School & District Management Opinion

Are Critics of Corporate Education “Reform” Winning the Online Debate?

By Anthony Cody — December 28, 2011 5 min read
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Alexander Russo posted a rather provocative item today, asserting that in the online world, critics of “education reform” like myself, Ken Bernstein, Nancy Flanagan, Leonie Haimson, Caroline Grannan and John Thompson, have become dominant. (See Nancy’s response here, and Ken Bernstein’s here.)

First of all, we ought to qualify his assertion. The people he names are among the most visible critics of education reform, but there are many more than the short list he offers.

But the real question is one I have been puzzling over for a while. Why is there so little real debate over education reform? Why is there little or no defense offered when corporate reformers are subjected to criticism here and elsewhere? I have been writing pieces critical of Teach For America, the Gates Foundation, NBC’s Education Nation, and many other manifestations of what might be termed corporate-sponsored education reform for quite a while now. I called my blog “Living in Dialogue.” I generally take a respectful attitude towards those with whom I disagree, and I actively seek to engage with them whenever possible. For example, when an acquaintance involved in education philanthropy took the time to share his thoughts about charter schools with me, I gave him space on my blog to air his views, to which I responded a week later.

But that was an unusual occurrence.
Far more typical is the studied indifference that has greeted posts such as this one, taking on the Circular Reasoning at the Gates: Education Nation Off to a Confusing Start.

Similarly, the posts I have published related to Teach For America, including this rather scathing review of the “research” they claim supports their program, have been utterly ignored by the organization and its defenders.

There was a remarkable incident back in July that may shed some light on the reason advocates of corporate reform have been quiet in some venues. They are choosing as their forums places where they know they can win. Video surfaced of Stand For Children CEO Jonah Edelman speaking frankly to fellow “reformers” at the Aspen Institute, disclosing exactly how his organization had muscled its way into Illinois, supporting legislation that eroded the ability of teacher unions to negotiate over basic things like the length of the working day, and undermined seniority.

A related incident is also instructive. Since Diane Ravitch had been sharply pointing out these sorts of machinations, I asked her for her thoughts about the Edelman video, in this interview.

In this interview, Diane Ravitch said the following:

Stand for Children, like Education Reform Now, Democrats for Education Reform, TeachPlus, and various other "reform" organizations are committed to a course that is anti-education. They are not grassroots organizations. They should be described as "astroturf" organizations. Look over their board of directors, and you will see a large number of Wall Street executives, high-tech entrepreneurs, and others who have little or no experience in public education. I don't understand their animus towards one of our society's most vital public institutions, nor do I think they realize that they are responsible for creating public hostility to the teaching profession. If they understood it, why would they do it? It makes no sense. Some of these groups are funded by the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation, so what we are really seeing is a well-planned and well-executed effort to change public education by the wealthy and powerful.

A defender of Teach Plus (perhaps a staffer) then posted a comment, that said:

Just this week, in her keynote address at TEACH, Randi Weingarten bemoaned the fact that nearly half of teachers leave within five years of entering the profession. Weingarten argues, "Too many teachers are leaving before they get really good at their jobs."
The mission of Teach Plus is to reverse that trend by supporting the retention of excellent teachers in urban schools. The leadership opportunities that Teach Plus offers give teachers a reason to stay in the profession - and give them the opportunity to make their own voices heard in the creation of policies that affect their classrooms. Learn more about Teach Plus' pro-teacher, pro-child work at www.teachplus.org.

The next day, Diane Ravitch and I received an email from Teach Plus director Dr. Celine Coggins, who wished to inform us about her organization’s work. I responded and invited her to offer a guest post on my blog, where she could explain their work to my readers. I especially asked her to explain the group’s role in Indiana, where this story in the New York Times had portrayed them as advocates of “reforms” that undermined unions. She responded positively, and said she would send me ideas for a blog post after the weekend.

Meanwhile, I decided to do some investigation of my own, which resulted in this post; Teach Plus: Astroturf in Indiana?

In this post, I raised these four concerns:

First, we have a heavily funded group bringing forward teachers to reinforce their policy perspective. This creates the appearance of widespread support for practices which are highly controversial within our profession.
Second, Teach Plus has embraced the practice of widespread staff firings as a wise strategy for school improvement. Experience and research do not show this to be effective. On the contrary, this takes our most challenged schools and subjects them to further trauma and disruption, to no good end.
Third, Teach Plus has attempted to create policy that would shield "promising young teachers" from the brunt of these firings. There is a great deal of evidence that teacher effectiveness, on a wide range of indicators - not just test scores - increases as teachers gain experience. Why should we embrace policies that favor "promising young teachers," many of whom may be interns who have only a two-year long commitment to the classroom, over more experienced teachers?
Fourth, the law that resulted from this lobbying by Stand For Children and Teach Plus mandates that test scores be a significant part of teacher evaluation, and does away with the professional advisory board that informs the legislature about these issues.

I sent a link of this post to Dr. Coggins and reiterated my invitation to her to respond through my blog. I never heard back from her.

Clearly we had her attention. Why did she disengage? Apparently when there was a substantive debate, where her organization’s strategy and results were being critically challenged, there was no interest in dialogue.

Coupling this with Jonah Edelman’s description of the modus operandi at work in Illinois, one could conclude that these reformers have their strategies, which are proving quite effective. And public disclosure is likely to have negative repercussions, as Mr. Edelman discovered. Under the circumstances, there seems to be a strategy of disengagement from dialogue with critics.

Alexander Russo chose to portray corporate reform critics such as myself as Goliaths who are trampling on the hapless reformers.
But this analysis is a bit simple-minded. The corporate reformers have plenty of resources and personnel capable of responding. They are deliberately choosing to take their arguments elsewhere - to the corporate boardrooms, to the ALEC conference, to NBC’s Education Nation, and to legislative hearings, speaking through hired lobbyists, astro-turf groups, and well-prepared and vetted experts. They are getting the job done there, if you notice. Most of these groups are seeing revenues climb, and state legislatures across the country are busy adopting more “reform” laws every month.

We may have embarrassed NBC’s Education Nation into including a few voices of dissent in the mix this fall, but host Brian Williams still gushed that “The Gates Foundation (is) one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world. It’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.”

Diane Ravitch commented this morning on Twitter: “Are critics of corporate reform “winning” debate? Isn’t that like saying Occupy Wall Street is beating the banks and equity firms? Right.” So long as Congress, state legislatures and corporate media draw their “facts” from the Gates Foundation and other corporate reform organizations, there is no reason for these groups to lower themselves to debating with critics.

As Gandhi is reported to have said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.” Clearly we are still being ignored. It would be foolish to mistake this for victory.

Update: See more of my thoughts regarding Russo’s post here.
What do you think? Are critics of corporate education reform winning the online debate? How far does this get us in the real world of our schools?

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.