Tuesday, November 13, 2007

School Reporting Means Asking Questions, not Cheerleading

Our local school district, the DeSoto Editor reports, is planning to apply for a grant that might bring a little money into the district – she doesn’t find out how much money – for the purpose of hiring a “curriculum specialist” who’ll analyze data “to drive instructional decisions.” The DeSoto Editor does not report asking anyone to explain what this gobbledygook means.

The DeSoto Editor dutifully copies two “goals” from the grant application's form into her notebook: increase academic achievement and increase the percentage of graduating students. Since these are the day-to-day aims, most people might agree, of public education, the DeSoto Editor might reasonably raise her hand and ask someone to address how the “news” will change anything.

Instead, the DeSoto Editor copies more from the grant application: The (unreported amount of) money will help students “close the achievement gap.” The gap between what two things? The DeSoto Editor doesn’t otherwise mention a gap and doesn’t report asking anyone in the school district which gap it is we’re dealing with here.

A Sample of What We're Missing ...

It was only last week that the national wires were abuzz with a Johns Hopkins University study characterizing Florida schools as “dropout factories.” Readers might reasonably expect the DeSoto Editor to recognize today's grant-application news is a great place to explore some context for that study. Is the local graduation rate she reports of “nearly 71 percent” – actually it’s 70.6 percent – up or down from last year’s graduation rate? (It’s up. Up from 63.5 percent of the local student body whom Florida Department of Education counted as graduates in 2005, and up from 68.9 percent in 2006.) Is this morning’s reported figure above or below the state-wide rate? (It’s below: In 2005, the state-wide graduation rate was 71.9 percent and in 2006 it was 75.2 percent, according to FDOE data.) How do the local numbers compare with neighboring districts? (Charlotte graduated 79.5 percent, Sarasota 82.5 percent, and Hardee -- demographically a better match -- graduated 68.9 percent of their Classes of 2006.)

The newest graduation-rate data for the class of 2007 was released about two weeks ago to school districts, but is not yet on-line. The DeSoto Editor hasn’t found time or space yet to report to readers these latest figures. She hasn’t had to time to learn how graduation rates are calculated (she might be surprised), why “graduation rate” and “dropout rate” don’t add up to 100 percent, or what it means to send a student off into the world with a “standard diploma,” as opposed to some other kind. There are all kinds of meaty stories in the halls of school administrators – for a reporter who is willing to develop sources, ask relevant questions, and cultivate the skills of a reporter.

There are even interesting ways to "put a face on the numbers" that reporters and editors routinely use to draw readers into stories they might otherwise skip. Call me, and I'll describe a few of them.

Readers and subscribers deserve school-district reporting that does more than the hired cheerleaders already do. School districts, in case DeSoto Editor forgot, are funded with property tax collections. Taxpayers – sorry to beat this old drum – deserve to know, in plain English, how the money is spent and what the investment yields. If DeSoto Editor can't tell readers more than what's on the published agenda for tonight's school board meeting, she's a cheerleader, not a journalist.

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