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‘How I Did The Story:’ Reporting on Early Childhood Education

EWA recently hosted a seminar in New Orleans on early childhood education. We asked some of the journalists who attended  to contribute posts from the sessions. Today’s guest blogger is Elle Moxley of StateImpact Indiana. You can also find out more about early childhood education on EWA’s Topics page.

How journalists approach early childhood education coverage will likely depend on their beat. And for The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, approaching the topic from the perspective of a health care reporter yielded a remarkable story. 

A year before he published “The Hell of American Day Care,” Cohn was in Chicago working on a story about the science of brain development when he connected with a Southside nonprofit that researched home day cares.

“The image that always stuck with me was the older kids circling the little kids like sharks because there was nothing going on — no stimulation, no supervision,” Cohn told the audience at EWA’s early childhood education seminar. 

Cohn wanted to make daycare quality and access part of his braid development story. But his editor told him to wait. He ended up writing about a Houston daycare fire that killed four kids while the proprietor was shopping at a nearby Target. In Texas, home daycares can operate with very little regulation and oversight.

But Cohn says most reporters aren’t writing about child care. He found just one Newsweek cover on the subject: “Is Day Care Bad For Your Kids?”

“People are ambivalent about the idea of child care,” says Cohn. “They’re very caught up in, ‘Is it good for moms to be out of the home?’ To the extent we’ve written about it, we’ve written about that issue.”

While Cohn represented a reporter who crossed temporarily into day care territory, Ed Source’s Lillian Mongeau, who is based in Northern California, is one of the few reporters whose entire beat is early childhood education.

She says reporters shouldn’t have trouble convincing their editors covering pre-K is worthwhile.

“It matters to readers a lot,” Mongeau told the EWA audience. “All parents at all levels need child care.”

One of her suggestions for reporters new to the beat is to connect with a professor who studies early childhood education and take them to a site visit where they can point out various aspects of high quality pre-K.

“I let the professor pick the preschool because I wanted to focus on what was high quality,” says Mongeau.

She ended up at an on-campus child care center where the professor could point to what the teacher was doing and why it was good for the students.

But other reporters must juggle pre-K coverage with other aspects of the beat. Sarah Carr covers education for The Hechinger Report, and she urged the reporters at EWA seminar not to wait for their editors to assign a story.

“If you’re interested in covering more early childhood education stories, don’t ask for permission,” she says.

Carr estimates she spends about 25 percent of her time covering early childhood education.

“If I had the conversation, it may have been an issue,” says Carr, who’s reported in Milwaukee and New Orleans. “But as long as I brought them compelling stories to print, it never became one.”

For reporters who are used to covering K-12 education policy, she says it’s easy to be distracted by how cute everything is in preschools. But many of the tensions that exist elsewhere in the school system still apply, such as testing, teachers and funding.

She says it helps if reporters can get into early childhood education classrooms as much as possible.

“I think it requires more energy in some ways,” says Carr. “You can’t go sit at a desk and observe. To get a sense of the action, you have to get down with the kids. And even if you can’t do a conventional sit-down interview with a 3-year-old, I’ve found it to be worth it.”



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