For reporters looking to pitch stories on changes to the main federal K-12 education law, Chalkbeat Indiana Bureau Chief Scott Elliott has some advice: Don’t say “ESSA.”
The acronym refers to the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law last December, which gives states and school districts – among other things – more freedom in how they set classroom expectations.
Laying out the details of a labyrinthine federal policy rewrite might make many editors’ and readers’ eyes glaze over, so reporters should be mindful of that when they pitch ESSA-related stories, Elliott told journalists at a recent Education Writers Association conference in Chicago.
“Instead, go to your editor and say, ‘Did you know that everything in the state is going to change around testing in this way?’” Elliott said. “That’s how I would try to pitch it.”
Elliott and Steve Drummond, the head of NPR’s education reporting team, shared story ideas involving the new law and how to engage editors and the public.
For Drummond, the first story reporters should pursue is about students who miss school. Under the new law, school districts must define chronic absenteeism — widely seen as missing roughly three weeks of school – and collect data on it. This poses a big opportunity for journalists to break out of the pattern of familiar angles on school improvement, Drummond said.
“I think we spend a lot of time talking about the classrooms and what uniforms the kids are wearing and all of these strategies designed to improve student achievement,” he said. But the “most basic one is to get kids to school every day, and we skip right over that.”
Another idea: changes in accountability measures. The new law requires states to incorporate indicators beyond test scores in how they assess schools. What will those look like? How will the lowest-performing schools be identified? And what do states plan to do to improve them?
ESSA also includes several new provisions geared toward homeless students, including a requirement for states to calculate their graduation rates. Reporters should use that as an opportunity to write about homelessness when there might not otherwise be a here-and-now angle to it, Drummond said.
“It’s really hard to be reporting on the homeless sometimes when there isn’t a (legislative) bill or news peg or something going on,” he said. “And (the new law)gives you a built-in news peg.”
ESSA also allows states to decide on the consequences for schools if too many students opt out of taking standardized state tests. Drummond suggested reporters use the law to explore the idea of how many tests students should be taking.
Reporters should pick one of the law’s four big areas of change – testing, accountability, Title I funding and school turnaround – and focus on which is most applicable to their state, Chalkbeat editor Elliott said. States will have more freedom under the new law on how to use Title I funds, which gives reporters an opportunity to look at how it will impact their state, he noted.
ESSA will keep a holdover from its predecessor, No Child Left Behind, on tracking low-performing schools. What do school turnarounds look like under the new law?
“Go to some of the schools that have been struggling, and go to any that might have any degree of turnaround or success, and ask them what they think would make a difference for failing schools,” Elliott said.
Regardless of the topic, reporters should be mindful of how to talk policy with parents using plain terms, he said. That’s the key to getting perspectives on otherwise complex subjects from individuals who may not have a background in education.
At NPR, Drummond said reporters have been experimenting with alternative story forms, including round-table formats in which experts riff on a given topic. ESSA, he said, provides ample opportunity for that type of format because it’s rooted in basic questions. What makes an effective teacher? What’s a good or bad school?
Ultimately, the best stories lie in the gray areas of how ESSA provisions apply to those questions, he said. The tell-tale characteristic: Is it something people might not know?