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Straight Up Conversation: The Grade's Alexander Russo on Media Coverage of Education

Alexander Russo is the founder of The Grade, which monitors media coverage of education. Previously, he authored Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors (on the attempt to turn around a Los Angeles high school), was a Spencer Fellow at the Columbia University Journalism School, and served as an education policy staffer for two US senators. I recently had the chance to talk with Alexander about how the media covers education. Here's what he had to say.

Rick Hess: So, how did you get into this whole business of covering how reporters cover education?

Alexander Russo: I've been fascinated by how the media covers education since back in the days when I was working on education policy on the Hill. Some news outlets and reporters gave readers a little more depth—why something was happening, what was going on behind the scenes—and others told just the surface version of events, or occasionally got things entirely wrong. So media commentary has been a part of my writing since nearly the beginning, including a regular feature at my long-running blog, This Week in Education. A few years ago, I appeared on On the Media, NPR's weekly show about journalism, to talk about the lack of skepticism in early-2000s education coverage. I realized that media commentary about education coverage might be helpful for journalists and educators alike. Then in 2015, I convinced the unlikely duo of American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten and former Arne Duncan communications guy Peter Cunningham to bankroll the launch of The Grade.

RH: Wait, you got Randi Weingarten and Peter Cunningham to agree on this? How did that happen? And if they were providing the funds, did you feel pressure to only pen things that they'd be okay with?

AR: You'd be surprised. Weingarten and Cunningham probably agree on more than you might imagine. Whether the topic is charter schools or classroom teachers, they both believe that media coverage of education issues is too often superficial or unnecessarily focused on conflicts and controversies. But they both also struggled sometimes when we didn't see things the same way that first year, and may have been frustrated when I wrote something they didn't like. That may be why they're no longer funding The Grade. But I appreciate them having helped me get started, and would love to have them back as funders.

RH: Can you talk a little bit about what your work involves? Given the breadth of coverage, how do you decide what to focus on?

AR: I decided from the start that I couldn't really address higher education or tackle opinion writing—all those blog posts, newspaper editorials, and op-eds that get tons of attention but don't necessarily hew to the notions of balance and accuracy implicit in traditional news coverage. So The Grade is focused predominantly on traditional news coverage of the K-12 education system by mainstream and trade outlets—places like the New York Times or EdWeek. The weekly columns that are the focal point of the project tend to be about notable education stories and ongoing challenges, such as the coverage of school gun violence. There's also a "Best Education Journalism of the Week" newsletter full of media tidbits and hot topics about education news. Anyone can sign up for it. I spend most of my time searching for great examples of education journalism, talking with editors and reporters about their work, and hearing from educators about what they like—and hate—about how they're being covered.

RH: As you've been doing this work, what's surprised you the most?

AR: That reporters and editors respond just about the same as anyone else to being covered by a journalist—they generally like being praised and hate being criticized. Many are reflective about their work, but some use the same tactics that elected officials, political candidates, and others use to avoid or manipulate how they're covered. Then again, the past two years of polarization have made it hard for everyone to distinguish the constructive criticism from political or ideological attacks. And the news industry continues to go through an extremely painful downsizing. So I may wish for a bit more self-reflectiveness, but the sensitivity is understandable.

RH: Speaking of that downsizing: What's your take on how education reporting has changed over time? Has coverage gotten better or worse—or is that the wrong question to ask?

AR: In some regards, education journalism seems much improved in recent years, despite the downsizing. The credulity and uncritical enthusiasm of the early No Child Left Behind era seem to have worn off, which is a good thing. With some notable exceptions, there is not nearly as much need for the "Hype Warning System" that I concocted in response to breathlessly positive coverage of charter schools, alternative certification, and brilliantly named initiatives that hadn't done any real-world good. There was a time when KIPP, Wendy Kopp, and the ideas of that generation were treated without enough skepticism. The pendulum may have swung too far in the other direction, focusing too much on failures and setbacks, without reminding readers how bad things were for students in the first place. But I'd still rather have reporters being too skeptical than too credulous.

RH: On that note, a number of trends have impacted education journalism in recent years. There's the shift to online coverage from print. There's an array of newsletters and philanthropy-supported sites that provide "mission-aligned" coverage. And there's a bushel of bloggers who dabble in analysis, reporting, and commentary. How do you make sense of this evolving landscape?

AR: Things are certainly very different than they used to be. Back in the day, for example, there was a core set of outlets—AP, Time, and Newsweek . . . the big-name national papers and EdWeek—that practiced traditional journalism and that everyone seemed to read. Now there are a slew of new nonprofit education outlets like Chalkbeat and the Hechinger Report. And there are lots of newly prominent, ideological outlets on the left—like HuffPost, the Progressive, the American Prospect, the Intercept, AlterNet, and the Guardian. Same on the conservative side. So there are lots more voices, no small set of news outlets "own" education coverage, and we can all read the education news that pleases us most and ignore the coverage that doesn't.

RH: Do you think these developments have been good or bad for education coverage on the whole?

AR: As a general rule, the more voices out there, the better. Now there are more outlets giving each other a run for the money, and that's got to be good. And we have at least one education reporter—Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times—who brings some serious star power to the beat. But there's also a lot of repetition from one outlet to the next—how many of the LeBron James school opening stories did we really need? And there's no small amount of "churnalism," where newsrooms are hyping incidental stories about, say Betsy DeVos, largely to generate pageviews. I worry about education news bubbles, where readers and journalists aren't challenged to consider nuance or opposing views. And I worry that too much education journalism isn't as engaging as it needs to be, given how important the topic is.

RH: Let's break that down a bit more: What's the media doing especially well in covering education today, and where do you think the coverage most needs to improve?

AR: I see more reporters reaching out for unusual angles, making their own marks on education journalism in ways that seldom happened when the narrative was controlled by a much smaller number of news organizations. So the Tampa Bay Times told the story of how Pinellas County abandoned integration efforts and the effects that had—and won a Pulitzer. And Farah Stockman revisited the Boston busing crisis for the Globe and also won a Pulitzer. Those are exciting developments, though they're not happening nearly often enough. Education reporters are too often falling into the same old tropes of reform versus union, charter—or these days, voucher—school versus district school, or telling superficial and repetitive stories that don't matter much to parents or help produce better information about schools. This part about education coverage hasn't changed much: Too much coverage is about the surface politics and the school board and the administration and the rules. Not enough of it takes place in classrooms, or with students and teachers and parents—or takes us behind the political scenes to help us understand deeper dynamics. And not enough of it is vivid or compelling enough to engage an everyday reader.

RH: Is there a particular reporter or outlet that really stands out for doing good work?

AR: Nikole Hannah-Jones, now at the New York Times, has done amazing work refocusing our attention on systemic racism and school segregation. Her This American Life piece and her personal essay on choosing a segregated school for her daughter are both standouts. I don't necessarily agree with her conclusion that racial integration is the best or only way to address racial inequality, and I'm troubled by her recent critique of school choice, which seems narrow. But it's hard to argue that anyone has had more impact than she has in the past several years.

RH: And, on the other hand, are there one or two stories where you think the coverage was especially egregious, unfair, or off base?

AR: I'm no particular fan of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, but she has received an enormous amount of flawed, knee-jerk coverage from the media over the past 18 months. Earlier this year, I wrote a roundup of flawed coverage from her first year in office. More recently, coverage of school gun violence has been sloppy and disappointing, often overstating the dangers of school gun violence and generally contributing to the overreaction in the public and among schools. For example, the New York Times Magazine recently ran a big story about "teaching in the age of school shootings," which perpetuates the notion that school gun violence is much more common than it really is. No wonder parents are scared and districts are throwing money at unproven solutions.

RH: Let's say an outlet wants to boost the quality of its education reporting. What are one or two bits of advice you'd offer?

AR: One easy and simple thing to do would be to take a look back at the stories that have been assigned and consider whether the coverage has been distributed in some reasonable way. Is there a good mix of stories? Do they reflect what's going on in the coverage area? Would someone reading these stories have a good sense of what's going on? Too often, news outlets get stuck in a rut and end up covering a narrow set of issues and personalities over and over. But really any kind of self-reflection, internal or public, is helpful. Another extremely useful thing for journalists and media outlets to do would be to commit to giving readers a deeper understanding of all the conflicts they're covering, rather than merely describing the sides and relaying the talking points. Last but not least, education reporters need to be extremely careful not to over- or mis-report events in ways that can mislead readers or generate mistrust.

RH: Okay, last question. Can you name two or three under-the-radar education reporters, analysts, or outlets who you think deserve a lot more attention?

AR: The Oregonian's Bethany Barnes has done some really impressive work in just two years on the beat. What makes her work stand out is that she finds local issues to write about that also have a clear connection to national issues. Though he's not technically an education reporter, Vox's Alvin Chang has found some excellent ways to boil complex education issues down into straightforward narratives, often using cartoon visuals to illustrate the processes he's describing. Ditto for the New York Times's Emily Badger, who often writes for the paper's data section, called The Upshot.

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