Blog: The Educated Reporter

Urban School Reform: Beyond Stars and Scandals

This week, we’re revisiting some of the top sessions from EWA’s 66th National Seminar held at Stanford University. We asked journalists who attended to contribute posts, and today’s guest blogger is Kyla Calvert of San Diego Public RadioStream any session from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes.For more on school leadership, visit EWA’s Story Starters online resource. 

Reporters are often missing the story of what reform efforts mean for students, contends author Richard Lee Colvin. In his book “Tilting at Windmills: School Reform, San Diego, and America’s Race to Renew Public Education”, Colvin looks at the seven-year tenure of Alan Bersin as San Diego Unified’s superintendent and the sweeping reforms he implemented while on the job. In his EWA National Seminar presentation, he panned the media’s coverage as stopping at the “he said, she said” controversy and never asking the question of whether the reforms benefit the city’s students.

Colvin argued that in covering the controversy over how San Diego’s schools should be run, reporters missed out on the actual reforms that Bersin put in place. These reforms, including increased after-school tutoring time and long blocks of reading instruction, did get attention from researchers, including UC San Diego’s Julian Betts and Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond. Both have come down on the side of saying the changes benefited students, especially in the district’s elementary schools.

David Kirp’s “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools” () is the result of a year spent in the classrooms of Union City Public Schools. The district serves low-income and immigrant communities and was once one of New Jersey’s lowest performing districts. Kirp documents how years of quiet reforms have turned the district around. He told those at the EWA seminar that local media didn’t cover the Union City changes poorly – they weren’t covered at all.

Kirp called the Union City reforms a tortoise versus hare story – leaders made changes that worked over time. They didn’t buy into faddish programs that were meant to turn around schools in just a year or two. He challenged the reporters in the room to get beyond the “saints, sinners and scandals” approach to education reporting that is common in daily media.

Kirp and Colvin got a lot of pushback from audience members pointing out that they had the luxury of time and/or hindsight that daily reporters do not.

Some of the points the two made that seemed most useful in a daily reporting context included:
  • Remember that any change to an existing system, especially a system that involves distributing resources, will upset entrenched interests – so the back and forth between adult parties over schools is actually more routine than we sometimes present it as being.
  • Do not confuse teacher union leadership with teachers. There are typically people who do not agree with what the leadership is doing or saying.
  • The only way to see how a program is working for schools is to go to those schools, sit in the classrooms and see what’s going on with the children. For example – if there’s a debate about class sizes, can you go to classrooms in different schools and different districts and see what it means to manage a class of 22 students versus 32?
Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.