Reporting on Classrooms and Instruction: A Journalist’s Primer

How can a reporter get the most out of the precious time they spend inside classrooms? These articles, drawn from a Hechinger Institute publication on the challenging task of effective classroom reporting, offer a variety of helpful tips and suggestions. For more information about this publication, contact hechinger@tc.edu

The articles are written by veteran journalists, a researcher, a journalist who became a researcher, and a journalist who became a teacher and then returned to writing. Click here for the contributor biographies.

Learn ways to cover the education beat from:

Christina Asquith, who was a 26-year-old reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer when she decided to become a teacher. In this essay she reflects on what she wishes she had known about teaching when working as a journalist. She advises journalists to gather data about teachers’ backgrounds and preparation but also shares the signs of what she calls an “unhappy classroom” where little learning occurs.  Full Article

Karin Chenoweth, a former education writer for the Washington Post, and the author of a new book on high-performing schools serving low-income students. She says reporters can tell a lot about the school in the short distance between the front entrance and the school office, if they know what to look for. She writes in this essay that schools that are successful “can’t be sloppy about anything.”  Full Article

Richard Lee Colvin, Executive Director of the Hechinger Institute and former education writer for the Los Angeles Times, who reflects on what teachers selected as mentors and coaches look for in classrooms. One says journalists should sense a “buzz in the classroom.” Another says that in the classrooms of excellent teachers the students “just can’t wait to get going on something.” Another compares teaching and learning to a “joyful dialogue” between teachers and students.  Full Article

Jenny DeMonte, who edited many stories for magazines about education, but says she can’t recall one which delved deeply into instruction. Now, as she wraps up a doctoral degree in educational studies, she has a different perspective. Teaching, she says, “creates the moment when students either learn or don’t” and argues that understanding whether what goes on in classrooms is likely to improve student learning is essential for journalists “who want to throw a spotlight on the potential and failure of education in the United States.” This essay will help them gain that understanding.  Full Article

Samuel G. Freedman, a twice a month education columnist for the New York Times. Freedman estimates that he’s spent 500 days as a journalist observing classrooms. He writes in this essay that no other type of reporting was more “stimulating for me as a writer, or more revealing of academic success or failure” than to “behold a classroom in action.” He says the classroom resembles a theater and events that occur there “form the most fundamental drama in education.” Best of all, what goes on in classrooms cannot be spun by the publicists or the bureaucrats.  Full Article

Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter who writes the weekly Class Struggle column for washingtonpost.com. In this essay, he focuses on the challenging task of covering teaching in high schools. He recommends that reporters talk to students to find out who are the best and worst teachers in the school. Classroom visits, he says, often reveal great trend stories that journalists, and their readers, wouldn’t otherwise know about.   Full Article

Dale Mezzacappa, a former longtime education writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In one article she provides background on the “wars” over reading, math, science, and history instruction. She helps journalists get beyond the simple formulations that often dominate the coverage. The guidance is intended to help journalists know what they should see in all classrooms—regardless of where a teacher’s or school’s sympathies lie.  Full Article

In another article Dale Mezzacappa acknowledges the “tug of war” over access to classrooms that often serves as an impasse to in-depth coverage about “the primary business of schools: teaching and learning.” She then gives reporters advice about how to gain that access and provide meaningful coverage about teaching.  Full Article

Mike Rose, a professor of social research methodology at the University of California, Los Angeles and the author of books that include illuminating passages that describe in minute detail what goes on in classrooms. In this essay, he suggests that reporters pay attention to four different dimensions: the classroom itself, the ways teachers talk to students, the lives of students and the lives of teachers.  Full Article