On The HotSeat: Journalism Guru Richard Lee Colvin

Like many rock stars, Richard ("Ricky Lee") Colvin has three names, wears an earring, and used to hang out on the West Coast. Unlike the rest of those guys, Colvin used to be the lead education writer at the LA Times and now heads the Hechinger Institute, the Columbia University-based program that trains and supports education journalists.

On the HotSeat, cagey Colvin does his best to avoid naming names but still reveals juicy tidbits like why the Reading First story isn't much of a story (kids were learning), what stories reporters should really be covering (and which stories he's tired of), what it's like being kicked off the Education Writers Association listserve (he claims not to have minded), and (sort of) why there need to be two different education-focused journalism organizations.

Why didn't the mainstream education press pick up on the Reading First scandal, even though it had been reported in the trades and rumored for years?

RLC: This is a big story to some Inside-the-Beltway education wonks. It’s not of much interest to parents who just want their kids to learn to read. Having said that, I did see it covered in USA Today, Washington Post, New York Times.

Really? I don’t get it. How is it that only Beltway types would be interested in schools allegedly being forced to buy and use a curriculum that may not be any better than the one they already had? And if it’s not a big story, then why did the papers you mention cover it?

RLC: IG reports are good news hooks. And, hey, what reporter wouldn’t want to write a story where you get to quote juicy emails? But juicy emails don’t make it a story that matters to the average person. You make it sound like kids weren’t being taught to read because they were forced to use educationally unsound materials. The bottom line is that kids were learning to read. To the extent this is a story, it’s about the limits of federalism in education.

Then what are the big education stories now, and are there any that aren’t getting enough coverage – or too much?

RLC: One big story that should get more attention is the lack of rigor in high schools, even those that have been reformed or are newly established. The rapid growth of publicly funded pre-kindergarten, and the poor quality of some of the state programs, deserves far more attention. We’re missing an opportunity by paying for pre-k programs and not making sure they are of high enough quality to matter...On the other hand, I’m bored with stories that say schools aren’t teaching certain subjects anymore because of NCLB. And almost five years in, I’m surprised at how many stories blame the federal NCLB law for stupid decisions states make in implementing the law.

Why is education considered such a tough sell to reporters (and to editors)?

RLC: Considered so by who? Also, what do you mean by “tough sell”? Most newspapers have more reporters on the schools/education beat than they do on any other beat.

What papers are doing a good, if unheralded job on their education coverage, and what coming stars are there out there whose bylines we should be watching?

RLC: There’s lots. [Proceeds to name roughly a dozen reporters and newspapers.]

So basically everyone’s doing a great job. I get it. Well, what papers aren't as strong in their commitment or coverage as they used to be? I recently named the CSM as one example. Willing to name any others?

RLC: It’s no secret that the newspaper business is trying to find its balance, given the profit pressures. I don’t think we’ve yet seen the net impact of the Knight-Ridder sale on education coverage. It could work out OK in Philadelphia but San Jose lost some senior people on the education beat. The folks in Akron are feeling the pressure to do more with less. We’ll see. But it’s not about education. It’s about the newspaper industry in general.

I’ll take that as a “no” to your being willing to name anyone whose coverage has suffered. OK, one more try. If we were playing a schoolyard game of education reporting, and you got to pick first, who would you pick? Mathews? Merrow? Feller? Whitmire? Someone else?

RLC: That’s an all-star lineup of guys right there. I’d try to be George Steinbrenner and hire them all plus Sam Freedman. But I’d also want Stephanie Banchero and Tracy Dell’Angela from the Chicago Tribune and Erika Hayasaki from the Los Angeles Times and Betsy Hammond from the Oregonian in Portland and Sarah Carr from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Years of asking questions have clearly helped you learn how to avoid answering them, Richard. Let’s change the subject. What about education blogs? Any place for them in a respectable news organization, and if so what's the place?

RlC: Alexander, are you looking for a job? Atlanta, Dayton, the Journal News in Westchester, Miami, Los Angeles [newspapers] all have blogs and all do them differently. I think blogs have a lot of potential to connect with a very committed, passionate audience that cares about education.

What did you do before you were the main education writer at the LAT?

RLC: I covered state education issues and before that I covered gangs, housing issues, development, general assignment for the Times. Before coming to the Times I wrote about education for the Oakland Tribune and a small paper outside of Oakland.

When I first heard of you, you went by the name Richard Lee Colvin, but recently I see just plain Richard Colvin. Was there a switch, and if so, why?

RLC: I’m covetous of the “Lee” in Richard Lee Colvin because that’s my byline. I always use it. I can’t make sure everyone does. (My family and close friends call me Rick. My grandmother called me Ricky Lee.)

What was your biggest story?

RLC: The wars over reading, math and science in California. I was the first to write about how math is taught in Singapore, one of the first to write about the loss of faith in the self-esteem movement, and the first to write about how New Zealand had an enormous influence on the U.S. whole language movement.

Why did you leave the newsroom?

RLC: I left only because I was given a great opportunity to influence the coverage of education nationally, to build on something I knew, to learn a whole new set of skills, and to continue as a working journalist.

As some folks know, the EWA email listserve is perhaps one of the best things they’ve got going. What was it like being banished from the listserve, and what do you think about EWA's policy regarding "full-time reporters only" on the list?

RLC: That policy was in place when I was on the EWA board and I didn’t try to change it.

How are Hechinger-EWA relations, anyway? At the annual EWA meeting last summer in New Orleans, which you attended, I felt like was a kid whose divorced parents both came to Thanksgiving dinner.

RLC: How was the turkey? EWA and Hechinger just collaborated on a very successful seminar in Atlanta for journalists across the South. The folks at EWA were great partners. They lined up some first-rate panels and recruited so many reporters we actually had to turn some away.

What's the difference between the Hechinger Institute and EWA, and do there really need to be two education reporter organizations?

RLC: The EWA is a membership organization. Such an organization is one of the hallmarks of a professional activity that requires specialized knowledge or training. Hechinger is not a membership organization. It offers training in various forms—publications, seminars and, soon, our redesigned website...As to your question of whether there’s room for two organizations, we usually turn people away from our seminars because we like to keep them small enough to foster rich discussions. I don’t think EWA has any trouble attracting participants either. So, the hunger for more knowledge and training is strong.

Q. How have the East Coast, your board, and your funders responded to seeing you walk into the room with an earring?

A. No complaints so far. I was just trying to fit in on the subway.


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