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Top Stories on Education

Education took center-stage last week, as we were joined by Ashoka, the global network of social entrepreneurs, in finding quality journalism on global literacy, early childhood development, digital learning, schooling and other related topics. Led by our stalwart hosts Dale Penn and Kristin Gorski, we came together to review more than 100 stories about education in this one-of-a-kind News Hunt.

As education reporting often takes a back seat to more dynamic topics in both mainstream and independent media, education stories relevant to a broad audience can be elusive. Perhaps a reflection of this, most of our top rated news stories covered issues at the state and local level, as opposed to the national level. Looking below the surface, however, many of these stories had implications beyond the scale on which they were reported.

In one example, 'Student's free speech case may lead to legislation', the Hartford Courant reported on the pending case of a Connecticut high school student who was barred from her student council for writing a blog post that school administrators deemed inappropriate. The paper used the case to examine the broader impact the outcome could have on students' free speech at the state and even federal level:

The significance of Doninger's case and other student Internet speech cases elsewhere in the country centers on a thorny question: Does the Internet fundamentally change how people communicate, making previous boundaries between on- and off-campus speech outdated, or does it simply amplify what they say?

In another highly rated news story, 'Finland's education system offers lessons for Dallas,' the Dallas Morning News combined the local with the international in reporting on attempts to reform Dallas schools based on the unique aspects of the Finnish model.

Educators from across the world have looked to Finland for ideas on improving public education. Dallas reformers are especially intrigued with how Finland gets positive results from all of its schools and nearly all of its students – an equality that has been a chronic problem in Texas since the days of racial segregation. Finland also intrigues with its success in math and science ...

Finland's battles to improve education offer ideas for success in Texas – and ideas for avoiding a decline in living standards for a poorly educated population.

In 'To close a school -- a decision rooted in data, but colored by nuance,' the New York Times vetted New York City's abrupt decision shut down an underperforming public school in the Bronx. The story shed light on how such a move affects the community around a school, wherever it may be:

The break-you-down, build-you-up strategy is meant to rattle the system — to warn struggling schools to change or be changed — and open the door for new school leaders and staffs to rehabilitate some of the lowest-performing student populations in the city.

But the decision to close a school is inevitably subjective, based on a mishmash of factors like performance on standardized tests, situations of violence, student demand for the school and whether the school seems capable of turning around. As such, the city inevitably earns the fury of educators, parents and students asking, 'Why our school?'

While most of our top news was rooted in state and local reporting, our top opinion tended to look at large-scale issues surrounding education. Our highest rated was an op-ed penned by President Obama, 'The action Americans need,' that appeared in the Washington Post. A call to support the economic stimulus plan currently being negotiated in Congress, he proposed upgrading 10,000 school facilities, training teachers in math and science, and making college more affordable.

In another important piece, technology writer, academic and NewsTrust advisor Dan Gillmor authored a well received opinion for PBS's MediaShift, 'Journalism education's broader, deeper mission,' in which he argued that journalism schools must not only instill in students the core principles of the trade, but keep pace with its evolving practices.

Journalism educators should be in the vanguard of an absolutely essential shift for society at large: helping our students, and people in our larger communities, to navigate and manage the myriad information streams of a media-saturated world.

We need to help them understand why they need to become activists as consumers -- by taking more responsibility for the quality of what they consume, in large part by becoming more critical thinkers. And they need to understand their emerging role as creators of media.

An opinion from McClatchy, 'Obama must examine No Child Left Behind,'  called for a Congressional overhaul of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program and also drew a favorable rating.

We asked our hosts to comment on the discrepancy between the scope of coverage in our top news and opinion. Dale said that although he sought out education stories that were national in nature, he found few that weren't opinion. He offered this take on why this might be the case:

Education (with the exception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Head Start, Pell Grants, tax credits, student loans and other Federal programs) is for the most part a function of local school boards, and the State governments.  That's where the majority of the funding comes from and that's where the education journalists are stationed. Consequently, the news about what is happening in schools tends to end up as local or state level stories.  The opinion pieces were generally related to, or in response to, the stimulus which is a national conversation.

The big national news last week was the stimulus, and while it had an education component that popped up here and there, the components of the stimulus are in such flux that the education piece pretty much got buried in the reporting.  There was nothing concrete to report.  Obama hasn't had a chance to tackle NCLB reform.  The Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, hasn't gotten to issues of policy yet and is still talking in campaign speak - which is to be expected given the short time he has been in the position.  So the dearth of high quality journalism on a national level also may have been caused by timing to some degree.  The opinion stories listed are born from discussions about anticipated education reform under the stimulus and the new Administration.

Kristin agreed, and found value in the fact that many of our top education stories originated below the national level. She said:

I'm often drawn to local stories because I want real examples to learn from; theory only goes so far in the classroom. Local stories often looked at specifics of problems. As reviewers -- and as educators, parents, teachers and students -- we're interested in case studies, as successful ones could be models for use in other -- even our own -- venues. As for the national opinion pieces which primarily discussed national policy, they are sometimes confirming or enlightening, but are often not practical or useful in solving specific educational problems.

In rating quality stories, a well-written, solidly sourced and in-depth piece about local issues trumps a more general opinion piece about national policy. During the news hunt, I read many echo pieces in various sources which nearly repeated other opinions or editorials. While important in reaching different markets, they didn't always add much new to the debate, or inform.

Read the full text of Kristin's remarks about this News Hunt on her blog, Write Now is Good, and the full text of Dale's remarks on the News Trust Blog.

Here's a sampling of our top rated news and opinion on education:


Senior citizens help young children with reading -- and relationships
China's surge of college graduates finds white-collar work elusive
Christian Science Monitor
Finland's education system offers lessons for Dallas
Dallas Morning News
New Jersey issues annual school report cards
New York Times
Miami-Dade schools can yank book on Cuba
Miami Herald
The jobless go back to school and, they hope, work
Wall Street Journal
To close a school -- a decision rooted in data, but colored by nuance
New York Times
School study cites 'achievement gap'
Aurora Beacon News
Student's free speech case may lead to legislation
Hartford Courant
Houston dropout rate vexes outgoing schools chief
Houston Chronicle


The action Americans need
Washington Post
Journalism education's broader, deeper mission
Throwing schools out the window
New York Times
Investing in our human infrastructure: The real wealth of our nation is in its people
Obama must examine No Child Left Behind
Grand experiment: A public editor for education
Columbia Journalism Review

Top rated stories on Education (full list)
Top stories from the Education News Hunt (full list)

Thanks to our partners at Ashoka and our hosts
This News Hunt was a tremendous success thanks to the collaboration and support from our partners at Ashoka. It's a pleasure to have worked alongside such a remarkable group of innovators -- and we look forward to teaming up again in the future. Thanks to Keith Hammond and Stephanie Savell from the News and Knowledge Group, and all the wonderful members of the Ashoka team, including Katherine Hutt, Erika Bowman, Tom Dawkins, Allison Frieze, Lennon Flowers, Salem Paulos, and Beverly Schwartz.

We're grateful to Ashoka for electing NewsTrust's founder and executive director Fabrice Florin an Ashoka fellow in 2008.

We'd also like to extend an enormous thanks to Dale and Kristin for their exemplary leadership in our education News Hunt. They burrowed deep into the week's education coverage, bringing us an impressive selection of under-the-radar stories from many sources mainstream and independent. Their efforts are an inspiration to all of us.

This week: U.S. Congress
Our featured topic this week is U.S. Congress. With job losses mounting, the Obama Administration is under pressure to push an economic stimulus plan through Congress in short order. But Congressional Democrats are facing strong opposition from Republicans concerned about excessive government spending and waste. Help us find journalism that illuminates the complexities of the stimulus plan, and the politics that are shaping how the money will be spent, on our U.S. Congress topic page.


-- By Derek Hawkins, with Fabrice Florin and Kaizar Campwala



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