It's a frequent complaint in education journalism: Reporters should spend less time at school board meetings and get into a classroom to find out what's really going on.
For reporters, though, that's a challenge and a risk, because lots of good journalists don't know what to look for in a busy classroom. How do you know if what you're seeing is "good" or not? After all, reporters aren't professional educators. And they're often under deadline.
Sometimes, this can even backfire — when a quick visit to add "color" to a story leads to shortcuts or hasty conclusions. What if a reporter shows up without knowing, for instance, that a fire drill that morning completely distracted the students and got them all excited? Or that 12th-graders in the period right after lunch are way more boisterous and engaged than the sleep-deprived zombies that stumble into 8 a.m. homeroom?
A classroom can be a riddle. Is a rowdy and unruly room the sign of a rookie teacher who's lost control? Or is it the mark of a confident educator willing to let her students work creatively and independently by sharing their ideas? Similarly, a silent classroom of students scribbling on worksheets can indicate challenged, focused children bending to a difficult task ... or simply bored students going through the motions.
What I've seen over the years is that reporters tend to fall back on tangible and observable — but sometimes superficial — things. Like describing the "colorful student artwork" on the walls or the "brightly colored" walls themselves. "Peeling paint" and "stopped-up toilets" convey the reality of a troubled school, but do they say anything about actual teaching and learning? Those are much harder to capture. And, when we do get around to describing teachers, we too often fall back on personality ("cheerful") instead of what they're actually doing.
The antidote for reporters can be: Spend more time. Go deeper. Really dig in. But deadlines can be unforgiving. Not every reporter has five months to get the real, in-depth story.
Even when there is time, that's no guarantee of success. The education world and those who cover it are grappling with some seriously deep questions right now: What is good teaching? How do you measure it? Can it be measured at all?
I've wondered about this question for a long time — How can reporters better see and, in turn, help our audiences see teaching and learning? — and I've asked a lot of people about it. Recently, I heard the best answer yet. It was the first time, actually, that I've heard it boiled down into a simple, easily repeated approach.
In Chicago this month, a bunch of reporters and editors from public radio stations in the Midwest and from NPR Ed gathered to talk about our education coverage. Lucky for me, there was a panel discussion called "What Makes an Effective Teacher?" One of the experts, Chalkbeat's Elizabeth Green, has written a lot about this.