Season 2, Episode 3: A Journalist’s Perspective on Education Recovery
Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from the Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the “Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery” podcast. Each week, we travel the country on a kind of “road trip” to talk about the ways federal recovery dollars are being used in states to reshape education. Along the way, we’re holding up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.
Today we’re talking to Linda Jacobson, senior writer for the 74 Million. The 74 is a national news site dedicated to examining issues impacting the education of America’s 74 million children and the effectiveness of the system that delivers it. Hello, Linda.
Linda Jacobson: Thanks for having me.
Jim Cowen: So, you and I have had a lot of conversations over the years in your current role with the 74, but also in your other roles—because I should point out that you were also a senior reporter at Education Dive, now K-12 Dive. You wrote for Education Week, and you were also a senior member of the Education Writers Association leadership team.
On this podcast, we have had conversations with state superintendents and other leaders from education agencies throughout the country, but you are the first journalist. So, congratulations for serving that first for us.
Linda Jacobson: Thank you.
Jim Cowen: I’m excited to get your perspective. You have done some great stories. I love your writing style. I love the conversations that we’ve had in the past about what’s important in education. So, this should be a good conversation and I’m glad to have you here.
If it’s okay with you, I’d like to get right into it. And I guess the first one that I want to start off with you is kind of the elephant in the room, which has been the test scores, the assessment indicators that we’ve had over the last several weeks, even months. It’s just been this wave of data that’s kind of confirming just how severe the disruption’s been, right? It’s talking about the lack of student academic growth, physical wellbeing, and we’ve seen data results from everything from the ACT exam, from the NWEA formative assessment, state assessments, and obviously the most recent thing, which is the National Assessment for Educational Progress or the NAEP results that have come out.
Linda Jacobson: Right.
Jim Cowen: I’ll tee this up by saying we knew this was going to be bad, right? Like, I think everyone was sort of speculating, “Oh, it’s not going to be great news.” We thought it was going to be bad. The data confirms it was bad. What now? I’m kind of curious to hear from you what’s the climate like amongst you and your colleagues in the field? How are you approaching this right now?
Linda Jacobson: Well, the assessment data definitely, you know, plays a large part in what we’re writing right now. I think we always try to balance it with families’ individual experiences and the way a local principal looks at it, the way a teacher looks at it. Yeah, there’s obviously this consistent theme of decline. People are obviously looking for little bright spots here and there, and I talked to somebody the other day who said it was as if the last two years didn’t happen academically—that their kids were right back where they were, you know, two years ago. I think that yes, definitely, we have to kind of look beyond it and say, “Okay, what now are districts doing with this money to target those most critical skills that kids need?”
I think that we’re looking for, obviously, examples of strategies that are showing promise, the limitations of some of those strategies, how many kids is it reaching, and trying to write stories that give families questions that they should maybe ask in their own schools, in their own districts.
Jim Cowen: Do you think there’s a danger in us beating the drums so much on the negative side of this, that we’re providing enough of the bright spots?
Linda Jacobson: Well, it happened, and I don’t think we can ignore what the result has been. I think our task is trying to always balance that out with, “where do we go from here?” And that’s why I think we try so hard to connect with people at the local level, the district level, the school level—to hear the nuance in what families and what schools are experiencing. What are they hanging onto as signs of hope—and communicating that and going beyond what a district press release might say.
Jim Cowen: Right. Do you think the parents are receiving the message?
Linda Jacobson: I’ve seen a real push in recent years and even over the past year to deliver this data to families in more accessible ways and making sure, I mean, a lot of advocacy groups are doing that work. There are programs in partnership with schools where they’ll kind of walk families through their kids’ data and give them a manageable goal to work toward with their kids. Trying not to overwhelm them, maybe, with performance, but here’s where we want to see growth.
So, I think that disconnect where people talk about families not really understanding how their kids are performing or how their kids line up with actual standards, I think there’s real work to try to break through that. And, like I said, I think a lot of advocacy groups are some of the loudest voices on that.
Jim Cowen: I’ve been talking with some people about this recently because of this kind of constant dialogue around the scores that are coming out right now. We did a project in 2015, we being the Collaborative and Achieve, called the Honesty Gap and it was a look at how states were doing on their local assessments compared to NAEP scores. Particularly, we’re looking at the proficiency rates, what states were calling proficient, and what kids were getting on NAEP. And that delta, the difference between those two scores, we are saying was kind of how truthful the state was being. That message felt very pertinent when we were talking a lot about standards, accountability, strong systems of measurement.
It feels a little misaligned today because the honesty gap today feels more like it’s between what kids are now bringing home as grades. Like I’m speaking from, you know, focus group of one. My girls are bringing home A’s and B’s. Are those really A’s and B’s compared to what we’re seeing on NAEP results in the state? My question is like, is that more of the new honesty gap compared to the old honesty gap?
Linda Jacobson: I think there’s probably multiple honesty gaps. What grade level performance meant before the pandemic, I mean my daughter did an entire year remotely her junior year. It was clear that the type of work she was getting was not what it would’ve been if she was in a classroom and now, she’s in her first year of college and it’s an adjustment, you know?
Yeah, she went back into school for her senior year, but it was the year of massive teacher shortages and quarantines and nobody experienced a real return, as if things hadn’t happened the way they did. So, I think it’s comparing maybe what a normal expectation would’ve been before the pandemic now coming back into discussions around, “What are our standards? What should homework look like? What should assignments look like? What should we be expecting from kids?”
Jim Cowen: Along that same line of you and I are both parents, we’ve had this window into how our kids did during the pandemic. We saw it right in front of us. That gave us a really strong perspective on our local schools. How the school that was most close to us was doing. Everything we learned from nationally, how the nation was dealing with the pandemic, came from the stories that we read. Do you feel like, or should I say, how was it covering those stories from a national perspective when you had the local one that was providing you direct information? What was difficult about that and how did you kind of approach it?
Linda Jacobson: During the pandemic, you know, not only did I have that disconnect from people that I normally would’ve been able to call on easily—and that adjustment—but I also went from working for a news outlet that was mostly focused on administrators to one that is far more in the realm of parent stories and parent experiences and for the general public. So, I really had to broaden, I mean, I don’t cover a single school district anyway so most of my work is done by Zoom and phone. But I definitely had to work harder to expand my network of sources to make sure I could stay in touch with people; at the family level, at the school level, to get a window into how everybody was adapting to this. Definitely increasing my contacts with parent advocacy groups or just community organizations that might not have been in my normal sphere, before, of sources. And they’ve been great. They’ve been really willing to always connect us to what we’re looking for.
Jim Cowen: Yeah. One of the things that we’ve been doing is we have this Education Recovery Hub that, during the whole latter half of the pandemic, our feeling was that we need to start looking at how states are using these federal dollars and really hold up the things that we think are promising.
And in the very beginning, you know, the plans were there were three lines that would sort of describe what this idea was. “Well, it looks good, but you know, how do we know it’s good?” Well, let’s follow it. Let’s dig into it. Let’s determine whether it has some promise to it. And so that’s sort of how we’ve continued to work along that line is trying to see, you know, what is the impact of that? How many kids is it reaching? Is it actually going to make a difference? Because that feels hopeful. So, there’s this, I guess, tension between identifying the good but not sugarcoating things too much. Like “everything’s fine,” because everything that we hear from results tells us this is really damaging. When you are putting together some of your stories, how do you balance that—the hope between the reality?
Linda Jacobson: Well, I think these plans sounded really good to a lot of people, you know, a year ago. I think where I hear the frustration is somebody who may have participated in that process—you know, gave their input, gave their recommendations on what they felt students needed, how the money should be spent—and now they feel they can’t necessarily find out if it’s being spent that way. And it affects us too. I’ll go to a district website and, you know, on their ESSER landing page, there’s still the plan from a year ago and not much update that is readily available to see how the spending is happening in line with that plan. We’re trying to do some work to, you know, kind of follow this out and see. You shouldn’t have to go to multiple links to find that. If we can’t find it, an average parent can’t find it.
And, you know, parents are having to file record requests to learn this stuff. So, there’s obviously variations of transparency. There are some districts that are doing it better than others, obviously, but you can’t tell if the money is going toward these needs that were identified if you can’t see the spending, you know?
Jim Cowen: Right. And you know, we also have a lot of empathy for SEAs and districts who, you know, are dealing with a lot of stuff that’s going on at one time. So, a plan is a plan, and once the plan’s left the station, I get it when it changes, and it needs to be altered. In fact, the best plans are usually the ones who get you started, but you don’t follow them all the way through. They’re generally like, they evolve, they change. You use the things that work, and you alter the things that don’t. And that’s what we’re trying to do. And we have had some luck working on that with some of the states as far as trying to hold up stories that have evolved, that have changed, or some of these practices that have been altered over time to try to impact poor kids or they’ve been adjusted in some way.
Let me ask you, I read your story in the crosshairs about the school board members. Great piece, by the way.
Linda Jacobson: Thank you.
Jim Cowen: And I guess my first question on it is how long did it take you to put that together? You brought in a bunch of people for that. That couldn’t have just flown off the shelf. That had to take some time.
Linda Jacobson: It did not fly off the shelf. I started those initial interviews in the summer, like June-ish. And initially it was just one interview with one superintendent who had been fired not knowing that it was going to turn into a project like that. But after talking to her, I realized that not a week was going by that I wasn’t seeing some headline, somewhere, about a superintendent being fired or, you know, resigning without saying why. And it was just another symptom of this disruption that we’ve seen over the past two years.
Jim Cowen: Was there anything when you wrote that story that you walked away with that gave you pause?
Linda Jacobson: I think it connects to some of the other things we were talking about in terms of the spending and the implementation of making good decisions around how to use this money. When a superintendent either resigns or is fired, the layers of administration under them, there’s often turnover there as well. And these are the people, you know, making the decisions about these contracts and how the money is directed. It’s interesting, I was talking to a union member, who was on a bargaining team for a school district, the other day and he was explaining, “There’s so many changes. And people on the other side of that bargaining table, you know, our leadership of the union’s been consistent, but every time we go back to the bargaining table, there’s somebody new there.” I mean, that has a real impact, you know?
Jim Cowen: So, are there some stories that you think are under-covered?
Linda Jacobson: Of course. I mean, you know, we can’t get to everything. We’re a small staff.
Jim Cowen: You’re trying to cover 74 million kids, right?
Linda Jacobson: We certainly try, you know, I think we’ve been able to uncover some things because of the relationships that we have formed, you know, with sources and even that superintendent story we could have just rushed out one story about one superintendent who was fired and had a bad experience, but we took the time to really see what this looked like in a bigger picture. I mean, everybody was writing about superintendent turnover. You know, turnover was not the story. This was sort of a slice of what was contributing to that turnover that we hadn’t seen written about otherwise. And even researchers really didn’t have a handle on it, you know? So, that’s one example.
I think what people appreciate about our coverage is that we bring in some different voices. We bring in more student voice than any place I’ve ever worked, you know, parent voice for sure. And like I said, people working in the schools who aren’t just going to repeat the press release, you know, of a school district that can give us a flavor of what these times have been like.
Jim Cowen: Well, I want to thank you for taking the time today with us, and we look forward to reading a lot more of your material.
Linda Jacobson: Thank you. Thanks for always being very responsive to my questions.
Jim Cowen: You are welcome. And we’re always here for you, Linda.
Linda Jacobson: All right, thank you.
Jim Cowen: Thanks for your time. Linda Jacobson, senior writer at the 74 Million.
Jim Cowen: This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. Where each week, we showcase ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools by talking to the people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Reach out to us at EduRecoveryHub.org/RouteK12 or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.
About Jim Cowen
Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.