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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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Agitprop Slipping Its Leash...

By Rick Hess — July 15, 2010 2 min read

On Monday, I argued that Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, and all their edu-agitprop brethren can have a constructive role to play so long as the practitioners evince good nature and humility and the cheerleaders retain a sense of irony and don’t start to believe their own hype.

Unfortunately, I think there’s much evidence that good nature, humility, and a sense of irony are in short supply. And there’s a lot of reason to believe that the edu-agitprop is (or is in the process of) slipping the leash. Anyone who has heard interviews with the minds behind these movies probably has a sense of what I’m talking about. I was struck by this again recently when my morning mail turned up a thick packet of materials for next month’s San Francisco-based national conference on “Where’s the Outrage? Lighting a Fire Under the School Choice Movement.”

The gathering is billed as a chance to take “the accumulated accomplishments, knowledge and data of the school choice movement and serve it up on a platter to the people of this nation and its media outlets.” So far, so good. I think that’s an admirable aim.

When I look at the agenda, however, I see propaganda-fueled notions of what constitutes “accumulated accomplishments, knowledge and data.” The four-day conference is screening five flicks: The Cartel, Flunked, Let Me Rise, Not As Good as You Think, and A Right Denied. In fact, the conference tells invitees that it’s “geared toward preparing [them] for a series of upcoming and unprecedented opportunities"--the most prominent of which is the fall release of Waiting for Superman, which, “for the first time [means] the offensive will come at [teachers’ unions] from every corner of the country.”

Featured conference speakers include filmmakers Bob Bowdon, Thor Halvorssen, and Patrick Prentice; media relations guys John Kramer and Brad Phillips; pollster Frank Luntz; political consultant Dick Morris; and television analyst Juan Williams. None of this reassures me as to the humility or sense of proportion of the assemblage. Having seen a number of these folks in action, I’m not at all confident that they will be in a position to help attendees understand or communicate the “accomplishments, knowledge and data of the school choice movement” with a sense of proportion, context, or respect for the challenges ahead.

All of which suggests to me a movement willing to increasingly place it chips on sensational messaging, sounds bites, and “it’s for the kids” emoting instead of more patient efforts to change minds and press smart policies.

I’m especially concerned about the inclination of would-be reformers to lay great weight on brazenly manipulative flicks and the rush to deputize their directors as spokespeople. I think history suggests that when it comes to public policy, the most effective reformers are those who can anticipate, internalize, and intelligently address the concerns of their opponents. What I see here is a surge, instead, towards becoming even more adamant, monolithic, and agitprop-centric in pursuit of the party line.

“Movements” have a way of stifling smart thinking, smothering essential questions, and going too far. This is less of a problem if the goal was to push companies to divest from South Africa or to win the passage of civil rights laws; but I’m not at all sure that the “rile ‘em up and get ‘em foaming at the mouth” plan is actually the best strategy for fueling smart efforts to rethink and retool K-12.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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