In many regards, Patrick Wall (second from the right) is not your usual education journalist. He studied film in college. He’s one of a handful of current education journalists who are former educators. He’s a guy working on a beat predominantly covered by women.
After growing up in Ohio and going to college in Indiana, the Notre Dame University graduate taught for a time in Chicago as part of Teach For America. Before coming to Chalkbeat, Wall covered education and other issues for DNA Info, focusing on the South Bronx. Somewhere along the line he got a Master’s in Journalism.
It could be said that he’s having a moment. He’s shown up in this space for his ability to cover both news events and tell readers the dynamics behind the scenes. He was recently honored for his beat coverage of NYC schools by the Education Writers Association, where a judge praised his series on turnaround schools for describing “complicated public issues in a very understandable and attractive manner.”
Wall is also widely admired by competitors and colleagues. Eliza Shapiro, of Politico, described Wall as “one of the most exceptional education reporters.” Chalkbeat editor Sarah Darville, praised him for his thoroughness and focus on what’s going on inside classrooms: “He always took the time to find and listen to students to find out how they were experiencing school,” said Darville in an email. “That was in addition to his list of adult sources that often seemed miles long.”
And, after just three years at Chalkbeat New York, Wall has just started his year-long Spencer Fellowship at Columbia’s Journalism School – the education journalism version of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket.
Read below for Wall’s thoughts on what he’s accomplished so far, what he’s trying to do next, the challenges of reporting about complicated education systems without getting sucked into bureaucratic dynamics that aren’t directly related to kids and families, and some thoughts about how to report on communities of color.
What are you best known for from your time at Chalkbeat?
PW: Probably the biggest thing was covering the cities’ turnaround efforts, which they call the Renewal program. We noticed something the de Blasio administration hadn’t talked about yet was low performing schools, and so my first story was about the fact that there was no program. The culmination was an 11,000-word three-part series I produced spending five months reporting from one of the schools in this program, a small Brooklyn school, and two sisters who were students there.
“I was actually surprised that there wasn’t more coverage [of the Renewal program] than there was.”
Was the NYC turnaround story covered equally well by other outlets in New York City?
PW: Once they announced it, then there was some coverage. But I was actually surprised that there wasn’t more coverage [of the Renewal program] than there was. It is such a big deal and a high-profile program, and the stakes are so high. Then again, the city was really skittish about having reporters there. It took me a couple of months to get access to the school.
How well have you done including survey and poll data showing parent and voter attitudes towards school improvement efforts in your coverage?
PW: I guess I’m guilty of not making a lot of use of poll results. It wasn’t something that I looked at lot. At Chalkbeat, we’re so focused on the local districts where we’re based. For the most part, polls and studies don’t have a very clear NYC angle, so we would often pass on them. We did write about parent survey that the city does, one of the biggest surveys anywhere. And occasionally write about political polls, local ones, such as voter approval of the chancellor on education issues.
Why are some topics covered so frequently?
PW: That’s part of the nature of daily reporting. A lot of what’s covered is based on press releases and announcements, from advocates and the City. It’s clearly news, it’s possible to do it in a day, and we can follow developments that way. Things like rallies, for or against charter schools, or new things around preschool are the easiest to cover, and get the largest exposure.
“A lot of what’s covered is based on press releases and announcements, from advocates and the City.”
What gets left out, then?
PW: Usually left out are stories that are reported from within schools. They take more time, time to get access, and you’re not sure what the story is. And in some people’s minds policy stories focused on policymakers, advocates, and high powered groups are considered more serious than stories within schools, which are sometimes consider those fluffy or feature-y. However, a really well done story in a school can tell you more than a policy story.
Are charter schools over- or under-covered?
PW: I did sometimes feel that among all the outlets charter schools would get a disproportionate amount of coverage compared to number of students they serve. They’re sexy, new, and different. Traditional schools and progress stories are less sexy – it seem like they’ve been going on forever. But it’s important to look at what’s going on at traditional schools, too.
“A really well-done story in a school can tell you more than a policy story. ”
Do the DOE and the charters do a good job telling their stories to the press?
PW: A lot of charter schools have public relations firms that are good at getting the word out. I think it’s been a challenge for this administration to highlight the positive things – in general they’re often on the defensive, and I think some of that carries over to education department. Sometimes we find out about programs going and we have to pitch it to the DOE to get us on the phone with someone. For example, there’s a data sorter tool that they put in at some of the Renewal schools, and we heard principals rave about it. I do think they could be more aggressive in promoting things like that.
Why is school integration such an appealing topic for education reporters right now?
PW: The appeal is that there’s interest in it – in race relations and inequality. School segregation hits on both of those in a really direct way. And it’s persistent – it’s still as severe as it was decades ago when it was a central civil rights issue.
Are there any journalistic concerns about covering integration?
PW: The challenge is being informed of the history when you’re reporting on this, putting things in context, and knowing how the current debates fit into a larger narrative — how local decisions are influenced by historical things like Supreme court Decisions and previous desegregation efforts. I think that’s always hard, especially for daily reporters, to learn and then weave in that background knowledge. Another challenge is that it’s not new, it’s been going on for decades. It can be hard to find a fresh angle. I try to find out ‘What is different this time around?’
Who’s your favorite education reporter these days?
PW: I think the education reporter I’ve been thinking about the most lately, whom I deeply respect and admire, is (no surprise) Nikole Hannah-Jones. Obviously there’s the fact that she’s the foremost writer on school segregation right now, which is the topic I’m focusing my fellowship on. But it’s also her incredible ability to combine history, investigative reporting, and the stories of real people into compelling narratives that are infused with moral urgency.
You and most of the rest of the education reporters covering NYC schools are white. Is that a problem?
PW: I think it’s a very important issue within education journalism and journalism more broadly. And it has particular relevance to education journalism, which is so often focusing in on low income communities. We like to think — and I think it’s true — that as a good reporter, you make it your business to understand a community and seek diverse sources. But you have to be sensitive to where you’re coming from. I don’t think you can just dismiss your own biases. You have to be really aware and take steps. It’s soomething that we all need to think more about.
“You look at reporters of color, and they do oftentimes offer a different perspective.”
What are some of the practices white reporters could try to address diversity and bias issues?
PS: You look at reporters of color, and they do often times offer a different perspective. It isn’t something that I’ve been confronted about. But I’ve spoken with other journalists about it. How can be aware about these things? It’s about having diverse sources, and being aware of biases.
What do you do specifically to make sure your coverage isn’t biased?
PW: When I’m talking to parents outside of a school, I make sure I’m talking to parents of different races, and who appear to be different economic backgrounds. I did that this morning. I like the idea of keeping track of backgrounds of experts you speak with, too, not privileging certain races or backgrounds. I admire Mother Jones reporter Kristina Rizga’s practice of getting feedback from a group of reporters of color. She really thinks about this stuff a lot, and has made it part of her practice. The key is finding some way that you’re routinely self-evaluating. Otherwise it’s not just going to happen. I also read Melinda Anderson. Her Twitter commentary is useful for me to keep tabs on.
“The key is finding some way that you’re routinely self-evaluating. Otherwise it’s not just going to happen.”
What if any regrets do you have or mistakes that you’d care to admit?
PW: One category of regret is just stories that I wanted to write but didn’t get to, or ones that my competitions beat me to — which is pretty common in a place like New York, where there’s a whole corps of amazing education reporters. But maybe a bigger regret, which I’d say is more of an ongoing challenge, is to continuously speak with the people who have the most to gain or lose when it comes to education: students and their families… We should be talking to them about all the important education issues, and generally about what it’s like to attend the schools we cover and to have children who attend them.
“An ongoing challenge is to continuously speak with the people who have the most to gain or lose when it comes to education: students and their families.”
Does education reporting tend to be too credulous these days, or too critical, or just about right?
PW: It’s definitely something we thought about a lot at Chalkbeat . Our tendency was to be critical and be a watchdog, telling readers here’s what’s been promised, and here’s what it looks like. I feel like that’s really important, and there were areas where that was missing. But at the same time in doing that we maybe aren’t always covering the positive things, things that were going well, because they’re less sexy and harder to make an interesting story. The goal is to find a balance and trying to be fair, to hold people accountable for things that they have set out to do.
Edited and condensed for clarity.
You can read all his Chalkbeat coverage here. His Spencer project is described here.
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