Ten on the Books
If there is one moment in the 10-year history of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media that sums it up for Richard Lee Colvin, it's the evening in fall 2002 when Rod Paige, U.S. Secretary of Education in the new Bush Administration, met with a room full of education editors at a seminar in Wingspread, Wisconsin.
No, what made the evening memorable was not that sparks flew as the leading avatar of the federal No Child Left Behind Act fended off the liberal press. In fact, it was very much the opposite.
"Paige was a guy who came off as being very stiff when he gave speeches, and here he was, being questioned by editors from most of the major papers in the country not only about technical aspects of NCLB, but also about it's underlying philosophy," Colvin recalls. "And he was very relaxed, because we'd all just had dinner together, and he'd had a glass of wine, and he made a very clear and eloquent case for how NCLB would help kids like him who grew up poor and black. And I think everyone saw a different side of him."
Whether it's seeing another side of a public figure like Paige or getting tips from an expert like Naomi Houseman, head of the National High School Alliance, on how to assess high schools' self-reported graduation rates, the Hechinger Institute has lived by its mandate to-'"as former TC President Arthur Levine originally put it in a conversation with Hechinger's founding director Gene Maeroff-'""enable journalists from major news organizations to deepen their knowledge" of the issues that surround education coverage.
"The newspaper industry is notoriously bad at investing in professional development," says Colvin, a former education writer for the Los Angeles Times. "The expectation is that people who are smart, curious and engaged in gathering information will naturally learn what they need to learn to do their jobs well. So the first thing that Hechinger provides is a more formal setting in which to engage with the most important policy makers, researchers and political figures around the issues of education."
Named for the late New York Times education editor (and TC trustee) Fred Hechinger, the Institute also helps editors and writers "connect to trends and issues occurring nationally and statewide"-'"essential, Colvin says, because, as a beat, "education is hyper-local. Education coverage gets framed as looking at what's happening in the readership's schools, which can make it difficult to connect to the larger picture."
The Institute's main teaching venue is the seminar-'"usually held during the course of a weekend-'"of which it has held some 45 in 10 years, attended by more than 1,000 journalists. One of its most enduringly popular events, Maeroff says, is a crash course that immerses people new to the education beat in nuts-and-bolts topics such as how to analyze a district school budget. "Education writing has a good deal of turnover," he says, "and people come with no particular background in the subject." Other topics have included pre-kindergarten, the role of unions in collective bargaining and NCLB itself.
"These are not junkets," says Andrew Rotherman, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and the founder of EduWonk, a prominent education blog, who has also served as a Hechinger panelist. "They're working events, and reporters who come to them come because they genuinely want to learn. Usually they've had to deal with people plying various agendas in their jobs, but Hechinger gives them a place where people will call it straight. Richard works so hard to make sure that reporters get all sides of an issue."
Colvin's efforts on that front include making sure that the Institute is editorially independent from Teachers College. Certainly TC faculty have served on Hechinger panels-'"in fact, last year, one seminar was devoted to a study on the quality of leadership programs in the nation's education schools. But the criteria for inclusion is always that a person or topic must be of genuine interest and importance to the education press-'"and that competing views are well represented.
"We made it clear from the start that we were not going to be an arm for promoting the College," says Maeroff, who was the New York Times' national education correspondent for 16 years. "If we hadn't done that, we would have had no credibility in the journalism community."
Maeroff and Colvin credit both Levine, who did "the hard work of raising the initial funds for the Institute," and the late Barbara Goodman, TC Trustee and Hechinger's advisory board chair, for respecting that stance.
"They've understood our position from the first and TC's faculty has, too," Colvin says.
The Institute also does research, such as a study of how the nation's newspapers cover issues around pre-K-'"considered one of the most important venues for improving achievement among disadvantaged students. Part one of the study gathered anecdotal assessments from education reporters about how much attention their own papers pay to the subject. Part two has since measured actual numbers of stories on pre-K in these publications. A key finding has been that many major papers allot no specific coverage to pre-K and often lump it with another subject like day care.
Out of that work has come a publication for reporters, entitled "Covering the Campaign to Expand and Improve Pre-Kindergarten." This 40-page primer includes articles by beat reporters from around the country, as well as a listing of top Web sites that focus on pre-K issues.
Perhaps the major future challenge for the Institute will be anticipating and reflecting changes in the industry, says Colvin. With consolidation of ownership and a huge shift to online readership, the newspaper business is in a different place than it was 10 years ago, he says. "The idea that people would be writing in-depth pieces was a reasonable theory," he says. "In some papers it's still reasonable. But a lot of coverage is really being compromised."
One new development within the field of education reporting has been the rise of blogs, with official ones now operated by former education reporters, newspapers, education foundations and even teachers unions. "They will be an important audience for us," says Colvin. "We will try to serve the needs of bloggers for information and context, and we will have to serve the interests of newspapers that are starting education blogs. For a while, the sense was that the Internet was going to kill newspapers. I don't think that will happen. The real challenge will be how to migrate that franchise from hard copy to a mixture of hard copy and electronic delivery of information."
After 10 years of seminars and publications and making itself known in the education world, the big question is: Has this big idea, as implemented by Maeroff, Colvin and others, been a success? It can be a tricky question to answer-'"What does success mean? How can it be measured?-'"but a number of metrics leave a positive outlook.
One good sign is the continued financial support Hechinger has received from foundations around the nation. "There the evidence is quite clear," said Colvin. "We can raise more than sufficient funds to expand our work. Our supporters continue to be enthusiastic."
Ultimately, though, the goal is to provide a better product for readers. And on that front, Hechinger's leaders believe they are at least making a dent.
"People are covering areas that they might not have been as prone to cover before," Maeroff says. "How they cover them is their business, but at least they're writing the stories."
Published Monday, Sep. 18, 2006