North Carolina’s public schools are rapidly resegregating by race and class. Classroom achievement of students is suffering as a result. This story, “The New Segregation,” was published in The News & Observer of Raleigh in early 2001, and this news was hardly a surprise to many people within the education community. But it did surprise many of our readers. It was also a story the paper might never have told if it didn’t have a reporter specifically assigned to a minority education issues beat.
I was assigned to that beat almost four years ago after spending the previous eight years covering general education issues statewide for The News & Observer. I rarely find a colleague who shares this title at other newspapers. Yet the role of race is reshaping schools in ways unseen since the days of integration. From court decisions to academic achievement, from efforts to hold schools accountble to community decision-making, race matters in today’s classrooms.
Our decision to break out a separate beat grew from the publication of a three-day series I reported in 1999 that explored the depth and reasons for the state’s racial achievement gap. Built upon a computer analysis of test grades, dozens of interviews, and countless hours watching silently from inside classrooms, the series was titled “Worlds Apart: The Racial Achievement Gap.” Worlds apart was an apt description for the different ways in which many black students saw their schools compared with their white classmates.
The series also helped define the debate about the differences in academic achievement between black and white students in North Carolina. It introduced the problem to our readers, made the topic a priority on the public agenda, and often served as a reference guide for countless state and local discussions. Readers ordered more than 5,000 reprints of the series; copies were sent to every school principal in the state.
Creating a New Education Beat
Once we’d published this series, there was only minimal discussion about whether we’d return to covering education as we had before. The News & Observer still uses a general education reporter to cover statewide education issues and separate reporters who cover local school districts. Readers would likely find it unacceptable if we relinquished those beats in a region that is home to Research Triangle Park, three major universities, and public schools that enroll more than 150,000 students. Today, a beat that covers minority education issues spanning all grade levels—from preschool to historically black colleges—is just a part of our education reporting stable. In addition to the traditional series that we publish over several days, this beat produces weekend stories and daily articles that our education reporters might otherwise never find the time to do. But more important, “Worlds Apart” established a template for how we continue to address sensitive issues of race, classroom achievement, and equity in public education.
It is difficult to understate the importance of data analysis for reporting on this beat, much of it done by Susan Ebbs in the newspaper’s news research department. Each year, the newspaper collects the test results of mandatory state reading and math exams as well as corresponding surveys taken by roughly 700,000 students. The records are basically student-level data stripped only of the students’ names. They include student eligibility for subsidized lunches. Because of our ability to analyze this data, I often know as much about minority achievement as the school principal does when I show up for my first visit at a particular school. “First” is an important word, for these larger stories that explore issues affecting minority children often require multiple visits to schools and classrooms. The data only provides the factual foundation of a story. It is the visits and interviews that bring the story to life.
When “Worlds Apart” was published, it was obvious that resegregation contributed to lagging minority achievement. But we did not want that fact to overshadow other important issues, especially those involving low expectations by teachers, administrators and sometimes even parents. Low expectations by adults, we found, were often at the heart of creating and maintaining the achievement gap. That meant returning to the topic of resegregation later—more than a year later as it turned out. It was a delay caused, in part, by the state’s newfound interest in closing the achievement gap after “Worlds Apart” was published.
Data Defines the Story
While the data framed our stories about the low expectations for minority children, it also defined the storyline for my articles on resegregation. Rob Waters, who edited both series, often said he could not recall an issue in which numbers so clearly told the story.
Relying again on test score data, we coupled our analysis of trends in resegregation with other data. We looked at:
- Enrollment trends during the past 15 years
- Teacher turnover within schools
- A comparison of teacher experience levels based on the percentages of poor or minority students in each of the state’s schools.
The numbers did tell the story. Minority students of similar family incomes posted lower test scores when they attended largely segregated schools. The ability I now had to show this information to principals and superintendents—black and white—as well as to share it immediately with teachers and parents took most of my interviews to a different level of conversation.
Irrefutable data did not necessarily make the interviews more comfortable. Some middle-class parents found the news unsettling; others, in largely white schools, quickly turned defensive. The students and teachers at one predominantly black high school, in particular, were quick to embrace the message but incensed to find the school used as an example. But in general, the combination of data analysis and shoe-leather reporting offered a view of the public schools that differed considerably from the schools that readers thought they knew.
“The New Segregation” showed, for example, how morale and discipline plummeted when a school that was two-thirds white becomes a school that is 96 percent black in the course of a single year. The series also offered the lament of teachers in Wayne County who want to know how a child who lives in a diverse school district can attend school for 13 years and never see a white classmate. And the stories showed that no matter how fondly African-American adults remember the schools of their childhood, today’s segregation produces a different school altogether.
Bolstered by the success of these reports, in 2002 The News & Observer took on yet another important issue, largely avoided in many discussions about minority achievement—the amount and effect of parental involvement in the schools. Eventually, the reporting I did on this appeared in a series entitled “The Parent Gap.”
This time the numbers did not offer an obvious storyline. Instead, they gave hints and insights that seemed to indicate a communication breakdown between many teachers and minority parents. The data also showed that regardless of income, African-American students were entering kindergarten less prepared than their white classmates, and during the first year of school the gap between them increased. Data showed, too, that African-American students in elementary and middle school watched more television and did less homework. Again, the differences were obvious across income levels.
But numbers could not tell us why. Again, that came from interviews and observations.
If talking with teachers and students about the role of race is difficult—and it is very, very difficult—those conversations seem relatively easy when I compare them with my job of asking parents why they seemingly refused to get involved in their child’s education. Much of what I heard from them has been told before—parents without transportation; parents with two jobs; parents who are still basically children themselves. But these reasons certainly do not explain the circumstance of every minority parent or even a majority of them. And they don’t convey their feelings.
In time, many of those parents stepped forward and talked about why they weren’t very involved with their children’s school. At times, they spoke individually; in other instances, they accepted invitations to be part of discussion groups. I went to their homes and met them in reading rooms of public libraries. Oddly, some asked to meet in the schools they rarely visited. They looked at the data and listened to what others said, then many offered their assessment of what the schools look like from their perspective.
“It’s a matter of trust,” said a father of four from Wake County. “Why would a black parent trust the schools to do the right thing?” His view was shared by many other parents who were often skeptical about teachers’ intentions even when their children succeeded academically. Without trust, advice about homework and television was suspect—maybe even trivial—from their point of view. Some teachers we spoke with clearly understood the parents’ frustrations; others couldn’t relate at all to the feeling he’d expressed. Many teachers wondered out loud what other choice a parent has but to trust the schools.
A story like this one covers a lot of ground when it has to bridge the distance between something as precise as data analysis and something as intangible as perceptions of trust. There is no one answer to give to this father’s question, just as there is no one way to impress upon teachers—and readers—why he would ask it. But we report and tell this story so that all readers have a chance to hear his question and reflect on what it means for public education. It’s an opportunity that exists largely because The News & Observer has created a beat found at few other newspapers—a beat focused on minority education issues.
Tim Simmons covers minority education issues for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina.. His work has won several state and national awards, including the 1999 Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association for “Worlds Apart” and recognition by the Columbia University School of Journalism for exemplary coverage of race and ethnic issues for “The New Segregation.” Those stories and others can be found at http://www.newsobserver.com/232/index.html and http://www.newsobserver.com/231/index.html.