The Need For Nuance & Complexity In Education Writing — & Where To Find It

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What a lovely and much-appreciated thing to come across education writer Sarah Carr’s reflection about New Orleans-related education journalism the other day as we approach what I hope is the end of a seemingly-endless spate of stories, opeds, and blog posts about the disaster that took place a decade ago and the transformation of the schools and the city that followed.

Carr’s piece, published in Slate (New Orleans charter schools after Katrina: We misunderstand them. We don’t have to), focuses on the differences between “shoe-leather” reporting and “parachute” reporting but doesn’t glorify or vilify either kind as most journalists tend to do:

“Both approaches have their time and place and merits. And they are not necessarily mutually exclusive: Great journalism has been done by those who parachute in to a community, and then literally wear out their shoes.” Carr cites Amy Waldman’s “thoughtful, comprehensive” piece in The Atlantic as an example.”I’ve practiced parachute journalism, and will no doubt do so once again in the (very near) future.”

But over all Carr comes down on the side of “shoe-leather” approach. “There’s something distinctive about the story of New Orleans 10 years after Katrina—and by extension the story of the schools there—that to my mind calls for a hyperdose of locally based, shoe-leather reporting, coming from those who’ve tramped across the city time and again.”

According to Carr, policymakers and the public who want to know whether the New Orleans experiment worked or not “won’t get the most illuminating answer from the parachute reporters” who tend to focus on test scores and political battles rather than “the on-the-ground realities that complicate and contextualize the numbers” and “the far more nuanced perspectives of the people who matter most” rather than advocates and ideologues.  

Where to get that kind of writing? Carr cites New Orleans reporter Katy Reckdahl as an example.  EdPost’s Gordon Wright suggests Danielle Dreilinger.

Basically, Carr is telling us that much of what we’re reading about schools and efforts to improve them has become cartoonish, simplified, short-cutted — even when the pieces seem to get longer and longer in terms of word counts.

I’m not sure that being local is the key determinant of quality journalism, or even the amount of time that’s spent on the story. For me, those things can be helpful but don’t prevent coverage that’s narrowed-down or context-free. What I really look for are the inclusion of information that doesn’t fit a simplified case, the sense of open-mindedness and honest engagement with the ideas and dynamics.  

But spending some time on the ground and conveying complexity rather than simplification are an awfully good start, whether you’re writing about New Orleans or anyplace else. 

Related posts: Getting Everyday Teachers Into Education Stories

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.