Blog: Latino Ed Beat

In California, Finding the Story Behind the Statistics

One of the greatest challenges in education reporting is how to humanize data-driven stories. The beat abounds with statistics-laden research and reports thick with numbers and charts. And it’s important to report on trends and analyses these numbers illuminate.

But it’s even more important to keep a focus on the classroom and the kids reflected in all those reports and research.

Two recent stories in the Hechinger Report illustrate how to examine statistics through a human lens.

In this piece on English-Language Learners produced through a collaboration with California Watch, reporter Sarah Garland looks at the continuing achievement gap between ELL’s and other students in California.

The core of the story centers around several facts. The number of English learners in California is now up to about 1.5 million –about 25 percent of the state’s students. Nearly 85 percent of those students are Spanish speakers. Proposition 227, a 1998 law limiting the use of bilingual education, was touted as a way of improving student achievement through the use of English immersion programs. Yet, only 4 percent of California’s English learners were at least proficient in fourth-grade reading in 2009 on the reading section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That’s down from 2003, when 6 percent tested as proficient.

Those numbers are powerful, revealing and relevant. But look at how Garland frames the story — by opening with a scene in a kindergarten classroom.

“The end of the school day in Patty Sanchez’s kindergarten class at Geddes Elementary School is not so different from other kindergarten classes around the state. Children gather on a rug as Sanchez holds up a storybook about a coyote and a turtle and reads out loud.

What’s different is that Sanchez is reading in Spanish.

Nearly all of the children in the room are Hispanic, and many are English-language learners. The few who are new to Spanish are expected to follow along with the story, too, and respond in Spanish to Sanchez’s questions.”

Immediately, the reader is taken past the world of dry numbers into a room filled with little children reading a picture book–the face of California’s future.

Throughout the piece, Garland weaves statistics, studies and expert opinions into scenes from the frontlines in the struggle to educate English Learners.

For instance, she visits Geddes Elementary, a suburban school with a dual-language program and a population of low-income, Hispanic students who also are English learners. This school has managed to close the achievement gap, with 60 percent of the school’s third-graders scoring proficient or advanced on state tests in English language arts.

Garland uses the same approach to examine the Hispanic-white reading gap in another piece, also produced in collaboration with California Watch. In this story, she zeroes in on schools in Soledad, California, described as “a small dot on the map along Highway 101 in the center of the state.”

Often, education writers must tackle breaking down complex national issues and confusing numbers for readers. One way to do that is to focus on one school, one district, one classroom or one family that reflects those huge issues.

As Garland notes: “In many ways, Soledad’s struggles mirror those of the state as a whole, which has one of the nation’s biggest gaps in reading performance between Hispanics and whites.”