Expert Commentary

3 great back-to-school story ideas (with research to get you started!)

Scrambling to find fresh angles for back-to-school stories? Here are three great story ideas with matching research to get you started.

back-to-school story ideas research redshirting immigration enforcement guidance counselors

Education reporters nationwide are looking for fresh ways to tell their annual back-to-school stories. Because I covered education for the Orlando Sentinel and other news outlets for more than 15 years before joining Journalist’s Resource, I remember the struggle. Consider this post a journalism gift of sorts: Three great back-to-school story ideas with the matching research to get you started.

I’ve summarized a total of nine research studies and reports on three meaty education topics: the effects of immigration enforcement, kindergarten “redshirting” and the role of guidance counselors — highlighting findings I think your editors will find compelling. Please remember that although some studies are located behind paywalls, many academic journals offer free access to journalists who request it. Also, university faculty and other researchers are generally willing to send reporters free copies of their work.


1. Immigration enforcement

Nationwide, teachers and principals are preparing for the new school year, bracing for the impacts of immigration enforcement while also trying to figure out how to help children feel safe and focus on learning in the wake of a mass shooting targeting Hispanics in El Paso, Texas and weeks after federal agents arrested nearly 700 people in immigration raids at seven Mississippi food processing plants.

Consider what this means for schools in your coverage area, especially Title I schools, which serve a large proportion of low-income students, who already face a host of challenges that affect their ability to focus and learn. These two research studies will provide context:

The Impact of Immigration Enforcement on the Nation’s Schools
Ee, Jongyeon; Gándara, Patricia. American Educational Research Journal, forthcoming.

Researchers surveyed public school teachers, administrators, classroom aides and other campus personnel across the country to better understand how they think America’s immigration enforcement efforts are impacting children and how they, as educators, have responded. More than 5,300 people participated in the online survey, conducted between October 2017 and January 2018 and between August 2018 and September 2018.

The study’s findings don’t apply to schools nationally — they represent only the experiences of this group of educators, nearly half of whom were from California. But they do provide insights into how immigration enforcement activities have impacted some classrooms in 13 states, which also include Florida, Texas and New Jersey. Most people who took the survey said all students at their schools — not just those targeted by immigration enforcement — have been negatively impacted. “Educators’ descriptions of desks left empty from one day to the next, leaving students to wonder what had happened to their classmates and friends, was a powerful symbol of the way all students and schools are broadly affected,” write the researchers, Jongyeon Ee and Patricia Gándara, of the University of California, Los Angeles.

More than 60% of educators working in urban schools who responded to the survey said they noticed increased absenteeism and declining academic performance among students. “Almost 85% of respondents reported observing students’ overt expressions of fear of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement intervention in their lives, with nearly 44% saying that this was ‘extensive,’” the researchers write. “Nearly as many respondents reported observing emotional and behavioral problems among their immigrant students (79.6%) that many described as interfering with students’ ability to attend to lessons.”

Vanished Classmates: The Effects of Local Immigration Enforcement on School Enrollment
Dee, Thomas S.; Murphy, Mark. American Educational Research Journal, forthcoming.

This study finds that Hispanic student enrollment fell in counties where local law enforcement agencies partnered with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to remove people not authorized to be in the country. The researchers, Thomas Dee and Mark Murphy of Stanford University, find that these partnerships reduced a county’s Hispanic enrollment “by 7.3% overall or roughly 10% within 2 years.” More than 300,000 Hispanic students nationwide were displaced during the study period — 2000 to 2011, when these partnerships first proliferated.

Elementary school students were affected most. Families whose members have different immigration statuses — for example, perhaps the father is undocumented, the mother is a permanent U.S. resident and their children are U.S. citizens — might be more willing to move if they have young children. “Parents often see younger children as easier to move and undocumented parents of younger children may be particularly concerned about the fate of their younger children if they are apprehended for an immigration violation,” the researchers write.

Dee and Murphy gathered data on the 168 counties where a local law enforcement agency submitted a partnership application to the federal government between 2000 and 2011. They looked at whether and how enrollment changed in the 55 counties where partnerships were approved and in the counties where partnership applications were rejected, withdrawn or not yet approved.

2. Redshirting


Every year, parents whose children’s fifth birthday falls right before their school district’s kindergarten age cutoff can make a choice: Enroll them or put off kindergarten another year. Some parents and educators believe that children who turn 5 right before the entrance age cutoff benefit from delaying school because these youngsters might be behind their peers developmentally. Kids who turn 5 after the cutoff usually can’t start kindergarten at a public school until the following fall semester. Research consistently shows that delaying school — called “redshirting” — is generally more common among boys than girls and among white students compared with minority students.

Is redshirting something school districts should encourage or warn against? Pursue a story that looks at redshirting in your area and how the local school district’s policy on it might provide an academic edge for some students while disadvantaging others. Below are three published studies to help ground your coverage.

The School-Entry-Age Rule Affects Redshirting Patterns and Resulting Disparities in Achievement
Cook, Philip J.; Kang, Songman. Working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, 2018.

In this study, researchers compare elementary school students in North Carolina to gauge whether redshirting offers an advantage. The main takeaway: For the children studied, a one-year increase in school starting age is associated with higher math and reading test scores, lower odds of being diagnosed as learning disabled and greater odds of being considered academically and intellectually gifted. “In every measurable respect, older is better, at least in grade school,” write the researchers, Philip J. Cook of Duke University and Songman Kang of Hanyang University.

Cook and Kang write that entering school a few months older has about the same impact on a youngster’s academic achievement as “having an unusually effective teacher or attending a highly effective school.” They find that redshirting among North Carolina boys helps them catch up to North Carolina girls in terms of reading achievement. Delaying school reduces that gap by 11%. The authors also suggest that redshirting, which is much more common among white boys than black boys in North Carolina, partially explains why white boys there tend to outperform black boys in school.

Maturity and Minorities: The Impact of Redshirting on Achievement Gaps
Lenard, Matthew A.; Peña, Pablo A. Education Economics, 2018.

This study, which focuses on North Carolina’s largest school system, looks specifically at the effect redshirting has on academic achievement levels for white and minority children. The researchers examined data for eight cohorts of third graders totaling 23,447 students. What they discovered is that redshirting is much more common among white students in Wake County compared with minority students. These differences in age translate into differences in test scores, with more mature kids generally earning higher scores, according to the authors, Matthew A. Lenard, a former Strategic Data Project Fellow for Wake County schools who’s now a doctoral student at Harvard University, and Pablo A. Peña, an economist at the Chicago-based consulting firm Microanalitica.

“Our main result is that redshirting increases achievement gaps,” Lenard and Peña write. They find that redshirting contributes to differences in academic achievement among boys and girls across races and ethnicities in the county. “Among children born in the 46 days leading up to the cutoff date for school eligibility, redshirting widens the achievement gap by 28%-30% for boys and 8%-11% for girls.”

School Starting Age and Cognitive Development

Dhuey, Elizabeth; et al. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 2019.

A team of scholars wanted to better understand how the age at which a child starts school affects their cognitive development over the course of their academic career, from kindergarten through high school. The team examined the records of tens of thousands of public school students born in Florida between 1992 and 2000, comparing kids born within 30 days of the age cutoff date for kindergarten to those born within a month afterward. This allowed researchers to compare children considered “young for grade” — they turned 5 just days before the cutoff to start kindergarten — with children who entered kindergarten “old for grade” at age 6.

The resulting 49-page paper covers a lot of ground but offers several key insights on redshirting. For example, the researchers find that wealthier families tend to redshirt, giving their children another year to develop skills before starting kindergarten. Meanwhile, low-income kids who begin kindergarten “young for grade” often are required to repeat a grade within the first several years of elementary school, before standardized testing begins.

The researchers write that redshirting “might potentially increase the test scores of those being redshirted — primarily males from higher socioeconomic status families.” All kids who start school “young for grade” are more likely to be designated as disabled, compared with students who start late. The researchers note that this “may be due to mislabeling cognitive and non-cognitive immaturity among young-for-grade children as disability symptoms. These children are biologically younger at school entry, but they are held to the same academic standards as their older counterparts.”

3. The guidance counselors shortage

High school guidance counselors play a key role in helping students prepare for college, set career goals and decide which higher education institution is the best fit. For low-income kids and those whose parents didn’t go to college, guidance counselors are an especially important resource. But states vary in how they fund academic advising, resulting in high student-to-school-counselor ratios in many public schools. The national average was 455-to-1 in 2016-17, but as high as 905-to-1 in Arizona and 741-to-1 in Michigan, according to a 2019 report from the American School Counselor Association, which recommends a ratio of 250-to-1.

Examine your local high schools’ approach to advising and how it has influenced graduation rates, test scores and students’ decisions about where to go to college and what to study. If the school district has a high student-to-counselor ratio, ask why. Also ask principals, parents and community leaders what other ways they are helping students overcome this challenge. Do local colleges, including for-profit schools, benefit from a high ratio? There are lots of other important questions to ask. Reading these four studies will help generate more:

Counselors, Information, and High School College-Going Culture: Inequalities in the College Application Process
Robinson, Karen Jeong; Roksa, Josipa. Research in Higher Education, 2016.

For this study, researchers investigate the impact high school counselors have on the odds that students will apply to college, and whether the benefit of seeing a counselor varies according to students’ social class. The researchers — Karen Jeong Robinson of California State University, San Bernardino and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia — analyzed data collected from a nationally representative sample of high school sophomores in 2002 and 2004. What they learned is that consulting with a counselor during students’ sophomore and senior year of high school improves their chances of applying to a four-college by 135%, compared with not seeing a counselor at all. Seeing a counselor only during the last year of high school increases students’ likelihood of applying to a four-year colleges by 67%.

While counselors’ influence is less pronounced after researchers control for the total number of other sources of information students consult, seeing a counselor still improves students chances of applying to a four-year school, the study shows. Robinson and Roksa also find that seeing a counselor benefits students equally. It “contributes relatively little to social class inequality in whether and where students apply to college,” they write. “Students’ socioeconomic background is not related to whether students benefit from seeing a counselor in terms of applying to either a 2-year or a 4-year institution.”

Nuestros Hijos van a la Universidad [Our Sons and Daughters Are Going to  College]: Latina Parents’  Perceptions and Experiences Related to Building College Readiness, College Knowledge, and College Access for Their Children — A Qualitative Analysis
Chlup, Dominique T.; et al. Journal of Hispanic Higher Education, 2018.

In this paper, researchers rely on interviews with nine mothers from the southern Texas border region known as the Rio Grande Valley to understand Latina mothers’ experiences helping their children navigate college applications and enrollment. The scholars find that these parents face a number of challenges in getting information to help their children make decisions about postsecondary education. For example, because many of the mothers went to school in Mexico and some don’t speak English, they struggle to understand how the U.S. education system works. “This situation makes them feel anxiety and stress; and, in general, as a result, they described feeling uncomfortable interacting with the administrators and teachers at their student’s school,” the authors write.

Parents also reported “a lack of friendly informational sessions by university recruiters,” not receiving information from schools and an unfamiliarity with community programs that could help them learn about college readiness and access. The mothers also expressed eagerness to work with schools to help their children. The research team, led by Dominique T. Chlup of Texas A&M University-College Station, writes that schools often think they are including Latino families in their college awareness efforts, but that often is not the reality. “Working with, not simply involving Latina/o families, is the key,” the researchers write.

Intensive College Counseling and the Enrollment and Persistence of Low-Income Students
Barr, Andrew; Castleman, Ben. Education Finance and Policy, 2018.

Two researchers look at the effectiveness of a community-based college counseling program called Bottom Line, which targets lower-income students and admits them based partly on grade-point average. The program, founded in 1997, helps students enroll in college and then later offers assistance to help them stay in college. “What differentiates Bottom Line from school-based college counseling and from other programs in the community is its intensive focus on college choice and affordability — helping students find affordable colleges where they can succeed, in part by encouraging students to consider colleges and universities where prior cohorts have been successful,” write the authors, Andrew Barr of Texas A&M University and Ben Castleman of the University of Virginia.

Barr and Castleman focus on the program’s impact on high school students in and near Boston, Massachusetts. Their study sample: about 5,000 students from the high school graduating classes of 2010 through 2014. Some of the main takeaways: Students who participate go to college at high rates — 66% enroll in four-year colleges and 11% enroll in two-year colleges. The researchers also find that “counseling successfully shifts enrollment toward the four-year colleges encouraged by Bottom Line, which are largely public and substantially less expensive than alternatives students would otherwise choose. We also find evidence that counseling improves persistence through at least the second year of college, suggesting potential to increase the degree completion rates of disadvantaged students.”

Born to Win, Schooled to Lose: Why Equally Talented Students Don’t Get Equal Chances to Be All They Can Be
Carnevale, Anthony P.; et al. Report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2019.

This 59-page report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce explains how U.S. students are sorted by wealth rather than merit as they move through the school-to-work pipeline. Wealthier students whose 10th grade math scores fell within the bottom half of all scores nationally are more likely to earn college degrees within a decade than the poorest 10th graders with the highest math scores. “Family class plays a greater role than high school test scores in college attainment,” the authors write.

They also assert that these advantages and disadvantages are compounded by racial and ethnic inequities, and that low-income students are less likely than affluent ones to land high-paying jobs after graduating college. “In the end,” researchers write, “a high-SES [high-socioeconomic status] child with below-average academic skills is more likely to be high-SES [high-socioeconomic status] as a young adult than a low-SES [low-socioeconomic status] child with strong academic skills.”

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