Blog: The Educated Reporter

From the Beat: Memorable Education Stories of 2014

Cadets celebrate graduation at West Point. A USA Today investigation of  congressional influence over the nomination process at elite military academies was one of the year's most memorable education stories. Flickr/U.S. Army (Creative Commons)

When you write a blog, the end of the year seems to require looking back and looking ahead. Today I’m going to tackle the former with a sampling of some of the year’s top stories from the K-12 and higher education beats. I’ll save the latter for early next week when the final sluggish clouds of 2014 have been swept away, and a bright new sky awaits us in 2015. (Yes, I’m an optimist.)

To help shape my list, I asked reporters, editors, education analysts and policymakers to chime in on the most memorable stories of the past year. (Teacher and author Larry Ferlazzo also has a handy round-up from various media outlets.) Several stories got multiple votes in my – very! – informal survey, including:

Another much-cited standout: Javier Hernandez’s remarkable reporting for the New York Times on how the Common Core was dramatically reshaping the academic life of a 9-year-old boy in Brooklyn. This story was vivid, engaging and contained a wealth of detail. Rather than rehashing the theoretical arguments surrounding the standards, Hernandez focused on highly specific examples of teaching and learning in fourth-grader Chrispin Alcindor’s classroom. (You can read my Q&A with Hernandez here.)

A look back at a 1989 education summit of governors might not sound like the basis for a gripping read. But it was exactly that in the capable hands of Education Week’s Alyson Klein. The historic gathering in Charlottesville, Va., was central to the growth of the standards-based school accountability movement. In nominating the story for my list, Anne Hyslop — education policy analyst for Bellwether Education Partners – said that “given the tensions over the federal role” in regards to the Common Core, testing and accountability, “it is more important than ever to know where these ideas came from.”

On the higher education front, the top vote-getters included:

Inside Higher Ed also had a strong year, including Elizabeth Redden’s work on the impact of international students in U.S. college classrooms, and Paul Fain reporting on competency-based education at Lipscomb University in Nashville. Fain’s story was so intriguing we gave reporters a chance to see it during EWA’s National Seminar in May. 

A particularly effective piece was a joint investigation by The Columbus Dispatch and the Student Press Law Center of Arlington, Va. The reporting team found that campus judicial systems, operating in secret, often impose light sanctions for serious infractions including sexual assaults, physical assaults resulting in serious injuries, robberies and other violent crimes. Some of the punishment amounted to little more than writing a paper.

While sharing his input on the year’s top education stories, Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow and a vice president at the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., told me that it’s also been “a pretty good year” for books on education. He’s right: Top titles include Dana Goldstein’s “The Teacher Wars” and “Building a Better Teacher” by Elizabeth Green. Both titles landed on The New York Times’ list of the year’s top 100 notable books. (The venerable John Merrow of PBS NewsHour also put together a first-rate list of the year’s top education titles.)

There’s also been some fine reporting by local and regional reporters this year. Francisco Vara-Orta  – a member of EWA’s journalist advisory board – is in the midst of a series on San Antonio schools testing a kinder, gentler approach to student discipline known as “restorative justice.” He explained the origins of the story to EWA Radio.) Also featured on EWA Radio: Lori Higgins and David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press on a year-long investigation into Michigan’s charter schools, which raised significant concerns about performance and accountability. And The Seattle Times marked the first anniversary of its Education Lab, a joint project with the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network, highlighting innovative examples of education policy changes that are making a measurable difference.

Bellwether’s Hyslop sang the praises of Liz Bowie of the Baltimore Sun for her reporting on student testing. Bowie used hard data to fuel a nuanced story about just how much time teachers and students are really spending on assessments, and what those tests are being asked to measure. (For another perspective, Temple University Prof. Meredith Broussard makes a strong case for The Atlantic that the business of student testing hurts poor schools.)

“The growing debate over testing is often so ruled by emotion and perception, and bringing data to the conversation was a smart move–bringing facts and nuance to a story with strong opinions on both sides,” Hyslop told me. “I wish every local education reporter would borrow this idea and do their own analysis in their community.”

To be sure, this is a small and highly subjective sampling of the year’s top education stories. I’ve actually resisted compiling these sorts of lists in past years simply because I know there’s no way to include everyone who deserves an extra megawatt of the spotlight. However, there will be another important opportunity to recognize the best of the best: EWA is now accepting submissions for our National Awards for Education Reporting. The deadline to apply is Jan. 20, 2015.