How To Handle Complex, Contradictory Information

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There’s much to admire about The Atlantic’s recent piece, How Chicago’s Schools Used Second Chances to Improve Graduation Rates.

Written by Chicago Sun-Times veteran Kate Grossman, the piece manages to describe both signs of progress in Chicago schools and also challenges/concerns that have come up — rather than focusing narrowly on one or the other.

The result is a more complicated but compelling and credible narrative.

The good news Grossman reports is that Chicago has seen “a double-digit increase in the percentage of kids graduating from high school” thanks in large part to “a strong program of academic and social supports” (tightly monitoring grades and offering more tutoring sessions) that schools are providing to keep freshmen on track.

The problems are at least a handful of situations in which educators, district officials, and even kids are gaming the system to make things look better than they really are. (Following Grossman’s story, the Inspector General announced a new investigation.)

The key is that Grossman describes both successes and problems, and attempts to reconcile the differences without minimizing them. There’s no sense of narrative oversimplification, or anyone “making a case” one way or the other. When contradictory information comes up, Grossman seems to be grappling with the facts and attempting to come to a reasonable central observation:

“The impact [of the district mislabeling dropouts] wouldn’t be enough to undercut the larger narrative—graduation rates have increased by double digits—but the revelations bolster anecdotal evidence that some number rigging is going on.”

If you’re looking for a good example of education journalism that handles conflicting claims and varying outcomes in a pretty straightforward and thoughtful way, this is a good place to start. 

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.