From charter schools to teacher shortages, from standards of learning to school "report cards," thorny education issues were the focus of 19 U.S. education writers who met in July for a two-day colloquium at the University of Maryland.
The gathering was sponsored by the Pew Center and the Kettering Foundation with the assistance of the University of Maryland's School of Journalism. At issue were such journalistic challenges as: How to measure and write about school performance. How important is the relationship of a school to its community. And when do the mindsets of educators and the public become fodder for stories.
Among the topics:
- Do test scores alone make a good school?
- How do school officials regard the role of the public?
- What prompts citizens to take some kind of action in the education arena?
- How do you write relationship stories?
- How do inexperienced education writers cope?
What's "Good" News?
The education writers and editors said critics often assert that there's not enough "good" education news.
"But," said Kettering President David Mathews, "when we show them the 'good' stuff, they often don't recognize it. Maybe there's a discrepancy over what is recognized as 'good?' "
The participants agreed on many things:
- Urban school districts often come out looking the weakest in news stories.
- The public feels impotent to improve public schools.
- Schools only pay lip service to public participation, often regarding people who want a voice as "troublemakers" or "nuisances."
- Schools that work well often address other community needs, such as providing health or social services.
- Leadership can make the difference between a top-performing school and a poor school.
- Expectations for the mission of education have changed.
Is Quality the Issue?
The public seems to be leaving public schools ostensibly because of quality. But even when test scores go up, the criticism doesn't go down, according to Kettering research.
"If that is true, all the expense of getting test scores up is not responsive to the problem," Mathews suggested. "People are not apathetic. They are mad as hell."
Race: The Silent Story
The group was asked to identify the "silent" education story - the story that would make their readers squirm, the issue nobody wanted to talk about.
The answer came readily: Race.
"What I've found is that there is a racial dynamic in just about everything that goes on in just about every school," said Dale Mezzacappa, a veteran education writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"It's really what drives how schools operate and we never get at it," she said. "It's very hard to write without being unfair, without bringing your own biases into it."
In Kansas City, said Phil O'Connor, education writer for The Star, "We tried to do a story explaining that everything is racial... We're under a desegregation order. We're under a court order to close the achievement gap. We're under a court order to balance the racial mix. And you have the dynamic of minority school board members vs. the white board members and minority neighborhoods vs. the white neighborhoods.
"It's the most difficult story to tell because it's a values thing, I guess, at the bottom. The other problem is you can't get people to speak honestly about their racial feelings."
Comments from other participants:
Marilyn Brown, Tampa Tribune:
"Schools pay lip service to public participation. People are not showing up - not because they don't care - but because they've been let down."
Marcia Koenig, St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
"Involvement doesn't mean what it used to mean."
Yvonne Simons, WRAL-TV, Raleigh, N.C.:
"Charter schools can underperform but parents say, 'That's okay because those schools have more values.' "
Nancy Young, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk:
"It's not just educators' mindsets, it's our own."