On My Favorite Books, and the Similarities Between Journalism and Teaching

Thanks to Kaylen Ralph of The Riveter for asking me some really thought-provoking questions in our interview about The Teacher Wars.

You come from a family of pubic school educators. Did you ever consider becoming one yourself? How did you end up in journalism?

I’ve known since I was a very little girl that I wanted to be a writer, and since about third grade that I wanted to be a journalist. My parents subscribed to The New York Times and Newsweek, and my heroines were the female op-ed columnists of the 1990s, like Anna Quindlen. My path into the profession was fairly typical. I worked on my high school and college newspapers, did internships in daily journalism and magazines, and then moved to Washington, D.C. after graduation and worked at a small political magazine, The American Prospect. I learned so much at the Prospect, working alongside Ezra Klein, Ann Friedman, Adam Serwer, and a lot of other writers and editors I am still proud to call friends and colleagues. We were really idealistic about doing political journalism that was as much about policy and big ideas as it was about personalities.

Who are some education reporters you admire? I’m thinking of Athelia Knight’s Pulitzer-nominated series about life in McKinley High School from 1987. Who inspired you while you were training as a journalist?

When I first started reporting on education at the Prospect, in 2007, I read The Children in Room E4 by Susan Eaton. It’s a fabulous book that combines journalism, legal writing, and history to explain how school segregation impacts real kids in Hartford.

The Big Test is an intellectual and cultural history of the SAT by Nicholas Lemann, which also tackles the contemporary debate over how standardized test scores should be used in college admissions. Lemann is a journalist who writes fantastically compelling narrative history featuring real people. He was someone I thought about a lot as I wrote my own book. What he also does really well is situate education within American politics and culture. I tried to do that in The Teacher Wars. The school reform debate can become consumed in minutae, and it’s always a challenge to remember to zoom out. Schools are social institutions within larger economic and political systems.

Just as teachers aren’t paid enough, many would argue that journalists aren’t, either. Do you think there’s a connection between the two roles? Why are they both undervalued?

I am very lucky, as a journalist, to feel fairly compensated for my work at this point in my career. Though I do admit in the book that my first full-time job in journalism paid $21,000–less than an entry-level teacher earns! I was lucky to come from an upper middle-class family and to not have student loans. So I could afford to work for very little, at least for awhile.

The downward pressure on journalists’ pay is driven by technological change and the collapse of the advertising-driven profit model that has sustained the industry since the 19th century. So far, stagnant teacher pay has been driven by different forces, such as austerity policies in the public sector, and also by pay scales and ladders that require people to work for many decades before reaching a decent salary.

Some people believe, or even hope, that technology will exercise a similar pressure on teaching, by making online learning more viable, requiring fewer teachers, and then causing more competition and allowing for higher teacher pay. I’m skeptical because I think, ultimately, parents will demand real live teachers for their real live children. People used to think the television and the VHS would transform public education. They did not.

I feel optimistic about both journalism and teaching. In a way, they are both service professions aimed at creating a more knowledgeable public. The world keeps getting more complex and the technology for disseminating information keeps improving. This is good for both education and journalism. Both jobs require smart people–teachers and journalists–to analyze and translate all this information.

Taken at face value, the title of your book has connotations of internal strife amongst teachers…do you think this is a problem? Do teachers have a “we’re in this together” outlook outside of their union?

The title is certainly open to interpretation. My way of thinking about The Teacher Wars is that we’ve always been debating, arguing, and fighting about the role of teachers in American public life, dating back to the birth of our common schools system in about 1830. There is not one war with two sides. It’s a melee! And everyone is drafted in this battle, from teachers to parents to politicians to social scientists to students themselves.

Read the whole interview.