Back-to-School Stories: What Reporters Have to Do With the Education Debate

It's a challenge to cover a yearly occurrence as if it's new. But how reporters write these stories can subtly affect the national dialogue over our schools.

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Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

My inbox is filling up with back-to-school pitches, for everything from vocabulary-building phone apps to a microwave bag that will allow college students to cook ears of corn and whole potatoes. (The latter sounds like a potential starchy straight line to the Freshman 15.)

Every new school year has a familiar cycle to it, with the latest classroom technology making a debut (iPads, everyone?), school board members pledging that whatever went wrong last year has since been fixed, and educators gearing up for a host of new accountability measures. For education reporters, particularly those who are veterans of the beat, it can be tough to find fresh angles on such well-trod turf.

Education blogger Alexander Russo had some fun with this challenge earlier in the week, pulling together a list of the common tropes of education coverage at this time of year, including "There are new teachers in the classroom, excited and nervous about being new teachers!" Also on the list were features predictably tied to current events news hooks - more campus security in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy and how schools are handling the arrival of the Common Core State Standards among them.

I tweeted out the link to Russo's list and added one of my own: "The tough-love principal turning it around solo." Afterward, an experienced education reporter chided me gently, noting - rightly - that many of the stories on his list are valuable to readers. And as Russo wrote in his post, the problem isn't necessarily the topics but that the stories "usually so lightly reported and so overhyped, and often focus on what might happen or what's happening in a few places but not really many of them."

These are both fair points. While reporters might feel like they're doing it all over again, for many parents this might very well be their first "back to school," either with a younger student, or having moved into a new district or state. At the same time, trend stories on any beat that are reactionary rather than nuanced don't do much to inform the reader.

But I stand by the story idea I tacked onto my tweet. Not so long ago, I spoke with a reporter who spent a year embedded in a San Francisco high school following a group of teachers and students struggling to prepare for the state's high-stakes tests. A teacher told her that what was particularly frustrating in her encounters with the media was when reporters came into the classroom wanting to talk about numbers and test scores instead of asking her to talk about her students. Just as frustrating: stories built around the idea that "one teacher" or "one principal" was saving an entire school.

Her remarks echo those I've heard from other members of the school community, sometimes even from the "superstar" educator who is the subject of the profile. The work of schools is too much to hang on one person's efforts - and too much to cover in a single round of back-to-school stories. The start of the new academic year deserves attention, but for education reporters, it's just a small part of a complex beat with no shortage of innovative stories to tell. I'm looking forward to seeing what they find.

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.