Thursday, September 30, 2010

Is Our Children Learnin'?

Not so, according to the wretched NBC series running this week called "Education Nation." According to NBC, Time Magazine, and a host of other "experts on education," the U.S. public education system is broken and it is all the teacher's (and their pesky unions) fault.

The first clue this was nothing more than an exercise in vapidity should have come when they called the series a "dialogue" about education. Whenever politicians or the media suggest we have a "dialogue" about something, you can be sure your time will be wasted by the maximum allotment.

But as I watched this series unfold all week, I was stupefied by the ignorance and one-sided perspective being presented. Where were the voices of dissent? Was NBC/Time's claim that teacher's unions were ruining education true? And that the only viable solutions were more standardized testing with which to "hold teachers accountable," and to flood the nation with charter schools (as hyped by some Hollywood documentary "Waiting For Superman")? Was the Obama administration's solution (documented and criticized here at TPE earlier this year) the "only viable alternative" to our educational maladies?

Thankfully, the voices of dissent are being heard, none more eloquent than Valerie Strauss, writing in today's WaPo (h/t Diane Ravitch).

The events, panels and discussions were sharply tilted toward Obama's school reform agenda -- focused in part on closing failing schools, expanding charter schools and using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. NBC seemed to take for granted that Obama’s education policies are sound and will be effective. Seasoned journalists failed to ask hard questions and fell all over their subjects to be sympathetic.
Especially the absurd notion put forth by a breathless Ann Curry on the Today Show where, after questioning whether tenure protects teachers who "need to be removed," she claimed the "most important quality a teacher must possess is the capacity to love."

After picking myself up off the ground at the gym (where I am forced to watch this program on many mornings as I cycle), an idea occurred to me: how about a pass/fail standardized test for television morning programs?
1. NBC's Today Show is an example of
a. circus entertainment masking as journalism
b. regularly confusing hyperbole with fact
c. playing to the lowest common denominator
d. all of the above
Meanwhile, race enters the equation in a rather ugly sideswipe.
The one school district that was the subject of a panel was New Orleans, which was remade after Hurricane Katrina with public charter schools. (Never mind that charter schools educate less than five percent of the schoolchildren in the country and can never be a systemic solution to the troubles that ail urban districts.)
Apparently, an NBC producer entitled the segment on New Orleans "Does Education Need Another Katrina?" D'oh.

Back to Strauss:
The Obama administration is taking that obsession with standardized tests to a new level, funding programs that pay teachers by the test scores of their students. It doesn't seem to matter that such merit pay plans have been used off and on since the 1920s with less than stellar results, as education historian Diane Ravitch explained in this piece.

NBC is not the only media outlet to seemingly take for granted that Obama’s education initiative is the answer to fixing failing schools.

The recent project by the Los Angeles Times, in which some 6,000 teachers were evaluated solely on the basis of student test scores, was another example of a news organization promoting a highly controversial way to assess teachers as effective. The largest study to date on the “value-added” method of teacher evaluation, released earlier this month, found that linking test scores to teachers’ pay was not effective.

The New York Times' film critic reviewed “Waiting for Superman” and seemed to take as gospel the tendentious narrative in the film. Meanwhile, CBS anchor Katie Couric wrote about her Waiting for Superman impressions on her Couric & Co. blog:

“I was so inspired by how this documentary shines a light on so many issues -- the heartbreak of kids who don’t get into charter schools, the controversy over teachers’ unions and the failure factories that churn out kids who are unprepared or drop out in terrifying numbers. I admire the revolutionaries who are out there shaking up a broken system. So I became obsessed with covering with this story from multiple angles...”

Oy. I wonder how many of these well-heeled talking heads/journalists, who are so concerned with "failure factories," even have their kids in public schools. Other than none?

Then the "run the schools like a business" mantra resurfaced several times in the series. Witness:

Obama-style school reform also became the focus of not one but two episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show last week, though one would not expect a journalistic objectivity from an entertainment show.

On one episode, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg used the occasion to announce to the world that he was donating $100 million to the ailing Newark, N.J., public school system for Obama-style business-driven reforms.

The money comes with strings, the most important that he, a man with no background in education reform, gets to decide what schools are working, according to this story in New Jersey's Star-Ledger.

Really? The college dropout who foisted Facebook on the rest of the world is going to decide what works and what doesn't work in public education? Let's run our schools "like a business" because business really knows how run things (like running the economy into a ditch and taking funding for public education with it)?

Fonzie, I think we jumped the shark many episodes ago.

We know and have evidence that charter schools are no more effective at teaching kids than traditional public schools. We know that "teacher tenure" in secondary and elementary education is not like tenure at the university level and that inadequate teachers can be removed easily. We also know that more standardized testing is only designed to foster more social control and kill off what's left of critical thinking among the masses.

So what's with the sudden obsession over "teacher accountability," teacher's unions, standardized testing, and charter schools? What's with all the hoopla?

[checks calendar] By jove, it's the fall of an election year. [slaps forehead!] And next to crime and punishment, nothing makes for easier political fodder than beating up on teachers.

Tune in next year, when you'll hear nothing on this subject. Then check back in 2012, when miraculously, America's schools will be "in crisis" all over again.

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