School & District Management Opinion

The Media Discovers There is a Debate over Educational Reform!

By Anthony Cody — April 10, 2011 3 min read
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The New York Times posted a column this morning titled The Deadlocked Debate over Educational Reform. And last week the Times ran a story covering the dialogue I was able to provoke with representatives of the Department of Education regarding President Obama’s critical remarks about testing. This latest column was a bit confusing. Just as soon as they have discovered that the debate exists, they wonder if a debate is even possible!

Remember NBC’s Education Nation last fall? The “supermen” of reform ruled the stage, and the leading experts were Bill Gates, Davis Guggenheim and Michelle Rhee. Teachers were given a town hall to vent, but critics of corporate-sponsored reform efforts were otherwise ignored. Watching that program you would not have thought there was a real debate under way - just a powerful movement which would soon sweep to victory. After all, we had some of richest men in the world in alliance with seemingly progressive non-profit enterprises, and the enthusiastic support of the US Department of Education, with a wallet stuffed with billions of taxpayer dollars to support their brand of reform.

But now, six months later, where are we?

In New York City, the idea that corporate CEOs have the magical tools to manage complex educational systems was dealt a body blow by the demise of Cathie Black. President Obama is publicly expressing sympathy for students overburdened by standardized tests, apparently unaware of his administration’s plans to greatly expand testing. His Department of Education is obliged to debate and defend these plans, and people have begun to see what is in the works.

The shiny superwoman of reform, Michelle Rhee, lost a bit of luster, after some of the schools she pushed forward as evidence of success were found to have cheated. This news comes on the heels of reports that she exaggerated test score gains in her own classroom. Ms. Rhee has protested that she should not be judged so narrowly, but this seems hypocritical given her eagerness to judge teachers based on test results.

The union-busting debacle in Wisconsin has flushed out some fresh allies for teachers. Jon Stewart, whose mother was a school teacher when he was growing up, has done devastating riffs on the hypocrisy of the completely unaccountable Wall Street types, who criticize teachers for our bulging pension funds and Cadillac health benefits.

For me, the most interesting portion of the commentary in the Times is this:

The data can appear as divided as the rhetoric. New York City's Department of Education will provide you with irrefutable statistics that school reform is working; opponents of reform will provide you with equally irrefutable statistics that it's not. It can seem equally impossible to disentangle the overlapping factors: Are struggling schools struggling because they've been inundated with students from the failing schools that have closed around them? Are high school graduation rates up because the pressure to raise them has encouraged teachers and principals to pass students who aren't really ready for college?

The New York Times has laid out for themselves and the rest of the media some of the key questions they must investigate if they are worthy of being called journalists.

Last year when NBC News was criticized for their unbalanced coverage during Education Nation, the President of their news operation, Steve Capus, said this,

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.

I wrote at the time,

Flabbergasting. NBC News has no experts on education policy. According to the material on their Education Nation website, "Education is key to the success of our country..." Education is "one of the most pressing national issues of our time." Yet this multi-million dollar news organization has nobody on their staff they consider to be expert in this crucial field? If this issue is indeed key to our success, shouldn't they have some expertise?

In this commentary from the New York Times, they seem to likewise be throwing in the towel on figuring out what the truth really is. The studies are contradictory, so it is apparently hopeless. But I know there are good journalists there, at the New York Times and elsewhere, capable of finding the truth here.

The New York Times ends their column on a rather wistful and passive note:

Presumably, the deadlock will eventually be broken, and a "winner" will emerge. Either the education reformers will manage to take control of a critical mass of school districts, or they won't. Before that happens, perhaps the various narratives and counter-narratives will decalcify and some actual debate will take place.

There is a genuine debate taking place here.
The “reformers” have used the power of the media and government, and billions of dollars in philanthropic money to push anyone who questions their strategies off the stage up to this point. But we will be silenced no longer. It is a real sign of progress that the New York Times recognizes that we present a challenge that must be reckoned with. Actions like the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action this summer will ensure we continue to have our voices heard. Perhaps the next time a major organization like NBC News decides to focus for a week on this crucial issue, it will be treated like a genuine exchange of ideas. And perhaps our nation’s journalists will help us sort through conflicting claims to uncover the evidence that supports or undermines them.

Update: I just got word that NBC News intends to do Education Nation programming again, the week of Sep. 25th. Will they recognize that a real debate exists and use the programming as an opportunity to explore the differing perspectives? You can leave comments on their Facebook page here.

What do you think? Is this recognition a sign of progress? How can we help elevate the debate?

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.