People: Kyle Spencer Is Everywhere

Freelance journalist Kyle Spencer speaks quickly, is relentlessly curious (and deeply skeptical) about claims people make about education, and has a lot on her plate. This include a piece of some kind on former Newark superintendent Cami Anderson (probably for the NYT) and a big new video project she can’t talk about timed for the 2016 Presidential election.

I had the chance to talk with her last week and wanted to share some more about her somewhat unusual path into education journalism, her diverse writings on education over the past few years, her strongly-held views on what makes for compelling education journalism, and what comes next in terms of new projects.

Like me, you may know Spencer more for her work than by name. She’s written for Slate, the New York Times, and the Hechinger Report. I’ve been sharing out her pieces more and more in recent months, including Louisiana’s Common Core Debacle (Politico), At New York Private Schools, Challenging White Privilege From the Inside (Sunday NYT Magazine), Some Parents Oppose Standardized Testing on Principle, but Not in Practice (NYT), Can You Steal An Education? (Hechinger Report), Can an Oakland charter chain ditch tough discipline and retain its high ranking? (Hechinger Report), An Experiment in Whether Gentrification Can Spur Racial Integration at Schools (The Atlantic).

What I’d missed along the way is that Spencer also co-produced a 2014 FRONTLINE documentary about re-segregation that won a broadcast journalism award from EWA last year. Not many of us can say that. The show, called Separate and Unequal, takes us to Baton Rouge. There, according to the press release accompanying the show, “a group of citizens, frustrated by their district’s many low-performing schools, wants to form their own city, with separate schools.” 

If you liked This American Life’s recent pieces on school segregation in Missouri and Connecticut — or the Tampa Bay Times’ recent piece on Pinellas County resegregation — you’ll like the FRONTLINE piece too.  There’s also an interesting companion piece, The Uncomfortable Reality of Community Schools.

Spencer’s not originally or exclusively an education reporter, and in fact only came to the beat by accident.  The Brooklyn-based Spencer was writing about other issues until she became engaged in the debate over releasing teachers’ performance ratings at her child’s school. The educators and parents were largely against the release of the scores, but Spencer “felt there was something very important about having a conversation about these teacher report cards, even if they were incredibly flawed.” She wrote a 2011 piece in Slate highlighting the advantages of publicizing the information, a view that not everybody (including me) shared.

Specific views aside, Spencer believes that being a parent has helped her enormously in covering education. “You get a perspective when you start having kids in the public school system,” says Spencer. The issues being discussed are “not just on paper” to a reporter who’s also a parent. “I know what Common Core is. I know what test prep looks like… I know what a good school looks like.”   The possibility that there are also some downsides (over-identification with what’s going on in a particular school or to a particular experience) seem minimal to her. “It’s a huge advantage to having kids in the public school system.” I’m sure many would agree. 

Like many education reporters, she finds the competing claims and polarization surrounding school improvement efforts to be tiring and sometimes confusing. Funding sources, credibility, and advocacy are all issues that have to be addressed. “You have to be really careful. You have to ask yourself ‘Who are they and what do they want want you to believe?’”

Last year’s FRONTLINE piece was her first foray into video, which she describes as a “great medium” for reporting about education even though the window of interest can be small in terms of editors’ interest, outlets, and slots available.

“Education is so hard to do on TV,” she says. “It’s so sleepy and it’s wonky.” The classroom “just gets kind of old.” That may be one reason FRONTLINE hasn’t done lots of school-related segments in the past. (Spencer notes that 60 Minutes does relatively little on education.)

On camera and online, the way to make education appeal to non-educators it to find other angles, she says:

“You really need to be talking about education in the context of these other issues — housing, poverty, family structure, prison,” she says. “It’s got to be big picture — not talking about schools in isolation.” 

She admires occasional education writer Paul Tough because he “takes wonky stuff and whittles it down to taut, real language. Nikole Hannah-Jones is “so great – she’s doing amazing work.” The fact that she’s African-American is really important to the stories she’s telling, says Spencer, who’s excited about the potential impact of a small new ProPublica program to recruit minority college students into school newspapers (whose unpaid time demands are notoriously high) to help increase newsroom diversity.

“Who can afford to go work for their college newspaper? It’s like a job. Lots of kids can’t do that – they have to work.”

If you’re interested, ignore all the usual FRONTLINE structures, the goofy fanfare, and the ominous voiceover and skip to the 17:00 mark, where the principal of one of the schools at the center of the controversy, Woodlawn’s Daniel Edwards, breaks down at the thought of his school being broken up: 

“I would assume that if boundaries change there may be some students who would no longer attend this school. I want to attract students to our school, as opposed to losing any students. It would be sad…. I’m sorry… Because as principal you grow attached to every student you have. I would have to see any of them leave.”

It’s a moving moment — one of the most emotional in the entire piece. If Spencer can deliver more of this kind of humanity onscreen she may help point education journalism in an important new direction. She says her new venture focuses on race and class and should come out closer to the election. 

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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.