Gene I. Maeroff, Prolific Education Reporter and Author, Dies

By Mark Walsh — July 25, 2014 5 min read
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Gene I. Maeroff, a former education correspondent of The New York Times, a prolific author on education policy issues, and a former school board president in Edison, N.J., has died.

Mr. Maeroff, 75, succumbed to complications from a medical procedure, said his daughter Rachel Maeroff Michaelson.

Christopher T. Cross, a partner at Cross & Joftus, an education consulting firm where Mr. Maeroff had done some work in recent years, said, “One of the things that characterized him was that he was intensely curious, as a good reporter should be.”

“He could ask the tough questions, but do it in a way that did not come across as adversarial,” said Mr. Cross, a former federal and state education official. Mr. Maeroff had worked with Cross & Joftus and the Say Yes to Education campaign in New York state, a nonprofit that seeks to increase the graduation rate for inner-city youths, on documenting the group’s efforts in Syracuse, N.Y. Mr. Maeroff expanded on his initial report in a book published last year, Reforming a School System, Reviving a City.

Writing in the Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper, Paul Reide said, “Maeroff is generally positive about what Say Yes has accomplished in Syracuse so far—and optimistic about what lies ahead.

“But he does not give Say Yes a free pass,” the article continued. “He points out numerous missteps since the organization launched its initiative in Syracuse in 2008 with high hopes and millions of dollars to invest in the city’s schools.”

The book was one of some 15 written by Mr. Maeroff, going back as far as 1975 (The Guide to Suburban Schools). Of particular interest to this blog (and I once had a copy), he was editor of a collection of essays called Imaging Education: The Media and Schools in America, a look at how well education was covered in the news media and depicted in popular culture.

As for covering education, Mr. Maeroff did it from a somewhat exalted perch as a national education correspondent of The New York Times, in an era when The Times set the agenda for coverage of the topic. For a time, in the 1980s, he had a weekly education page that explored topics in some depth.

“Progressive education, a powerful force early in the century for tailoring instruction in elementary and secondary schools to the needs of individual children, is now struggling to cope with the pressures of social and political conservatism,” Mr. Maeroff wrote in a Times “About Education” column on April 12, 1983. He had attended a conference outside of Philadelphia where 150 progressive educators “met to commiserate and explore the possibility of revitalizing their movement.”

In an April 10, 1984, column, Mr. Maeroff wrote that the “teaching of old-fashioned values is making a comeback in public schools around the country. ... The trend stems from a belief that the public schools have a special responsibility to inculcate students with traditional values in light of the weakening of the family and other institutions that used to perform much of this role.”

And in a sign that some things may not really change, Mr. Maeroff wrote on Feb. 12, 1985, that, “As reformers have sought to bolster the high school curriculum, social studies courses have gotten the least attention among the main subjects. Everyone seems to agree that students need more mathematics and science, and there is great concern about making certain that English courses are used to improve writing. But the role of social studies remains more questionable.”

Mr. Maeroff was an Ohio native who graduated from Cleveland Heights High School in 1957 and Ohio University in 1961, according to his Facebook page. He recalled in a letter to The Times (he was a frequent contributor to the letters page) that once when the poet Robert Frost gave a poetry reading at Ohio University, Mr. Maeroff had a one-on-one interview with him. “He said that ‘interpreters'—those trying to determine the essence of his work—were the bane of poets,” Mr. Maeroff wrote in the letter.

He worked for The New York Times from 1971 until 1986, the newspaper’s media relations office said, on a number of different desks (such as “metropolitan news”) before becoming the education correspondent.

After moving to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, in Princeton, N.J., for 10 years, Mr. Maeroff became the founding director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, at Teachers College, Columbia University. The institute was named for an earlier New York Times education correspondent, Fred M. Hechinger, and was founded to help education reporters get up to speed on complex debates and issues in the field.

“Gene, through the seminars he created, really wanted education reporters to get steeped in the issues,” said Richard Lee Colvin, an education journalist and communications consultant who succeeded Mr. Maeroff as director of the institute in 2003. “He really expected journalists to come there and work hard because they’d been subsidized.”

Mr. Colvin said that Mr. Maeroff always thought of himself as a journalist, though he wasn’t unwilling to use his expertise to try to improve the system.

“He made it OK to want education to improve, but he drew a bright line between being a journalist and an advocate,” Mr. Colvin said.

Later in his life, Mr. Maeroff did take the step of becoming more involved in education policy at the local level: He ran for the school board in Edison, N.J., and served for six years.

Richard O’Malley, the superintendent of the district in northern New Jersey, issued a statement that said Mr. Maeroff “made it his personal mission to fight for the students and staff in the Edison Public Schools. He will be forever known as the architect of changing the course of the Edison Public Schools—bringing this once strangled political district to a national school district of excellence.”

Mr. Maeroff contributed opinion essays to Education Week, including one in 2009 after he had spent some time on the school board.

“Service on a school board is a largely thankless task that consumes hours of one’s time and for most of us pays zilch,” Mr. Maeroff wrote. “The power of school boards has been ebbing for decades. New governance models are on the horizon, but for the foreseeable future, school boards will be the only game in town, and if they don’t get it right, the nation’s students will pay the consequences.”

There was no immediate information available about services for Mr. Maeroff.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.