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Two Town Halls, and a peek into the future

John Merrow on the two “Town Hall” events he attended at the end of August 2011 — and what it tells us about the future of education journalism.

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Summer Ends, Fall Changes

For most of America’s 56 million school age youth, late August and early September are times of great excitement and anticipation. Sure, summer break is over, and that’s a drag, but most kids begin school excited to see their friends and with the belief that ‘this year will be the best ever.’

We’re feeling something akin to that at Learning Matters. We’ve “started over” in our new office space, a large loft on the top floor–with high ceilings and a skylight–on West 26th Street in Manhattan. We’ve closed the books on our 3-year coverage of New Orleans and Washington, DC, and are eager to dig into new stories,

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Tabula Rasa does not mean Carte Blanche

What are the emerging education stories in the months ahead? What continuing stories should we be tracking? What issues aren’t being covered in the proper depth?

What’s next?I know it’s the dog days of summer, hardly the best time for jumping up and down with intellectual energy, but I hope you will give us a hand, because Learning Matters is at another crossroads, another decision point.

I hope you have noticed that we have devoted lots of time, resources and energy over the past three years to two important school reform stories: the efforts to bring about change in Washington, DC and New Orleans, LA, two of the lowest performing school systems in the nation, by Michelle Rhee and Paul Vallas, respectively. In a few weeks the final episode of this series will air on PBS NewsHour. In total we will have produced twelve stories about NOLA and twelve about DC. That’s unprecedented reporting, particularly for television, and it’s been worthwhile.

Now, however, we have the opportunity to cover other stories.

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Writing ‘Below C Level’

In my work for PBS NewsHour over the past three years, I am most often asked two very specific questions: “Is Jim Lehrer ever going to retire?” And “What is your personal opinion of Michelle Rhee? Do you like her and what she’s doing in Washington?”

Below C LevelTo the first question my answer is always the same. ‘I hope not.” Of course I never answer the second question when I am asked, because it’s our job to report what we see happening, not express opinions or pass judgment. I do, however, have some thoughts on the subject, which you will find in Chapter 9 of Below C Level, pages 81-105. Yes, it takes 24 pages.

I spent five and one-half years writing Below C Level. The first drafts of many of the chapters were written on an airplane—I haven’t watched an in-flight movie for years—because my work takes me to distant places, and I have been living on the West Coast for the past eight years.

But, looking back with the first copy of Below C Level on the desk next to me now, I realize that the first five years were a walk in the park, relatively speaking. The last six months were without question the hardest part of the journey. During that time I rewrote every one of the 37 chapters. Once rewritten, it then had to find a place in the structure of the book, or go into the circular file.

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What you didn’t see on television

My colleagues and I have spent the past week or more putting the finishing touches on the last installment of our reporting from New Orleans and the Recovery School District there. In all, PBS NewsHour will have aired 12 segments about Paul Vallas and the RSD, and we also produced three other post-Katrina (pre-Vallas) segments. (Watch the full Paul Vallas series here.)

Paul Vallas in New OrleansThat’s 15 segments, each 8-10 minutes in length, a total of 2 hours of television, roughly. You might be interested to know what went into creating those two hours. Each piece generally entailed three days of shooting, perhaps 6 hours of videotape each day. That 6 (hours) X 3 (days) X 15 (segments) = 270 hours in all.

Our monumental task–15 times over–was to then take that raw material and edit and shape it into a short segment that would tell some part of the story of the effort to transform what was easily one of the worst school districts in the nation.

We produced more than our reports for PBS NewsHour: Each piece was accompanied by as many as four podcasts, usually longer interviews with Vallas, State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, various Teach for America teachers, parents, and so on. (Listen to the podcasts here.)

We’ve been doing the same job in Washington, DC, chronicling the efforts of Michelle Rhee to reform the schools there. We’ve made as many trips, shot as many hours of video, and spent as many weeks editing. We’ll present our final chapter from that city later this summer.

Did we get it right?

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