Three Ways To Write About Education – But Only One Is Best

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There are three different ways to cover education, I’d argue. One of them is best but relatively unusual; the other two are common but vastly inferior.

The first way is to cover the latest events, rhetoric, and competing claims between adversaries. Who’s up? Who’s down?  This “horse race” approach has become increasingly common in recent years, as the education debate and the reporters who cover it have gotten drawn into national politics and polarized conflicts. Its advantages are that it’s compelling, easy to sell to editors and readers, and relatively easy to produce.  I am not a purist and don’t mind it as much as some others. I think conflict and politics are an important part of the education story. But it’s not particularly satisfying, once the adrenaline wears off.

A second way is to focus on an issue or idea that seems important but isn’t clearly tied to events, delving deeply into the research, history, and practice of, say, teacher preparation, classroom differentiation, curriculum revisions. The strengths of this kind of approach are that the material is substantive and complete, and that the importance of the issue being covered lasts more than a day or week. This is the kind of coverage that education journalists say that they value the most, which is understandable. But it can be sleepy sometimes, and not clearly connected to current events. 

The last — and to my mind best — way is to meld the first two approaches together – reporting and explaining to readers both the latest twist and turn while also helping them understand the dynamics or importance behind whatever the latest report, press release, or decision might have been. Media coverage that can do both of these things, zooming in and out from short-term news to larger issues, seems most useful to readers and satisfying to read. 

This Patrick Wall story in Chalkbeat is a decent example of how a reporter can write a news story that’s both compelling (sexy?) and substantive.  It opens with a protest in front of the NYC DOE headquarters but then quickly takes us behind the scenes, telling us that the protesters and DOE officials are in much closer communication than it might appear and explaining to us the dance between advocates and administrators.

This Adolfo Guzman-Lopez story from KPCC LA about reactions to the Broad Foundation’s $490 million charter school expansion proposal is not a good example. It rehashes what we already know (without crediting the LA Times for breaking the story), then gives us boilerplate quotes from charter advocates and opponents (including a somewhat ironic observation from one of them about the dangers of the debate turning into adults taking sides). 

These aren’t perfect examples, just ones that happen to come by this week, and of course these stories aren’t meant to suggest anything in particular about the reporters. Some of us have done better and many of us (especially me) have done worse. 

Related posts:The Need For Nuance & Complexity In Education WritingWhat If Education Journalism Has Gotten The Narrative Wrong, Too?A Pair Of Weekend Parent Duds From The NYT & WSJIt’s Probably Not Wise To Describe Education Poll Results The Way AP Did;  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.