Curriculum Opinion

The Year of the Lie: Fake Ed-News

By Nancy Flanagan — December 21, 2016 5 min read
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It turns out that 2016 has been the Year of the Lie. Even the most rigorously pro-fact newsies—Politifact, for example—agree, naming fake news the “Lie of the Year.” There’s a lot of high-minded pontificating on the “post-truth” era, and what, precisely, constitutes fake news, but I think Sarah Kendzior gets this right:

Fake news" poses a false binary, blurring the distinction between political propaganda, intentional disinformation, attention-seeking click-bait, conspiracy theories, and sloppy reporting.

As educators, we’re familiar with all of the above—politicized advertising puffery, misleading data, oversold (and under-researched) “solutions” to problems. (Sometimes, the word problem deserves quotes, too.) As for sloppy education reporting—hey, story of our lives. The reporter has been to school and “understands” what a well-run school looks like, i.e., the one they attended.

We’ve lived through many years of lies. We know ‘em when we see ‘em. There are the archaic lies (Mississippi schools will do better with local control) and chronic lies (Teacher tenure guarantees a lifetime job) and post-NCLB lies (We need more data to understand why kids in poverty aren’t learning).

Just off the top of my head, here’s a handful of familiar—and false—tropes:

  • Test scores tell us more than teachers’ own daily observations. They represent truth in learning.
  • Charter schools strengthen the civil rights of students in poverty.
  • Standards are the answer to raising achievement, because everyone needs the same goalposts.
  • Students learn best on their own, in front of a screen, because the learning is self-paced.
  • It’s nearly impossible to get rid of a bad teacher.
  • Technology will soon replace and surpass human-to-human transmission of knowledge and skills.
  • Private education—or privatized education—is better than public education. Because private anything is market-based, and an open market means people will make the best choices.
  • ___________________ is a reliable signal of a “good education.” Fill-ins for the blank: A free tablet computer, a celebrity charter founder, lots of AP courses, uniforms, a shiny new building filled with the latest technology, 100% college attendance, teaching like champions, yada yada.

The list is endless.

The actual truth about public schools? Well, as always, it’s complicated. And we are not fond of complicated, in America. We’d rather grab onto a catchy meme--Dump Devos!--than explicate the pros and cons of a national curriculum, explore the long-term consequences of privately-managed, publicly-funded schools, or carefully deconstruct overly casual (not causal) use of student achievement data.

When I was in 7th grade, my English teacher, Miss Alison Olding (unbound by the Common Core or state tests and standards), took a break from Warriner’s Grammar and Composition and endless sentence-diagramming and taught a unit on advertising. This was definitely Something Other English Teachers Did Not Do, which is probably why its provocative elements stuck firmly in my mind, even though this was a very long time ago. (Hint: I was in Miss Olding’s class when the terrible announcement came over the P.A. that President Kennedy had been shot).

It was from Miss Olding, in an ordinary, very blue-collar public school district, that I learned concepts like “glittering generalities,” “plain folks,” and “bandwagon.” More importantly, Miss Olding made us all what Neil Postman later called crap detectors, sitting in front of our giant-furniture TVs working on our nascent skepticism. Maybe surgeons really shouldn’t enjoy a cigarette after a hard day of saving lives? Who knew?

In 2016, educators “don’t have time” for full-blown media literacy instruction, in our race to the top of Conventional-Data Mountain. We don’t teach Gaslighting 101 or Introduction to Social Media. In fact, we attempt to limit access to most popular forms of media, the very stuff of our students’ lives.

Policy forces us to focus instead on economic efficiency and quantitative models of delivering content and calculating our success. We thought (or, rather, policy-makers thought) the truth could be measured, when it came to education.

But, as economist Julie Nelson points out, there are now obvious cracks in the “principles, laws and forces” that economists once were convinced controlled human behavior. Damage has been done to communities and institutions. Great damage, with long-lasting consequences. Including loss of faith in the public institutions that built a great (really great, not fake-great) nation.

This should be absolutely terrifying. Both to public school educators and the nation at large.

Fake news is a lot broader than Hillary Clinton’s mystery illness and why Donald Trump never mentions Tiffany. In education, disinformation and propaganda are cyclical (remember when television was going to solve the teacher shortage?), but we’ve been deluged during the last two administrations: the Century of the Lie. Most people—and I include a fair percentage of teachers here—don’t know whom to believe when it comes to leadership, policy and best practice.

Yesterday, Rick Hess let Ed-world know that some of us were being fickle, “nasty and strikingly personal” in our questioning whether Betsy Devos was a suitable pick for Secretary of Education.

He uses many of the techniques I learned from Miss Olding--testimonial (from Andy Rotherham), name-calling, plain folks claims (“Devos was a ‘pretty mainstream pick’”), and good old glittering generalities, vague and unspecific praise around Devos’s experience in education policy. He lets it slip that oh, by the way, he’s employed by an organization of which she is a board member.

That’s fake news, too--sloppy, conflict-of-interest, commodified opinion writing. I couldn’t say that with confidence, unless I’d lived all my life in the state where Betsy Devos has been pulling strings. This goes back to 1978, when I was a novice teacher, and Devos’s family sponsored their first voucher referendum in Michigan. Since then, there has been a constant stream of anti-public education initiatives, political campaigns, anti-union bills, purchased legislators and legislation, anti-public education media outlets and think tanks, and intense—nasty and strikingly personal—rhetoric about failing public schools and bad teachers.

I know the reality, Mr. Hess. I’ve been living with it, for my entire career. The Year of the Lie, over and over again.

And thanks, Miss Olding, wherever you are.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.