Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

CovEd Working Syllabus 2014

LynNell Hancock
Room 805
212-854-8765 work/ 973-699-1450 cell

Office Hours: Wednesdays, 10 to 5 (please sign up). Plus Tuesday afternoons
Seminar: Tuesday, 9 a.m. to 12:30. Room 607A
Reporting Day: Monday

Adjunct Prof.
Barbara Kantrowitz


Suggested Books
Web Resources and Listservs


Education is a primary beat in every American news outlet from the small town paper to the metropolitan news conglomerate, for myriad reasons. Public schools are the most elementary democratic engines that drive communities financially, culturally, and ideologically. In more ways than one, the health and well being of a region is tied to the quality of its schools. It is not uncommon that more than half of a community ’s budget is directed at its public schools. The general public cares deeply about its schools.

On a more theoretical plane, public education is considered government’s most important social policy—one Americans still believe represents the heart of our national values. We expect our schools not only to educate individual children, but to disseminate shared values, to close racial and economic gaps, and to level the playing field for all children in pursuit of that elusive American dream.

Ambivalence often takes hold when it comes time for local governments to carry out these lofty goals. It is one thing to preach educational equity, and quite another to make it happen. Despite a consensus on the ideological importance of universal public schooling, intense disagreement still dominates debates over the practical matters: how to teach, what to teach, how to organize districts, how to spend money, and how to monitor what happens in the classrooms. And today, more than ever, our public school system is under new pressures to educate all children for all purposes – as citizens, as workers, as leaders in their fields—and to do it in ways that are wholly different from past practices.

Education reporters find themselves tripping headlong into this baffling world dominated by managed tests and prescriptive reforms without a proper map. Our most common tendency is to pay close attention only to the top layer of public school government. But the days are past when school reporters can log in hours numbly observing school board meetings and parroting the latest superintendent’s announcement. The public today demands more sophisticated coverage, stories that explore the intersection of culture, race, child development, pedagogy, politics and data analysis.

This course is intended to offer students a foundation for making sense of the increasingly complex landscape of public education. It will provide historical context for public schooling in the United States, examine some of the pressing issues confronting educators and children, and offer students some basic tools needed to fairly assess the nation’s classrooms, such as how to read school data, understanding child development, education research, different teaching methods, and the art and ethics of interviewing children. Students should emerge from this course with a working knowledge of the various political and education arguments fueling public debate and the skills needed to cut through the polemics and write about them with clarity.

The course will be useful for students who are interested in writing about national affairs and social services with an investigative and a narrative flair. Any reporter who masters this beat, balancing daily news with vibrant, explanatory features, will be armed with the skills needed to tackle other complex journalistic assignments. Students will learn to write in a variety of media, from journals to news to op-eds and a magazine-length feature. We will rewrite and rewrite until the pieces are in publishable shape on our course Web site.