Q&A with Veteran Education Writer: Washington Post's Valerie Strauss Provides First-Hand Insight into the Field
Jun 05, 2019 Sally Brown
What do the bible, Richard Nixon and Betsy DeVos have in common? This interview. Sally Brown recently connected with The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, a veteran in journalism who has covered education for more than 25 years. With her extensive experience adding a new level of perspective and expertise to the conversation, Valerie sheds light on the changing education beat, offering insight into how news stories are covered in 2019.
Sally: Why did you initially decide to become a journalist?
Valerie: My parents always had The New York Times mailed to our house in Miami when I was young — it was our bible — so early on I saw the importance of great journalism. Writing was also easy for me, as was asking annoying and challenging questions to every authority figure in sight. It made eminent sense, then, for me to join school newspapers.
When I was working at my high school’s student newspaper, the Coral Park Rampage, Watergate happened. My mother was working for George McGovern’s campaign in 1972 to try to defeat Richard Nixon, and we became fixated on that story. Naturally, The Washington Post became our new bible. I did consider going into archaeology (and, if I could have grasped more than simple math, into astronomy) but really, in the end, there was no other profession I could see for myself.
Sally: How long have you worked at The Washington Post?
Valerie: It’s hard for me to believe but I’ve been at The Post since 1987. You do the math.
Sally: In addition to writing your own pieces, you also run the Answer Sheet blog at The Washington Post, where you publish the work of others, including articles authored by researchers, professors, students and parents, as a way to offer readers new perspectives and viewpoints. Is the Answer Sheet something you launched at The Washington Post?
Valerie: I have been writing about education for about 25 years (yes, that’s unusual). About 10 years ago, my editors came to me and asked if I would start an education blog. At first, I shuddered, not even liking the word “blog.” Their idea was to try to get some of us print dinosaurs to work online and to write in a more personal way. I wound up saying yes, and The Answer Sheet started. Early on I wanted to publish other voices on my blog because I thought it would make it more interesting. I have come to look at TAS as something of an online magazine with a particular bent.
It took me a while to find my footing, but the fact that education became big news in the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top/Common Core/standardized testing/school choice era helped make my blog popular with readers. I write pieces that I think reflect the big issues in education in accessible ways to readers. I cross over all of our traditional education news beats: national, local, higher ed.
"I write pieces that I think reflect the big issues in education in accessible ways to readers. I cross over all of our traditional education news beats: national, local, higher ed."
Sally: There is so much happening right now in education news — how has the beat changed in the past 12 months?
Valerie: Education coverage is always a mix of classroom practice, policy and politics; which one is dominant changes with the moment. In the past 12 months, there has been more focused journalism, as I’ve seen, on charter schools and, of course, on Betsy DeVos.
"Education coverage is always a mix of classroom practice, policy and politics; which one is dominant changes with the moment."
Sally: I’ve noticed that at national business press, it’s often hard to find education reporters who cover early childhood education/pre-K. What’s your take on this?
Valerie: You are correct: there are very few reporters, if any, at mainstream publications who have early childhood education as a stand-alone beat. It is usually part of a K-12 beat. Because I believe that we can’t have too many reporters covering education, I think it’s unfortunate. The early childhood education world has been changing dramatically and the way that our youngest students are being affected is profound. A lot of money is being spent on programs for these kids, though it is unclear how good many of them [are]. There is a lot of accountability journalism to do in this area.
Sally: While I know you cover the education beat broadly and write about the stories and news that matter — are there any stories (or themes) that you or your team are focusing on this year (or following especially closely)?
Valerie: Our beat and enterprise education reporters are all over the map, trying to follow the news but also find bigger feature and accountability stories that reveal what is happening in school. Betsy DeVos is a big focus for national writers, as is school security, school discipline and civil rights issues as they relate to schooling. I have a long list of issues on which I try to focus, including the standardized testing movement, school segregation, the evolution of the school choice movement, teachers and the teaching profession etc. Sometimes I work on traditional news stories, often with other reporters, but my job is to fill the blog.
Sally: What is your pet peeve(s) when it comes to working with PR folks?
Valerie: I think a lot of PR people do a really good job trying to sell their clients. I (as do other education writers) get bombarded and I can’t answer all of them. Perhaps my biggest pet peeve is when they send a pitch and wait until the last sentence to explain what they are really after.
Sally: What's the biggest challenge in your job?
Valerie: Trying to do deep reporting when it is my job to keep the blog lively with new material. As I said, I’m not a beat reporter but a blogger who writes about education. There are stories on which I want to dig, which requires a lot of time. That’s one thing bloggers don’t have.
Tune in tomorrow for #NationalHigherEducationDay on the Inklings blog. We'll be sharing our Q&A with WBUR. To learn more about our education practice at InkHouse, follow us on social, subscribe to our newsletter or email the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.