среда, 4 июня 2008 г.

School Law's Story: Read All About It

Cathy Grimes has become something of an expert on the No Child Left Behind Act. She keeps a copy of the hefty federal law at her desk — and has actually read it.

Ms. Grimes isn't a school administrator or state education official. She doesn't work at a think tank, either. She's the education reporter for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in southeastern Washington state.

As with a lot of other reporters in the mainstream media, understanding the complex law has become part of her job.

Last September, her newspaper ran a five-part, 18-story series explaining the ins and outs of the bipartisan legislation and putting it in context. The series also connected the law with the schools and people in her community, such as Gail Callahan, a 1st grade teacher at Walla Walla's Blue Ridge Elementary School.

"My readers didn't seem to have an idea of what it was," said Ms. Grimes, a 10-year veteran of education reporting. "There was a feeling that somebody had to explain the law, explain its significance."

Some longtime observers of federal policy say the sheer volume of No Child Left Behind stories being published or aired is unprecedented for an education law.

Across the country, from The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., to the Albuquerque Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, the 2 ½-year-old law has increasingly become a magnet for press attention. It is also getting airtime on radio and, to a lesser extent, television news.

The news media have been a rich source of information and, critics say, misinformation at times.

What the reporters and commentators say in their news stories and opinion pieces matters a lot. After all, the media are the main source for helping millions of Americans understand the law and watch it unfold. The coverage is closely monitored by the U.S. Department of Education, teachers' unions, and others with a big stake in how the public perceives the law, and they've worked hard to influence how the media depict it.

If there's one thing many supporters and critics of the No Child Left Behind Act seem to agree on, it's that the coverage is getting more sophisticated. They say journalists have developed expertise on the subject and are increasingly digging below the surface to give the public a more nuanced perspective.

"On the whole, journalists have put an enormous amount of energy into getting it right," said Richard Lee Colvin, a former education reporter for the Los Angeles Times who now directs the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University. They're getting better at it." 'Amazed' at Attention

There are some clear reasons for the media's interest. For starters, the No Child Left Behind Act touches virtually every public school and district in the nation with its tough requirements for improving student achievement overall and ending the achievement gaps between various categories of students.

The legislation, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has been a central part of President Bush's domestic agenda, and his administration has touted the measure almost nonstop since Mr. Bush signed it into law in January 2002.

It's also controversial, a big selling point to the press. The law has faced widespread complaints from educators and teachers' unions, local and state officials, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, who voted for it but has been criticizing it on the campaign trail.

Even so, some experts find the abundance of stories, well after the law was signed, striking.

"Amazed is probably a more apt term," said Christopher T. Cross, an education consultant and former assistant U.S. secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. "It has been on television, in regional and local newspapers, just all around the country where I go."

"It is remarkable," agreed Mr. Colvin. The law, he said, hands reporters a "steady stream of news hooks."

For one, each year it singles out schools by name that have not made what is deemed adequate yearly progress. Schools receiving federal Title I aid that repeatedly fall short of a state's performance targets for such progress face federally driven consequences, such as allowing parents to choose another public school for their children. And a lot of schools are falling short.

In many states, the law is generating far more publicly available student achievement data than ever before. It also calls for "highly qualified" teachers in every classroom, and requires Title I schools to notify parents if their child's teacher falls short.

It all amounts to a gold mine of story ideas for reporters. And they've delivered. The No Child Left Behind Act has generated thousands of stories; new ones appear practically every day.

A sample of headlines this year includes:

* "Critics Calling for Overhaul of No Child Left Behind" in the March 21 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette;
* "Floodgate Could Open On School Transfers" in the June 13 Orlando Sentinel;
* "Paige Sees School That Works; Secretary Praises Amistad Academy" in the April 30 Hartford Courant; and
* "Fifth-grade Band Could Be 'No Child' Casualty" in the Feb. 21 Kansas City Star.

In Raleigh, The News & Observer has run a long list of No Child Left Behind stories over the past year.

Last summer, reporter Todd Silberman wrote a front-page article headlined "Braced for Bad Marks," to help prepare readers for the state's pending announcement of how schools had fared under the federal law. In October, he took readers to Raleigh's Millbrook Elementary School to illustrate how the law was snagging some schools solely because students with disabilities fell short of testing goals.

Just last month he wrote: "Without a single improved test score, more than 300 additional North Carolina schools could meet hard-to-reach goals this year under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The state wants to make it easier by taking advantage of exceptions, exemptions, and other technical allowances the federal government is permitting."

Mr. Silberman says the complicated law can make it tough going as a subject for his paper.

"The biggest challenge that I've faced in covering No Child Left Behind is making it understandable for readers," he said in an interview. "The potential for confusion is pretty great. ... At a recent meeting, it made me think of the federal tax code."

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