Tom Hoffman is a great source. He recently caught me being too easy on the Ed Sector's report, even though I should have known better.