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How to Report on Teacher Strikes

The Boston Globe’s Christopher Huffaker and Deanna Pan produced this teacher strike coverage guide to help reporters get this story right.

Photo credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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So, the local teachers are going on strike. No surprise: There’s been a wave of strikes in the years since the pandemic, with lengthy work stoppages by educators in districts, including those in Portland, Oregon and Newton, Massachusetts 

Inflation has eroded teacher wages, widening the existing pay gap between teachers and other college-educated workers. And many recent strikes have been successful, emboldening other teacher unions.

Cancel your plans — you’ll likely have some long nights ahead of you — and put aside whatever else you’ve been working on; this is not a story to mess up. Strikes are highly personal to all involved. You can earn trust and really inform readers. Or you can damage your reputation.

Don’t set your expectations too high: No one will be happy with you. You will be accused of bias from all sides. But if you provide accurate, useful information, you can become a source that all parties look to in the future — hopefully enduringly.

What to Know Going Into Teacher Strikes

Hopefully, you have some warning, giving you time to gather background information.

Find out if there have been recent strikes in your state. Nationally, unions have gone on strike over various issues, including planning time, class sizes and pay raises for historically underpaid or hard-to-find employees, such as teacher’s aides and bilingual teachers. Are any of those throughlines in your state as well? Do the teachers in question belong to the same union as other recent strikers?

Julia Silverman, an education reporter with The Oregonian who covered the more than three-week Portland strike in November 2023, said she wishes she had known more about the role state and national unions could play, “particularly as it related to the financial analyses prepared by the union.”

“I also feel that I didn’t at first understand the role that class size would come to play,” she added.

Your state’s labor laws are also vital to understand; they will influence who has the leverage. Is it legal for public employees to strike? And if not, what penalties can they face?

Finally, get to know the starting positions of those on strike. Has there been public bargaining? What are the existing proposals? What happened in the last contract negotiation? 

What Is Most Important to Cover?

Some stories will come through the twists and turns of negotiations, but you should plan out some enterprise stories as well. A few:

“For me, the most important angle to report was the impact that prolonged and uncertain closures had on students and their families,” SIlverman said, noting the slow learning recovery from the pandemic. Oregon, for example, kept schools closed longer than many states amid COVID-19, and students there have not yet demonstrated meaningful academic recovery

“The union and the district had communications people dedicated to telling their side, but caregivers and students did not,” she added.

Plan stories about the strike’s  impact on vulnerable demographic groups, such as students with disabilities and low-income students. Also, report on what families are doing for child care, and provide some service journalism if there are local providers who are stepping up.

Families will want to know how the strike will impact the school calendar. Does the time have to be made up in your state? If so, when will that happen? Are upcoming vacations at risk?

You should also report on what is motivating teachers. Readers may not understand the demands teachers face, and speaking directly to the rank-and-file may earn you some credibility with teachers that will help other reporting.

“I also wish I had had a better grasp on the concept of ‘community schools,’” Silverman said, referring to a demand by the union for the district to create wrap-around services for needy families, “and how that lined up with the priorities of rank-and-file teachers.”

This is an area to share hard numbers: What are teachers asking for; what do they have now, and what do their peers have?

Finally, come up with a plan for when the strike ends. This is when the trust you’ve built over the course of the strike will come in handy — you need to get to know people on both sides to report how the deal was reached. It’s also vital to track how the winds are blowing with the public.

It was interesting to trace the evolution of public sentiment — in an extremely pro-labor town — as the strike went on,” Silverman noted. 

Her early focus on the impact on students bothered some readers, she said. But as the strike dragged on, sentiment shifted: “By the end of the strike, I was getting dozens of unsolicited emails every day from parents expressing their thanks for the coverage.”

Getting Data and Documentation

Everyone is going to throw different numbers at you, each with their own preferred measures. You need to be able to decipher them. It can help to go to state authorities. Does the state collect relevant district pay and spending data? In Massachusetts, for example, the state publishes teacher contracts, district spending, average teacher pay, and more — you don’t need to depend on the schools or union for this information. 

It’s important to put the striking school district in context with similar school districts when conducting your data analysis. If the teachers and school board are touting comparisons with specific school districts, you can analyze and compare teachers’ pay and benefits in those districts with the demands of the striking district. 

Otherwise, you will need to create a list of similar school districts. The state education agency might have its own dataset of comparable school districts that it maintains for helping school leaders track their districts’ performance in relation to their peers. 

If that’s not available, choose districts of similar size and demographics as the striking school district. Then you can analyze how the striking teachers’ existing contract compares with contracts recently won by their peers (through strikes or bare-knuckle bargaining). You can usually find union contracts on their websites. If not, union leadership may be happy to explain recent bargaining table wins. And you can always FOIA districts for personnel contracts.

Make sure you know exactly what issues the parties are negotiating over: More generous parental leave? Better health care? Higher wages and salaries? 

Seek out unbiased, third-party analysts to help buffer your reporting conclusions,” Silverman added. “One person who was extremely helpful was Laura Anderson from the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown – who happens to live in Oregon and agreed to review the district’s budget for me and gave a professional, third-party opinion on whether and how it would be possible for the district to meet the teachers’ financial asks.”