Know Your Beat: How Education Reporters Can Succeed

There are about 50 million students attending public schools in 13,000 school districts across the United States. But NBC News chief education correspondent Rehema Ellis wants her viewers to understand that the quality of our education system affects the entire population.

“If you want an American economy to be strong, and to be stronger, it’s important for everybody to say education is important,” she said. “In terms of the top, economically developed countries in the world, in K-12 education, we’re not in the top 10. That should be important to everybody, whether you’ve got a kid in school or not.” 

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Ellis shares advice for education reporters in the above video and her further thoughts below.

You’re reporting on the education beat at a national level. How do you differ from a local reporter covering a single school district?

I have more help, a lot more resources when we’re trying to dig into a story. But that local reporter might have more time. I don’t go to the school board meeting every Wednesday night, nor do I go to the PTA meeting every third Wednesday. But what that local reporter uncovers, and I either see on television or read in a newspaper, could have national significance. That local story may be something that’s symbolic of what’s happening across the country.  

That’s where I swoop in and tell you what’s happening there, and then I pull out numbers to see where else this is happening. It’s not just there, but it’s also north, south, east and west, all across America.

What do journalists miss when they report on education stories?

We can often miss the underlying story. Press releases are put out all the time — “We’re using this kind of device to teach kids how to read,” for example. Then you see the scores…. The most recent report card we got on our nation told us that 65% of our fourth graders cannot read at a fourth-grade level. Where’s the disconnect?

Go behind the headline. What’s the tool? How effective are those tools? What’s the evidence they can do what they say they do? How much is spent on educational development, teacher development? I think that’s the story.

How can education reporters make stories relevant to people who are not students, parents or educators?

Let me tell you who wants to know about the education beat — employers. Companies want to know our schools educate children to do the jobs that will be presented to them once they get out of school. If employers don’t have an educated workforce, they’re going to take their business somewhere else, because they’re about the business of business. That’s why I think the education beat is so important, not just for parents — businesses, legislators, governors, presidents, etc. All of us.

What’s your top tip for reporting on education news?

Care about it as if the children in those schools are your children.