Last week former Department of Education communications director Peter Cunningham wrote a post that seems to be a sort of preemptive strike on Diane Ravitch, anticipating the release of her book, Reign of Error, the Hoax of Privatization and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.
Paul Thomas offered a cogent reply to Cunningham’s post here. Cunningham’s critique of Ravitch is remarkable for its lack of substance. He seizes on her critique of the purposely engineered high failure rates on New York’s Common Core tests as evidence that she wants to lower standards. He even goes so far as to suggest that she is implying that poor and minority students “are not college material.” This is classic straw man material. Misrepresent someone, then attack the effigy you have erected.
But I have been thinking about another subtext in his piece. He writes:
During the Obama administration's first term, I served as Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education, where one of my jobs was to monitor criticism of our policies and develop our responses. One of the people I monitored pretty closely was Diane Ravitch.
A blogger named RagingHorse has posted an interesting interpretation of this, with the provocative headline, “What Right Does the US Department of Education Have to ‘Monitor’ Diane Ravitch”.
He (or she) writes:
The US Department of Education "monitored " Diane Ravitch ? And others ? Who are they ? To what end ? Does this mean that the DOE, like the FBI and the CIA and the NSA is building dossiers on those, like Dr. Ravitch, who have the temerity to point out their inconsistencies, absurdities, failure and lies?
I am also disgusted and wonder, how many more critics did Mr. Cunningham "monitor? " What does it mean to 'monitor" somebody? Do taxpayers know that their money is paying for this ? Does Congress ? What has this to do with education ? Is there now a Monitoring Departing in the DOE to keep an eye on dissidents ?
A reader named Josh Kilroy responds to RagingHorse, writing:
I think this entire post is based on a willful misunderstanding. Cunningham clearly meant nothing more than following what criticisms were being leveled against the administration, esp from formerly respected figures like Ravitch.
I find myself agreeing with both points of view. I agree with Josh Kilroy about what Cunningham probably meant when he wrote that he was “monitoring” Ravitch, but I am also disturbed by the idea.
I am disturbed in part because it means that it is likely that I am also being “monitored.”
I actively sought a dialogue with the Arne Duncan and the Department of Education way back in November of 2009, when I wrote an open letter to President Obama, and started a Facebook group called Teachers’ Letters to Obama. In December of that same year I sent a packet of more than 100 letters to Secretary Duncan and the White House. In return I got a short note from a staffer at the DoEd, and no response at all from the White House. Eventually, the Teachers’ Letters group got a short phone conference with Secretary Duncan, and he followed up with a short personal call as well. But that was a very frustrating and aborted sort of dialogue, where the main emphasis on the part of Department of Education was to convince us all that we were somehow incapable of accurately perceiving their policies and their real-world consequences. Widespread frustration with this sort of response, and with administration policies, led to more than 6000 of us gathering in front of the White House at the Save Our Schools March in the summer of 2011.
So I have actively sought to get responses from the administration. Why then would I feel disturbed to find out they are “monitoring” people like Diane Ravitch - and perhaps myself?
There are several layers. First, Cunningham asserts that Diane Ravitch:
...was not interested in a genuine conversation with us but rather was interested in driving her anti-administration message, even if it meant resorting to tactics that are beneath someone of her stature: ad hominem attacks on the secretary, cherry-picking data, setting up straw man arguments, taking language out of context and distorting its meaning, and ignoring sound evidence that conflicts with her point of view.
This man spent years monitoring Diane Ravitch, yet he provides us with not a single example of any of these behaviors. They would be hard to find, because although Ravitch does not mince words, she almost always cites evidence to support her views.
There is another level on which the term “monitoring” resonates, and it relates to our perceptions of government authority. This reminds me of people’s reactions to domestic surveillance. Some people, who perhaps have never been mistreated by the police or other authority figures, have no problem with constant surveillance. “What’s the problem if you have nothing to hide?” Others, who may have had family members investigated in years past, or have been the subjects of police action themselves, have an entirely different attitude. When governmental authorities are “monitoring” you it is usually hostile - and Cunningham clearly was not friendly. Then Cunningham writes,
At a certain point, I made the decision that, rather than engage with her, we would ignore her and, for the most part, we did.
This seems to have been the fate of other critics of administration policy. We have been monitored, and otherwise ignored.
Unless we actually connect in such a compelling way that we cannot be ignored. That is what happened when I pointed out that President’s off the cuff comments at a town hall meeting were actually a devastating critique of his own administration’s policies. That earned me an email from one of Peter Cunningham’s staff, Justin Hamilton, with the subject line “correction to your post,” offering to “clarify any confusion” over the administration’s position. This was the most substantive exchange, as he had put himself in a position where I could ask him some real questions in order to clear up all this confusion. This exchange even made it into the New York Times.
And it is about to happen again, in spades, when Diane Ravitch releases her new book. That book will be the best rebuttal to Cunningham that we could wish for. It is packed with evidence of the failure of the phony reform project led by Duncan and Gates. And solid proposals to improve education for all children.
Diane Ravitch seems to get under people’s skin like nobody else. She has done what is very scary to do. Confronted with evidence that her ideas were running off track, she re-evaluated and began looking at the issues with new eyes. Concerns she had dismissed before began to make sense. People whom she had seen as hopeless dreamers were not so far off base after all. She cannot be ignored because the truth is the opposite of what Cunningham claims. She has evidence on her side. And she has earned a following among educators and parents who will become even better informed a month from now when her new book is in the hands of the many thousands who will buy it. I have a small suggestion. Preorder her book now. And when you do so, order an extra copy and mail it to your Congress person or state legislator.
Our only hope is to move once again to a place where she, and the rest of us pulling for public schools -- can no longer be “monitored and ignored.” If those responsible for the policies that are allowing our public schools to be tested into oblivion and privatized out of existence are forced to respond, we have shifted from defense to offense, and that is where we have got to be if we are going to actually save public education in America.
What do you think? Do you feel as if you are among those being “monitored and ignored”?
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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.