One of the many folks covering NYC schools is Eliza Shapiro (top left), education reporter for Politico New York, who’s been on the job nearly three years now.
Roughly four years out of college, Shapiro previously covered national politics and crime for The Daily Beast. Her Twitter avatar is a picture of Larry David (aka Bernie Sanders) yelling.
Politico (formerly Capital New York) is in many ways attempting to replicate Politico’s national success in the media-centric New York market (including the paywall). And so one of many tricks for Shapiro is to write frequently and incisively about education politics, avoiding getting into ruts in her coverage or letting advocates pull her into stories. There’s got to be urgency, pushing stories and breaking news, but also some ability to sift out what’s not important. It’s no easy task to do it well.
So how’s Shapiro doing, according to Shapiro’s self-assessment and what others say about her work? Let’s take a look.
On the education beat since her first day at Politico (covering Mayor Bill de Blasio talking about education), Shapiro explains that she’d always been interested in education. The product of five different public and private schools (and the offspring of journalists and granddaughter of a 50-year NYC teacher), she thought she brought a diverse NYC education background to the job.
“Deep into the beat” now, Shapiro says that much of her coverage is driven by her own sources and instincts. She feels like she can tell when changes are coming, “I can tell when a small change is happening and it’s a big deal.”
She doesn’t know or see everything, however. There’s a weekly face-to-face education meeting with the Mayor and the Chancellor. “That’s the room I’d like most like to be in every single week.”
For most education reporters, former teachers who’ve been told that the classroom is the most important place to be, this would be a heresy. But not Shapiro. “What happens in the classroom is impacted so much by what happens at City Hall,” she says.
WNYC’s Fertig thinks it’s entirely appropriate and helpful Shapiro “focuses on the politics of this stuff.”
Some recent examples of her work: Improving test scores likely to ease political pressure on City Hall, So far, Upper West Side rezoning debate much calmer than controversy in Brooklyn, Fariña pays visit to Success Academy, settling one aspect of ongoing dispute.
By her own account, she’s known for charter school coverage, including a two-part series about the Success Academy network based on hundreds of pages of private internal documents. The Success Academy story, with its legislative angle, big-money implications and Clash of the Titans aspects, hit a lot of sweet spots for the Politico reporter. “It was a reporter’s dream,” she says.
Engaging as it is to cover charters and district schools, and the conflicts between the two, Shapiro knows that there’s the danger of narrowing down coverage too far. She recently wrote about Community Schools, an approach focused on wraparound services for students, which are actually more numerous than charters. “People need to start paying attention,” she says. See her recent story here: New York’s community school expansion rattles allies.
Like other NYC education reporters, she professes sincere-sounding admiration for colleague/competitors like NY1’s Lyndsey Christ, the NY Daily News’ Ben Chapman and especially WNYC’s Beth Fertig, the unofficial dean of NYC education reporters.
“She’s taught me a lot about how NYC education politics really work,” says Shapiro, who says she’s also a big admirer of Kate Taylor’s NYT Success Academy coverage, focused on the videotaped “rip and redo” of a student’s work.
Shapiro’s one big complaint is that she feels like her colleagues aren’t as generous as she is about crediting others’ work. “I’m extremely generous to give credit where credit is due.” But not everyone follows the same rule. “I write a lot, and I’m followed quite frequently, and I’m consistently not credited as much as I credit other people.”
“I would encourage [other reporters] to think about this,” she says, without giving any names.
According to NY Daily News’ Ben Chapman, it’s her counterparts who should be admiring her: “Eliza produces a high volume of stories with a high level of detail and strong attention to context,” according to Chapman — though much of it is published behind Politico’s paywall. “She’s an extremely sophisticated reporter and is always thinking about the political implications of any education news that happens in the city.”
Like many other education reporters these days, she’s cautiously fascinated about school segregation issues. But she thinks that she and others still have lots to learn. “It’s about history and housing segregation and politics. It’s such a deep issue. Everyone needs to educate themselves on it.” Asked if she thinks that the integration coverage has been falling short, she says “I don’t think that there’s been sloppy reporting.”
Asked about the related issue of white education reporters covering communities of color, Shapiro says “Most of the New York City education reporters are white, but I feel confident that myself and my fellow reporters have done the serious work of going into the schools that aren’t the ones we went to — understanding what that experience is like.”
This is a common sentiment from most education reporters, though not everyone would agree that it’s so easily accomplished or represented in education coverage.
Over the past three years, Shapiro feels like she’s learned the difference between a story that’s got advocates riled up and a story that’s important more widely. “The people who make the most noise are not the ones you should spend the most time,” she says, giving opting out of standardized testing as an example.
“I think that education reporters have to make sure that their coverage is not overly driven by advocacy. Advocates are great at creating noise – online and in the street – but their issues aren’t necessarily the most important ones for readers to know about, according to Shapiro. “I don’t want to write a story that goes ‘Activists say this, and advocates say that.’”
Indeed, during the frenzy to report opt-out numbers during a recent administration of the New York state tests, Shapiro demurred. “It’s an incomplete picture that feeds into advocacy = not my job,“ she wrote on Twitter. “the numbers are spun so much by both sides that I find them unreliable – along with being very incomplete. Wait ‘til August!”
According to Shapiro, central office policies and initiatives that impact lots of kids get lost in the shuffle. “There’s probably not enough focus on wonky policy and how the DOE functions.”
At least one observer takes issue with that assessment — and some of Shapiro’s coverage. “The media is helping both sides — the charter advocates and the teachers unions — push their agendas,” according to Mona Davids, a NYC parent and head of the NYC Parents Union, who describes herself as independent from either camp. “They [Politico and the New York Times in particular] are ignoring black and brown parents.”
“I talk to plenty of parents,” responds Shapiro. “But remember, I write about policy primarily, so that involves me talking much more to elected officials and policymakers.”
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