An Untraditional Approach
These students aren’t all in school, but they have a lot to tell us about it.
By Linda Perlstein, EWA public editor
You cover K-12 education—so what students are you concerned with? What if you are a higher ed reporter? Generally, journalists adhere to the narrowest definition. The vast majority of the time, K-12 reporters write about children in kindergarten through twelfth grade at public schools. Higher ed reporters write about students on campus at bricks-and-mortar universities.
Whom does that tend to leave out? Preschoolers. People studying for a GED. Private school students. Overage high schoolers in special programs. Homeschoolers. Graduate students. Adult students. Online students at all levels. It’s a small share of the total student population, sure, but it’s growing—and it’s interesting.
Of the three main characters in Beth Fertig’s ambitious new book about education reform, literacy and the New York City school system, only one is actually still a student in the system. It is an odd approach—using a narrative of former students failed by the system to tell the story of how it’s working now—but still, every bit of the book is valuable reading.
Fertig, a reporter for the public radio station WNYC and an active EWA member, initially intended “Why Can’t U Teach Me to Read: Three Students and a Mayor Put Our Schools to the Test” to be more of a pure narrative. The three young adults she followed spent years in the New York City schools, two of them even graduated, but none learned to read. Their learning disabilities were never properly addressed, and they won judgments from the city for massive amounts of paid, private tutoring.
Fertig takes readers deep into the tutoring sessions and, just as enlightening, the complicated, confusing commutes across town to the tutoring sessions. Yamilka, Alejandro and Antonio pass from expert to expert, alternately progressing and stalling, a fascinating mélange of heroic effort and pedestrian hurdles. The narrative detail is strong, and might have been enough. But Fertig also takes us just about everywhere else that matters in the push to improve how students are taught: the New York mayor’s and chancellor’s offices, teaching colleges and the elementary school classrooms these three left long ago. She touches on Reading First and text messaging. Fertig writes about the debates on special education and reading instruction with all the shades of grey they merit; no simplistic black-and-white here. Public policy meets real life in telling detail, such as the results of a new program, confusing at best and misleading at worst, to give letter grades to city schools, or the teachers who were too busy, lazy, untrained or ill-equipped to ever access the city’s new $80 million data system on student achievement.
Fertig’s goal was to show how no policy—no matter how well-intentioned, well-funded, carefully plotted and catchily sloganed—can account for all the complexities in teaching individual children.
It takes some mental jumping to connect the present-day experiences of Yamilka, Alejandro and Antonio with the story of school reform and the question of how they might fare if they were starting out in school today. It’s a leap Fertig’s editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux encouraged her to take, to focus nearly as much on changes in American education as on these kids specifically. She was wary. “I was scared of how much policy a book like that would sell,” she told me.
I was glad to hear an editor thought this way. FSG published my first book, about middle schoolers, but five years ago didn’t want my second, about school reform. My agent said she was told they’d take anything from me but “Tested,” because they didn’t think people would want to read about education policy.
They do now. Whether the story is told through traditional students or those long ago failed, it’s one worth reading, again and again.
Linda Perlstein is available to help you. Contact her at 410-539-2464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.