School Law’s Story: Read All About It

June 23, 2004 13 min read
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Cathy Grimes has become something of an expert on the No Child Left Behind Act. She keeps a copy of the hefty federal law at her desk—and has actually read it.

Ms. Grimes isn’t a school administrator or state education official. She doesn’t work at a think tank, either. She’s the education reporter for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in southeastern Washington state.

—Courtesy of the News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)

As with a lot of other reporters in the mainstream media, understanding the complex law has become part of her job.

Last September, her newspaper ran a five-part, 18-story series explaining the ins and outs of the bipartisan legislation and putting it in context. The series also connected the law with the schools and people in her community, such as Gail Callahan, a 1st grade teacher at Walla Walla’s Blue Ridge Elementary School.

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Read a sampling of editorial pieces about the law in newspapers across the country, “A Matter of Opinion.”

“My readers didn’t seem to have an idea of what it was,” said Ms. Grimes, a 10-year veteran of education reporting. “There was a feeling that somebody had to explain the law, explain its significance.”

Some longtime observers of federal policy say the sheer volume of No Child Left Behind stories being published or aired is unprecedented for an education law.

Across the country, from The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., to the Albuquerque Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, the 2½-year-old law has increasingly become a magnet for press attention. It is also getting airtime on radio and, to a lesser extent, television news.

The news media have been a rich source of information and, critics say, misinformation at times.

What the reporters and commentators say in their news stories and opinion pieces matters a lot. After all, the media are the main source for helping millions of Americans understand the law and watch it unfold. The coverage is closely monitored by the U.S. Department of Education, teachers’ unions, and others with a big stake in how the public perceives the law, and they’ve worked hard to influence how the media depict it.

If there’s one thing many supporters and critics of the No Child Left Behind Act seem to agree on, it’s that the coverage is getting more sophisticated. They say journalists have developed expertise on the subject and are increasingly digging below the surface to give the public a more nuanced perspective.

“On the whole, journalists have put an enormous amount of energy into getting it right,” said Richard Lee Colvin, a former education reporter for the Los Angeles Times who now directs the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University. “They’re getting better at it.”

‘Amazed’ at Attention

There are some clear reasons for the media’s interest. For starters, the No Child Left Behind Act touches virtually every public school and district in the nation with its tough requirements for improving student achievement overall and ending the achievement gaps between various categories of students.

The legislation, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has been a central part of President Bush’s domestic agenda, and his administration has touted the measure almost nonstop since Mr. Bush signed it into law in January 2002.

It’s also controversial, a big selling point to the press. The law has faced widespread complaints from educators and teachers’ unions, local and state officials, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, who voted for it but has been criticizing it on the campaign trail.

Even so, some experts find the abundance of stories, well after the law was signed, striking.

“Amazed is probably a more apt term,” said Christopher T. Cross, an education consultant and former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. “It has been on television, in regional and local newspapers, just all around the country where I go.”

“It is remarkable,” agreed Mr. Colvin. The law, he said, hands reporters a “steady stream of news hooks.”

For one, each year it singles out schools by name that have not made what is deemed adequate yearly progress. Schools receiving federal Title I aid that repeatedly fall short of a state’s performance targets for such progress face federally driven consequences, such as allowing parents to choose another public school for their children. And a lot of schools are falling short.

In many states, the law is generating far more publicly available student achievement data than ever before. It also calls for “highly qualified” teachers in every classroom, and requires Title I schools to notify parents if their child’s teacher falls short.

It all amounts to a gold mine of story ideas for reporters. And they’ve delivered. The No Child Left Behind Act has generated thousands of stories; new ones appear practically every day.

A sample of headlines this year includes:

  • “Critics Calling for Overhaul of No Child Left Behind” in the March 21 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette;
  • “Floodgate Could Open On School Transfers” in the June 13 Orlando Sentinel;
  • “Paige Sees School That Works; Secretary Praises Amistad Academy” in the April 30 Hartford Courant; and
  • “Fifth-grade Band Could Be ‘No Child’ Casualty” in the Feb. 21 Kansas City Star.

In Raleigh, The News & Observer has run a long list of No Child Left Behind stories over the past year.

Last summer, reporter Todd Silberman wrote a front-page article headlined “Braced for Bad Marks,” to help prepare readers for the state’s pending announcement of how schools had fared under the federal law. In October, he took readers to Raleigh’s Millbrook Elementary School to illustrate how the law was snagging some schools solely because students with disabilities fell short of testing goals.

Just last month he wrote: “Without a single improved test score, more than 300 additional North Carolina schools could meet hard-to-reach goals this year under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The state wants to make it easier by taking advantage of exceptions, exemptions, and other technical allowances the federal government is permitting.”

Mr. Silberman says the complicated law can make it tough going as a subject for his paper.

“The biggest challenge that I’ve faced in covering No Child Left Behind is making it understandable for readers,” he said in an interview. “The potential for confusion is pretty great. … At a recent meeting, it made me think of the federal tax code.”

‘We Have a Role Here’

The Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky ran a front-page spread on the law in November, headlined “Schools Get U.S. Report Cards,” plus a 12-page special supplement with disaggregated test-score data for all public schools in the newspaper’s coverage area.

“Essentially, we wanted to help put [the law] in perspective,” said Deedra R. Lawhead, the paper’s health and education editor. “What does it mean to you and your family?”

A month earlier, a front-page Herald-Leader story examined a statistical tool Kentucky and other states are using that would lower the number of schools identified as not making adequate progress.

“We’re trying to still assess what readers want and need,” said Ms. Lawhead. “We have a role here, and it’s a little fuzzy.”

A popular news angle involves two of the early consequences for Title I schools that don’t make adequate progress: the mandate to offer students transfers to other public schools or a choice of supplemental services, such as private tutoring.

The Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times have closely covered how the 434,000-student Chicago school system has handled the new options.

“More than 100,000 Chicago schoolchildren stuck in failing schools will not get the extra tutoring they are eligible for under federal law,” begins a Tribune story from last Sept. 13. A headline from a few weeks earlier proclaimed: “19,000 Kids Seek New Schools: Chicago system has spaces for only 1,035 transfers.”

Some stories last year quoted federal officials as taking issue with the district’s approach.

“There were a number of articles early on that wanted to portray this arm-wrestling match between the district and the [U.S.] Department [of Education],” said Xavier E. Botana, the director of No Child Left Behind accountability for the Chicago system. “That’s sort of faded out as we’ve learned what the department wanted and we’ve been able to articulate what we’re doing to the department in advance.”

Jack Jennings, the director of the Washington-based Center on Education Policy, said the press has done a lot to monitor state and district behavior, playing its watchdog role.

“Reporters in a way are enforcing the law as much as the U.S. Department of Education just through the stories they’re running,” said Mr. Jennings, a former aide on education issues to Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Some education analysts say the coverage of the law tilts toward the negative.

“There’s been an intense and almost ceaseless attention to glitches, problems, and shortcomings … rather than the good it might be doing,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington and an assistant education secretary under President Reagan.

His colleague Justin Torres, the research director at the Fordham Foundation, recently delivered a scathing critique of media coverage that homes in on a May series in the Dayton Daily News in Ohio.

“The … articles exhibit all the standard symptoms of self-righteous hyperbole that characterize much of NCLB reporting,” he wrote in The Education Gadfly, an electronic newsletter from the Fordham Foundation. Among such symptoms he ticked off were to “start with a tearjerker"—in this case, a 9-year-old honor student nervous about taking standardized tests; “present a smattering of episodes as a nationwide trend"; “stack the deck with experts” to bash testing; and “demolish distinctions, reduce complexities, and conflate facts.”

Mr. Torres complains that the press often depicts the law’s consequences, such as the school-transfer provision, as a punishment for schools—as many educators have suggested—rather than a way to help students. Others note that the law also calls for directing technical assistance to low-performing schools.

“Misconceptions about the law are rife, and newspapers have vied to bash it—with the willing help of educators opposed to testing and to all attempts to hold schools and those who work in them [accountable],” Mr. Torres wrote.

David L. Shreve, the education committee director for the Washington-based National Conference of State Legislatures, said he sees a lot of coverage as skeptical of the law, but suggests that approach is appropriate.

“I think the way the law was portrayed in its initial stages was skewed the other way,” he said, by presenting it as the “best thing that ever happened to public education.”

He argues that many tough questions about the federal measure weren’t adequately explored when it was being crafted, and that the press is now reflecting the vociferous debate across the country.

“It’s the nature of the media to do critical analysis,” said Paul G. Vallas, the chief executive officer of the 200,000-student Philadelphia public schools, though he believes the Philadelphia media have been fair to the law and his district. “Certainly they’ve written about the challenges we’re facing in implementing the reforms, but I tend to think that the media has been pretty balanced.”

An analysis of newspaper and wire stories from April to December 2003 by KSA-Plus Communications, an Arlington, Va.-based public relations firm, said: “While NCLB backers may not consider recent news coverage of the law as ‘positive,’ it has brought unprecedented focus to what school performance data show about achievement gaps … and in some cases has illuminated promising strategies for closing them.”

‘Failing’ Schools

Representatives for several state education agencies—including those in Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Virginia—had generally positive feedback on how the press has covered the implementation of the law.

“By and large, the major newspapers in the state have done a good job,” said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.

High-quality media coverage, he argues, is vital. “It helps shape the perceptions of parents and other constituents of the public schools,” he said.

His main gripe, echoed by others, is the relentless use by some news outlets of the phrase “failing schools.”

“Our biggest challenge is the way the media refers to schools that don’t make [adequate progress] as failing schools,” said Eugene W. Hickok, the deputy U.S. secretary of education. “It’s unfair; the law doesn’t say that, we don’t say that.”

The Business Roundtable, a Washington-based business lobby that has long been active in education policy, sent journalists a flier in the spring of 2003 headlined, “Please don’t call a school a ‘failure’ if it isn’t.” It explained the law’s designation of some schools as “in need of improvement.” Schools get the label even if for two consecutive years just one subgroup of studentssuch as Hispanics or children from low-income familiesnarrowly misses the state’s performance target, or if not enough students from one subgroup take the tests.

Susan Traiman, the group’s education and workforce policy director, said such outreach has helped reduce the blanket use of “failing,” but it hasn’t ended the practice.

“What we found—and this is not scientific—is that most of the education writers got it straight, but the headline writers didn’t,” she said.

Beyond the news desk, editorial pages have hosted a lively debate about the law, whether it’s in their own editorials, guest opinion essays, or letters to the editor.

The Education Department often responds to stories and editorials it deems inaccurate. Recent letters from Secretary of Education Rod Paige have appeared in The Sun of Baltimore, The Indianapolis Star, and the Anchorage Daily News, among others.

The law also has attracted attention in newsmagazines and on radio and television. National Public Radio has offered fairly extensive coverage, and the TV networks have weighed in from time to time.

On Jan. 8, the law’s second anniversary, NBC News and ABC News ran segments on their evening telecasts, and the Cable News Network offered interviews and analysis.

“Even as President Bush trumpets the two- year anniversary of the No Child Left Behind Act, a growing number of school districts are denouncing it,” reported ABC News’ Judy Muller that day.

Some wonder how much longer the law will remain in the limelight.

“I suspect we’ll eventually get bored with this story and go on to other things,” Jay Mathews, an education reporter for The Washington Post, said of the media. Mr. Mathews, who is also a member of the board of Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes Education Week, makes the analogy to how the Post has covered Virginia’s state assessment program.

“The first year, stories were on the front page,” he said, but gradually those shifted to the front of the Metro section, and then inside the Metro section.

But others expect the heavy volume of coverage to continue.

“It touched nerves,” said Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators. “If local people had been overwhelmingly positive about this, the story would have been over in a week. … I don’t think this is going to go away.”

In any case, the law seems likely to make big news in the coming weeks and months, as states roll out their latest results for schools under the federal mandates. With President Bush citing the law in his re-election bid as one of his major domestic accomplishments, the political angle, already salient, may sharpen.

“The schoolpeople aren’t bored with it,” Mr. Hunter said, “so when [reporters] do their back-to-school stories this year, it’s going to be all No Child Left Behind, all the time.”

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