Education Reporters and Educators Reflect on the Role of EWA in Its 75th Year

From journalists to policymakers, read 12 diverse perspectives on the 75-year-old education nonprofit. They identified five areas where EWA plays a key role, and shared their thoughts on each one.

EWA members at 2022 National Seminar
Photo Credit: James Minichello, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

When the Education Writers Association began, the year was 1947. The United States was enjoying  economic growth after World War II, at the beginning of the baby boom. By law, public schools were still segregated by race. Newspapers arrived in multiple editions each day; families gathered around radios for news and entertainment, as television news was still in its infancy.

Much has changed since then, in the society at large, the nation’s public schools and education journalism. As the needs of education reporters and editors evolved, EWA has grown and adapted with them. In particular, during the last 15 years’ transformation of journalism and growth of digital media, as metro newspaper staffs dwindled, EWA has filled the gap with institutional knowledge and professional development, according to education journalists and policy makers interviewed for this piece. They identified five areas where EWA plays a key role, and shared thoughts on each one, including the future.

SEE PHOTOS:  A timeline of EWA’s history

Educational Resources on Covering Schools and School Districts

Devi Shastri, former higher education reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “There are EWA sessions from which I still have my notes, and I use them to find sources. I have emailed Kim Clark multiple times to ask for any sources I can reach out to or people I can talk to, or even any context to make sure that I’m going in the right direction. And her specific expertise is so, so helpful. It’s crazy because EWA is a national, big-name organization, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. Everybody’s so accessible, and I feel like I can reach out to them any time if I need support.”

Rupen Fofaria, a reporter at EducationNC in Raleigh. “Having an organization like EWA is incredibly helpful because of all of the resources that they provide, the community that they provide. One of my earliest experiences was with the EWA New to the Beat program. That fellowship was incredible. In two days, they just give you this incredible primer on education, and where to find stories and how to cover state and local education. … Because of the school funding presentation that they had offered for us, I also knew where to look, where to request information, to find out more about how North Carolina is funding what we call Exceptional Children.”

“The secret sauce for me with EWA is that they provide all these resources, then they give us examples through reporters of how to use the resources, and then the final layer is this community of reporters they’ve brought together. I still hear [from] people from my New to the Beat program that I keep in touch with.”

Liz Bowie, an education reporter at The Baltimore Banner. “Education reporting has grown as a priority for newspapers, especially in the last eight to 10 years. EWA has really helped elevate and support the work. Young reporters now see education as a beat that they’re drawn to and want to do, as opposed to the beat in the corner that only a few people ever wanted. It’s just as prestigious to cover education as any other beat.”

“The National Seminars are really amazing. Most people come back and are full of ideas. What I’ve really appreciated about the National Seminar is that each session often has people who don’t just speak education jargon and not say anything. They usually try to get people with very different points of views on panels. You can see where the fissures are. That’s been really helpful to me as a reporter.”

Professional Development to Sharpen Journalists’ Skills 

Elizabeth Green, chief executive officer of Chalkbeat, based in Washington, D.C.“The field of education is lucky to have EWA because it really creates a community of people who love to cover education and learn about education and give those people resources to do their jobs better. It’s an incredibly important organization. It was really important in my career and the careers of so many other education reporters.”

“I was on the board in 2009-2010. Around that time was when Caroline Hendrie’s tenure started. The organization has professionalized a lot, which was exactly the right timing because the field was suffering and needed the support, as editors disappeared who could’ve in a previous world offered some of that expertise. Not only did EWA step into that void, but even improved upon it, by the creation of a public editor’s desk and the resources of real expertise about this incredibly complicated topic. It is so valuable to education journalists. I’m a huge fan of not just the National Seminar, but all the stuff that happens between meetings.”

“To have your peers every year step back and look at the work you produced and recognize it and honor it is incredibly important. I’m so grateful for the institution that has come to exist of the awards every year honoring the best in education reporting. The act of the judges coming together to look at the scope of the field is a gift.”

Caroline Hendrie at the 2022 National Seminar

James Fallows, a Washington D.C.-based writer and co-author of Our Towns. “For education writers, as in a number of other crucial and not minute-by-minute headline fields, it really matters to have the professional community, the professional skill sharing, and the collective community and support that allows everybody to do a better job in the long run.”

“You essentially need every talent and every sensitivity and every ability that reporters might have to do a sustained good job in this arena. You need to be a careful reporter because anything you write will be immediately fact checked by hundreds of parents and scores of others. You need to have a sense of empathy for the difficult things that children are going through, that parents are going through, that teachers are going through. You need to have both a historical awareness of what things have been tried and have either succeeded or failed in the past, and openness to new developments. You need a familiarity with technology and the range of different disciplines that are involved in education, which is, of course, everything. You need to have a narrative skill to involve people in sagas that might not affect them directly. You need to have a future vision of why it matters, that people who are now 8 years old or 10 years old or 15 years old, how they’re being treated and supported, what that will mean for the future of their communities and for themselves and for the country.”

Supporting Important Reporting Projects

Jay Mathews, education writer and columnist for the Washington Post and author of Escalante: The Best Teacher in America. “An important moment for me was the EWA award I received in 1984 for a series I did on the retraining of a group of auto workers to be electronic technicians. Two years before I had met the Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante – and thought a long series on him, or maybe even a book, would be a good idea – the recognition from the EWA on the retraining story convinced me education writing was the way to go. At the convention where the EWA awards were presented in Philadelphia, I saw how deep and involved the other winners were. That sealed the deal.”

“I had gone into newspaper reporting after graduate school in my 20s with the dream of being the Washington Post’s first correspondent in China. I accomplished that. But [in 1984], I was going into my 40s wondering what was next. I had been a foreign correspondent, a national correspondent, and a business writer. Deciding to cover schools at my age, with my kind of experience, seemed odd to many people. … That changed my life. Forty years later, I am still writing about teachers, a blessed way to make a living.”

“EWA gave the field [the] respectability it needed since the conventional thinking was that education reporting was only for new kids [at] the paper. It was thought that teachers were the easiest people to write about. Once you mastered that, you would be ready to cover cops and politicians and other more important beats. [EWA] also provided wonderful resources—story ideas, summaries of the latest research, chances to work with other reporters and even grants for some original reporting. My book on the rise of the KIPP schools, my best seller, began with my reading a great series done by a fine reporter using an EWA grant.”

Dana Goldstein, education reporter at The New York Times and author of The Teacher Wars. “Every year, I look forward to seeing the nominees for the EWA awards. I’m so often blown away by the work colleagues are doing across the country.  Sometimes education reporting has the reputation as an entry-level beat. But it isn’t – it’s political, sociological, data driven, deeply human – and it’s so important to have an organization that can highlight what world-class journalism in our field looks like and celebrate it.”

Lisa Walker, former executive director of the Education Writers Association. “People that won awards in the contest would get noticed by other editors at perhaps larger outlets. That always had an impact. They always ran a National Seminar, and as small as it may have been at different years, depending upon the income, what kind of economic year we were in and where the media were, people would come, and I think this is still echoing today, that people come away from that seminar with many, many reporting ideas, and they get exposed to work that other people have done and can talk to their colleagues about how to do that.”

“At the time I left, [in 2010], generally, it looked pretty bleak. Everybody was leaving their jobs after many years; papers were being sold. And papers, I suppose, are still collapsing, but newspapers and other media because of the internet, but obviously, the internet has provided a whole series of other opportunities.”

Kenya Hunter, a reporter for Capital B Atlanta. “The thought of the education beat as not as important as the politics beat or the health beat or any investigative reporter beat, I’ve always found it incredibly silly. And also, frankly, misogynistic.”

“I had to learn so much on the education beat. I had to learn how to report on schools being businesses, basically. It’s economics reporting; it’s investigative reporting. My proudest work still comes from the education beat. And that’s the Maggie Walker project that I did.” 

“It was a project that I had been wanting to take on for a long time, I just didn’t really know where to start. And I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the New to the Beat program and without the guidance of my mentor [in the program], Aliyya Swaby.”

Providing Community and Networking Opportunities

Devi Shastri, former higher education reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “The biggest way that EWA has helped me is connecting me to other people doing the work around the country and creating this community for education reporters. We’re kind of a shrinking group, but still a very strong group when it comes to working in newsrooms. It just makes me feel a little bit less alone in what I’m doing because I know that there’s somebody else, somewhere else who’s struggling in a similar way.”

Erica L. Green, education reporter at The New York Times. “EWA has played a huge role just by supporting more elevated journalism. The fellowship[s] program gives reporters, especially local reporters, the resources and the encouragement to be ambitious. When newsrooms that maybe can’t support that kind of work or won’t support that kind of work — to have a community say, ‘This is important. We value this kind of work. Think of what you can bring to this space, and dream your biggest dream, and go for it, and we are all behind you,’ means the world. And of course, I did the fellowship with Liz Bowie, and we just got bigger and bigger and bigger. And we went from one story to four to a community forum on the stories we wrote. EWA was with us every step of the way.”

“The education reporting community is a team of rivals. Because, yes –-we work for different publications, but we have the shared mission and drive, and we support each other through our work. EWA, especially in recent years, has helped to foster that. Parents and schools, who rely on us to tell them what’s going on with their kids and what’s going on in their communities, have really come to recognize and respect that. Having a community that has your back as we take on some of the biggest and intractable challenges in this country is really, really important.”

Liz Bowie, an education reporter at The Baltimore Banner. “When I joined, EWA was a very small organization. Its conferences were held in the basement of places, and there was no money involved, and it was difficult for people to get there. It has grown so much over the years to be such a valuable resource. … I got on the listserv, and I began to realize that there were all these other reporters that were trying to do the same things I was and had reached the same impasses that I had, but figured out a way around them and also had valuable national expertise that I didn’t when I was a young reporter. All of the conversations helped me a lot. And then I think the other thing that’s been so valuable is – Emily [Richmond] has been just such an incredible resource.”

Emily Richmond speaks to an EWA member at the 2022 National Seminar.

Melinda Anderson, an education journalist based in Silver Spring, Maryland. “I have formed some incredible professional and personal friendships because of EWA through attendance at the [National Seminar] and EWA events, but I’ve always viewed it [as] more of a social opportunity than a particularly enriching professional space. In fact, when it comes to EWA as an organization, I have often felt a bit like a skunk at the picnic because I sought to hold EWA accountable concerning issues and concerns I have as a Black education writer, and at times, I’ve definitely felt heard, but to be frank, at times, my feedback has not been well received. That’s just the reality of the dynamic for me. And this really became acute in 2020, because I pushed EWA for many years to help its mostly white membership address and confront issues of race and racism. That was like a drumbeat. And then 2020 happened, and we see this so-called national racial reckoning occurring, and immediately you have a slew of white education reporters covering issues of race and racism.”

“What I came away with was seeing a spate of stories on racial and cultural literacy in schools and asking, how equipped are the reporters who are writing those stories on the nuances and complexities of those topics? How many of the white education reporters producing these stories have invested in building their own racial and cultural literacy? And that, to me, is a real unanswered question. And it continues to be somewhat odd reading stories about racism and racial disparities, and issues centered on racial bias, written by journalists who very likely have little to no understanding of the underlying factors. Growing that understanding is a role that EWA is tailor made to play.”

Championing the Importance of Education Coverage

Rupen Fofaria, a reporter at EducationNC in Raleigh. “EWA is so important to education in this country. I’ve covered different beats in [the] media, dating back to the ‘90s. And education is one of the highest stakes beat. There’s so much that happens at the local, state and federal level. So much of it is interconnected. If we don’t have really well-prepared watchdogs, then the states and communities, they’re the ones that really suffer. EWA fills this hole, in making sure that education reporters, no matter where they’re located, have access to the resources and the information that they need to do their job[s].”

Margaret Spellings, president and chief executive office of Texas 2036, and former education secretary. “The scrutiny and the difficulty of legitimate journalism is at a high water mark. God bless those who wade into the abyss every day and are on the frontlines of doing that. I have great respect for that. People care deeply about these issues. These are the most critical issues to families and to the success of our country. You would expect me to say that. It’s something I’ve cared about and worked on through my entire career. Our nation, our states, our communities are going nowhere fast unless we do a much better job of educating all people more affordably, in high quality ways. And we’re really falling short of doing that. So to the extent that EWA elevates these issues, around the urgency of it, the importance of it, the difficulty of it, resource issues, on and on, just that full panoply is hugely important.”

Arne Duncan, managing partner at the Emerson Collective, founder of Chicago CRED, and former education secretary. “Print journalism is taking a huge hit. And reporters generally, but often education reporters are going away. That’s a terrible thing. There’s just no upside for kids or communities or schools or for our country. Whatever I could do then, whatever I can do now to have robust, thorough, thoughtful folks writing about really important, not easy and not sexy issues, I’m all in. It’s a tremendously important service to the country. I truly believe that. So this is a tough, sacred mission. And it hasn’t gotten easier.”

“You can’t just sort of fly in and do this stuff. You have to study it. You have to understand it. You got to stay with it. Any education reporter is much better in year five or year seven than they are in year one. They just get it better, understand it better. There are clearly national education stories, and that’s important. But we know, it’s a highly localized issue. So you really need people in those hometowns, urban or suburban, who really have the pulse on what’s going on, as well as higher ed.”

EWA members at the 75th National Seminar.

What Will EWA Become in the Future?

Erica L. Green, education reporter at The New York Times. “I remember so vividly my first EWA conference … The room was huge and full of people. If that weren’t intimidating enough, they were overwhelmingly white. Overwhelmingly. It really made me feel like a complete and utter fish out of water in more ways than one. People obviously knew each other. It felt like this exclusive kind of, white woman club. That’s real. That was around 2010 when I was at The Baltimore Sun.”

“It just wasn’t a welcoming environment. And I frankly think that reflected basically every newsroom across this country. And it reflected a different time. I tell that story, just to say that EWA has evolved considerably. Some of that has been moved by journalist members demanding that it evolve. They have evolved with society as a whole, and really done the work of looking at what this organization stands for, what journalists they support, and why, and how they can better support the ones that they did not.”