Blog: The Educated Reporter

What Parents Want to Know About School Choice: Tips for Reporters

At EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford last month, we examined the challenge of how reporters can best evaluate charter school research in a session moderated by the Huffington Post’s Joy Resmovits. We asked some of the education reporters attending the seminar to contribute blog posts from the sessions.Today’s guest blogger is Kara Newhouse of the Perry County (Penn.) Times .The full podcast of the session can be found hereStream any session from National Seminar in your browser, or subscribe via RSS or iTunes.

“Whether people like or choice or don’t like choice, it’s a reality,” said Gail Robinson of Inside Schools as she opened an EWA session on how reporters can assess schools’ efforts to inform parents about public school choice options.

Bill Jackson of Great Schools joined her in the discussion. Both speakers’ organizations mine school data and share that information—along with parent and student comments—online. Great Schools does so for schools nationwide while Inside Schools focuses on New York City public schools.

Although Inside Schools pre-dates charter schools, Robinson said finding solid information about schools has become more complicated. It was simpler when the information was just about neighborhood schools and the only ones who cared were those who could afford to move based on what school their children would attend as a result.

While some examples of simplifying the system exist—Jackson pointed to New Orleans’ move to one application for all schools—those examples are more the exception than the rule. To get beyond the spin and dense data, Inside Schools visits charter and district schools to do what Robinson called “service journalism.” She said lessons her organization has learned that could be useful to education reporters are:

  • Nothing beats being in schools, talking to people
  • Bulletin boards tell you a lot;
  • The city puts out reams of data, but parents’ top concern is safety—not in the classroom or neighborhood, but whether students feel safe in the hallways, bathrooms and locker rooms.

Later in the session, Robinson and Jackson added to the list of top concerns they hear from parents: the school’s location, the kinds of extracurricular activities it offers, the accessibility of its teachers and administrators, and its hospitality toward parents. Jackson said parents prefer communication with the school to happen not as a weekly newsletter, but rather as the development of a two-way partnership for their child’s education.

Responding to questions on how to assess the quality of cyber schools and private schools, Jackson pointed out that those two areas are full of potential topics for reporters to cover. For example, the amount of churn in the student population at cyber charters is an important story, he said. Data on what kinds of students those schools serve could also be analyzed.

For private schools, Jackson said that student achievement data can be hard to obtain. Even though students who use vouchers to attend private schools may still be required to take state exams, policies on accessing their scores are largely nonexistent. Wisconsin requires schools that receive vouchers to release their data, and Louisiana does so partially, too. “It’s a great public policy question for stories,” Jackson said.

The speakers agreed that the role of organizations like Great Schools and Inside Schools is not just to present families with data on schools, but also to develop ways to help parents better understand the data. Robinson pointed out that her organization has videos aiming to do that for parents of students with special education needs.

“It’s not just teaching. It’s coaching,” Jackson said.