The Case for Bringing Back Education Columnists & In-House Editorials

Shiny new education outlets and sections may seem to be showing up every day — with more on the way — but at the same time long-established ones are closing up shop, taking a break, or paring back.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, the Harvard Education Press announced that the Harvard Education Letter was going to wind down this Spring, ending a long run that included several pieces I was happy to contribute over the years.

Why should anyone care? Isn’t the demise of (education) journalism old hat at this point? Not entirely. You see, it’s not just resource-intensive newsgathering operations that are in flux these days. There are challenges on the opinion and commentary side of things as well — not so much of quantity but quality.

Sure, op-ed writing is relative cheap to produce (people will often write it for free) and occasionally fun to read, and not everybody likes their news straight down the line. That’s why US News has recently ramped up its education opinion section, Knowledge Bank, and the Hechinger Report among other outlets seems to be publishing more commentary.

But over time it’s difficult to generate and sustain meaningful and authentic conversation without having it fall into something that ends up being stale, predictable, and repetitive (get it?). Opinions sections are actually not as easy to run as it may seem. Features like the Times’ “Room for Debate” section often fall flat when they get around to education. Ditto for the columns from education dilettantes like Nick Kristof, appreciated though they may be compared to the alternative.

And of course, these days readers can just as easily find more lively conversation on social media since so many folks — think tanks, advocacy groups, and others — have their own blogs or Twitter feeds. Who needs media outlets, anyway?

That’s why, just last week, National Journal’s Education Insiders announced that it was going to put its roundup of opinions on hold “while we explore some new ways to build a more robust discussion forum.”

So what’s the solution for lively, regular, authentic commentary and analysis? Source and edit better back-page commentators? Well, before everyone gives up and lets the Internet take care of it, I have another idea.

What few have seemed willing to try thus far is bringing opinion and commentary in-house, either by hiring a columnist (like the New York Times used to have) or two or by having editorial page writers (like the LA Times’ Karin Klein or the Chicago Sun-Times’ Kate Grossman).

Used to be, media outlets had editorial pages and in-house columnists with a deep interest in education. The NYT education column was penned at various times by Richard Rothstein, Sam Freedman, and Mike Winerip. The LA Times had Bob Sipchen (who’s now back at the paper, though in a different role). The Washington Post has Jay Mathews, though he’s not pumping out columns at nearly the rate that he used to.

Each of these (and others) had their pet peeves and favorite projects, sure, but they were still meant primarily to be journalists taking an honest look at the facts and presenting both sides of the argument even if they ended up coming down on one side or the other. They took on the issue of the week and came up with a view that you might or might not agree with but could understand. And they wrote mostly, if not all the time, about education.

Columnists and education-focused editorial page writing aren’t a silver bullet of any kind. Take a look at today’s clunky Washington Post editorial on bringing more charters to Baltimore. Columnists and editorial writers are expensive compared to all the other solutions. And for outlets trying desperately to be seen as nonpartisan in their traditional news coverage, the presence of a columnist or editorial opinion page creates problems.

But when it’s done right — when readers know that they’re going to get knowledgeable, intellectually honest reporting and analysis — it can be helpful and compelling.

So I say that someone should give it a try, and I’d be happy to help suggest folks to take on the task if anyone wants to ask. There are a lot of really experienced education writers out there who are sharp and quick enough to become columnists. Why not give them a chance?

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.