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Lessons From 30 Years Of Education Reporting

Jan 8, 2013



I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we have a guest who says you don't have to be a baller or a bigshot to invest your money and get a big return. We'll find out how to make the most of a $1,000 investment. That's just ahead in Money Coach.

But, first, we want to talk about education. We're going to speak with a veteran journalist who's been covering that beat for 30 years. Jay Mathews writes the Class Struggle column for The Washington Post and looks at issues like educational disparities and access to higher education, among other things. We wanted to talk with him about the past, present and future of education.

Jay Mathews, welcome to the program. I should say welcome back, as you've been with us before.

JAY MATHEWS: Hi, Michel. I'm glad you're feeling better.

MARTIN: Well, thank you. One of the reasons we wanted to talk with you is that you talked about your own - you had a big anniversary on the beat recently and you wrote about that. I wanted to ask you to start with where you started in your column, which is how you actually got excited about this. I mean, you've - like a lot of reporters - covered a lot of different things, but you met a really interesting guy who kind of got you hooked on this.

MATHEWS: Yeah. I got bitten by the education bug in mid-career. I was almost 40 years old. I'd been a China correspondent and come back to Los Angeles, where my wife had a job, and was the L.A. correspondent for The Washington Post and, one morning I saw this story in the Los Angeles Times. You may know that national correspondents for big, self-important newspapers like me often steal stories from the local newspapers, and this story said that 14 kids at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles had taken and passed the advanced placement calculus test and then been accused of cheating on it and they'd taken it again and they passed it again. And I thought, this is really interesting, something I could really get into because it hadn't explained, one, how you could get 14 kids - or even one kid - at that school taking AP calculus because it was considered one of the poorest and worst schools in L.A. And, secondly, what about the teacher? How had he made this happen?

So I drove over there and met this guy, Jaime Escalante. They made a movie about him six years after I had my first conversation, but nobody had heard of this guy. He was a fat, balding Bolivian immigrant with a very thick accent and I started talking to him and the more I got into the conversation, the more surprised and fascinated and hooked I was because he was doing things at that school that hadn't been done.

Five years later, I wrote a book about him and, five years later, in '87, he did something unheard of. He and the teacher he trained at that school produced 25 percent of all the Mexican-American students in the United States who passed the AP calculus exam. That's incredible and it was great for him, but it also meant that we had hundreds, thousands of schools with similar demographics around the country who could have had that same kind of result if they had done what he and his fellow teacher, Ben Jimenez, were doing. So I've spent the last 30 years since trying to explain, through reporting, what they did and why other schools don't do that.

MARTIN: I hope you're not offended by this, but I do think that there are people who think of education reporting as the place for the newcomers. Right? People who are just getting started, just a place to sort of stick people while they're getting their sea legs before they go onto something more sexy. Or the place where you kind of stick the kind of the nerds who are really focused on sort of details and so forth.

And you have really made this your career. I'm interested in - over the course of time that you've been covering education, I'm wondering if kind of the way journalists think about education coverage is, in a way, the way the country thinks about it. I mean, on the one hand, sometimes, it gets a lot of attention. I mean, Jaime Escalante is not the only kind of major figure in education about whom a movie has been made. There have been a number like that.

But do you get a sense that it's about charismatic individuals, as opposed to kind of long-term focus on this issue?

MATHEWS: Well, you're a former Washington Post reporter, Michel, so you've described our attitude toward education reporting exactly right. It's something we let the youngest and greenest reporters do because we think it's easy. You know, if they can handle schools where all the people are nice to them, then we can move them up to police beat and then - where they can start covering politics where people are mean.

But I - you know, for the first 15 or so years that I was covering schools, I did it on my own time. I was writing books and occasional pieces for The Post, but my real job was to cover California and then to cover business, and I - when I finally persuaded The Post to let me go back to Washington and be a local education reporter, I was 52 years old and a lot of people thought I was nuts. You know, the assumption was I had done something awful. I had misspelled Warren Buffett's name or I'd cheated on my expense account.

MARTIN: You were being punished?

MATHEWS: And I was being punished by being put back in Metro when, actually, I had realized, writing these books and writing about Escalante, that the best and most interesting reporting about education is done inside schools, not - you know, up in Congress or covering the national issues. It's in schools. And so I did that and I'm still doing it as a columnist ever since and that's...

MARTIN: What do you think - I'm sorry.

MATHEWS: ...really the difference.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I wanted to sort of - what do you think is the - is there one enduring issue that you feel we, as a country, continue to get wrong about education? That, if you could just...


MARTIN: ...sort of shake people and say, just listen to this one thing, what would it be?

MATHEWS: It is what I learned at Garfield and am learning, you know, every day as I visit other schools. We don't understand the potential of low income students. We find them in poor schools and inner cities and rural communities and we think because their parents didn't go to college and because their schools have low test scores, those kids can't be expected to do very much. Jaime Escalante and several other teachers since then have proven that if you give those kids - even though they're from low income families where there's not much education - if you give them more time to learn and more encouragement to learn, they can do amazing things. We are wasting an enormous amount of brain power because we don't understand that - particular poor, black and Hispanic kids - have the brain power to do wonderful things if we teach them correctly.

MARTIN: Well, why do you think that perspective or that attitude persists? I'm taking your point here for the sake of argument that you are right about this, as a person who's thought a lot about it. But why do you think that that attitude persists? Because this country, of all countries, believes - or we say we believe - in meritocracy. We say we believe in opportunity. We say we don't believe in equality of results, but we definitely believe in the equality of opportunity. But your sense is that, in the way we actually treat educational policy, we actually don't. Why do you think that is?

MATHEWS: Yeah. I think it's a perversity of our humane instincts. This is - we find this in teachers, as well as ordinary people. Teachers are one of the finest people I've ever met. They're wonderful. They come into their profession not to make a lot of money but to help kids. But the problem is, at that point when they want to help a kid and their choice is either to give them something sort of easy, sort of average that they might be able to do or give them something challenging that they might fail at, they tend, in many cases, to give them the easy stuff when, indeed, what they should be doing - what Jaime Escalante and other teachers have proved they should be doing - is to give them the challenge. Even if they fail - if you struggle in an AP course and you flunk the exam, that is still a wonderful educational experience. You've learned a lot more struggling and failing than you would if you'd been left in an ordinary course that doesn't teach you very much.

MARTIN: Is there anything you've gotten way wrong in your course of time as an education reporter where you just blew it?

MATHEWS: I think I was probably a bit too kind to the No Child Left Behind Law. I was a supporter and I think it did some things that I like, but it hasn't worked out as well as I had hoped it would do.

MARTIN: How come? Why not?

MATHEWS: I think, generally, it's a problem of a law that comes from the top down. I think great education reform - the best ideas come from the bottom up and it was - obviously, gave some help to people who - great teachers who wanted to raise the level of low income kids, but it would be much better if we gave more power to our teachers and our principals in good schools. I think the secret to education is to have higher expectations for all kids, have more time for learning, take testing seriously, get rid of this idea that tests are terrible because they're really just part of review. Have really well trained principals. That's key. And then create a team spirit in each school so that everybody in that school is working together to help get the kids to the next level.

MARTIN: What are you most excited about when you think about what you're reporting on now and is there anything you're discouraged about in reporting on education?

MATHEWS: Well, the most exciting thing about American education today - some people will disagree - is the charter school movement. Charter schools, in general, aren't any better than regular schools, but the ones that are doing very well, like the KIPP schools - which I wrote a book about a couple of years ago - are doing amazing things, and they have managed because the charter system gives them that freedom to do exactly what I'm talking about. to create schools where the principal is very well trained and very carefully picked and has the power to hire and fire teachers, so that she can create a team of teachers who all have the same spirit she has and move kids up to the next level. And we're seeing that particularly dramatically in places like Washington, D.C. and New York and L.A.

MARTIN: Well, we hope we'll speak again on your next - over the course of your next 30 years in education reporting, Jay Mathews, and - you know, keep us in - congratulations on that, on achieving that milestone yourself and please do keep in touch. Thank you so much for joining us.

MATHEWS: Thank you, Michel. I share your hope about that.

MARTIN: Jay Mathews is a veteran journalist and education columnist for The Washington Post. He recently celebrated 30 years of education reporting and we touched base with him to talk about what he's learned over the course of that time. He joined us from KPCC in Pasadena, California.

Jay, thank you and happy New Year.

MATHEWS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.