Blog: The Educated Reporter

Ten best in 2010.

A lot changed in 2010. My hairstyle, my coast, my child’s sleeping habits. Oh, wait—this isn’t about me. Well, then.EWA got a new director. Everybody and their uncle Raced to the Top.Hollywood discovered schools, and I don’t mean as a backdrop for naughty or funny teacher antics. Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg bonded over the plight of our schoolchildren. National magazines like the Atlantic, Slate and Time wrote about education more, it seemed, than ever. Beat reporters faced their own trending topics: furloughs, Twitter, Tumblr, tra-la-la.

It was the year of the teacher, of course. (You matter, you’re lousy, etc.) So it should come as no surprise that the topic shows up in so much of my favorite education journalism this year. The caveats here are multiple: One, this list reflects only my own opinion, not that of my EWA colleagues or the independent judges of our contest, which has nothing to do with me and which you should enter, by the way—you have four weeks. Two, I haven’t seen every single thing produced this year. Three, I’ll forget something.

That in mind, here is my list of the Ten Best Pieces of Education Journalism of 2010:

#10. “Cultivating Failure”: I don’t hate schoolhouse gardens as much as Caitlin Flanagan does—who could?—and her analogy of children tending them to migrant farm workers went a little far. But I did found her Atlantic treatise against gardens in California schools convincing on many grounds. There is a world of improvement possible between federally ordained junk-food breakfasts and organic kale, which most coverage of school nutrition does not acknowledge.

#9. “When an A Isn’t Enough”: Charlie Boss of the Columbus Dispatch set out to write a piece about the rising number of A’s in her district but found out something more interesting: A great GPA doesn’t inoculate you from remediation in college. Boss’s database analysis allows readers to look up how much or little connection there is between high school grades and college success, school by school. College readiness and completion is one of the biggest policy issues of the moment, and Boss did a good job in this piece (and in the accompanying “Numbers Aren’t Adding Up to Success”) of showing how far we have to go. 

#8. “Hope or Hype in Harlem?”: Amid all the great attention the Harlem Children’s Zone has gotten, Helen Zelon and City Limits took a thorough look at the project and whether its efforts are assessable and replicable.

#7. “Talented and Gifted”: Steve Hendrix, a Metro reporter for the Washington Post, stumbled upon his mother’s powerful legacy as a second-year teacher in 1976-77. She died a few months later, but only after influencing the course of many children’s lives. My honorable mention for storytelling goes to “Petty Tyrant,” by Sarah Koenig of This American Life. Who would have guessed that in the year of the bullying story, the best-told one of all would concern a school district’s maintenance director?

#6. “When Layoffs Come to L.A. Schools, Performance Doesn’t Count”: I’d imagine other best-of lists would include the original Los Angeles Times value-added story and database, which I have mixed feelings about. This later piece by Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith, about seniority-based layoff decisions and their disproportionate impact on certain schools, was a better use of the data, I think, with direct policy implications and a clearer presentation of repercussions on schools and children.

#5. Teacher coverage by Stephen Sawchuk: If it is the year of the teacher, it’s the year of the teacher beat reporter, yes? But Sawchuk earned it. The Education Week reporter produces solid explainers, parses research clearly, brings new angles to oft-told tales, tracks new initiatives, takes on under-covered topics, keeps us abreast of the political contours and writes a must-read blog on teacher policy. My favorite Sawchuk piece this year explained how the different governance structures of the NEA and AFT impact their policy agendas.

#4. The Washington Monthly College Guide: My praise here is not for the school rankings, which I am ambivalent about. But the journalism is terrific: Daniel Luzer on one university’s purchase of prestige, Kevin Carey on an innovative experiment in higher ed, Ben Miller and Phuong Ly on dropout factories, and Eric Hoover on the calculated orchestration of college tours. Speaking of Hoover, his work on admissions for the Chronicle of Higher Education this year has been especially good, above all “Application Inflation,” which was co-published in the New York Times.

#3. The Hechinger Report: Led by Richard Colvin, the project spent its first year seeding quality education journalism throughout the country. My favorite was the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel project “Building a Better Teacher,” which shows that journalists do not have to wait for reforms to take place in order to write about them; they can instead explore why they have not. Other highlights: the Detroit News package on worker retraining; the joint WBEZ/Catalyst Chicago pieces on students pushed out of charter schools; the Journal-Sentinel article about poorly qualified special ed teachers; David Jesse’s assessment of the underwhelming track record of college “promise” programs; the Washington Monthly dropout package; and HechingerEd, a blog with solid reporting and analysis.

#2. “Building a Better Teacher”: I can’t count the number of times I have been at a conference this year where some muckety-muck talking about teacher quality enthusiastically refers to Elizabeth Green’s New York Times Magazine cover story. With good reason. While nearly everyone else focused on teaching outcomes, Green, the editor of GothamSchools, took a magnifying glass to inputs, thoroughly examining the issue of whether, and how, good teaching can be taught. It doesn’t hurt that Green is an unusually engaging writer, even (and especially!) when the topic is wonky.

#1. Daniel Golden on for-profit colleges: If you are one of the many wealthy entrepreneurs making money on “career college” students, the last thing you want to hear is, “A reporter from Bloomberg is calling.” Well, second-last, anyway, after “The Justice Department is on the line”—a call they cannot duck as easily. Golden spent the year exposing for-profit recruitment of the homeless and of veterans who may not have found quite the education they were looking for (here and here and here). Other notable coverage of for-profits included “College, Inc.,” a Frontline documentary by John Maggio and Martin Smith, and “Scrutiny Takes Toll on For-Profit College Company,” by Tamar Lewin of the New York Times. I am not sure what Golden has up his sleeve next, but no doubt somebody is losing sleep over it.

Happy New Year, all. Now back to work.

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