The Final Visit for The New York Times Education Life Section?

By Mark Walsh — November 06, 2017 3 min read
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[UPDATED 4:05 p.m. Monday to correct a misidentification of an early editor of the Education Life section.]

The quarterly Education Life section of The New York Times, which for some 30 years has offered a lively mix of education stories that stood apart from daily news coverage, may have seen its last issue on Sunday.

I once referred to the section as “a slightly eccentric aunt who visits you every three months.”

“She has been around the block and back,” I wrote in this blog in 2014. “She is erudite and sparks some thoughtful conversation. She is a bit underappreciated. And she comes bearing gifts in large and small packages, no matter what the season.”

In a letter to readers in the Nov. 5 issue of Education Life, section editor Jane Karr referred to that column and wrote, “The eccentric aunt has grown thinner over the years. This is the last you’ll see of her as you know her. But The Times promises to continue its commitment to education. A new section will appear some time next year.”

I caught up with Karr by phone over the weekend to try to figure out what that means.

For one thing, it turns out that Karr is taking a buyout from the Times after 30 years at the paper and 20 years as editor of Education Life.

“I’ve watched an exodus of old friends here for a decade,” Karr said, referring to a series of newsroom buyouts in recent years at the paper. “It’s a really good time for me to take one.”

Karr said she was somewhat limited about what she could say about the future of a quarterly education section at the Times, in part because she will not be in on the decisionmaking.

“There were plans to redesign the section because it needed a refresher,” said Karr. “There will be an education section. The Times is reviewing all aspects of what that might be.”

“It will be different,” she added.

It’s not as though The Times has sloughed off on education coverage overall. Last year, the paper launched a digital-first team to cover education. The New York Times Magazine has an education issue every September. And the daily paper (and website) covers the topic both locally and nationally. On the front page of Saturday’s paper, the latest installment of the “Education Disrupted” periodic series appeared, this one about how Silicon Valley technology firms are deploying sophisticated techniques to try to sell their products to American schools.

On that same front page Saturday, there was a promo for Sunday’s Education Life section. Those quarterly Saturday promos were always a great reminder to me to be sure to pick up the Sunday Times and the latest special section. (The quarters have seemed to fly by in recent years.)

For at least the last decade, Education Life has focused on higher education, but that included a lot of stories about college access and the admissions process. Karr pointed to stories in recent years that dissected the budget of the University of Maryland-College Park, and a piece about a Massachusetts high school where seemingly every student was striving to get into an Ivy League college, and the stress of that.

Karr notes in her column that issues such as stress, race, and free speech on campus have been topics in her section in recent years. She cited some of the notable names who have contributed to the section during her tenure: Frank McCourt, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Lawrence H. Summers, Clayton M. Christensen, Steven Pinker, David Leonhardt, Duff McDonald, James Traub, Michael Winerip, Caitlin Flanagan, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Brian Stelter, and Andrew Ross Sorkin.

Karr said the Education Life replaced a triannual section called the “Survey of Education,” some 30 years ago. She says the founding editor was Marv Siegel and the continuing editor was Ted Fiske, the longtime education editor of the Times.

When she referred to my 2014 blog item about Education Life being like “eccentric aunt,” she wrote "(ouch!)” after that metaphor. She had told me back then that she guessed she was the eccentric aunt running the section. But she welcomed my other words of praise, of course.

Karr repeated that the Special Sections department of the Times is planning some new format for a quarterly (or periodic) education section. Among the open questions whether it will still be focused on higher education, or on K-12; and whether it will be in tabloid format like Education Life or a broadsheet like most of the Times’ special sections, she said.

“Future plans are unknown, but the discussions are ongoing,” she told me.

But those discussions will go on without her.

“I haven’t made a lot of plans for my second act,” she said. “I do plan to write and teach and clean out the cellar. Not in that order.”

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