School & District Management

The Story Behind the Stories

By Jeff Archer — September 06, 2006 13 min read
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Twenty-five years ago this week, a newspaper nobody had ever seen before broke a national story on education policy.

In its first issue, Education Week disclosed details of a 91-page Reagan administration memo that called for downgrading the year-old U.S. Department of Education to sub-Cabinet status and shifting key federal responsibilities to the state and local levels.

“You could almost say the journalism gods gave it to us,” Martha K. Matzke, a co-founder and former executive editor of Education Week, said recently of the confidential plan, which caused a stir once revealed and was never enacted. “It captured so much about the fact that education plays in the politics of this country at the highest level.”

The first issue of Education Week was dated Sept. 7, 1981.

Ever since, the newspaper has made the case that K-12 education is an issue worthy of a national dialogue. What happens in Washington affects what happens in classrooms across the country. What happens in one state or district matters to others. And education is a field of powerful ideas, institutions, and people.

In doing so, the independent weekly helped write the first draft of the history of an intense period of change in education, including the decline of busing for desegregation, the rise of the standards movement, debates over teaching methods and educator training, and the resurgence of the federal role.

Over time, the newspaper left its mark on the conversation it aimed to foster. Its reporting and guest commentaries helped spread policy and practice by identifying trends and spotlighting issues. Its special reports and series have framed the topics of the day; for the past decade, its annual Quality Counts reports have graded states on their policies for school improvement.

“When people see something in Education Week, it sort of becomes part of the given” of what is deemed important in the field, said Paul D. Houston, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “And that becomes part of the driver of what people do.”

With a reporting staff of 21, and offices in Bethesda, Md., just outside Washington, the paper seeks to inform those who make the decisions that most broadly affect precollegiate education in the United States. The bulk of its 50,000 print subscribers are administrators, scholars, and other leaders in the field. Fewer than 10 percent are teachers.

Few people credit Education Week with directly altering the course of education policy, but for many policymakers it has supplied ammunition to push for change. Its reporting has been cited in numerous court cases and legislative battles—and, in reflecting current thinking in the field, it magnifies it.

Given such influence, Education Week prompts its share of criticism. Among the complaints: It relies on too small a circle of people as sources, and it too seldom scrutinizes the conventional wisdom—except in its Commentary section. And some educators wonder how the foundation grants it gets may affect its editorial decisions. (“Foundation Support Plays Key Role for Newspaper,” this issue.)

Some readers also believe the newspaper could do more investigative reporting. “There are some times when I wish its people would dig a little deeper,” said James W. Guthrie, an education professor at Vanderbilt University. Still, he added, “I think Education Week is one of the major pieces of the glue that holds American education together.”

Today, the newspaper faces new challenges. Despite its own heavy investment in Web publishing, it competes with a proliferation of education blogs and Internet news compilations. Economics in general have come to bear on its delivery of the news.

Meanwhile, the national conversation it was born to facilitate has splintered. Charter school advocates, for example, represent a host of different viewpoints. The same goes for nearly all of the field’s major issues, like high school improvement, educator preparation, and school finance.

Before its launch, with the issue dated Sept. 7, 1981, there was skepticism that anything like Education Week would be read. Founding editor and publisher Ronald A. Wolk recalls that many of the leaders in the field whom he talked to about the idea told him no educators cared what went on beyond their own districts or states.

And yet, there were hints that situation might change. In the 1970s, the influential Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching turned its focus from postsecondary to precollegiate education. Reports on school quality were gaining attention, and new groups were rethinking the way schools should be run.

See Also

Read an article from the first ever issue of Education Week on President Reagan’s proposal to downgrade the U.S. Department of Education:

Far-Reaching Shift in Federal Role Urged by Bell

“It was clear to anybody who was looking beyond the horizon a bit that a big storm was coming,” said Mr. Wolk, a former editor of the alumni magazine at Johns Hopkins University, who in 1966 helped found The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Education Week got off the ground with a mix of foundation support and money from the sale of the Chronicle in 1978 to its editors by its nonprofit publisher, Editorial Projects in Education. The Chronicle, based in Washington, continues as its own enterprise, while EPE publishes Education Week and has expanded into other projects. (“A Media Organization With Many Faces,” this issue.)

From the beginning, Education Week sought to cover news in the field not as isolated events, but as it related to larger forces. A major goal was to show “the machinery” of school policy, said Ms. Matzke, who worked with Mr. Wolk to create Education Week, and who left the newspaper in 1989.

See Also

“The field thought the news in Akron wasn’t of interest in New York,” said Ms. Matzke, a former reporter and editor for The Providence Journal in Rhode Island who had headed the news bureau at Brown University while Mr. Wolk was a vice president there. “But if Akron had a tax rebellion, and New York had a tax rebellion, and California did too, there’s something national going on.”

In connecting the dots, the newspaper noted the growing number of states allowing home schooling in the 1980s, the increasing turnover among urban superintendents in the 1990s, and the recent push for finance systems based not on available money, but on the cost of a high-quality education.

The Commentary section gave voice to up-and-coming thinkers. The first issue carried an essay by Chester E. Finn Jr., then a new education professor at Vanderbilt University, chastising critics of James S. Coleman’s recent study showing an edge for private over public schools.

Four years later, Mr. Finn became an assistant U.S. education secretary under President Reagan, and he now heads the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington think tank that promotes school choice, alternative forms of educator preparation, and strict academic standards.

In an early attempt at tracking trends, Education Week in the 1980s ran annual summaries of education policy changes in all 50 states. At the time, such comparisons were still novel; it was only in 1984 that the U.S. Education Department released its first “wall chart,” ranking states by school performance and resources.

“I think Education Week’s real strength, in addition to at least making sure things get on the record, is our work to synthesize,” said Virginia B. Edwards, the paper’s current editor and publisher. Ms. Edwards began her career at The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Ky., and worked for the late Ernest L. Boyer while he was the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The newspaper has focused the attention of decisionmakers through more than 60 special reports and series, many of them underwritten by grants. Whether literacy instruction, leadership, professional development, or school choice, the aim was to distill an emerging issue.

The paper’s signature annual report, Quality Counts, made its debut in 1997, after political and business leaders had called for an independent group to offer in-depth, yearly reporting of state-level progress on education policy. With it, Education Week began grading states from A to F.

In more than a few cases, policy changes and other action have followed Education Week coverage. In 1998, it ran a three-part series on school employees’ sexual misconduct with students. Three months later, a Texas state lawmaker cited the series in pushing for a ban on such behavior. Legislators in other states later took similar action.

Last fall, after using the Freedom of Information Act to obtain federal documents, the newspaper reported how the Education Department appeared to have steered states toward using certain commercial reading programs. Soon after, the Government Accountability Office said it would investigate.

With each year’s unveiling of Quality Counts, state education departments put out news releases boasting of high grades they’ve received or questioning bad ones. Some find leverage in its ratings, given in such areas as teacher quality, standards, and the adequacy and equity of school funding.

“It was perfect for my purposes,” said Peter J. McWalters, the Rhode Island commissioner of education, who has advocated changes in how his state divvies up school aid. “I could go right up to the legislature and say: ‘We’re getting an A for adequacy, but a C or D for equity.’ ”

Likewise, Quality Counts was cited last spring by civil rights groups seeking to join the federal government in defending the No Child Left Behind Act against a legal challenge by the state of Connecticut. Exhibit A was the report’s analysis of Connecticut’s student-achievement gaps and other data.

But as the field reacts to the newspaper’s reporting and projects, some readers have expressed concern. Like other critics of the current academic-standards movement, the education writer Susan Ohanian believes Education Week promotes the misuse and overuse of student testing with Quality Counts and its ongoing coverage, which often cites test scores as the chief measure of school improvement.

“[Education Week and Quality Counts] take it for granted that there’s a finite set of principles, that can be very specifically delineated, about what kids ought to know, and I don’t agree,” said Ms. Ohanian, whose 1999 book One Size Fits Few has a subchapter titled “Who Put Education Week in Charge of the World?”

Others generally perceive a mainstream tilt in Education Week’s news pages that keeps the attention of the field most focused on the ideas and issues with the most organized efforts behind them, such as high school improvement or the renewed push to improve math and science instruction.

Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute believes the newspaper could provide more coverage of new players in the field of school improvement. More often than not, he says, Education Week seems to seek out the more traditional education authorities as sources.

“There certainly are individual stories I read and say, ‘Wait a minute, this is a debate between insiders and near-insiders,’ or everybody in the story shares a worldview, and they’re arguing about tactics,” said Mr. Hess, the director of education programs at the Washington-based AEI, which supports market-based approaches in education.

Still, in 1992, a year after Minnesota passed the first state law allowing charter schools, Education Week began an occasional series examining charter schools, private management of public schools, and district efforts to create break-the-mold schools. Such innovations now are the focus of a full-time beat at the paper.

Lynn Olson, the newspaper’s managing editor for special projects, concedes that it gives significant ink to what education leaders are talking about, but argues that to do otherwise would go against the paper’s mission of informing the field. She calls it “overreaching” to suggest the newspaper steers policy one way or another.

“It really is trying to record the major trends and policy issues in education, and it has a limited amount of space,” said Ms. Olson, also the paper’s most senior writer, having been on the staff since 1984. “So I don’t think it’s surprising that a lot of space is devoted to things like standards.”

While the newspaper’s own impact may be hard to measure, it is clear that outside forces have shaped the evolution of Education Week. Like all media outlets, the newspaper has an ongoing concern for holding the attention of its audience in an age of instant communications.

Once a “gray lady” that sought to emulate the look of The New York Times, it has inched closer to USA Today. The newspaper hired its first photo editor in 1991, began using color on the front page in 1993, went to full-color photography throughout its pages in 1998, and introduced color artwork for the Commentary section in 2005. It has also made more use of charts, information boxes, and other graphic devices.

It no longer prints the entire text of a landmark report, as it did for the 1983 release of A Nation at Risk, whose harsh rhetoric put the spurs to the national push for school reform. Nor does it print lengthy excerpts from U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Today, the newspaper directs readers to the Web for such documents.

Education Week has scaled back its average number of news pages, meaning everything that isn’t advertising, from more than 34 per issue in 2000-01 to 29 now. The reduction is due to financial constraints and a belief that articles should be shorter and more issue-oriented, including those in the feature section.

“Before, anything of note that needed to be on the record for posterity’s sake needed to be covered,” said Ms. Edwards. “We’ve never backed off that totally in any way. But it’s foolish to think you can cover everything of note going on in the country in a given week.”

At the same time, the paper has expanded its scope in other ways. For example, it now routinely writes about international issues in education, reflecting growing interest in school improvement in other countries.

The most altering outside force has been the Web. The newspaper went online in 1996 with, which first had little more than the print edition’s content and story archives. Today, the Web site includes links to education stories in daily papers from across the country, regular online chats about education topics, and education-related blogs. Original Education Week news stories go up on the site daily.

In a controversial decision, in 2005 went from a totally free site to one in which most of the Education Week news stories are now available only for paid subscribers. The paper’s executives said that until the change was made, the free availability had coincided with a drop in subscriptions, which appear to be up since.

The Web also has brought new competition. A case in point: In May, a blog hosted by the recently formed Washington think tank Education Sector broke the story that the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards was sitting on a study suggesting that its certification had no effect on student achievement.

Education Week in its early history may have been introducing people to an issue,” said Alexander Russo, who runs another blog, This Week in Education. “Now, I see it wrapping things up, probably better than most, with more depth and context, but they’re not the early arriver.”

Andrew J. Rotherham, a former education adviser to President Clinton who runs the Education Sector blog, Eduwonk, that broke the national board story, sees it differently. He notes that the board didn’t finally release the study until after Education Week wrote about it. “It’s a powerful voice,” he said of the newspaper.

The bigger conundrum he sees Education Week facing relates to the way K-12 education has morphed as a field. So many of the old “movements” have shattered and regrouped into smaller niches. Many groups advocate small high schools, for example, but disagree on the form they should take.

Likewise, old political alliances have broken down into a range of perspectives. A “liberal” today might be for charter schools or against them, for test-based accountability or not. And “conservatives” might favor a federal role in raising standards or oppose it.

In short, the national dialogue has fragmented. “Education Week won the argument that there’s a national conversation, just in time to watch four or five national conversations going on,” Mr. Rotherham said. “That complicates the mission of a publication that wants to appeal to the field writ large.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 2006 edition of Education Week as The Story Behind the Stories


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