In spite of (or perhaps because of) the obscuring hormonal haze of my adolescence, I still recall some of my high-school teachers as inaccessible martinets. Why did they have to be so stern, so old, and so very, very crusty? As it turns out, the inaccessibility of teachers and administrators presents a dilemma not just for students, but also for journalists who cover the inner workings of their local school systems.
In a recent Q & A with the Columbia Journalism Review, former education reporter Linda Perlstein discusses her new job as the public editor at the National Education Writers Association. In Perlstein’s view, the unwillingness of teachers and administrators to discuss frankly the weaknesses of their schools stands as one of the most damning obstacles for education reporters. In the bureaucratic culture of public schools, people aren’t willing to rock the boat, lest their bosses push them overboard. As Perlstein tells CJR,
Principals don’t really want to hear what the teachers have to say, superintendents don’t really want to hear what the principals have to say, the education department doesn’t seem to want to hear what the state board has to say—and what that means for reporters is: everyone’s really afraid to be honest.
As a result of such institutionalized silence, reporters aren’t left with much information: They have, on the one hand, the strengths that educators identify in their own schools; and, on the other hand, there’s the out-of-context data that suggests the unmet standards of such programs as No Child Left Behind. The casualty of this divide is that old journalistic standby, nuance. Happily, part of Perlstein’s new job is to help reporters ferret out that complexity. Here’s hoping.
For more on the trials of education coverage, read our recent post on the demise of higher-education reporting.