Education Reporting: A long way away

As the media–right, left, and middle brow–from The New York Daily News to Time to The New Yorker– engages in its ritual hype about phonics instruction in public schools, we can gain some clarification about writers’ job expertise by noting this exchange in “Nottinghill Road” between bookstore owner Will Thacker and Martin, his assistant.

Martin: Do you know, I once saw Ringo Starr…at least I think it was Ringo Starr…It might have been that man from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Will: But Ringo Starr doesn’t look at all like Toppol.

Martin: Well, he was a long way away from me.

For too many reporters who declare education as their beat, school ever remains “a long way away.”

I wonder how many media mavens recognize that variety is at the heart of good reading instruction, that what is good for one student may not fit another. I wonder what they’d make of Charles, a clearly “off-kilter” kid, devoting his reading time to Rumpelstiltskin 16 days in a row. Or his classmate who declared every day how much he hated reading but insisted on copying Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin into his notebook because he “liked the feel of the words.” Or Joanna, repeating third grade, who spent a week sitting with Leslie, a deaf child in public school for the first time, teaching Leslie why kids laughed at the knock knock riddles they read aloud at the end of each school day.

Those are individual kids–too quirky. Reporters seem to operate on the principle that having sat in schools for a lot of years, they know what the universals. They’re confident that it doesn’t take a whole lot of on-the-ground investigation to figure out the difference between Ringo Starr and Topol.

Reporters just to ask teachers to show their oath of phonics certification so they can issue a “thumbs up.” We can’t expect reporter to stick around for the long haul, but we can demand more than a quick in-and-out excursion.

Yes, we knew when Joanna’s lessons were successful. Leslie shouted, “I get it! I get it! Let me read one to the class.” And after she read a riddle and its punchline, the class applauded. And Leslie demanded, “Let me read another one!”