Blog: The Educated Reporter

The Teaching Profession: What Reporters Need to Know

Teacher Carmen Perry, left, talks with EWA members at the International Academy for Young Women, a single-gender public school, on Oct. 20, 2014. (Emily Richmond/EWA)

The stakes have arguably never been higher for public school teachers, who are facing not only an increasingly challenging student population but also new demands for accountability and performance. What lies ahead for the nation’s largest profession, with the rollout of new academic standards and new assessments to gauge how effectively students are being taught?

These were just some of the issues we tackled this week in Detroit at EWA’s journalists-only seminar on teachers, an event co-hosted by the Michigan State University College of Education. We’ll be sharing video, podcasts, and guest posts from the sessions, but first I wanted to highlight key themes from the conversations, and also offer some story ideas for education reporters to consider.

First off, the big takeaways:

  • Good teaching can be taught. Dwelling on the age-old question of whether teaching is an innate talent or a craft doesn’t do much to advance the conversation. A better question: Where are the pockets of excellence when it comes to teacher preparation? Given the high turnover rate in many districts, there are renewed efforts to support rookies in their first forays into the classroom. One consideration is whether it’s better to scale up successful programs at the national level or if smaller, regional efforts can best be tailored to individual needs of students and schools. Reporters also need to be prepared to describe the complex skills involved in teaching and how teachers can be trained in those practices. Do top-tier colleges of education resist the idea of “training”? How can districts reward outstanding teachers who don’t necessarily want to leave the classroom to become principals?
  • New accountability, new challenges: Revised, and arguably tougher, voluntary standards for accreditation are being rolled out for teacher colleges by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation. (In addition, the National Council on Teacher Quality, an advocacy group, offers its own rankings of preparation programs.) But there’s a real tension over how to best hold such programs accountable, and a real question over whether there is the political will to do so among the states and the federal government. Another story for reporters to watch: TeachingWorks, an initiative of the University of Michigan School of Education, is working with the Educational Testing Service to develop a real-time evaluation tool to measure prospective teachers’ effectiveness in the classroom, in contrast to portfolio assessments that other organizations have developed. (Read Stephen Sawchuk’s story in Education Week for more.)
  • Math matters – for teachers and education writers. The joke that reporters go into journalism to avoid math is an old one – and on some levels not entirely inaccurate. At the same time, it’s arguably never been more important for reporters to be able to follow the numbers when it comes to teachers. Whether it’s explaining a new math curriculum or reporting on teacher pay, it’s important to understand the numbers. Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Education, pointed out at the EWA seminar, it’s never too late to improve your skills. One relatively painless option: Working through the math problems laid out in Elizabeth Green’s new book, “Building a Better Teacher.” (Green, the chief executive and co-founder of the nonprofit education news organization Chalkbeat, was also a presenter at the event.)

Next, here are a few story ideas culled from our brainstorming session with the more than 40 education reporters who joined us in Detroit:

  • How does the teacher/student diversity gap affect classroom learning? Are teachers being adequately prepared to address the challenges that come with teaching ethnically diverse classrooms? For the first time, the nation has a public school system that is no longer majority white, with black, Hispanic, and Asian students accounting for just over half of the enrollment. At the same time, roughly eight of every 10 public school teachers are white.
  • Are schools with the largest populations of high-need students also getting the least-experienced teachers, and why is that important? What efforts are underway to address such equity gaps?
  • There’s a push underway to “reverse engineer” new teachers, and link their performance to their preparation. Are local teacher preparation programs collecting data on their own graduates and are they trying to improve their outcomes? Is the information being shared with local school districts? If not, why not?
  • Traditionally, there is a glut of elementary school majors and fewer who specialize in special education, English language-learning, and math and science. Why are those specialties less popular? Could it be the way colleges of education construct their degree programs?
  • Follow the fine example of MinnPost and look at the median teacher salaries compared to racial or economic composition of the schools.

Coming soon: Video, guest posts, and podcasts from the Detroit seminar.


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