Education Opinion

The Media’s War on Teachers

By Anthony Cody — September 28, 2010 6 min read
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Monday I was the lone teacher at an afternoon forum entitled “Grading the Teachers,” hosted by the Graduate School of Education at Berkeley. The focus was on the use of so-called Value Added Measurement (VAM) and the series of articles which ran in the Los Angeles Times this summer. I was on a panel focused on the media, which given the tremendous role the media is playing in driving the agenda for education reform, seemed appropriate. Also on the panel with me were Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, Susan Rasky of the UC School of Journalism, and Jason Felch, one of the authors of the LA Times story.

The entire event and supporting links are available for here. The media panel is below.

Here are my prepared remarks. As you will see if you watch the video, I did not get to share all that I had prepared. So I offer it all here.

Our focus today is on how the media has addressed teacher effectiveness, but we really need to place this in a much larger context. First, let me say that Teacher evaluation DOES need to be improved. I worked as a Peer Assistance and Review coach in the Oakland schools for two years, and saw the evaluation process up close. I worked with a group of accomplished and recognized teacher leaders to write a report offering concrete ways this can be done. Copies of our report are here. There is work being done across the state, including in Los Angeles and Oakland, to strengthen teacher effectiveness and evaluation practices.

But that said, what we are witnessing is an all-out war on America’s public schools and teachers.

Here is some of what I heard in the past week:

Bill Gates assert that America would go from the middle of international academic rankings to the top, if we could get rid of all the bad teachers.

There is zero evidence that America has more “bad teachers” than other countries. But we do lead the developed world in the proportion of children in poverty, with more than 23% of our students below the poverty level, while most of the countries beating us have less than 5% living in poverty.

This exchange on Oprah:
Michele Rhee describes teacher tenure as “a job for life.” Oprah says “After two years you have a job for life and you can’t be fired! Who does that?”
Davis Guggenheim, the Waiting for Superman movie producer, intones “Everybody gets it. It’s automatic. You show up for two years, you got tenure.”

That is a flat-out lie. In my district, which is known for a strong union, teachers do not get tenure unless their principal wants them to. Many teachers are released at the end of their first or second year. Tenure is by no means automatic. And there are indeed ways to get rid of tenured teachers, who do not have “jobs for life,” but rather have rights to due process. In fact, a few moments earlier, we were told “Michelle Rhee has fired a thousand teachers and principals,” many of whom had tenure.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said:

What's really going on in a place like Newark is we have violence and drug use because we have no hope. And the reason we don't have hope is because children don't believe tomorrow can be better than today, because it's an obscenity that we've robbed from them their education.

In the city of Newark, one child in three is below the poverty line. Unemployment in 12%.
Things are much the same in Oakland, where unemployment is 17%.

A few decades ago politicians decided that DRUGS were the cause of all of our woes in the cities. So our political leaders declared a war on drugs. They gave speeches demanding “get tough” laws. Now our prisons are overflowing, and more than two million Americans are behind bars.

Drugs and crime were symptoms of hopelessness, however, not the cause. Locking up millions of Americans has not delivered our neighborhoods from crime - and the costs for prisons has diverted billions away from our schools.

Now our politicians and their billionaire sponsors are leading us on another phony moral crusade. But instead of a war on drugs, we have a war on teachers.

NBC News announced a special panel happening this morning with the title, “The Lessons of New Orleans: Does Education Need a Katrina?” They’re trying to wash us away and start over, with charters and TFA interns. This media hurricane is formidable. They have billionaires and Oprah, NBC news “reporters” and propaganda films, non-profit and for-profit charters and others who stand to gain from this, all waving the banner of this phony crusade.

NBC News president Steve Capus, responding to criticism that teachers and those with a critical view of the administration’s education reform agenda have been shut out of Education Nation programming, says:

NBC News [personnel] are not the experts in this place. ...the role of a news organization is to put a spotlight on these issues/challenges, and on the people who are doing incredibly strong work to try to affect change. The news division's involvement begins and ends with that spotlight. We're not coming at this from a policy angle.

Truly flabbergasting. According to the material on their Education Nation website, “Education is key to the success of our country...” Yet this multi-million dollar news organization has nobody on their staff they consider to be expert in this crucial field? Secondly, what is the role of a news organization? I thought the role of a news organization was to investigate and uncover the truth, and share it with the public. In the case of an issue where there is a real controversy, such as education policy in America, a news organization ought to give a balanced presentation of the controversy, with competing perspectives represented by the most reputable and respected advocates available.

And the whole scheme of Valueless Addition, championed by the LA Times, fits right into this narrative. Based on test scores and cursory observations by untrained reporters, the Times launched a McCarthyist hunt for the bad teachers responsible for poor test scores.
As HL Mencken said, the job of a journalist should be to “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But courage has been redefined by the powers that be, and now they pat one another on the back for the courage to attack the people working every day in our toughest schools.

Here are some things that could be tackled by journalists, which I have heard not a PEEP about during the Education Nation:

• Our nation has more than 20% of our children living in poverty, while Finland, which is at the top of international rankings, has only about 2% in poverty. Could there be a connection here?

• What are the teacher evaluation and professional practices in the nations that are doing better than us on international comparisons?

• Schools now are MORE segregated than at any time since the 1950s. Could this have anything to do with the achievement gap?

• Charter schools have been promoted as superior to regular public schools. How about an in-depth look at the way charters limit their student population, turning away those without parents willing to support them?

• Who are the members of the Business Round Table, and the Hedge Fund billionaires investing in charter schools and “education reform,” and what do they stand to gain?

The media is currently the fiddler playing a tune called by billionaires.

But as Diane Ravitch said last week in Los Angeles:

“Teacher evaluation is a red herring, a diversion. A diversion intended to take our glance away from the poverty and racial isolation in which these students live. It salves the conscience of the billionaire boys club and enables them to blame hard-working teachers for the poverty and inequality that mars our society and hurts children.”

The barrage of unfair criticism against teachers, especially those in low-performing schools, is having a deeply demoralizing effect. One of those teachers was Rigoberto Ruelas, who took his life this week. A dedicated teacher in South LA for the past 14 years, with a perfect attendance record, his family said he had been upset and depressed since the LA Times listed him as being ineffective. He may be the first casualty in America’s war on teachers.

What do you think? Is there a war on America’s teachers? What role is the media playing?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.