Nov 1 2011

MisEducation Nation

Corporate media and corporate education reform

This September at New York City’s Rockefeller Center, NBC put on its second annual Education Nation conference—a series of events and broadcasts bankrolled by the corporate interests and foundations aligned with the so-called “education reform” movement. On September 27, the second day of the conference, FAIR convened our own discussion of education and corporate media coverage at New York’s School of the Future. The panel, moderated by journalist Laura Flanders, featured former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch, NYU education professor Pedro Noguera, parent/activist Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters and New York City public schoolteacher Brian Jones. Here are excerpts from the discussion:

Leonie Haimson: ‘They’re all talking as though they’re in this bubble’

I spent most of the last two days up in Rockefeller Center, where it’s just as hot and sweaty as it is here, and, unfortunately, there are a lot of people there who don’t seem to realize what’s actually going on in our schools. So these are people who are all “experts”—they’re people from the foundation world, they’re people from the business world, we had our chancellors there—and they’re all talking as though they’re in this bubble: “We’re all working really hard to improve our schools and we’re focusing on teacher quality and we’re making sure that every child has a great teacher and a great principal.”

And the reality of what is in front of us—which are huge budget cuts to our schools, lots of teachers getting laid off, class sizes going up, the loss of art, music and science, the overwhelming emphasis on high-stakes testing—none of that is mentioned. And it’s almost as though they don’t even know that there is a controversy about it.

So it’s a very weird, disjunctive world, because the world I usually live in, I talk about our parents and teachers experiencing all these terrible things. And then you go up to Rockefeller Center, and there are all these people for whom the reality of what is happening does not even enter their minds.

One of the problems I find with the number of very rich people we have in New York City, which is the media capital of the country and really is the media capital of the world, is that these people have so much money to spend, they have been able to almost completely control the political discourse and the narrative in the major media. So that you have people like the president of NBC News, who actually thinks he’s doing a balanced presentation. And with the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation and the hedgefunders, who were all so philanthropic with their charter schools. They just have too much goddamn money.

So the major media go to cocktail parties with these guys. They all live in this bubble. They actually believe that [former New York City Education Chancellor] Joel Klein and Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg are wonderful heroes, and you go through the country and you talk to people and they go, “What?! Bloomberg is not a great mayor, he’s not doing great things for kids?”

What was interesting to me was when Klein started to work for Murdoch, It was a shock to most of America. You mean that Joel Klein, this great hero, is working for Rupert Murdoch? They couldn’t believe it. And anyone who’s been involved in the education scene in NYC knows that the two of them are like this. Ideologically, they are completely in line, and Murdoch was one of the biggest givers to all of Joel Klein’s causes, in their Fund for Public Schools and the rest. His wife was on the board, and Rupert Murdoch’s wife asked Caroline Kennedy, who ran the Fund for Public Schools, to get her kid into Brearley, which was the private school that they went to. So that’s what they talk about.

And so we live in a society that’s dominated by the very wealthy, and the major media are dominated by the same group, and it’s very hard to break into the narrative.

Brian Jones: ‘Corporate reformers have to focus on teacher quality’

I was one of the only teachers at Education Nation last year. I was on a panel with [charter school founder] Geoffrey Canada and [former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor] Michelle Rhee and the president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. I did not expect to be invited back. And I was not invited back. A badge of honor, maybe.

But I did go to Education Nation on Sunday to support a colleague of mine who is here, who lights up a film, a film that people should see, called American Teacher, that was shown there. And I want to say something about it, because some people are saying there is this shift in NBC. I want to say my thoughts about that.

OK, last year was Waiting for Superman, a baseball bat to our heads. This year it’s American Teacher, a film that praises teachers, a film that shows the struggles of teachers, a film that’s sympathetic to teachers. It shows how underpaid, how hard they work, all this kind of thing. Except that in the first few minutes of the film, you have [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, [Hoover Institution researcher] Eric Hanushek, all these kind of people, saying that the teacher is the most important factor inside the school.

And as common sense as that sounds, I believe that the reason NBC’s Education Nation seems more friendly to outside voices this year is that what they’ve succeeded in doing is figuring out that if they narrow the discussion, they can let anybody talk.

As long as we’re talking about the quality of the teacher, that means we’re not talking about curriculum, we’re not talking about class size, we’re not talking about administration, we’re not talking about poverty, we’re not talking about healthcare, we’re not talking about mental health, we’re not talking about any of the issues that bear directly down on our classes—as long as we’re talking about teacher quality.

And I believe—look, I’m not, like, a great teacher. I’m not a superhero teacher. I consider myself a good teacher. I consider myself a good teacher, but the teacher that I’m able to be in different schools is actually a very different teacher, depending on where I am and depending on the environment.

I have a colleague of mine that said to me: “You know, if we are gonna be evaluated by these test scores, then I don’t want to work with special-ed kids anymore. I don’t want to work with severely disabled kids anymore, because I know that the needle might not move that year. I know that what I impart to them that year might not show up on this crude, blunt instrument that they use.” So-called “value-added.”

But I believe that the corporate reformers have to focus on teacher quality, because it accomplishes the goal of making it seem like they care about quality while really narrowing the discussion to how to punish the labor force. I mean, look, if they want to—this is a country that spends literally tens of billions of dollars to air-condition the tents of the troops in Afghanistan, and you’re telling me you can’t make sure everybody has enough pencils and resources and smart boards and books and whatever else we need?

I think that it’s a very convenient narrative that they are spinning at us right now. It’s a very convenient narrative for this economic crisis that we’re in, this recession. If you want to find somebody that is really selfish, self-interested, you know, a real piece of work…it’s a teacher. Just in it for themselves, can’t trust them.

Now, look, on the other hand, you want to find an angel? You want to find someone that is selfless, doesn’t think about themselves, they’re not greedy or money-grubbing, they are just in it for other people, especially the poor black and Latino children? It’s the billionaires. Those are really the best people. I mean, frankly, we need more of them in the classrooms, because we can trust them, you see.

I think it’s a convenient narrative, and the shift that we see from Education Nation 1.0 to 2.0 is more a shift in tone than it is a shift in content.

Diane Ravitch: ‘The crisis has been created by the so-called reform movement’

What I’ve suggested is the crisis is one that has been created by the so-called reform movement. That by imposing this data-driven approach to education, they have exacerbated the inequities. That if you wanted to create a system to disadvantage poor kids, base everything on testing, because there will always be a bottom half. And we know who will be in the bottom half. It’s the kids who have the least resources, who bring the least with them. They will be the bottom half, so make everything about testing.

All the crisis talk right now is very cynical. And so much of the crisis is coming from the spokesmen for Wall Street hedge fund managers, and suddenly they have gotten very, very concerned about our global competitiveness. It’s as though our schoolchildren, our third graders, are causing this recession. And if only our reading scores went up, we would have trillions more in gross domestic development.

When Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about a vision, he didn’t say that our goal ought to be to increase our economic productivity by 5 percent. The real goal ought to be to create a great public—a good public school for every child in America. That would be a vision we would embrace. But what we are getting from the Wall Street crowd is: We have a crisis.

And I realize that there is now an industry, and has been for about 20 or 30 years, that is devoted to saying our schools are bad. Our schools are bad, our schools are bad, our schools are bad. The subtext to this is that the salvation is to privatize them. So if we can bring in the online industry….

And you can hardly open up Google anymore without finding an ad for a virtual company that wants to sell you schooling. As I came through the airport the other day, there was a big sign saying, India now makes $20 million a year tutoring American schoolchildren.

There is just this growing industry. Rupert Murdoch is one of the leaders in it. He bought Wireless Generation, as you know, which is still a big provider for the New York City school system. And Murdoch said—he spoke before the hacking scandal to the G8 nations, all of the major European nations—and he said to them: You are obsolete unless you buy technology. He didn’t mention that he was in the business of selling it.

But this is what I see as the next wave: demonize the public schools, create this marketplace where people think, instead of thinking of the common good, instead of thinking of community, instead of thinking what’s good for our children, we say, what’s in it for me? What about my child? Forget about your children, that’s your problem. My child. That’s market thinking.

And what they are trying to do, and I think Brian’s narrative is absolutely right on: talk about teacher quality, because then we can say, bad teacher, bad teacher. That is a prelude to saying, where we need to go is the marketplace. This book I reviewed, Steven Brill’s book [New York Review of Books, 9/29/11], talks about how we can have this sliding scale for teachers, where the great teachers who get those test scores up, make huge amounts of money, and the less effective teachers make less money. It’s all about the marketplace. Get schools into the free market, and that way you can advance the privatization, have teachers working without a contract, no unions.

You have to think about what is the goal here. Some of the people are in it for money, some of them think they are doing the right thing. There are all kinds of motives. But the goal is to move away from public education as a public responsibility, like the fire department, like the police department, like public parks, like other kinds of public facilities. Privatize public education so that everyone becomes a consumer, children become products, and entrepreneurs can find lots and lots of money to be made. That is somehow going to make us globally competitive.

That’s all nonsense, because if you look at the really high-performing nations, like Finland and even Japan and Singapore, they are moving away from that model. They have strong public school systems. And we are in the process of allowing these people to undermine public education.

Pedro Noguera: ‘We have asked schools to solve problems that are not simply educational’

I would first of all say that the reason why there is not a crisis is because there is no urgent response. If there were a crisis, then we would see extraordinary measures taken to address the problem, and I don’t see any evidence of that. So you can’t be in a permanent crisis, right?

Let’s be clear: The “problem,” if we want to use that term, is wherever poor children are concentrated. I mean, we can talk about ways in which suburban schools, middle-class schools, can be improved, and I think there is lots of room for improvement. But it’s where poor children are concentrated that schooling tends to be bad in America.

And that speaks to the fact that we have asked schools to solve problems that are not simply educational in nature. They are much deeper than that. And they go well beyond what’s in the schools.The Coalition for Educational Justice held a conference this past Saturday. And they’ve been, I think, doing an extraordinary job in New York City of trying to call attention to both the failed policies of the Bloomberg administration, and to the need for something to be done.

And I think that’s the key part, that it’s not good enough to critique what’s wrong. I think we’ve got to do that, and there is a lot that’s wrong, particularly, I think, at the local level. But the fact is that these kids are in school right now. If they don’t get an education, it has long-term consequences for their lives. Right now in New York City, with a graduation rate that has been going up, we still have 80 percent of the graduates who still have to take remedial courses when they go to CUNY [City University of New York], so clearly there is something wrong.

I was given a chance to ask Secretary [of Education Arne] Duncan a question today, and my question to him was: At what point will you acknowledge that No Child Left Behind has failed? You’ve got dropout rates of 50 percent and higher in almost every major city in the United States. Now, what I would also say is this: It’s not as though the world before No Child Left Behind was perfect. No Child Left Behind may be totally flawed, but we still have a problem. A problem that existed before No Child Left Behind. Because poor children have not been getting good education for a long time.

I’ll just close by saying this: When you go to affluent schools and you ask the educators, who are you accountable to, they’ll say: to the parents we serve. When you go to inner-city schools, and you ask the educators, who are you accountable to, you almost never hear: the parents we serve. That’s a problem. If you don’t feel accountable to the parents you serve, you may not treat their children with the dignity they deserve.