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Back to school with data and documents

By Kyle Deas
Graduate student, University of Missouri

It’s that time of year again: the school supply aisles at your local stores are crammed with people; the summer heat is giving its last dying gasps; and education beat reporters across the country are being asked, for the second or fifth or fifteenth time, to write a back-to-school story.

Don’t despair. Whether you cover your local elementary school or a behemoth public university, IRE has ways for you to approach this year’s story from a different angle.

1. Follow the Money

Taxpayer money funds public education, but often, that money isn’t carefully spent. Tawnell Hobbs, of the Dallas Morning Newswrites in this tipsheet that you should get your hands on the database of teacher and administrator salaries for your district, and see how your superintendent’s take-home compares to his peers in similar districts. Find out how much your district is paying outside consultants, and whether that advice has concrete results. Or look at big contracts that your local university has signed, and whether they’re meeting their budget goals or not.

2. Look at the Students

McNelly Torres, an IRE Board Member and now associate director of the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, recommends in this tipsheet to dig into the demographic and testing data of your district to see how your students are really doing. Do the students in your district test better than the average, or worse? How often are they absent? How often are they disciplined? Information on disciplinary actions, expulsion rates, demographic information, test scores and much more are all typically public records.

3. Look at the Teachers

According to Melanie BurneyThe Philadelphia Inquirer, a startling number of teachers in America were not subjected to a background check when they were hired. Were the teachers in your district?

4. Look at the Board

School board members are elected officials, but their elections and backgrounds are often subjected to little scrutiny. Does your local school board member have an expense card or cell phone, and if so, what do they use it for? What were they doing before they joined the school board, and could it have an effect on, say, the contracts they give out?

5. Campus Crime

NICAR’s Database Library has a database showing campus crime statistics. The data is collected by the U.S. Department of Education under the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. How do your local schools compare? Does a smaller school report more crimes than a larger one? If so, do those numbers reflect the realities on the campuses or is one college trying to report the crimes differently?

Here are some stories from other investigative reporters for inspiration:

  • “The Experience Factor”, The Statesman Journal, 2009 – The Statesman Journal analyzed multiples sets of data, which showed that low-income students are more likely to be taught by new teachers and those with less experience than students in the district’s more affluent schools.
  • “Master’s Degree of a Mess”Fort Worth Weekly, 2008 – These stories were part of a year-long investigation of the Tarrant County College District’s four-year mismanaged project to build a long-awaited downtown campus in Fort Worth, Texas. In includes investigation into the roles of the chancellor and the board of trustees in the debacle.
  • “School Bus Bloat 2005″WJW-TV Cleveland, 2005 – For over fourteen months the reporters investigated the Cleveland Municipal School District’s transportation department, producing 25 stories. The reports examined extensive waste of resources, mismanagement, and fraudulent use of inflated data. Reporter Tom Merriman used records, surveillance video, and interviews with ex-employees to document the district was inflating rider numbers to get more funding. The investigation lead to the resignation of a top official in the organization.

And, here are some tipsheets for further reading:

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