School & District Management

For Better School District Coverage, Reporters Need Access

By Dakarai I. Aarons — December 15, 2009 3 min read
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Covering a school district is one of the most complex assignments any reporter could ever have.

The No Child Left Behind era has increased the number of complicated stories reporters need to cover about how districts are working to make the grade. New developments, including a increasing reliance on data systems to guide decision making, mean reporters need more time and access to produce stories that explain what’s being done.

School administrators often complain about the coverage of their school districts, saying reporters focus more on personality clashes and school board in-fighting than teaching and learning. This can be true, in part because conflict is easier to understand and cover than the new reading curriculum. And with the cutbacks in newsroom staff, local education reporters are now often covering other topics for the newspaper and can’t devote full attention to the school districts they cover.

But in some cases, district officials need to reflect on how their own policies hamper substantive coverage.

As this story from the Chicago Reader illustrates, when school districts operate in secrecy, no one wins. As the reporters quoted in the story say, (and I can attest from my own experience) the culture of openness at Chicago Public Schools has noticeably changed this year since Ron Huberman took over for Arne Duncan. Longtime, knowledgeable staffers who once readily provided information to reporters now say they are not allowed to talk. They point reporters to the district’s communications chief, Monique Bond.

Bond, however, told the Reader nothing has changed. “They’re being good managers by wanting to take the extra step by wanting to coordinate with the office of communications. The last thing we want to have is the wrong information to be expressed.” She spoke of the value of having “everybody on the same page” and exercising “an abundance of caution.”

Others tell a different story. Getting answers that once took hours now can take days, the reporters say, and in the case of some stories, like this one I wrote this fall where we attempted to learn more about the district’s multimillion dollar effort to help keep at-risk kids out of harm’s way, the questions simply go unanswered.

Chicago is far from alone in having a communications office that makes doing the rich, nuanced reporting that communities deserve much harder to do. (I could tell you plenty of stories from my time reporting in Memphis.) The culture of fear is alive and well in many school districts, where staffers are afraid to speak for fear of reprisal.

Not only do public school districts have an obligation to be transparent about what they are and are not doing to improve education, but districts that stonewall reporters miss a crucial opportunity to help explain their work to the larger public.

I spent part of last week at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education participating in a seminar with its Urban Superintendents Program. Each December, the folks at Harvard invite members of the media and school board members to tell these future school district leaders how to best work with the public.

Journalists and school board members are often viewed as a thorn in the side of superintendents. But we are there as watchdogs on behalf of the public to hold the district accountable for its results, or lack thereof, in raising student achievement and managing public resources.

As we told these future leaders, transparency and honesty go a long way in not only building productive relationships, but earning those leaders a precious commodity they need in communities when trying to move achievement forward in the nation’s school districts: trust.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.