New ideas and needs emerge all the time in the education realm – which is what makes it such a rich and challenging beat to cover from a solutions perspective. Here are some examples of current dominant themes — and things to consider when covering them.

We haven’t conveyed the magnitude of the challenge now before us: to change the brains of most of the world’s children so they can take part in the great human inventions of literacy and numeracy and all the learning and culture that springs from those inventions. Education is at least as essential to individual and cultural survival as energy, medicine, agriculture, manufacturing, transportation and defense. Yet compared with public investments in those elds, we spend almost nothing on research and development in education and, consequently, we know far less about what works and why.

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John Higgins
The Seattle Times

Issue 1: The Performance Gap

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What Is It?

The performance gap, also known as the achievement gap, refers to disparities in test scores and graduation rates between different demographic groups. The gap―particularly between black and Hispanic students and their white peers―is one of America’s most persistent education problems and is intertwined with nearly every other story on the education beat.


Across the nation, schools are attempting to close the achievement gap through technology, curricula, or various in- or out-of-school programs. Some high schools have focused on boosting minority enrollment in college-level courses, for example, while others have expanded bilingual courses to help new students learning English. On a macro level, some states have opted for wide-reaching solutions such as boosting funding for select student groups like American Indians to provide targeted resources, supports, and programs.


Many of these programs and interventions claim they are closing the performance gap, but such boasts are not always backed up with convincing data. As schools roll out reforms and new programs, reporters should question claims and try to parse their impact on particular student groups – especially those that are most behind. Scrutinize data from dual enrollment programs and partnerships with local colleges to see if those programs are improving graduation or college-going rates. There may be improvement for some targeted groups but not for others.

Issue 2: School Choice

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What Is It?

School choice encompasses the myriad of ways students across America opt not to go to their nearby assigned neighborhood public school. The movement is driven by parents looking for better schools, as well as by policymakers who believe expanding options will ultimately improve entire school systems.


Choice can take many forms, like a public school with a science or arts focus, or a magnet school with a required admissions process. Over the last 20 years, charter schools that are public but operate outside the school system without typical bureaucratic constraints have also rapidly expanded. In other cases, low-income families are awarded vouchers to pay for private school tuition.


Even as scores of families seek others options, it’s not clear they led to a better education, nor is there proof that the infusion of variety and competition is improving the larger system. Critics raise concerns that offering choice may amount mostly to “skimming” the best students, while school systems with funding tied to enrollment claim that that it is more difficult to improve when they lose students. When reporting on school choice, ask whether these schools are improving outcomes for students – and examine how students are recruited and enrolled. Compare enrollment demographics of surrounding schools before trying to assess relative student performance; only when these are similar does it make sense to compare outcomes like test score data or graduation rates.

Issue 3: Early Childhood Education & Universal Pre-K

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What Is It?

Thanks to a growing body of research in neuroscience, child development and economics, the impact of preschool and early childhood education is receiving more attention from policymakers and researchers. Coupled with polls showing bipartisan support for improving early childhood education and a U.S. President who is pushing high-quality preschool, the issue is at the forefront of the national education discussion in a way it hasn’t been since the Reagan administration.

We write a lot about school organization and management but hardly at all about what actually happens in the classroom. And when we do write about classroom practice or curriculum it is usually some warm and fuzzy program. Emergent readers reading to dogs! Students use rap music to learn Shakespeare! There is a vast body of research on what works in classrooms and I can count on one hand stories that are informed by it.

Peg Tyre portrait
Peg Tyre
Award-Winning Education Journalist and Author


Studies show academic and social gains made by children who have enrolled in high-quality preschools. Similarly, data reveal a high return on investment to society for every $1 invested in high-quality-pre-K education. Still, some critics have suggested that certain benefits of early childhood education “fade out” later in a child’s academic career. All of this provides a rich landscape of both national policy issues and local questions for journalists to explore.


Nationally, Democratic leaders led the charge for federal and state funding. At the state level, funding remains a point of tension, along with low standards for pre-K teacher preparation and low pay in the profession. Another big issue is whether to target public programs and resources toward low-income families or offer them universally.

Issue 4: Standards & Testing

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What Is It?

Standards – which set expectations for academic performance – and standardized testing are quickly becoming two of the most controversial issues in education, especially since the introduction of the nationwide Common Core State Standards in 2010.


The controversy centers on how students are tested, how teachers are held accountable, and whether the standards are developmentally appropriate and promote good pedagogy. Tests aligned to the Common Core have been particularly contentious. Most of the exams that states have adopted, including the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (Smarter Balanced) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), are online, meaning schools must update technology and teach students how to take the exams. Critics also worry that mandated annual tests have led to schools focusing only on what could be tested. The Common Core is not a curriculum, but some materials based on the new standards have been called confusing and too advanced in earlier grades, and have been criticized for emphasizing conceptual understanding over quick mental calculations.


How do we know if the Common Core provides a solution to the longstanding complaint that U.S. education is substandard? Read the Common Core standards (or the standards that states are using instead) and visit classes to see real teachers grapple with them. Find out how schools that did well on the new tests prepared for them. Also, visit schools that aren’t using PARCC or Smarter Balanced to see if the exams they’ve selected are an improvement over what was used before.

Issue 5: Teacher Evaluation & Training

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What Is It?

In recent years, teacher evaluation and training have received more attention as school districts have increasingly tried to measure good teaching and link it to various preparation approaches. Evaluations mostly involve rating a teacher on out-of-classroom skills and materials, such as lesson plans, and in-classroom observations; in addition, nearly 40 states now include standardized student test scores in these evaluations.

Sometimes, the complexity of human experience and effort falls out of the equation. We create good guys and bad guys in a way that oversimplifies and doesn’t help to find a solution. I also think that the stories of everyday teachers, who are literally doing triage and saving lives, get lost. Sometimes we do a story on a 'hero teacher,' but there are so many educators making sure students don’t fall through the cracks—no one will ever know their names or understand their impact.

Meredith Kolodner portrait
Meredith Kolodner
The Hechinger Report


Teacher evaluation models can be used in different ways—to identify weaknesses and help teachers improve, or to get rid of seemingly poor teachers. Ask what goes into an evaluation, and how it’s used. Recent data show that for the most part, even with new evaluations, many states are producing the same number of teachers they deem ‘satisfactory’ as they had under the old systems. So, explore what “satisfactory” means; whether a school district has gleaned new information from evaluation systems; and whether that information is being used to improve teaching or make changes in the school.


Reporters should critically assess new models for teacher training, including those that are online or emphasize spending more time as a student teacher. Examine how teacher preparation programs measure the quality of their graduates. Ask about job retention rates for program graduates, and look at their respective student achievement data and teacher evaluation data.

Issue 6: Digital Learning

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What Is It?

Digital learning is, seemingly inevitably, pervading education – from using computers in traditional classrooms to courses taught entirely online.


An ever-growing universe of technology companies and nonprofits are competing to sell educators on their programs. Some experts say these innovations can improve educational outcomes, boost graduation rates, personalize lessons for students or lower the cost of education – but there isn’t consensus.


When assessing these technologies, reporters should ask: Has the school created a plan for teaching and learning? Were the teachers trained? Is the school wired for technology and is the Internet fast enough? How will technology and reoccurring costs be financed? Talk to teachers, students and parents; they tend to have a clear view of how the technology actually works in practice. Ask about the cost of tech approaches, both up-front and long-term, and determine why school leaders believe they will be effective. If a source cites research to support a claim, ask for a copy of the full report. If possible, ask an expert unconnected to the product or program to examine the claims.

Issue 7: Higher Education

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What Is It?

The linkage between economic status and educational attainment is well established. So, education policy increasingly is focused on access to college for low-income families – which often connects to racial equality. This challenge is anchored in two questions: Can students afford the expense of a college education, and are they prepared for it?


The average cost of a four-year college is close to $24,000 a year and rising. And very often, students are not admitted to four-year institutions due to gaps in their K-12 education. At the same time, the national three-year graduation rate for public community colleges, often the most affordable option, is just 20 percent. At four-year colleges with an open-admissions policy, 34 percent of students graduate within six years.


Reporting on college access requires looking at the full range of obstacles. Many colleges now provide special access for low-income and first generation students, which may include financial aid and transportation assistance as well as lower requirements for standardized test scores or English proficiency, combined with tutoring programs to bring those students up to speed. Reporters should assess whether these programs improve enrollment and retention rates. Other important data include the percentage of students attending the school who receive federal grants due to low-income status; and, for public colleges, the percentage of students by race who are graduating from the public high schools compared with the percentage of that racial group enrolled in local public colleges.