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The Stories Behind the Numbers: Why Education Data Matters

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Today’s guest blogger is Lori Crouch, assistant director of the Education Writers Association. This post also appears on the Data Quality Campaign website.

The old joke in the newsroom goes something like this: “I majored in journalism because I’m no good at math.”

You hear that sentiment too often in newsrooms. Reporters pride themselves as wordsmiths, not number crunchers.

That attitude is slowly changing. And those journalists on the education beat will have to adapt even more quickly with the wealth of data that are becoming more prevalent, more accessible, and more essential. A reporter at the smallest news organization can now download spreadsheets from the US Department of Education’s National Center on Education Statistics or Office for Civil Rights, and from various state education divisions — to say nothing of megabytes of accessible test scores, graduation statistics, and discipline numbers.

Journalists who cover education not only have to write compelling stories about what happens in the classroom, but also must examine the data—and the numbers—that describe why those important stories are taking place.

The National Education Writers Association (EWA) has seen plenty of good data projects by our members. Just last month, California Watch posted a story that showed not as many educators in lower-performing classrooms lacked credentials as the state originally projected. And certainly USA Today’s look at test-erasure data nationwide led to heated discussions in schools, parent chat rooms, and school board chambers. The same holds true for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s examination of potential cheating. EdNews Colorado found that full-time online high school students were losing ground to their peers on every academic indicator.

But journalists’ use of data has considerable room to grow. The practice of using data in the newsroom should go beyond special projects to become daily practice. We need more reporters like Holly Hacker of the Dallas Morning News who can find the stories in numbers as few others can.

With that in mind, EWA launched an annual “Diving Into Data” workshop for journalists who cover education last March in Denver, with the help of the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

Our participants brought sets of data to the workshop, where they worked with data coaches to analyze the numbers. Not all data sets led to substantive projects, but the reporters have applied the skills they learned to daily news as well.

Here are some highlights:

· Two reporters from the workshop explored teacher turnover rates in their communities. Francisco Vara-Orto of the San Antonio Express-News found that local charter schools experienced dramatically higher turnover rates when compared to traditional bricks-and-mortar campuses. Hayley Ringle of the Arizona Republic discovered that teacher turnover rates had climbed in two-thirds of the school districts in Maricopa County.

· Alyson Klein of Education Week used her Excel skills to build a spreadsheet on sequestration to inform her story on its impact.

· Ann Dornfeld of KUOW in Seattle found that Native American students were pulled out of classes to have their fluency in English tested despite resistance from parents and students.

· Julie Mack of the Kalamazoo Gazette used her data training to launch a four-part series looking at a school district’s efforts to turn itself around.

· Maggie Gordon of the Stamford Advocate found a high rate of absenteeism among Stamford teachers, tying it to research showing the more a teacher is absent, the further his or her students will fall behind.

Other efforts are in the works and EWA would love to share them with the Data Quality Campaign in the future. In addition, we’ll be holding our second annual “Diving Into Data” workshop at the University of Texas at Austin, tentatively scheduled for February 22–25.

Journalists are only getting started in mining the data, and we hope to see more of these stories in the very near future.