How do we use data to better tell the local story? That was the big question Eduflack was asked over the weekend speaking at the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media’s Harold W. McGraw Hr. Seminar for Reporters New to the Education Beat.
For those who don’t know (and you really should), the Hechinger Institute is a terrific outfit being run out of Teachers College, Columbia University. Back in May, Eduflack wrote about Hechinger’s new efforts in education reporting. But at its core, Hechinger is about supporting members of the education media, providing the technical assistance and support necessary to support a strong and effective cadre of education reporters across the nation.
In talking with a terrific group of new education reporters (though not necessarily new to reporting) about how they can use education to localize stories, it begs an important question — what can those of us who engage with the education media to do the same. And for this question, Eduflack has a top five list to guide the discussion:
1) Personalize the story — The most effective stories we can tell are those that are personal. The individual who is affected by a new policy. The student who has succeeded under a new curriculum. The teacher who is raising student achievement scores. We all like to hear a story. Facts and figures and data can then be used to help fortify the story. Trying to pitch a story on teacher incentives? Paint a picture of that real, individual teacher who can be a case study. Depict the teacher and her classroom. Then strengthen the piece with the data, the state test scores and related data points that demonstrate teacher achievement, both for the individual and for the school/district in particular.
2) Know your data sources — There is more to the tale of the tape than simply student test scores on the state assessment. In offering up a policy story, know which data sources to direct to. What can we find at the national level? What can we find at the state level? What can we find at the local level?
3) Capture the continuum — Once you identify the data sources, know how they connect and support each other. If you’re pitching a state or local education story, be able to show the data that substantiates the pitch from the local level all the way up to the national level. The data shows it works, and the continuum shows it works on a large or a small scale.
4) Acknowledge not all data is created equal — For the last decade, reporters have been hounded with “data.” Since NCLB, everyone has “research” proving their point. Unfortunately, much of the third-party “research” circulated out there is little more than marketing collateral for those promoting the policy. There is good research, and there is bad research. Reporters ultimately have to distinguish between the two. But if you are selling bad or squishy data to a reporter, you lose credibility very quickly. Want to tell an effective story, do so with the strongest data possible.
5) Think beyond the data — Data helps sell the story, but most of the time, it isn’t the story itself. Long gone is the era when education media would write full stories on the latest research study to cross their desks. Too much research on too many topics just makes such an approach untenable. Instead, more and more reporters are looking for good data to enhance stories on the key themes they are covering. So be prepared to position specific studies on how it can impact the discussion of teacher quality or turnaround schools or a host of other issues that reporters are being asked to cover. While the data may not be the headline, it can definitely serve as a foundation for a good education news article.