What is Education Journalism's Role in Solving Equity Issues? From the Floor of 2016 EWA Conference

What is Education Journalism's Role in Solving Equity Issues? From the Floor of 2016 EWA Conference

U.S. Secretary of Education John King (R) speaks with Greg Toppo of USA Today (L) about computer-based assessments. / Katherine Taylor for Education Writers Association (EWA)

“Failure factory” schools in Pinellas County, Florida. Computer-based assessments highlighting nationwide WiFi inequities. Read news from the past few years, and you’ll find that public dialogue on education in the United States is riddled with issues of segregation and inequity. Who should chronicle these inequities, or describe potential solutions? Perhaps policymakers, or teachers, or students?

What about education journalists?

From May 1-3, the Education Writers Association (EWA) posed those questions at its 69th annual conference in Boston, MA. After all, it’s not every day that you get 320 of the country’s education journalists all in one room, lobbing inquiries at the Secretary of Education or discussing how to better search for stories.

Education journalism itself isn’t without its own inequities. On Sunday, EWA released a report on the profession of writing about education (entitled “State of the Education Beat”), detailing the outlooks and demographics of education reporters. Among respondents, 79 percent of responding education journalists are female, but women on the beat make $3,000 less per year than the male minority, on average. EWA also found that 78 percent of education journalists are white, compared with 91 percent nationally—a finding that underscored the conference’s theme of “The Quest for Quality and Equity,” which in many cases manifested in a focus on racial inequality.

Edtech coverage proves relatively uncommon in coverage, and even less common when those beats (meaning particular topics or subject areas that a reporter covers) combine technology and inequity. During a Q&A session at the opening luncheon, one reporter asked whether edtech and digital education coverage is common amongst education reporters. EWA Executive Director Caroline Hendrie answered that among the reporters who participated in EWA’s surveys, geographic beats (such as local city or state coverage) predominate, while edtech beats are few and far between.

There was a silver lining: EWA found that 95 percent of education journalists believe their work makes a difference. As such, a number of panels, announcements and Q&A’s dove into popular topics of the day, and what topics education journalists should be covering—both technology-related and otherwise.

On Inequities in K-12

JOHN KING ON COMPUTER-BASED TESTS: Current U.S. Secretary of Education John King spoke at the conference’s Monday luncheon, praising the convention’s focus on equity and inequality, and skirting the question of whether he’ll stay in office if offered the chance. King also addressed a reporter from Chalkbeat Tennessee, who asked about the effects of Tennessee’s failure to administer computer-based state-mandated tests. “The move to computer-based testing has been inequitable,” King said, but urged patience: “We have to accept that this move will have glitches.” King recommended that Tennessee should look to the responses from Nevada, North Dakota and Montana; all three states cancelled testing in 2015.

SCHOOL SEGREGATION DIVES DEEP: At one of several EWA panels on school segregation, EdSurge asked what technology’s role is (or could be) in the fight against racial separation. While the entire panel was silent at first, Chris Stewart from Education Post eventually joked that digital “pen pal systems” between students will not replace integration in New York City, and that in the past, officials had thought to use a Skype-esque technology for “white students to wave at black students.”

Moderator Kyle Spencer, a contributing writer for the New York Times and the Hechinger Report, mentioned that videos can play a role in school board meetings about integration. “A video of two black students fighting is a striking visual to a white school board considering integration, but it’s also not the whole story,” Spencer shared. “There may be fights, but there may also be great A.P. classes.” The power of video is twofold, she says—the technology that records students fighting also empowers them to tape police violence in schools.

FIXING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE: Keith Krueger of the Consortium for School Networking aimed to educate reporters about the technological inequalities facing families and schools in an “Inequities in Technology: Bridging the Digital Divide” panel. Krueger laid out the three largest “gap” issues facing face schools and families: a device gap, a broadband access gap and a gap in technical literacy. He reiterated much of CoSN’s 2016 annual report in saying that broadband is currently the most dire of the three. Picking up on the thread of technical literacy, Katrina Stevens of the U.S. Department of Education highlighted the “digital use divide,” and how differences in how students use technology—whether as passive consumers or active drivers of their education—often play out on socioeconomic lines.

On Inequities in Higher Education

Discussions about higher education issues have shifted from college access to college completion, if EWA is any indication. When it comes to going to college, minority students are catching up to white students. But while white students graduate at a rate of about 46 percent, black students graduate at a rate of 22 percent and Latino students at 15 percent. “We’re shifting incentives from just getting students to enroll, to getting students to graduate,” King said.

ADVICE ON ADVISING: The importance of counseling before and during college came up in nearly every higher education session. “If you think about the students who require the most help, who need that counselor, they are not getting the attention and resources they need,” said Eric Waldo of Reach Higher, Michelle Obama’s initiative to encourage students to complete education beyond high school. He cited California’s embarrassing ratio of guidance counselors to high school students: one to 1000. Mary C. Murphy of the College Transition Collaborative (CTC) explained how her organization plans targeted interventions to keep socially-disadvantaged students on track to graduate. “Social psychological factors are an underrecognized barrier in college persistence and achievement,” Murphy said.

TRANSFER HERE: This is the year we’ll start to see selective institutions taking community colleges more seriously, said Scott Jaschik, cofounder and editor of Inside Higher Ed. Princeton University, which has denied transfers for the past two decades, will begin accepting them next year. Northwestern University recently announced it will offer annual scholarships of up to $50,000 to City Colleges of Chicago students who are admitted as undergraduate students and transfer to Northwestern. The interest in community colleges “will change the way we talk about prestige and the way we talk about certain student services,” Jaschik said.

DIGITAL IDENTITY CRISIS: Small liberal arts institutions have sold students on their low student-teacher ratios and intimate group discussions. But some are starting to see backlash from digital course offerings, Jaschik said, because students expect in-person experiences. He also raised questions about how online courses are being evaluated. “If someone tells you they’re saving a ton of money, you should look carefully. Good online instruction isn’t cheap—it requires student support services, academic advising, good faculty, IT support.”

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