Monthly Archives: September 2010
NBC’s Education Nation: Policy Summit or Puppet Show? |FROM How The University Works:a weblog with video by Marc Bousquet
Category: “quality” and other fighting words, Obama, Uncategorized, academic labor system, administrators, current events, disciplines, feminization of the humanities, real institutional sleaze, this blogging life, youth is a category through which class is lived |
I’d like you to imagine the following. Suppose we are going to have a national summit on health care. Do you not suppose that a substantial number of the voices included would be from professionals in health care, including doctors and nurses? Would you have 3 people with just the head of the AMA to represent doctors?
Or how about legal reform – would not lawyers scream if such a conference were organized without a substantial portion of the main participants being members of the profession representing the range of opinions within the legal field?
Why then is it when it comes to education that people think it is appropriate to have major discussions about education without fair inclusion of the voices of those who bear the greatest burden for the education of our children, the parents and the teachers? –Kenneth Bernstein, Cooperative Catalyst
So I tied off my upper arm and mainlined anti-nausea drugs Sunday and Monday in order to stomach hours of biased, dishonest, irresponsible NBC hate propaganda paid for by, you guessed it, for-profit higher ed vendors and foundations devoted to privatizing public schools.
Just as Obama’s pursued the Republican party line on education, NBC has taken a page from Fox News and Oprah. Their lineup on a two-day policy summit with a dozen conference panels –you know, the kind of panels usually filled with folks with credible expertise in the topic–features politicians, astronauts, tv anchors, musicians, corporate executives, and charter school entrepreneurs.
NBC did include one or two figures associated with parent organizations. Just not those representing the the real views of most actual parents–you know, the real parents who on balance are unhappy with Obama’s education policy, who fired a mayor to get rid of Michelle Rhee, and who–when given the chance to vote–overwhelmingly support teacher-run schools over charter-school operators.
But somehow they completely failed to include practicing teachers, scholars of learning, or even recognized analysts of education policy. All day Monday and Tuesday, the only figure in the summit remotely acquainted with the scholarship of learning wasRandi Weingarten, AFT president. She had to do double and triple duty, since she was simultaneously the only voice for practicing teachers, or for any policy recommendation other than those endorsed by Duncan’s Race to the Top.
Burn the Witch!
Incredibly, Weingarten played the same role all day Sunday. On Meet the Press and other programs, she was consistently positioned as a solitary voice against a solid bloc of panelists and journalists pounding away at the Duncan-Rhee party line. NBC positioned her on the extreme edge of the outdoor panel, literally in the wind, with her hair flying sidewise like the Wicked Witch piloting a broomstick.
Later, she faced an even larger panel completely united against her, this time featuring the propagandists who scored her appearances in Waiting with Superman with ominous chords redolent of Darth Vader.
They can feature both the director and composer of the film who painted her as the captain of the Death Star but not one credible authority on the positions being pushed by the film?
Interestingly, despite the outrageous set-up, on both programs Weingarten spoke more than any other participant–nearly as much all of the other participants combined.
Seems the shows’ hosts had to ask her to talk to nearly every point precisely because she was the only person who could provide any other perspective.
Perhaps also because she was the only person who actually had anything to say?
A Failed Hit Job
The one place where NBC allowed teachers–not scholars of learning or credible policy analysts–to have a few words was in a carefully scripted “town hall” program, segregated from all of the marquee shows and policy conference.
They stacked the audience with school administrators and charter-school teachers, all primed to spout their propaganda: “Teachers are under attack and we should be!” shouted one, on cue. “We young teachers don’t need tenure to do our jobs,” said another.
Even in the complete absence of journalistic scrutiny, the stories of these plants didn’t stand up to their own telling.
One charter-school hero stood up to mouth the no-excuses “challenge education” mantra that anybody can overcome any learning obstacle if they are confronted with sufficiently absurd expectations.
As an example, he cited his willingness to offer free day care to one of his students’ siblings in his classroom from 7am to 7pm, freeing the student from family-care responsibilities and allowing her to do her homework.
While laudable, his willingness to address the poverty of the student’s family in this way is however not, as they say, a scalable solution to the problem. Um, duh, most teachers have families of their own that they can’t and shouldn’t neglect to offer twelve hours of day care to others.
Right on the surface of this vignette is the cruel hypocritical absurdity–that those who are already sacrificing (the half of teachers who don’t quit in despair in the first five years) are not just asked but are really being forced to sacrifice more.
For instance, we could solve a lot of poverty-related issues if physicians or tv journalists or Wall Street banks turned their facililties into day-care centers and staffed them after hours.
Hey, let’s just say that everyone should work twelve hours a day for a teacher’s wage!
Any takers? I didn’t think so.
Nose Ring vs Soul Patch
NBC made the mistake of letting a few actual veteran teachers in the room (actually a tent on Rockefeller plaza). And the atmosphere was apparently charged: anchor Brian Williams called the room “a beehive, a cauldron of activity and emotion,” and joked about being in “physical danger.” (He also called one reporter “honey,” and flirted with one of the teachers on stage. Patronizing and chauvinist much? Guess we really are heading back to the Eisenhower era.)
Because NBC failed to make sure everyone in the room was an administrator or a twentysomething working-slash-volunteering before law school at a charter, we saw a couple of flashes of honest teacher feeling and insight.
These included thoughtful defenses of tenure as due process and analyses of the real issues (funding, poverty, support for professional development, workload, retention).
You could have heard a pin drop on Fifth Avenue when one California principal described her guilt at hiring a new teacher on the salary she was allowed to offer: “I basically condemned her to never owning her own home,” she said.
Astonishingly, one teacher that made it onto the show because she was acquainted with the anchor actually compared Davis Guggenheim to Hitler’s most brilliant propagandist, calling him “the Leni Riefenstahl of 2010.”
Personally I think that kind of comparison isn’t worth the backlash, but I think it could prove the most telling moment of the week.
In my experience, persons reaching for the Nazi comparison are intellectually or emotionally stunted, or else desperate. Since this apparently kind and thoughtful, intellectual person was evidently not the former, I think she was struggling to communicate–in the few seconds she was permitted -the stifled frustration and outrage of the tens of millions of parents, teachers, scholars and students who are being hurtled toward yet more schoolroom misery by this tsunami of pro-Duncan propaganda.
If you want to capture the essence of the tension that kept erupting through this scripted event, just fast forward to the middle of program, the second featured panel.
Comprising a charter-school reading teacher in blond dreadlocks and nose ring, and a public-school science teacher of the year sporting a soul patch, the panel was intended to talk about teaching technique.
Asked to describe how she succeeded as a teacher, Nose Ring was unable to manage a syllable describing or defending her teaching practice. She floundered helplessly (”well, you just show them how far behind they are in the world”) until the moderator let her off the hook, summarizing her philosophy: “Just teach ‘em hard, huh?”
Invited to share his own teaching tips, Soul Patch, a public school teacher of the year, gently rebutted much of the propaganda previously circulated. American top students, he pointed out, perform at the same level as the top students anywhere in the world. The problem is inequality and unfairness, he observed.
Asked to celebrate the Duncan-Obama grim focus on STEM fields, science teacher of the year Soul Patch demurred, pointing out that his own practice and education research showed the importance of “right brain” creativity, of “movement and music right in the science classroom.”
Up until a firestorm of complaint forced them to open the forum, NBC aggressively censored the one place where teachers and parents were mainly allowed to participate–on a Facebook page promoting the event. Even established columnists for national mainstream education journals like Education Week were repeatedly “unfriended” or had their comments removed.
Obama’s Today Show interview
This was only about twenty minutes on education before Lauer moved on, but kudos to Lauer for acting more like a journalist than anyone else NBC has put forward.
To his credit, Lauer only gave the administration props for the one initiative (pre-K schooling) actually supported by research, and showed that research in the video package. He challenged the president on the unfair demonizing of teachers and teacher unions in Waiting for Superman. He pointed out that most charter schools underperform union schools.
Above all, he kept the focus on funding and support, quoting Clinton: “It’s not just a money thing, but it _is_ a money thing.” Obama tried to counter with the Republican bromide that it “isn’t a problem we can spend our way out of,” and began mouthing accountability and competition cliches.
But Lauer kept at it finally getting the President to concede that there is no problem recruiting teachers into the profession–just a massive problem retaining them.
Most young teachers find they “can’t afford to stay” in the profession, Obama confessed, “especially when it comes to having families of their own.”
“There is a Crisis in America’s schools,” the story goes. In 1983, the Reagan administration told us that our nation was at risk. Since then, we’ve been told loads of distressing things about our public schools. We’ve spent more money and more attention on education in response. Still, the story goes, our schools are failing, failing, failing. The teachers are terrible, their unions protect them, and we need superhuman efforts in order to stop them and save America! (Cue the cape-wearing Supermen wielding the powers of free market forces, centralized decision-making, test-based accountability and standardization!)
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m pretty skeptical of this story. I’m even more skeptical of some of the people telling it.
To understand why, it’s helpful to know a little bit about me. I’m an elementary school teacher who worked in a so-called failing school until this past May. I became a teacher because I believed certain elements of the story (namely that bit about bad teachers). I believed schools were in crisis, and that the best possible use of my time would be to work to change them for the better. I still believe in the urgent need to improve schools, and I still plan to devote my life to doing so.
But do I buy this crisis narrative? Am I waiting for Superman? Absolutely not.
From my experience working in a “failing” school, I can say that you’d be hard-pressed to find more committed, intelligent, and caring people than the public school teachers I feel privileged to call my colleagues. Teachers work tirelessly to do right by their students. It is not for lack of skill or effort that some schools “fail.” And teachers’ unions don’t necessarily inhibit excellence. States whose teachers are mostly unionized tend to outperform those whose teachers aren’t, and some countries that outperform America have unionized teacher corps as well.
So what is this really about?
The kind of school reform that gets significant airtime right now — a combination of school closures and/or conversions, merit pay, test-based accountability, executive control of schools, and standardization — is a corporate one, and the corporate interests that created it are also funding the PR campaign to sell it. The Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, along with for-profit education organizations and hedge fund managers, have helped fund the creation and promotion of movies like “The Lottery” and “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” events like NBCs Education Nation, and “grassroots” activist groups like Stand for Children, Education Reform Now, and Done Waiting. They donate to politicians as well.
Now, some will say, “Who cares? What’s wrong with applying business concepts to schools?” Three things, mainly.
One: None of these reforms work. (Note that corporate reformers never subject their own children to these gimmicks.) We’re embracing “reform” strategies the rest of civilization is trying to escape! Consider how Finland, currently on top of the world, accomplished that feat:
The process of change has been almost the reverse of policies in the United States. Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around the very lean national standards. This new system is implemented through equitable funding and extensive preparation for all teachers. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes.
Remember, these people are not education experts — they’re businesspeople. It shouldn’t surprise us that their reform agenda doesn’t systematically improve education, but does present greater business opportunities.
Two: This very ideology — “ditch the old regulations, weaken worker protections and let the free market work its magic” — brought the rest of our economy to its knees. The sacred ideals of the business crowd failed us in the business world, and that’s their area of expertise! Do we seriously want to hand them our public schools — the cornerstone of our democracy — and just hope the children fare better?
Three: Speaking of democracy… whatever happened to democracy? Corporate elites became unspeakably rich by gaming our democratic and economic systems. They used their money to create legislation favorable to their interests, then gambled away our jobs, our homes, and our financial security. Their plunder eroded the tax base that supports public institutions like schools. Now that schools are starved for resources, some are offering us a portion of our money back in the form of grants and donations — if we accept their un-proven reforms or un-democratic reformers. (We then have to hope that these new education leaders have good ideas, or that they’ll resist the temptation to implement whatever faulty reforms their wealthy patrons offer in the future.)
We deserve better. What’s more, we can have it — if we focus our attention on the real problems we face. The inconvenient truth about school “failure” is that it’s a symptom of the greater problems affecting our society. We’ve stopped investing in the common good, and created a system that benefits the few at the expense of the many. The countries now “surpassing our educational attainments” did just the opposite.
Corporate reform strategies created this mess — they will never solve it. We can have the real reforms championed by actual educators and communities (like resource equity, smaller class sizes, better teacher training, increased teacher collaboration, and so forth) if we resist this corporate reform agenda and stop wasting money on gimmicks. Don’t be conned by the “Supermen.” Unite with your fellow Americans to demand the kind of equitable, humane educational system we deserve.
The elephant that Obama and Lauer ignored: Poverty and student achievement
About two-thirds of the way through President Obama’s interview Monday with NBC’s Matt Lauer on school reform, I thought the two were about to really dive into the biggest issue plaguing the country’s most troubled schools.
Already discussed were the usual subjects raised by the Obama administration when it addresses school reform: charter schools, standards, how to get terrific teachers in every classroom, the length of the school year, Race to the Top and did I mention charter schools?
Then, there it was, the moment when Lauer raised the issue of poverty and the new Census Bureau figures showing that one in seven Americans live at or below the poverty line, defined as an annual income for a family of four of $22,000. That’s one in seven — and that figure doesn’t include families of four with a $23,000 annual income.
I thought Lauer would make the obvious connection between poverty and student achievement. After all, the most consistent link in education and social science research is between family income and standardized test scores.
Today’s breed of school reformers, however, have ignored this link and adopted a “no excuses” policy, which essentially claims that good teachers can overcome anything, including medical, sociological and psychological problems that children who live in poverty bring into the classroom.
Amidst all the hype and furor of the release of today’s NYC school “progress reports”, everyone should remember how the grades are not to be trusted. By their inherent design, the grades are statistically invalid, and the DOE must be fully aware of this fact. Why?
See this Daily News oped I wrote in 2007, in which all the criticisms still hold true, “Why parents and teachers should reject the new grades”.
In part, this is because 85% of each school’s grade depends on one year’s test scores alone – which according to experts, is highly unreliable. Researchers have found that 32 to 80% of the annual fluctuations in a typical school’s scores are random or due to one time factors alone, unrelated to the amount of learning taking place. Thus, given the formula used by the Department of Education, a school’s grade may be based more on chance than anything else.
(source: Thomas Kane, Douglas O. Staiger, “The Promise and Pitfalls of Using Imprecise School Accountability Measures, The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Autumn, 2002.)
Now Jim Liebman admitted this fact, that one year’s test score data was inherently unreliable, in testimony to the City Council, and to numerous parent groups, including to CEC D2, as recounted on p. 121 of Beth Fertig’s book, Why can’t U teach me 2 read.” In responding to Michael Markowitz’s observations that the grading system was designed to provide essentially random results, he admitted:
“There’s a lot I actually agree with, he said in a concession to his opponent…He then proceeded to explain how the system would eventually include three years’ worth of data on every school so the risk of big fluctuations from one year to the next wouldn’t be such a problem.”
Nevertheless, the DOE and Liebman have refused to comply with this promise, which reveals a basic intellectual dishonesty. This is what Suransky emailed me about the issue, a couple of weeks ago, when I asked him about it before our NY Law school “debate.”
“First, can you explain why the progress reports are based upon on one year’s worth of test score gains and losses, as statistical experts have said that 30 to 80 percent of the annual fluctuations in a typical school’s scores are random or due to one-time factors, unrelated to the amount of actual learning taking place? Jim Liebman testified before the Council that eventually the progress reports would be based on three year’s worth of test scores for this reason (and is quoted in Beth Fertig’s book as making this statement as well.)”
Suransky’s response: “We use one year of data because it is critical to focus schools’ attention on making progress with their students every year. While we have made gains as a system over the last 9 years, we still have a long way to reach our goal of ensuring that all students who come out of a New York City school are prepared for post-secondary opportunities. Measuring multiple years’ results on the Progress Report could allow some schools to “ride the coattails” of prior years’ success or unduly punish schools that rebound quickly from a difficult year.”
Of course, this is nonsense. No educators would “coast” on a prior year’s “success”, but they would be far more confident in a system that didn’t give them an inherently inaccurate rating.
Given the fact that that school grades bounce up and down each year, most teachers, administrators and even parents have long figured out how they should be discounted, and justifiably believe that any administration that would punish or reward a school based on such invalid measures is not to be trusted.
That DOE has changed the school grading formula in other ways every year for the last three years also doesn’t give one any confidence….though they refuse to change the most fundamental flaw. Yet another major problem is while the teacher data reports take class size into account as a significant limiting factor in how much schools can get student test scores to improve, the progress reports do not.
There are lots more problems with the school grading system, including the fact that they are primarily based upon state exams that we know are themselves completely unreliable. As MIT professor Doug Ariely recently wrote about the damaging nature of value-added teacher pay, because of the way they are based on highly unreliable measurements:
…What if, after you finished kicking [a ball] somebody comes and moves the ball either 20 feet right or 20 feet left? How good would you be under those conditions? It turns out you would be terrible. Because human beings can learn very well in deterministic systems, but in a probabilistic system—what we call a stochastic system, with some random error—people very quickly become very bad at it.
So now imagine a schoolteacher. A schoolteacher is doing what [he or she] thinks is best for the class, who then gets feedback. Feedback, for example, from a standardized test. How much random error is in the feedback of the teacher? How much is somebody moving the ball right and left? A ton. Teachers actually control a very small part of the variance. Parents control some of it. Neighborhoods control some of it. What people decide to put on the test controls some of it. And the weather, and whether a kid is sick, and lots of other things determine the final score.
So when we create these score-based systems, we not only tend to focus teachers on a very small subset of [what we want schools to accomplish], but we also reward them largely on things that are outside of their control. And that’s a very, very bad system.”
Indeed. The invalid nature of the school grades are just one more indication of the fundamentally dishonest nature of the Bloomberg/Klein administration, and yet another reason for the cynicism, frustration and justifiable anger of teachers and parents.
1 a : the often radioactive particles stirred up by or resulting from a nuclear explosion and descending through the atmosphere; also : other polluting particles (as volcanic ash) descending likewise
b : descent (as of fallout) through the atmosphere
2 : a secondary and often lingering effect, result, or set of consequences
Okay, this past week’s propaganda-fest peak seems to have passed, so now all we have to deal with are the toxic particles that remain. This was probably one of the plans hatched up by the billionaires at the clandestine May 2009 summit organized by Bill Gates, which was attended by Gates, Broad, Bloomberg, Winfrey, and others.
Here is Stephen Lazar’s reflection of his experience as one of Education Nation’s featured teachers:
Over the past few days, I have had the unbelievably depressing and deflating experience of being part of NBC’s Education Nation. I was one of the first teachers on stage for Sunday’s Teacher Town Hall, and I returned on Monday for a panel entitled “Good Apples,”…
Arriving at Rockefeller Plaza Sunday morning was a surreal experience. I am going to give NBC credit for two things: they have poured a ton of human and financial resources into having a conversation about education in America, and they built a beautiful setting to do so. I felt like I had entered a dream world where the voices of teachers would actually be listened to and respected in a forum where major educational decisions were made. I should have known better…
I admit, I should have known better than to expect anything positive to come out of NBC’s Education Nation. It became abundantly clear that while well intentioned, NBC really knew very little about the topic they decided to cover, and instead of any real conversation or reporting, relied on the most famous faces in education to argue over the same old points that get us nowhere. I hoped the conversation would change, but with the people they had involved, I should have known there was little hope for that…
Be sure to read the whole thing HERE.
Memorable accounts of what was going on at NBC behind the scenes in the days leading up to Education Nation are preserved in the online history books now.
Leonie Haimson informed us in Education Indoctrination about how NBC named one of its panel sessions “Does Education Need a Katrina?” then changed the title after public outcry. She also reviewed for us how Yong Zhao was disinvited, and how, in fact, anyone skeptical of the dominant education “reform” was pretty much excluded.
Diane Ravitch, one of the most prominent voices about education matters, especially over this past year, was originally invited to appear live via satellite, but Education Nation decided to do a taped interview instead. This segment was cut down and spliced together with segments of other things. In other words, NBC gave Ravitch an insulting spit of an appearance.
All of this would seem odd for a multi-day program with such an important and far-reaching agenda, unless you knew who was driving the program’s mission.
Then there’s Oprah.
Oprah Winfrey jumped on the bandwagon with her billionaire friends and presented an education show, too (“show” being the telltale phrase). At one point, she canceled the appearance of a teacher who had been invited to appear (the woman had even flown to Chicago) in favor of giving fellow billionaire Mark Zuckerberg a chance to try to protect his self image which has been sullied by a soon-to-be-released movie, and to redeem himself by donating $100 million to Newark public schools which can only be used under conditions which may well be illegal.
Anthony Cody summed up the whole sordid affair and coined a great new word: “OprahPaganda.”
Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post had this take:
Oprah Winfrey may imagine that she runs a serious policy forum on her television show. You know, the one on which she routinely features: celebrities; hoarders (Aug. 5,6); dieters; people facing unusual crisis, such as a woman who had a tumor that covered half of her face (Aug. 2), and a woman who discovered her dead husband’s mistresses (July 30).
But she doesn’t. Shows recently aired include:
- 09/14/2010 Exclusive – How Wynonna Judd Survived the Ultimate Betrayal
- 09/13/2010 Oprah’s Farewell Season Premiere with Special Guest John Travolta
- 09/08/2010 Harpo Hookups – Cher, Justin Timberlake, will.i.am, Usher
- 09/07/2010 Women Who Claim They Were Child Brides in the USA
- 09/06/2010 Stars of Reality TV: Fantasia’s Comeback and Ruby’s Revelations
- 09/02/2010 Oprah’s Make Over My Man Crew Strikes Again
- 09/01/2010 The Most Talented Kids with Justin Bieber and Charice
- 08/31/2010 Oprah Says Goodbye to Nate Berkus: The Grand Finale
- 08/30/2010 Oprah and Simon Cowell: The Farewell Interview
- 08/25/2010 Inside Sex Addiction Rehab
So yesterday when she aired the show called “Waiting For Superman – The Movie That Can Transform America’s Schools,” her viewers should have known that they were watching an entertainment show with a show woman — not an educator — as host…
But then there’s the smarmy Joe Williams of DFER who is now basking in the rays of this explosion of propaganda and wrote this message to his hedge fund-manager friends:
I mean, seriously?
Oprah? Meet The Press? Matt Lauer and Obama talking hard-core, down and dirty ed reform on the Today Show? One hundred million dollars for Newark school reform from that Facebook dude? Education Nation? Front page of Time Magazine? Waiting for ‘Superman’????…
Due to the passion of an awful lot of people on this email list [his hedge fund manager friends], the tracks were laid over the course of the last few years for the kind of high-profile conversations that are taking place right now on the airwaves, in movie theaters, and in public squares all over the land…
All of us have made tremendous personal and professional sacrifices [translate: donations to the cause of the privatization and oligarch-ification of the U.S.] to help get this issue where it is today…
But thank God for Leonie. From Gotham Schools:
A group of city public school parents blasted NBC today for its week-long special programming on education, saying that the network has kept parents and skeptics of education reform off the air.
The network is running a series of televised interviews and panel discussions it is calling “Education Nation” all this week. Parents gathered today outside of the “Learning Plaza” the network has built at Rockefeller Center to complain about the series’ line-up of speakers, which is dominated by politicians, officials and philanthropists.
“Parents are offended about the way in which NBC has refused to invite a single NYC public school parent onto any of their panels,” said Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters. “Instead, the network has allowed wealthy billionaires once again to control the agenda.”
The group also criticized NBC for allowing Mayor Bloomberg to deliver a policy speech televised on the network Monday morning without taking questions from reporters.
This (me) urban public school parent, non-union member, who has experienced 17+ school years (the last eight of them in so-called “failing” schools), and has been the parent “client” of at least 100 teachers and 10 principals — and knows A LOT at this point — has one final thought.
A friend of mine doesn’t share my passion about all this education stuff, but will sometimes chime in and say something that’s spot on, such as:
“Who would want to be a teacher these days? You get paid s**t. You have to deal with unmotivated, disrespectful students and complaining, uninvolved parents. You have to deal with crappy administrators.
“Not only are you busy all day, but then you have to go home and grade all those papers.
“What pleasure could you get out of that? At least you have the summers off.
“Maybe if you were really into teaching, or if you are married to a millionaire and doing it to keep busy. Or if you were teaching in a school like Head Royce [one of our local hoity-toity private schools] where there are a lot of resources.
“It’s a lot of work.”
I know this view is simplistic, harsh, and unromantic, but it does contain some truth. And it doesn’t even mention the current fad of bashing and demoralizing teachers, or the degree to which many of them spend their own hard earned money on their classes.
My years of working in the Parent Center at my local middle school gave me so many insights about day-to-day school life. It’s too bad more people don’t have a chance to see teachers in action so they can become aware of what they do, and learn to appreciate it, too.
This would be the movie that needs to be made.
In opening remarks, Lillian Lowery, secretary of education in Delaware, spoke about the moral imperative of the task ahead. “This must be done because it is right,” she said. “This work is about the children who walk through the doors of school each day.”
So, these 4 interventions and using failed strategies like merit pay are “right”? The problem is so deep…….and our leaders are apparently lost…..
For the past week, the national media has launched an attack on American public education that is unprecedented in our history. NBC devoted countless hours to panels stacked with “experts” who believe that public education is horrible because it has so many “bad” teachers and “bad” principals. The same “experts” appeared again and again to call for privatization, breaking teachers’ unions, and mass firings of “bad” educators. Oprah devoted two shows to the same voices. The movie Waiting for Superman, possibly the most ballyhooed documentary of all time, explains patiently that poor test scores are caused by bad teachers, that bad teachers are protected for life by their unions, and that the answer to our terrible test scores is privatization. If only we fire enough teachers every year, goes the oft-repeated claim, our national test scores will soar to meet those of Finland, the highest scoring nation.
This narrative began with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation in 2002, which mandated that 100% of all children would be proficient by 2014. Leaving aside the fact that no nation or state has ever achieved 100% proficiency, this law unleashed a frenzy of testing in American public schools. The results are meager, as judged by the highly respected federal tests.
Instead of changing direction, Barack Obama has tightened the screws on Bush’s policies. Now, testing is more important than ever. Obama and his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are pressing states to adopt merit pay, so that teachers will get bonuses if student scores go up, and pressing them to evaluate teachers by student test scores. Testing is the key element in this approach. Woe to the teacher who cannot raise test scores on standardized tests that demand only the skill of selecting the right bubble of four possible bubbles.
Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program handed out almost $5 billion to promote these ideas. States leapt to be eligible for the money, promising to open more privately managed charter schools, to fire the principal of every low-performing school, to fire most or all of the teachers in schools with low scores, and to close public schools if their scores are low.
None of these approaches works.
NBC News president Steve Capus said that his network’s Education Nation summit this week — a multi-day affair that included interviews with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan — would be a fair, serious look at public education today.
It wasn’t even close.
The events, panels and discussions were sharply tilted toward Obama’s school reform agenda — focused in part on closing failing schools, expanding charter schools and using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. It gave short shrift to the enormous backlash against the plan from educators and parents around the country who say that Obama’s education priorities won’t improve schools but will narrow curriculum and drive good teachers out of the profession.
NBC seemed to take for granted that Obama’s education policies are sound and will be effective. Seasoned journalists failed to ask hard questions and fell all over their subjects to be sympathetic. It was a forum for people to repeatedly misstate the positions of their opponents.
The one school district that was the subject of a panel was New Orleans, which was remade after Hurricane Katrina with public charter schools. (Never mind that charter schools educate less than five percent of the schoolchildren in the country and can never be a systemic solution to the troubles that ail urban districts.)
A panel on innovation was packed with charter school folks, sending a message that only charter schools are innovative, which they, by and large, are not.
Before Education Nation’s televised panels, some participants in New York were treated to a screening of the movie “Waiting for Superman,” a documentary that significantly skews the reality of public education. It, for example, blames teachers unions for failing schools, without noting that the problems remain the same in non-unionized states. On a panel that followed, the only person defending teachers was American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who could have used some help.
Matt Lauer interviewed Obama; Tom Brokaw interviewed Duncan; Andrea Mitchell interviewed D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. (“Michelle, you’ve been through so much, and you’ve been so plainspoken,” Mitchell said sympathetically, ignoring the fact that Rhee has, in fact, not been as plainspoken as all that.)
Other journalists interviewed other school reformers with little journalistic pushback. Sometimes credit was given where credit wasn’t due. David Gregory said to Duncan:
“President Bush isn’t often given credit for driving accountability because No Child Left Behind became unpopular, and yet, indeed, that accountability is what the Obama administration has built on.”
Actually, No Child Left Behind became unpopular because it didn’t create real accountability and subverted teachers by putting standardized tests at the center of the learning experience.
The Obama administration is taking that obsession with standardized tests to a new level, funding programs that pay teachers by the test scores of their students. It doesn’t seem to matter that such merit pay plans have been used off and on since the 1920s with less than stellar results, as education historian Diane Ravitch explained in this piece.
NBC is not the only media outlet to seemingly take for granted that Obama’s education initiative is the answer to fixing failing schools.
The recent project by the Los Angeles Times, in which some 6,000 teachers were evaluated solely on the basis of student test scores, was another example of a news organization promoting a highly controversial way to assess teachers as effective. The largest study to date on the “value-added” method of teacher evaluation, released earlier this month, found that linking test scores to teachers’ pay was not effective. That didn’t stop the Obama administration from handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to states to develop such programs. The study and earlier ones like it were not a big topic at Education Nation.
The New York Times’ film critic reviewed “Waiting for Superman” and seemed to take as gospel the tendentious narrative in the film. Meanwhile, CBS anchor Katie Couric wrote about her Waiting for Superman impressions on her Couric & Co. blog:
“I was so inspired by how this documentary shines a light on so many issues — the heartbreak of kids who don’t get into charter schools, the controversy over teachers’ unions and the failure factories that churn out kids who are unprepared or drop out in terrifying numbers. I admire the revolutionaries who are out there shaking up a broken system. So I became obsessed with covering with this story from multiple angles, and we’ve decided to spend a great deal of time this fall and throughout the school year looking at education.”
Capus and Lisa Gersh, NBC’s president of strategic initiatives, told journalists at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. last week that the televised Education Nation Summit was not designed to support Obama’s agenda and was intended to be the start of the network’s focused look at education. Couric announced that CBS, like NBC, was launching a series of reports on education.
Education, the subject that people have long said was super-important but that never got much coverage, is suddenly huge news. The question is why it is not being examined with the same skeptical view that, say, Obama’s health care proposal was.
Obama-style school reform also became the focus of not one but two episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show last week, though one would not expect a journalistic objectivity from an entertainment show.
On one episode, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg used the occasion to announce to the world that he was donating $100 million to the ailing Newark, N.J., public school system for Obama-style business-driven reforms.
Billionaires picking out school districts they want to help: What a great way to fund public education.
All this cheerleading for the administration can’t take away from this: There are excellent reasons, as well as evidence, to show that many of its education policies won’t work, and some may be counterproductive.
The biggest study of charter schools yet shows that only 17 percent of them are more effective than their neighborhood traditional public schools, and that more than double are worse. The tough prescription that Obama and Duncan have written for failing schools has proved to be more punitive than helpful, and has not worked in improving a majority of the schools that have undergone the process.
There will come a time when this current wave of “reform” proves as unsuccessful as past fads — and journalists may look back on their fawning coverage and be very, very sorry that they gave their objectivity on this subject.
The problem is that the schools will likely be in worse shape then than they are today.
The Real Facts About Waiting for Superman
Waiting for Superman may be good melodrama, but the movie fails the test of accuracy, and its purported solutions will not improve education.
We agree: Too many young people, mostly low-income, do not graduate from high school or get a strong education. The questions are why, and what can be done about it. Waiting for Superman and its unprecedented hype risk leading us dangerously astray from real solutions to real problems by making a number of misleading or factually incorrect claims in a number of important areas:
Public school quality: The most recent Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll found that 77% of Americans would give the public school their oldest child attends an A or a B. Does this suggest our public schools are failing across the board, as WFS says? In international comparisons, most of our middle class schools do well. Under resourced schools that serve low-income kids who are disproportionately African American, Latino, or recent immigrants, do far less well. However, they face challenges that schools, alone, can never address adequately. Improving schools is part of the solution – but the changes must help all children obtain a high-quality education.
Poverty: Poverty matters a lot – and the movie shows that it does, even while trying to tell us it does not. The Harlem Children’s Zone spends heavily to provide services to needy children and their families, services the government does not provide. Two-thirds of HCZ funding is private, not public – making it like a well-funded private school. Who will pay for these services for all the children who need them?
Unions: States with the most unionized teachers do better than states with weaker or fewer unions, and countries with strong educational systems mostly have strong teacher unions. WSF’s demonization of unions ignores the real evidence.
Tenure: Tenure says you cannot be fired without due process and a good reason: you can’t be fired because the boss wants to hire his cousin, or because you are gay (or black or…), or because you take an unpopular position on a public issue outside of school. A recent survey found that most principals agreed they could fire if they needed to. While WSF may have its own opinions on the value of tenure, it may not have its own facts.
Charter schools: Charter schools get public money but are run by private groups, which means there is less public oversight. The most extensive national study found that 46% of charters did about the same as regular public schools, 37% did worse, and only 17% did better. Meanwhile, charters routinely accept fewer students with disabilities and fewer English language learners. Since charters only serve 4% of the nation’s K-12 students, they represent a distraction and a drain from the focused work needed to renew quality schools for all children. They are not a solution.
Using standardized tests like MCAS to evaluate teachers: The National Research Council and many other researchers say that evaluating teachers based on student test scores is inaccurate and unfair. Several reports found that some 20-25% of teachers in the bottom groups one year are in the top groups the next – and vice versa. This is because many more things affect student learning or teacher’s rankings than just the teacher’s own efforts.
Using standardized tests to tell us if schools are successful: Most test score differences are not due to what schools do, but to the kids’ ZIP codes. As opportunity, health and family wealth increase, so do test scores. When schools focus on boosting scores on tests like MCAS, they ignore important subject areas and teach to the test, leaving children less prepared for the future. We need a lot more than test scores to know if schools are doing well and to help schools improve.
How students learn: Most people know what science confirmed years ago: learning is an active process. Pouring disconnected information into kids’ heads, as the movie shows, has no lasting value, and it does not educate students for citizenship, college, lifelong learning or employment. Why didn’t the movie show us what excellent teaching looks like?
Competition: There is no evidence for the claim that competition will improve education. Teachers competing against each other will endanger cooperation among teachers and reduce their ability to help children most in need.
Since No Child Left Behind, the rate of school improvement has declined! This film pushes for another generation of failed reforms.
Don’t wait for Superman. Take the time to inform yourself, to find out the real stories from teachers, parents and principals. Get the real facts on which to base your opinion, and consider how you can make a difference by doing what is right and good for children, not what “Superman” tells you to do.
Citizens for Public Schools and FairTest
The Truth Has Taken a Beating: Now What?
A Nation at Risk came out in 1983. Even though you and I disagree on whether it was a good or bad report, it’s clear that the message of the new reforms grew out of elements of the consensus that produced it.
I had an argument with Al Shanker at the time about whether it was true that American schools had gotten worse. He agreed with me (and note Nicholas Lemann’s recent piece in The New Yorker on this) that they were actually doing a better job, but given the state of the world, they needed to do a MUCH better job and only a sense of crisis would mobilize the public for the kind of changes needed. We needed to scare everyone—including our own teacher members, he said. It took 20-plus years of relentless scare tactics, but they’ve won that battle. The truth took a beating. Now what? (Now the truth makes us both anti-reformers!)
I’m sorry in more ways than I can count that Shanker didn’t live to see what happened. Sometimes I just wish I had been able to say: “See, I told you so.” But I think maybe he’d have gotten mad and helped us not to cave into it. Maybe. What do you think, Diane? You probably knew him better than I did.
Sometimes there’s an over-abundance of reasons “why” change happens—an accidental confluence of forces. I think we are living through that. Today, numerous constituencies seem to be living off the false story of the “school crisis,” including: (1) Those who always wanted privatization, tried for vouchers, and have now finessed the debate with charters. These are the true marketplace fundamentalists; (2) Individuals with special interests which this reform will serve—ways to make money off privatization, the federalizing, and mayoral control of big city schools; (3) Test-makers, who spend 1,000 times more money promoting tests than FairTest does trying to slow the hype. It’s no surprise that FairTest has no money these days (contributions accepted); (4) The people who always hated unions and who see the situation of teachers as an opportunity to knock off one of the few remaining big unions in the country—and with it the resources (mostly personnel, but also money) that unions bring into politics on the liberal end of the scale, and; (5) The civil rights activists who 56 years after Brown haven’t seen a lot of progress in their agenda. We have more segregation than ever. And the gap has grown between the races in all school-based measures—as well as real-life ones. There was an upward trend for the first 20 or so years after Brown, but it has (at best) held steady since then. Anything is better than more of the same. Then there’s a sixth group—people who are maybe using education as a distraction, an alternate “enemy.” In this scenario, unions are the explanation for the even-more-serious incompetence of our “ruling class” as protector of America’s and the planet’s interests. And, and … probably many more scenarios which elude me.
Some, like me, bought into at least being neutral on charters, seeing them as better than vouchers and hopefully something akin to the New York City alternative network and the Boston pilot networks. I envisioned interesting, small, mom-and-pop schools. Instead, we’re getting Wal-Marts. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. I wonder what Ted Sizer would say these days. He lived to see things take off in the wrong direction, but he also saw glimmers of hope.
Perhaps, looking back on this long after I’m dead, folks like me will see some silver lining. Maybe it did create a surge of higher expectations. Maybe it brought to the forefront some new good ideas. Maybe it started a serious and exhilarating conversation—that will in a few years grow out of the ashes of the old and the foolishness of the new.
Maybe we’ll finally stop expecting the kind of tests we’re using to measure something that bears no resemblance to what they’re after. Like trying to measure cancer with a thermometer. Maybe we’ll notice that the “Waiting for ‘Superman’” school was just one part of a larger effort to provide poor communities with better public services of all kinds.
Maybe we’ll find truly useful work for our young people to engage in when they grow up, rather than turning everything into a competitive race where only the few gain decent employment, and a very, very, very few earn obscene amounts.
Maybe we’ll finally decide that schools can teach all our people to be smart about their own self-interests and the self-interest of our nation and planet. We might even get interested in how such aspirations fit together with how kids spend the first 21 years of their “public” and private lives. I can dream, can’t I?
What keeps you going these days, Diane? Maybe running from here to there has a certain advantage—a sense of momentum. Just as being in school every day never allowed me to feel “hopeless”—because there was plenty to do to move the school and each and every distinctive, idiosyncratic child ahead! I’m instead reading too much these days, and the visits to schools only occasionally buoy me up.
The oddest thing is that I meet—daily—reporters, newsmen, academics, and on and on who didn’t even know there was a different story—a rebuttal to “Waiting for ‘Superman’,” Joel Klein, Arne Duncan, et al. It takes almost nothing for them to be amazed and agree that they’ve been fed a lot of …
Maybe we need the perseverance of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who occasionally drop by my house, happy to have delivered the message to one more potential convert.
P.S. Actually, (re. your Tuesday column on merit pay) what professions publicly rank-order workers? What private employers do so? Can someone help me out on this?
Why the President and his Education Secretary may be compounding the flaws of No Child Left Behind with new mistakes.
Question: Why do you believe No Child Left Behind contributes to de facto segregation in the schools?
Pedro Noguera: Well basically No Child Left Behind doesn’t address it, hasn’t touched it. You know here we have a law that you know if you look at the law itself it’s literally hundreds of pages long and no mention at all over about the need to create integrated schools. Think about this. By the year… Most demographers project by the year 2040 or 41 we will be a country where people of color make up the majority. To not prepare kids to function in a world where they’re going to need to interact with diverse groups of people I think is to deprive them and to deny them a good education. There was a time in this country where we thought that was important, where we were willing to risk a high degree of polarization by busing people and you know finding ways to integrate communities and schools. We’ve retreated from that. Some of that is because of the courts. A lot of that is because the lack of political will. Where we are now as a country is accepting the idea of segregated schools and I think it’s like Plessy. The idea of Plessy vs. Ferguson was separate but equal. I think that’s where we are now. We’re still not at equal, but I think that many people are satisfied with separate. I think that that is a huge political problem. I think they will never be equal because the way we educate our kids is directly related to the way we value not only the children, but also their parents and the communities they live in and so I see this as a major political challenge that there is not much leadership to address right now.
Question: If there were the political will to solve the problem, how would you recommend solving it?
Pedro Noguera: Well I think we’ve had major setbacks in the courts, which have limited the ability to integrate schools, so you can’t cross district lines, for example, to create more diverse schools, so there are legal limitations out there, but beyond that one of the major reasons why schools are so segregated is because in many cities the public schools disproportionally serve the poorest kids, and what ends up happening when that is the case is that middle class people, affluent people don’t put their kids in the public schools, so you end up with a two-tiered system, a private one for the white and the affluent and a public one for the poor. That’s New York City. That’s Chicago. That’s most cities across the United States. The only way to address that is to significantly invest in the public schools, so that the public schools can really offer an education that the middle class would choose for their children, so I think that’s got to be part of the strategy. You can’t attract white middle class parents unless you address the quality of the schools. Now it’s also true that there is still bias. There is prejudice and there are a lot of white parents who don’t want their kids in school with poor black and brown kids, and so I mean creative ways you could address that through magnet programs and other issues, but ultimately it does change of beliefs and my hope is that with time some of those attitudes will change too.
Question: Has national education policy changed or remained the same under Obama?
Pedro Noguera: I think there is a lot of continuity from Bush to Obama in terms of education policy. There haven’t been many major changes and I’m disappointed about that. I think that neither the president nor the secretary is clear what was wrong with No Child Left Behind, and what I see coming from the administration so far is too much emphasis on charter schools and a tendency to frame it as a competition between charters and traditional public schools. When you consider the fact that the vast majority of kids are in public schools I think that is a big mistake. I just think if you don’t have a strategy for addressing the quality of education that children receive in public schools then you don’t really… you can’t really innovate and improve those schools, and so far I haven’t heard the administration come up with any ideas that sound particularly innovative. They say they want to encourage innovation. They never define what that means or what it looks like or anything else.
Recorded on January 28, 2010Interviewed by Austin Allen