EWA’s New President, Greg Toppo on a ‘New Era for Education and the Press’


EWA’s New President, Greg Toppo on a ‘New Era for Education and the Press’

By Sydney Johnson     Jun 3, 2017

EWA’s New President, Greg Toppo on a ‘New Era for Education and the Press’

There’s a new chief in town at the Education Writers Association, and he’s no stranger to the organization or beat. Greg Toppo, a seasoned education reporter at USA Today, this week made one of his first appearances as board president before the entire membership in Washington D.C. Toppo, a former teacher and author of “ The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter,” started the week off with a few words on journalism’s current climate: “We talk about the power of the press, but individual reporters are actually pretty vulnerable.”

The words seamlessly weaved into the theme of the event, “A New Era for Education and the Press,” which Toppo discussed in his keynote address with Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron.EdSurge pulled Toppo aside to learn what that means to him, ask him about his new role, and what he thinks about the elephant that was not in the room at this year’s gathering. (This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

EdSurge: The theme of this year’s conference is “A New Era for Education and the Press.” What are some of the changes that you’ve seen in education that education reporters have to respond to, and what makes the job today different than when you first started covering?

Greg Toppo: That’s a good question. This administration has such a totally different focus than the last one. In a way, we [previously] had eight years of...I wouldn’t call it complacency, but eight years of getting into the weeds of lots of different policy debates. Now it’s choice, school loans and state accountability—and it seems like that’s it. There’s just a very different focus.

I think it’s always changing...what we’re supposed to be focusing on what we’re supposed to be thinking about. [Today] I think we’re going to see that technology is going to a place it really hasn’t gone before.

How much of a role can technology play in really changing education, versus just testing some fancy ideas or gadgets out?

There are lots of pieces to this. One piece I’m most familiar with is the game space. I started researching for my book on this in 2011, and that came out 2015. I think educators today have a totally different orientation to technology, games and simulations in the classroom. People are more comfortable with it. They’re expecting more out of it. They want it to be user friendly and have a really smooth interface. They’re not going to put up with something really badly made.

That’s been really interesting to me. You know, I just did a story a couple weeks ago about this group that they’re coming up with what’s basically the Spotify of learning games. They are sort of collecting all the appropriate learning games that have been created in the past several years, and curating them in a way that teachers can use. I can see a tool like that really raising teachers’ expectations because they’ll say, “Okay, I saw this game, but if I cannot fit it into this rubric in a very useful way, to heck with it.” Whereas ten years ago, it’d be like, “I will do anything to get any halfway decent game.”

There wasn’t much, or hardly any, mention of technology or the administration’s recent budget. Is the new era of education technology going to be mainly driven by companies and educators themselves, or do you see the administration playing a role?

I think [the Tump administration] is going to have to because what’s the number one thing they want? Everybody knows this. Betsy DeVos wants choice. Okay, but every kid in America doesn’t live in a place with lots of choices. Many kids live in rural states, rural areas. How do you provide them with another choice when there’s only one school in town? You’re going to have to think about technology. But the technological solutions we’ve got now like, virtual schools, have not really distinguished themselves very well. If anything, it’s the other direction. [Virtual school providers] have soured people on this idea that you can offer rural kids choice.

I don’t want to be making a blanket statement about all distance learning. I wouldn’t say all distance learning is terrible, but this field has a long way to go and if we have an administration that values giving kids choices, then they’re going to have to put some time and effort and resources into making that sector more mature.

There's still an overwhelming percent of the population that doesn’t have access to these technologies, whether it’s hardware, software or even bandwidth. What do you think will be the administration’s role in that?

It can help to lead the way. I don’t see any other way. They’re going to have to figure out all these solutions in terms of rural wifi and like you say, all these other infrastructure questions. They cannot expect someone else to do it if this is a priority for them. I’m not sure how they’re going to do it.

In a way, it’s not like a liberal or conservative thing. Well, Silicon Valley is full of libertarians, right? They think wifi is just a good. It’s a thing that people have. That’s going to be a really interesting thing whether [the administration] is going to cut loose with enough money to make some of those investments. I don’t know if they will.

As inequality develops in terms of access to technology and then access to careers that require technology training, what are some of the questions that reporters should be asking?

To me, one of the interesting things that’s going on is that the industry is starting to basically stop waiting around for something to happen. If they need workers who can do X, they’re going out and basically creating those workers.

For example, just last week I wrote about this Apple announcement that they’re going to basically give away their app design curriculum to a bunch of community colleges. My sense is that if you’re Apple, you do that for one of two reasons. Number one, you want to be a good corporate citizen or number two, you don’t have enough app developers to make the app store a relevant place. That’s the answer.

So I would say if I’m a local school reporter and the area that I cover is all about 21st century skills or making kids tech-savvy or giving them skills to compete in this global economy, ask, “What’s the investment that [schools] are making?” Just look more closely at that.

Where do trends like personalized learning and blended learning fit in?

People are certainly thinking about it. I like to think they’re thinking about it in slightly different ways. I think they’re realizing that it doesn’t always have to be tech-focused, but there are different ways to get personalized education by just refocusing how you deliver instruction or what you want kids to do. Project-based learning to me is personal, but you can do that without any technology at all. I think that’s hopeful. I think people ought to just keep thinking in those terms. You don’t need a tech solution so if you have one, great, but that shouldn’t put the cart before the horse, I guess.

Let’s talk more about your new role as president of the EWA board. What are some goals that you have in the next year? Any plans in mind?

I don’t have any big plans yet but one of the things I want to do is just talk to lots and lots of members and just find out what are they needing. What kinds of things do they think we can do for them? Maybe there are some solutions we can offer or help them get access to.

We had this conversation very informally just the other day. I was in my newsroom and I was talking to one of my colleagues about this transcription app called Trint. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than a lot of what I’ve seen. It got my gears turning, but if I’m a reporter, I cannot afford whatever it is, 15 bucks an hour. But what if I got some kind of group discount? Maybe we can get an EWA and institutional discount because we do have it. We’re really here to educate our members and help them do their job better.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately around improving diversity among the board. How you plan on addressing that in both the organizations as well as in the organization’s leadership?

You’re referring to the fact that the entire board is now male?


If you were to sit in on the board meeting, you’d realize that diversity is a huge, huge priority for this group. Mostly, we think of it in terms of racial and ethnic diversity. If you look at the board itself, I mean it’s pretty diverse. But we also think about geographic diversity, we don’t want our entire board to be on the east coast.

The fact is that there’s all these men on the board, but we actually didn’t even think much about it until somebody pointed it out. It’s not like we can change it overnight because you know, people will serve for a year or two. But we do have this diversity inclusion task force. I guess the short answer is they’re taking it very seriously because the membership is incredibly diverse. Just look across the room one of these days when we’re all eating lunch. I mean, it’s really quite remarkable.

And how are you addressing it or what are you talking about?

We're talking about what different reporters need to feel like they're welcome in the organization and in their newsrooms. I feel like one of the biggest issues of the election was that we ignored rural education. Somebody can make a case that maybe we ignore rural education reporters.

The other thing I wanted to bring up is this elephant or, rather, the elephant not in the room: Betsy DeVos is not showing up this year. What do you think reporters and readers should be thinking about in terms of this administration’s lack of transparency and not being responsive to the press?

There are a couple pieces to this. The first piece is accessibility to Betsy DeVos herself. I’ve talked to members because I really want to find out, “What’s been your experience?” What I found is that it’s improved a little bit since January, but not quite enough. She’s more accessible on certain days to certain elements, but not in the way that we’ve come to expect.

She certainly does not have any interest, from what I’ve seen, in terms of taking questions from the press in any kind of open forum. Most of her events have been very structured.

I can understand maybe she is...I don’t know if intimidated is the right word? Maybe she just didn’t want to bother with the hassle of talking to 350 reporters here. I mean I could fully understand why she felt maybe things would be difficult because she’s had some difficult interactions with Congress. The press has been there to watch. It cannot be easy for that kind of thing to unfold.

My sense is that she’s [previously] been able to control her message. But the plea that I made and the organization has made is they’re not going to bite your head off. We’re like a polite group. We hope she’ll come next year.

From left to right: Greg Toppo, Caroline Hendrie, Marty Baron (Image credit: G. James for EWA)


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