Expert Commentary

Back-to-school story ideas, new angles and useful research: From teacher quality issues to student locker rooms

2015 collection of story ideas and related research for journalists wanting to find new angles and topics to enhance their annual “back to school” coverage.


Summer is quickly coming to an end and that means journalists nationwide will be scrambling to find new angles for their annual “back to school” coverage. We at Journalist’s Resource are trying to make their jobs easier. So we’ve come up with a bunch of story ideas that center around five attention-getting topics. We have even included links to compelling research — to give reporters a jump start and round out their work. It is a reminder, in any case, that there is deeper research that can inform almost any education story.


1. Teacher qualities

As school principals start releasing class schedules and holding meet-the-teacher events, some families inevitably will worry about how their children will be affected by their teacher’s experience level, age and background. Academic research has begun establishing more precisely just how long-lasting teachers’ impacts can be. Some parents will wonder whether children will benefit or be shortchanged when assigned to a teacher who’s straight out of college. Some will worry that the most veteran educators will lag behind when it comes to incorporating technology into the classroom. Some moms and dads will want to know whether students are best served by teachers who match their racial or ethnic backgrounds or by those who have achieved National Board certification.

Journalists have lots of options when approaching the topic of teacher qualities. They can focus on one area of parental concern — or explore them all in a single article. Another angle to look at: Given your school district’s size and demographics, are local administrators working to hire more of a particular type of teacher and why or why not?


Some research to consider:

Returns to Teacher Experience: Student Achievement and Motivation in Middle School
Ladd, Helen F.; Sorensen, Lucy C. Working paper for the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, March 2014.

Summary: This working paper, which focuses on teachers and students in North Carolina, indicates that greater teacher experience is correlated with higher test scores as well as improvements in student behavior and absenteeism.


“Early Retirement Incentives and Student Achievement”
Fitzpatrick, Maria; Lovenheim, Michael. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 2014, Vol. 6. doi: 10.3386/w19281.

Summary: This working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research looks at the effects of large-scale teacher retirements on student achievement. The study concluded that replacing more experienced teachers with less experienced teachers did not reduce test scores in Illinois in the mid-1990s. The authors found that an Early Retirement Incentives program had positive effects on test scores, particularly for schools serving large numbers of poor students.


“Teacher Perceptions of Using Mobile Phones in the Classroom: Age Matters!”
O’Bannon, Blanche W.; Thomas, Kevin. Computers & Education, May 2014, Vol. 74. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2014.01.006.

Summary: This study, which involved 1,095 teachers from two states in the Southeast, found that teachers who were aged 50 and older were “significantly less supportive” than younger teachers in allowing the use of mobile phones in the classroom.  The teachers aged 50 and older also perceived the barriers to using mobile phones in class — for example, access to inappropriate material — to be more problematic than the younger groups did.


“Representation in the Classroom: The Effect of Own-race Teachers on Student Achievement”
Egalite, Anna J.; Kisida, Brian; Winters, Marcus A. Economics of Education Review, April 2015, Vol. 45. doi: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2015.01.007.

Summary: For this study, researchers estimated changes in achievement levels as students in Florida public schools were assigned to teachers of different races and ethnic backgrounds from 2001–2002 through 2008–2009. They found “small but significant positive effects” when black and white students had teachers of the same race or ethnic background for reading class and for black, white and Asian/Pacific Island students in math. The study found that lower-performing black and white students seemed to particularly benefit when assigned to race-congruent teachers.


“Connectedness and Expectations: How Minority Teachers Can Improve Educational Outcomes for Minority Students”
Atkins, Danielle N.; Fertig, Angela R.; Wilkins, Vicky M. Public Management Review, May 2014, Vol. 16. doi: 10.1080/14719037.2013.841981.

Summary: This study explores whether the presence of minority teachers affects minority students’ educational aspirations and how “connected” they feel to their school. The authors found that having more black and Hispanic teachers raised educational expectations for black students while having more Hispanic teachers increased Hispanic students’ educational expectations and their sense of connectedness.


“It’s Easier to Pick a Good Teacher than to Train One: Familiar and New Results on the Correlates of Teacher Effectiveness”
Chingos, Matthew M.; Peterson, Paul E. Economics of Education Review, June 2011, Vol. 30. doi: 10.1016/j.econedurev.2010.12.010.

Summary: This study indicates that teachers with certifications from the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards are more effective at least in some areas. The authors conclude that National Board certification is correlated with student achievement in math and reading at the elementary and middle school levels.


2. Animals on campus

College officials are getting requests from students who want to bring animals to campus to help them fight anxiety, depression and other mental-health disorders. In some cases, students want to keep their “emotional support animals” — dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs and the like — in dorms and university apartments that have no-pet policies. Administrators are wrestling with how to handle the disruptions that can be caused by support animals, which often are not trained but are prescribed by a doctor, while also following the law as it relates to both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.

Anti-discrimination laws require airlines, restaurants and other businesses to permit emotional support animals even though some people complain. Journalists wanting to explore this topic from a higher-education perspective should ask local colleges and universities how they are handling such requests — and whether they are getting more of them. It’s critical to talk to students and school employees to get a sense of whether — and how — the trend is impacting campus life. Representatives from programs such as International Assistance Dog Week can weigh in on problems of people trying to pass off their pets as emotional support animals or service animals.


Some research to consider:

“Emotional Support Animals, Service Animals, and Pets on Campus”
Von Bergen, C.W. Administrative Issues Journal: Connecting Education, Practice, and Research, Spring 2015, Vol. 5. doi: 10.5929/2015.5.1.3.

Summary: This report, from an industrial psychologist and professor of management, looks at the issue of domesticated animals being allowed on college campuses from a historical and legal perspective.


“The Americans with Disabilities Act and Higher Education 25 Years Later: An Update on the History and Current Disability Discrimination Issues for Higher Education”
Rothstein, Laura. Journal of College and University Law, July 2015, Vol. 41.

Summary: In this article, a law professor at the University of Louisville highlights important issues related to the Americans with Disabilities Act and higher education. Emotional support animals are among the topics to which this article suggests college officials should give their attention.


“Effectiveness of Animal-assisted Therapy: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials”
Kamioka, H.; et al. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, April 2014, Vol. 22. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2013.12.016.

Summary: These researchers suggest that animal-assisted therapy, under certain conditions, may be an effective treatment for disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and alcohol and drug addiction. They indicate that the randomized controlled trials that had been conducted up to the time of this review were “of relatively low quality.”


“Construct Validity of Animal-Assisted Therapy and Activities: How Important Is the Animal in AAT?”
Marino, Lori. Anthrozoos, 2012, Vol. 25. 10.2752/175303712X13353430377219.

Summary:  The author of this study concludes that the effects of animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapy “are likely to be moderate and broad at best and that, although improving, the literature has not yet reached an experimentally rigorous enough level to provide a definitive robust conclusion about the effectiveness of these approaches, particularly with regard to the question of whether a live animal is necessary for a therapeutic effect.”


3. Showering after gym class

How often do students shower after physical education? For many students entering middle school, the coming school year will mark the first time they have ever changed clothes or bathed among strangers. Exploring the reasons that many students don’t use the locker room showers can make for a strong piece of journalism that will get people talking. Some reporters, however, might want to delve into the issue further by looking at the consequences of the trend. Sitting behind a smelly adolescent may make it difficult for anyone to concentrate in class. 0There also are health concerns — medical experts say that showering immediately after exercise helps prevent Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) Infections. Reporters also can use this issue as a springboard for a serious, meaningful conversation about bullying in locker rooms or how the lack of privacy in shower facilities might discourage some students from participating fully in physical education.


Some research to consider:

“Sixth-Grade Physical Education: An Acculturation of Bullying and Fear”
O’Connor, Jamie A.; Graber, Kim C. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 2015, Volume 85. doi: 10.1080/02701367.2014.930403.

Summary: This study looks at how the environment and culture of physical education can foster bullying. The researchers suggest that adults  — parents and gym teachers — promote a culture of peer harassment through action and inaction. The researchers point out that locker rooms are “vulnerable spaces” because students must undress in front of their peers, sometimes without full supervision by an adult.


“Swimming Upstream: Faculty and Staff Members From Urban Middle Schools in Low-Income Communities Describe Their Experience Implementing Nutrition and Physical Activity Initiatives”
Bauer, K.W.; Patel, A.; Prokop, L.A.; Austin, S.B. Preventing Chronic Disease, April 2006, Vol. 3.

Summary:  This report covers a range of topics, including how the lack of privacy in locker rooms and shower facilities may discourage some middle school students from fully participating in physical education.


“Associations Between Showering Behaviours Following Physical Education, Physical Activity and Fitness in English Schoolchildren”
Sandercock, Gavin R.H.; Ogunleye, Ayodele; Voss, Christine. European Journal of Sport Science, 2014. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2014.987321.

Summary: This study of English high school students found that 53% of boys and 68% of girls reported never showering after physical education. The researchers also found that students who did not shower were less active and engaged in fewer team sports.


4. Dual enrollment

Students who want to earn college credit while they complete their high school diplomas often have the option of dual enrolling — an option that can save a lot of time and money. Typically, students who meet certain age and grade point-average requirements can enroll at their high school and a local community college or public university. While the program is generally a popular one, there is sometimes disagreement among government agencies about who should shoulder the cost of the program — the school district, the college, the state or the students themselves. Questions frequently arise about the quality of dual-enrollment courses, especially as they compare to courses that can be taken for college credit through the Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

The start of a new school year is a good time to write about dual enrollment because local programs frequently change as budgets are cut or high schools and colleges run short on classroom space. Journalists who want to explore this issue should find out how the dual-enrollment program works in their communities and how it has changed over time, particularly in recent years. It is important to note whether most dual-enrollment courses are taught by high school teachers at a high school or if students travel to the college campus to learn from college faculty. Journalists should pay attention to who uses the program — for example, are most of the students white or is the group racially diverse? — and whether students are completing the courses and continuing to work toward a college degree after high school.


Some research to consider:

“Dual Credit/Dual Enrollment and Data Driven Policy Implementation”
Lichtenberger, Eric; et al. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 2014, Vol. 38. doi: 10.1080/10668926.2013.790305.

Summary: This study found that students who participated in dual enrollment were more likely to enroll at both four-year institutions and community colleges after graduating high school.


“A Comparison of Learning Outcomes for Dual-enrollment Mathematics Students Taught by High School Teachers Versus College Faculty”
Hebert, Laura. Community College Review, 2001.

Summary: This researcher tracked students who took dual-enrollment math courses through a large community college over a five-year period. The study indicates that students who had high school teachers for dual-enrollment math courses earned significantly better grades in subsequent classes at public universities compared to students who had taken dual-enrollment classes taught by college faculty.


“Determinants of Students’ Success: The Role of Advanced Placement and Dual Enrollment Programs”
Speroni, Cecilia. Working paper for the National Center for Postsecondary Research at Columbia University, November 2011.

Summary: This study, which analyzed data taken from two cohorts of all high school students in Florida, suggests that students who took dual-enrollment courses are more likely than those who took Advanced Placement courses to go to college after high school. Students who took dual-enrollment courses were less likely, though, to enroll at four-year institutions. The researcher noted that the positive trend applies to dual-enrollment students who took their classes at a community college. There was no corresponding positive effect for dual-enrollment students who took courses at a high school.


5. College student debt

More than 40 million Americans are repaying $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. College debt is a big worry for students and their families as well as lawmakers who want to improve higher-education access and affordability. Presidential candidates are focusing on debt reduction and tuition-free public colleges as they campaign.

There are a number of ways journalists can approach the issue of student debt from a local angle. One way is to look at the rising cost of the various things college students need. The rising prices of university housing and campus meal plans — two key expenses — are often overshadowed by the intense and ongoing debate over increasing tuition. Journalists should take advantage of the opportunity to talk with families as students begin moving into dorms and campus apartments in late August and early September.

Some things to ask about: Are students required to live on campus and purchase a food plan? How much have prices changed in recent years and how do they compare to prices charged by other colleges and universities? Does the local college have housing facilities featuring high-end amenities such as marble counter tops, tanning beds and wave pools? How much do housing prices differ among the various options on campus? The answers to these and other questions should provide plenty of information for a solid back-to-school story.

Another college cost that does not receive a lot of media attention is student fees, which can vary widely from campus to campus and are subject to frequent increases. Many schools charge multiple fees to help fund such things as student-health services, athletics, transportation and technology. At a time when funding is uncertain and the public is pressuring colleges and universities to hold tuition rates steady, some public colleges and universities are relying more on student fees to generate income. Journalists should investigate the fees charged by local schools, asking how they are used, how much they have changed over the years and how the total amount charged for fees compares to the amount charged for tuition.


Some research to consider:

“Student Debt Effects on Financial Well-being: Research and Policy Implications”
Elliott, W.; Lewis, M. Journal of Economic Surveys, 2015. doi: 10.1111/joes.12124.

Summary: This study examines students’ dependence on loans to cover college costs and the impact that student-loan debt has on graduates’ lives in areas such as career choice, asset accumulation and retirement savings.


“The Role of Institutional and State Aid Policies in Average Student Debt”
Monks, James. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, September 2014, Vol. 655. doi: 10.1177/0002716214539093.

Summary: This article looks at the various factors that affect student debt levels. The author stresses that policymakers should not focus solely on tuition but should also consider such things as state aid, graduation rates, admissions procedures and the mix of majors across students to try to understand the reasons why average student debt levels vary among higher education institutions.


“Higher Education and the Spectre of Variable Fees: Public Policy and Institutional Responses in the United States and the United Kingdom”
Ward, David; Douglass, John Aubrey.  Higher Education Management and Policy, 2007, Vol. 18. doi: 10.1787/17269822.

Summary: This study looks at the shift to require students to pay for a large portion of their public-university education through variable fees. The authors discuss emerging fee structures and the policy implications of variable fee structures.


“Channels for Improved Performance From Living On Campus”
de Araujo, Pedro; Murray, James. American Journal of Business Education, December 2010, Vol. 3.

Summary: The authors identify reasons why students who live on campus do better in school while they are living in university housing and also in subsequent semesters, even if they move off campus. The study also suggests that students who have lived on campus in the past consume less alcohol, on average, than other students.

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