We're trying something new today: A live blog, describing an event as it goes along. Our test case is a forum on education issues at the Southern Regional Education Board
in Atlanta. While the forum is for editorial writers and editorial-page editors, we expect there will be useful information for reporters and assigning editors -- and not just in the South (which SREB defines broadly as 16 states, from Delaware to Texas).
Topics at the forum include challenges facing schools, such as high dropout rates; a review of current legislative issues; raising the percentage of college graduates; and how these issues are presented to readers, viewers and listeners. We'll keep adding to this same item, rather than adding new items, so bookmark The Rural Blog and check back from time to time.Graduation rates and student achievement: a conflict
High dropout rates are a big problem, and the No Child Left Behind Act and other high-stakes testing systems do nothing to address it -- and may even provide disincentives, SREB President Dave Spence said in the opening session. With more emphasis on student achievement, there is no incentive for high-school principals to keep in school students who will flunk achievement tests, Spence said. And No Child Left Behind allows states and school districts to set miniscule goals, as low as 0.1 percent a year, for improving graduation rates. "It's an absolute shame."
Spence said states have never been asked to improve graduation rates and student achievement at the same time. He said states need systems to evaluate seventh- and eighth-graders' readiness for high school, because many freshmen don't become sophomores on time. He also said there needs to be more emphasis on reading after the fourth grade, to prepare students for achievement in science and math. He noted that national test results show eighth-grade reading scores are flat or declining.
"Somehow we have to find a way to make this a priority for all
teachers," Spence said. "The number one problem in terms of graduation and achievement is reading. Our schools treat writing as something once you're decoding by grade four, you're reading."Higher-education graduation rates lag, may sag
Bet you didn't know this: The U.S. ranks behind at least 15 other developed nations in college-graduation rates of people under 35. That fact is obscured because we have a higher share of non-traditional students, Spence said. Overall, only 54 percent of students who entered college seeking a bachelor's degree in 1999; in the South, it was 52 percent; Southern states ranking lower were Alabama (49%), Georgia (48), Mississippi (48), Tennessee (46), Kentucky (46), Oklahoma (46), West Virginia (45), Arkansas (39) and Louisiana (36).
Because the growth in Southern college enrollment in the next 12 years is expected to come from Hispanics, who have a low graduation rate, "It's going to be hard to do as well as we have been doing," said Joe Marks, director of education data services for SREB. Marks is a a good person to call when you have a question about education data, not just in the South.
Here's a problem of particular interest to rural areas: "In many of our states you cannot get from a community or technical college to a university without having to retake courses," Spence said, adding that state laws are probably the only way to integrate curricula and graduation requirements because "I just don't believe higher education can get its act together."Overcoming obstacles to a college degree
There was much discussion about the obstacles faced by former college students who want to resume their academic career and get a degree. Bruce Chaloux, SREB's director of student access programs and services, talked about several online avenues for courses and degrees, such as ElectronicCampus.org
. News outlets should make sure readers, viewers and listeners know about such opportunities. "Most of these adults," he said, "have deferred a dream."
One of those is at the forum. Ellen Myatt, publisher of northeast Tennessee's Rogersville Review
, talked about her 30-year quest for a degree, finally accomplished through a professional studies program at Tusculum College
in Greeneville, Tenn. "I didn't really know how to research my options," she said. (UPDATE, Sept. 2008
: Myatt has left the Review to pursue a master's degree in business administration. The interim publisher is Duane Uhls. Myatt was publisher of the Review from 1990-1997 and 2006-2008.)The future of journalism, especially opinion journalism
Cynthia Tucker, editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
editorial page and winner of last year's Pulitzer Prize for commentary, was the luncheon speaker. Amid all the bad news about newspapers, she said, "Opinion is thriving across media platforms. ... That gives me hope for what we do, because newspapers offer the best opinion sites," with "thoughtful and rational discussion" with online adjuncts that are usually, or should be, "considered and fact-based and polite."
Your correspondent asked Tucker, left,
to react to something I have said for years: Because news outlets, especially TV, find it cheaper to pay fees to talking heads that trade opinions than salaries to reporters who dig up facts, the market for opinion in this country is increasing and the market for fact is decreasing -- and that's bad for democracy. She agreed, calling that "the single issue that makes me the most pessimistic" about journalism and democracy.
Tucker and others at the forum said cutbacks in news departments have made editorial writing harder because there are fewer news stories with facts on which to base an opinion, and editorial writers have to gather more facts than before. "I have to do more reporting now," she said. Tonyaa Weathersbee, an opinion writer for the Florida Times-Union
in Jacksonville, said her news department asked her to write a column about a topic because it couldn't get to a story.K-12: Focus needed on quality principals, boards
SREB has organized lots of state-by-state education data on its new Scoreboard
page. Many of the specific data in the PDF file are hot-linked to more detailed information.
Online courses can offer much greater opportunities to high-school students, especially in rural areas, said Bill Thomas, director of the SREB Educational Technology Cooperative
Gene Bottoms, SREB's senior vice president for school improvement, presented a study of what worked in high schools in the South from 2004 to 2006. In the most improved schools, more students completed a "solid academic core" instead of staying on a lower-expectation track of courses; teachers had clearer expectations and students had clearer knowledge of requirements for grades; there was more or better work-related learning (reading technical manuals improves reading as much as reading Shakespeare, Bottoms said); reading and writing were emphasized in most or all courses; and students received timely guidance -- setting goals early and seeing high school connected with their goals.
In schools that declined, Bottoms said, the declines were mostly attributable to leadership, from principals to school boards. If you could make only one change in a school, "Get a great principal." he said. Also, "You've got to have a school board who is willing to back the principal who makes a decision," such as putting more emphasis on teaching ninth-graders, something many teachers don't like to do, especially after they have taught for some time.
Joe Rutherford of the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal
in Tupelo (America's largest rural newspaper) asked what works best to improve failing schools. Bottoms said New York City is having success with an academy for principals, something that could work in rural areas. He said a recent Mississippi proposal to oust the superintendents of failing districts probably wouldn't work unless attention is also paid to principals and school boards. He said a recent survey of Kentucky and Tennessee principals found that 40 percent of them thought their school board "was not interested in improving student achievement."
Patience is needed, too. "Most of the state takeover efforts have not worked very well," partly because they tend to expect results in three years, Bottoms said.Editorial leadership for education
Rutherford discussed a series of news stories and editorial campaign that the Daily Journal, which is owned by a local foundation
, mounted to attack Mississippi's low high-school graduation rate. "Nobody in Mississippi knew exactly what the dropout rate was," because of conflicting data and varying interpretations, he said.
Turns out that the rate is 25.7 percent. The Daily Journal and other media, with help from a Tupelo advertising agency, have mounted to cut the rate to 12 percent in seven years. At the end of this academic year, they will know if it has made a difference. Meanwhile, the campaign got the attention of Gov. Haley Barbour, who has taken some steps to address the problem. It's a great example of a regional newspaper exercising statewide leadership.
All told, this was a gathering of fine journalists who make education a top priority and make their newspapers leaders in doing something to address its problems in their states and communities. Bob Davis wrote in his closing blog post that the discussion "might be best summed up as 'misery loves company.' And there's plenty of misery to go around, including declining funding, misplaced priorities and backward-looking methods. The good news is that solutions were presented. If Southern states possess the will to make positive changes is an open question." Sometimes states and communities can find the will if journalists show them the way.
For a more detailed report on the forum, by SREB Communications Director Alan Richard, click here
. For more on SREB, see http://www.sreb.org/
. For another perspective on the forum, see this blog
by our friend Bob Davis, editor of The Anniston Star.