An Interview with Samuel Dillon: About His Times at the Times

Jan 2, 2012 by

A two-time Pulitzer prize winner, Mr. Sam Dillon

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) First of all, how long have you been writing for the New York Times?

I began writing for the Times in October 1992. From 1993 through mid-1995, I covered the New York schools. From 1995 through 2001, I was the Mexico City bureau chief.

When I returned to New York in 2002, I began covering the world of public education, nationally.

2) How did you get started, and when, and what was education like at that time?

I was assigned to cover the New York schools early in my Times career, because the paper was trying to beef up its education coverage, and the first story I wrote in New York, about how schools were portraying Christopher Columbus as an imperialist creep, made the front page, convincing editors that I might be good at schools coverage.

The New York schools in the 1990s were run first by Chancellor Joseph Fernandez, who was forced to resign in a controversy over a so-called rainbow curriculum that focused on sex education. He was replaced by Ramon Cortines, who served under Mayor Giuliani at a time when Giuliani was pushing to get larger control of the schools from the Board of Education.

Education coverage during that period often focused on largely political themes related to this governance struggle. Also, the small schools movement was gaining momentum then, and New York was its epicenter, so I spent a lot of time visiting with people starting small schools.

3) What has been most difficult to write about and most interesting to write about?

I wrote more than 1,000 articles about public education, covering hundreds of themes. Some were obligatory stories about boring topics – those were hard work.

Many of the themes were interesting. Some individual stories I enjoyed writing included a portrait of a school in Wyoming, in which there was one teacher and one student. The school was a mobile home parked on the boy’s remote ranch. The teacher lived with her husband in one end of the mobile home, and taught her student in the other. That was interesting because it was a vivid story about people experiencing a unique situation. Another story I enjoyed writing was about the University of Phoenix, the for-profit university that markets its very expensive classes to poor students, often driving them into debt. Phoenix hated the story, but it was accurate, several years before the Congress began to focus on the problems with for-profit schooling.

4) In your mind, how has politics impacted education?

There are 15,000 districts in the nation, each with a school board and local politics are at work in every one. At the state level, politics play a role, too, and obviously partisan politics and the passing fancies of the educational arena end up in play in the Congress, so politics plays a big role in federal education laws.

5) Briefly, how has “mainstreaming” or “inclusion” impacted education?

I’m sure you know more about this topic than I do. Sorry.

6) Most recently how has NCLB affected teachers and teaching?

Well, it set up a federal process under which states were required to hold schools accountable for test scores. As a result, teachers have been forced to pay a lot closer attention to preparing students specifically for the state tests in reading and math, administered each spring. That’s been frustrating for huge numbers of teachers. There was a huge debate about NCLB under President Bush. Under Obama, a consensus has formed that the law is misguided and ought to be radically rewritten. Only a few holdouts, most of them Washington insiders who helped write NCLB, still defend it vigorously.

7) We are confronted with massive technological changes. How are the Colleges of Education responding?

I’m not sure. Good topic for an article, but I never examined the colleges of education from that standpoint.

8) In your mind, has there really been an “education president”..and if so, who was it and why?

Most candidates aspire to that role. Its just political rhetoric. The U.S. presidency is way too far removed from the classroom and the complicated matter of running schools and districts to be much of a positive influence. Sometimes presidents use their bully pulpit in constructive ways – as when Obama has urged parents to pay attention to their students’ academic work, and students to study hard.

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