Founder and Publisher, Catalyst Chicago
“It’s always the next story.”
Catalyst Chicago, which Linda founded in 1990, is an “independent newsmagazine created to document, analyze and support school-improvement efforts in the Chicago Public Schools.”
Linda talks about her why she founded Catalyst, its role in city, and her lifelong passion for journalism.
I’m a lifelong journalist. I believe passionately in journalism, and I still do. That’s what keeps me going when I’m out slogging through grant proposals and the like. I just think the power of journalism to tell people what is truly going on is something you can’t get along without. So I’m passionate about that. Lifelong journalist. When I covered education for the Chicago Sun-Times in the 1980’s, it was just one major story after another: Desegregation, Ruth Love, Manford Byrd, school decentralization. William Bennett.
As a matter of fact, I was one of two reporters in the room when he made that infamous statement [that Chicago’s public schools are the worst in the nation]. Hardly anybody was at this press conference. He had attended a meeting of some business folks, and afterwards, there was some press there to take questions. It wasn’t pitched. The Tribune wasn’t there, so that was kind of fun. After he said that. I went right back to the paper and made that a page-one story.
You know what’s even more fascinating? What I heard, and then it was corroborated, is that Bennett went back to Washington, D.C. and talked to Chester Finn, who was one of his top deputies. He said, “You know what? I just said that Chicago had the worst school system in the country. Is that right?” Chester supposedly said, “Close enough.” (Laughs) I identified districts that had worse test scores, districts that had higher dropout rates, and all that went into the story. No one remembered it. The fact of the matter is, everybody knew that the school system wasn’t working, but when the Secretary of Education makes a statement like that, people aren’t going to pay attention to anything else in the story.
This is year 22 for Catalyst, which you founded. When you think back to the original intent, how does it connect to the work that you’re doing now?
Remarkably the same, I think. When we started out, my sense was that a wide range of people needed to be well-informed in order for us to move the school system and move the education of children. The idea was to cover issues that the general press doesn’t cover. I was then at the Sun- Times, loved my job, never a dull moment, always front page stories. But I rarely had the opportunity to write about teaching and learning and what eventually makes sense in the classroom. We set out to write about that, to bring in research, to bring in a variety of voices. That’s what we continue to do. It’s just that we do it better now in part with the advantage of the internet and our just getting smarter and getting some more money along the way.
What was it that was giving you this sense that more people needed to be better informed?
I found in covering the school system that many teachers knew little about how the system worked, what the policies were, what the politics behind them were, what the research was. This was just what I was picking up from folks I ran into. Chicago was about to elect its first local school councils. I thought, boy, if the teachers don’t know the issues, these councils aren’t going to know. I just felt that they needed to be aware of bigger issues. Now, that may be as far as their interest extends. But the idea was to reach different parts of the community with the same high quality information so we can have a discussion with each other. That remains what it is today.
We exist for the schools and education to improve. The way we do that is through traditional journalism of letting people know what’s going on, show them where it’s working, where it’s not working, why. Try to bring in the research. We’re not an advocacy publication in the sense of having an agenda of how to fix things. We have some principles we believe in. But it’s straight ahead journalism.
It sounds like you make a distinction between opinion and principles.
Yes. We have a list of principles that are pretty straightforward about belief in empowerment and diversity. Those are values we hold. That motivates us. For example, simply trying to get all sides of the story. And to be respectful of all sides of the story. If you find that someone is saying something happened and we knew it didn’t, well, we will put that in the story. It’s not “he said/she said” journalism, but it is trying to round out what the views are. Certainly, for any one development program or event, there’s more than one description of it, because people see it from different viewpoints.
So improving education through information, almost exclusively information.
Yes. Are we pro charter schools, are we anti charter schools? We’re neither. We write about what’s happening, what the effects are. And sometimes that’s very frustrating, because we have opinions, obviously. Yea. It’s frustrating sometimes to sit there and not weigh in. But I think we would lose our effectiveness if we became very clearly aligned with any of the parties out there. That’s just not useful. We are always trying to get all sides of the story and to be respectful of all sides of the story.
How would you describe Catalyst’s niche in Chicago education?
Well, I think we’re a central player, here. People who are making decisions, they get to see and hear things that they’re not going to be told or they can’t see themselves. Now you have to trust that they’re going to try to make a decision that’s good for kids, and that’s what’s going to shape them. I think we enable a wide variety of people to participate, just because they’re not getting the information about teaching and learning and school change. How do you, as the publisher, how do you measure that? How do you measure your impact? You share anecdotes. And we can see patterns.
We’ll write about something, and we’ll see policies change. No, we’re not going to claim sole credit because we don’t come up with these ideas ourselves. We’re reflecting what’s going on in the community. But I think it’s legitimate to say we have had a role in some decisions, some for better and some for worse. I think a lot of people would miss us if we weren’t here.
When I talk to people who are on the ground and living it, they identify these times as highly vindictive toward teachers. They really do feel the target of a lot of unfair rhetoric, politically. You have a great vantage point, here, and a clear eye; how does it appear to you?
I think so much of the reform now is being aimed at teachers. So much is aimed at teachers. They believe that the world believes it’s all on their shoulders.
I’ve heard Bill Ayers and Diane Ravitch and so many others say that this is the most demoralizing time for teachers they’ve ever seen.
I don’t disagree with that. It is. I was trying to speculate on why, and I think some of it is just the result of a number of reforms that are focused on teachers and not other things, and that’s what gets written about more, so people don’t see what’s happening with teacher colleges, for example, unless they read Catalyst. And I think that for some people, they don’t know what else to do. It’s like, “All right, let’s get rid of bad teachers.” Well, just getting rid of bad teachers isn’t going to get us very far. But we do have to make some change. What can we do? That’s the question that’s out there.
For example, what are we doing politically and strategically to ensure that we’re getting really good people to go into teaching?
And that is something that I don’t think people are thinking about. I don’t think decision-makers understand the consequences of what they’re doing to the teaching profession by not attending to the idea of being developmental about this as opposed to just getting rid of bad teachers. I can see where teachers don’t see any bright lights out there.
What you see as the Goliath facing education, right now?
I think the Goliath is a fairly large body of people who don’t know enough about how schools change, how kids learn, what makes a difference for them, and then what makes a difference for the people who are working with them? It’s really complicated, but we’re still trying silver bullets, I think, without understanding the bigger picture. I think in some cases, it’s a lack of belief or hope that you can improve the outcomes for a lot of kids.
I know some of the people who have invested in charter schools. Some great teachers started charter schools, some great citizens supporting charter schools, but I get the sense that some of them think, “We’re just never going to be able to help all those kids or help the system. The system can’t be improved, so I’m going to put my money where I know we can make a difference.”
Catalyst, then, is your slingshot? Clear, balanced information.
We put information out there, but people have to come to it and read it.
I can’t help thinking about how you got an idea 22 years ago, and now here we sit in the Michigan Avenue offices of something that’s very impactful. What must that be like for you?
I don’t really think about that much. People will ask that question, and I think, well that’s true. But to me it’s always the next story. The only time I’m down… The worst day for me is the day after you go to the printer. You had been working on a story, but now it’s done.
Do you think about when you’ll leave Catalyst?
Yeah. I need to do a transition. The publication could use new ideas, particularly in the digital world. While I love digital opportunities, I haven’t grown up with it, so it’s stuff I just don’t know how to do. I think it needs fresh blood. It just needs to happen. So what I tell myself is that I will go back to writing and maybe write columns or a blog or something, but we’ll have to see.
You have to have a next story.
Right. I don’t know if I can retire in the sense of not having a next story. I kind of think not. We’ll see.