Propaganda War, Scientific Doubts, and Truth in Advertising

By Anthony Rebora — October 06, 2005 3 min read

No doubt some educators have felt that, figuratively speaking, a Cold War is being waged over the direction of education policy. Now it turns out that under former Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the Education Department disseminated “covert propaganda” to advance the Bush administration’s schools agenda. Those are the words used in a new Government Accountability Office report describing the department’s arrangement with Armstrong Williams, the nationally syndicated columnist paid to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as its role in the distribution of a prepackaged news clip extolling the virtues of the law. The GAO, Congress’ investigative arm, said the department’s actions violated federal law. President Bush condemned the arrangement with Williams when it first became public in January: “Our agenda ought to be able to stand on its own two feet,” he said.

At the continuing trial over the teaching of “intelligent design” in Dover, Pennsylvania, a prominent biology professor testified that the alternate theory’s claims to scientific relevance don’t stand on their own merits. Yet one enterprising reporter found that, regardless of the testimony by Kenneth R. Miller, a Brown University professor and high school textbook author, most of the men and women on the street outside the Harrisburg courtroom didn’t see any reason why I.D. shouldn’t be taught alongside evolution. Such instruction, they suggested, would simply be in the spirit of educational debate and democratic principles. “Americans love fairness. If you said, ‘Let’s teach the evidence for and against gravity,’ they’d say, ‘Of course,’ ” reasoned Burt Humburg, a physician and member of the Kansas Citizens for Science who’s attending the trial. “We have to teach people that science isn’t fair. Science is not anything goes. We have rules.”

At the same time, some advocates of evolution voiced concern that, with their perceived indifference to the religious sensitivities of many Americans, scientists may not be the most effective spokespeople for Darwin’s theory. Professor Miller, a star witness in the pro-evolution camp, summed it up succinctly: “We suck. We suck at communicating evolution and many other aspects of science.”

At first blush, the same can’t be said of New York City teachers’ new contract. Apparently bowing to election-year pressures, Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed to give the city’s teachers a 14 percent raise over 52 months in exchange for 50 additional minutes of work per week and the loss of some seniority rights in school assignments. The contract increases top teacher pay in New York from $81,212 to $93,416. And since it’s retroactive to 2002, many teachers can expect to get handsome lump-sum payments this year—in the range of $2,800 to $5,800, depending on experience. Not to be discounted, either, is new language in the contract stipulating that teachers can’t be disciplined for how they choose to format their classroom bulletin boards—a long-standing irritation for many educators.

Pay issues don’t seem to be hurting Teach for America, the group that dispatches newly minted college grads to teach in low-income schools for two-year stints. On the contrary, TFA seems to have given teaching a certain pro bono allure. This year, a record 17,350 graduates applied for TFA jobs—including sizable percentages of the graduating classes from several Ivy League schools. The organization’s officials say their success is attributable to the idealism of the post-9/11 generation. Others point out that the two-year limits—not to mention the added shine a TFA job can give a resume—don’t hurt, either. “This is a generation that thinks a lot about keeping their options open,” said Monica Wilson, assistant director for employer relations at Dartmouth University.

Parents of students at McGovern Elementary School in Medway, Massachusetts, are considering their options after learning about the promotional slogan of a septic-service company located across from the school’s entrance. The company’s trucks bear the words, no doubt in very large type, “[Expletive] happens.” Parents worry the slogan could seep into their children’s vocabulary or affect their psyches in other, unspecified ways. The septic company’s owner, Paul Trufant, used grand terms to defend his use of the slogan: “This is America, not Iraq,” he said. “It’s freedom of speech.”

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