In 2013, nearly a decade after I graduated high school, I returned to the classroom as a reporter for Chalkbeat, the nonprofit news organization that covers public education.
The world I returned to looked nothing like the one I left. And yet, one thing remained the same: the culture wars.
As long as there have been classrooms, well-meaning adults with no formal training in education have been fighting over what should happen in those classrooms. And as long as there have been culture wars, journalists have surged to cover them.
However, I learned quickly that the real job of education journalists is to zero in on which conflicts really matter.
What should — no, must — separate education journalists from the rest of the pack is the instinct to refocus the debate on the real-world consequences for students.
I learned this lesson covering the Jefferson County school board, which included the recall of three conservative members halfway through their first four-year term.
The effort to boot them from the board led by the teachers union and a group of parents is likely the largest and most successful school board recall in the nation. The conservative new board members wanted to link teacher pay to student test scores and increase the number of charter schools. They were instantly at odds with the district’s teachers union.
I could have written a story a day about every microaggression between the two sides. They were exhausting.
However, as a nonprofit, niche news organization focused on schools, Chalkbeat had the luxury of drilling down to what its reporters and editors believed mattered most. And the heart of most of our coverage was a simple question: Are the kids learning?
Using that filter allowed us to deflect stories that either didn’t matter or we knew other news organizations would cover. We skipped stories of teachers behaving badly, debates over what to name the new football stadium and science fairs — not because they weren’t important, but because TV would handle them. It gave us permission to not be first with the headline, but first with reporting that would drive change.
The same was true while I was covering Jefferson County.
One of the stories I was most proud of examined who took the advanced history class — which often translated into college credit — in the district. The story was part of our coverage following a school board member’s request to review the nationally run course for not being patriotic enough.
We learned, using data, that if the district stopped offering the advanced history class, its growing Hispanic and Black population would be at greater risk of losing access to college credits than most of the district’s white students.
This story allowed me to pull on several themes of our coverage, including the changing demographics in classrooms across the U.S. We were able to remind both sides — and those on the sidelines — what was really at stake for the district’s most vulnerable students.
I also split my focus on another suburban school district: Aurora.
The two districts couldn’t have been more different. Jefferson County students were mostly white and from middle and upper-middle-class homes. The students in Aurora were mostly Black and Hispanic. For many, English was their second language.
For every story I did about the political strife in Jefferson County – where we knew most of the kids would turn out just fine — I had to do a story about a low-performing school in Aurora. This wasn’t a mandate from on high, but a mission-driven agreement by me and my editors.
To be sure, those stories got fewer clicks. And I never saw CNN or The Guardian at an Aurora school board meeting. But those stories were exponentially more important.
Nonetheless, there were too many days where I felt torn for giving my attention to a story that had very low stakes for most students, while I knew students on the other side of the city were not learning and at great risk of living in lifelong poverty.
I loved my job at Chalkbeat. But I left in 2018 to pursue my passion for political journalism. That path has brought me to the Des Moines Register, where I’m currently the politics editor. Lucky me, education coverage is part of my portfolio.
And the school culture wars are still raging.
Across the country, 2022 will be full of debates about what books should be in school libraries — and who gets to decide. Masks or no masks. Vaccine mandates for students and teachers. What version of American history will be taught. How do we talk about race in the present?
The culture wars will get you clicks. But we have to keep focused on the conflicts that matter.
Note: This essay, which has not been published elsewhere, is part of a series of reflections by current and former education journalists about their work curated by The Grade, an independent effort to improve schools coverage.
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