In 2013, almost ten years after I graduated from high school, I returned to class as a reporter for Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news outlet that covers public education.
The world I returned to was not like the one I left. But one thing remained unchanged: cultural wars.
As long as there were classes, adults with good intentions who had no formal education in education fought for what should happen in those classes. And while the cultural wars are going on, journalists rushed to cover them.
However, I quickly learned that the real job of educational journalists is to focus on what conflicts are really important.
What should – no, should – separate journalists in the field of education from the rest of the group is the instinct to refocus the debate on the real consequences for students.
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I studied this lesson on the Jefferson County School Board, which included the recall of three Conservative members in the middle of their first four-year term.
Efforts to remove them from the board led by the teachers ’union and a group of parents are probably the largest and most successful recall of the school board in the country. Conservative new board members wanted to link teacher pay with student test results and increase the number of charter schools. They immediately parted ways with the district teachers ’union.
I could write a story a day about every micro-aggression between the two sides. They were exhausting.
However, as a non-profit, niche information organization focused on schools, Chalkbeat had the luxury of figuring out what, according to reporters and editors, was most important. And the essence of most of our reports was a simple question: do children study?
Using this filter allowed us to dismiss stories that either didn’t matter or we knew were covered by other news organizations. We missed stories about bad behavior of teachers, debates about how to name the new football stadium and science fairs – not because they are not important, but because the TV can handle them. This gave us permission not to be the first with the title, but the first with the reports that will lead to change.
The same was true at the time I was covering Jefferson County.
One of the stories I’m most proud of was reviewed by a man who studied in the county on an in-depth history course – which often turned into a college test – in the county. The story was part of our coverage following a request from a school board member to reconsider the course being conducted in the country to the fact that it is not patriotic enough.
Using the data, we learned that if the county stopped offering in-depth history courses, a growing Hispanic and black population would be at greater risk of losing access to college credits than most white county students.
This story allowed me to touch on several topics of our coverage, including changing demographics in classrooms across the United States. We were able to remind both sides – and those on the sidelines – of what is really at stake for the district’s most vulnerable students.
I also shared my focus on another suburban school district: Aurora.
The two districts could not be more different. Jefferson County students were mostly white and from middle- and upper-middle-class homes. The students at Aurora were mostly black and Hispanic. For many, English was a second language.
For every story I made about the political struggle in Jefferson County – where we knew most of the kids would turn out great – I had to tell a story about a low-achieving school in Aurora. It was not a mandate from on high, but a mission-driven agreement between me and my editors.
Definitely, these stories got fewer clicks. And I never saw CNN or The Guardian at an Aurora school board meeting. But these stories were much more important.
However, there were too many days when I felt torn for paying attention to a story that had very low rates for most students, while I knew that students on the other side of town were not studying and risked living in poverty for life. .
I loved my job at Chalkbeat. But I left in 2018 to do political journalism. This path led me to the Des Moines Register, where I am now a policy editor. I am fortunate that education coverage is part of my portfolio.
And school cultural wars continue.
Across the country, 2022 will be full of discussions about which books should be in school libraries – and who will decide. Masks or not. Vaccination responsibilities for students and faculty. What version of American history will be taught. How do we talk about race today?
Cultural wars will bring you clicks. But we need to focus on conflicts that matter.
Nick Garcia of Des Moines, political editor of the Des Moines Register, former reporter and deputy head of the Chalkbeat ColoradoFollow him to @nicgarcia.
Note: This essay, which has not been published elsewhere, is part of a series of reflections by current and former educational journalists on their work, curated Evaluationan independent attempt to improve school coverage.
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