I’d like you to imagine the following. Suppose we are going to have a national summit on health care. Do you not suppose that a substantial number of the voices included would be from professionals in health care, including doctors and nurses? Would you have three people with just the head of the AMA to represent doctors?
Or how about legal reform – would not lawyers scream if such a conference were organized without a substantial portion of the main participants being members of the profession representing the range of opinions within the legal field?
Why then is it when it comes to education that people think it is appropriate to have major discussions about education without fair inclusion of the voices of those who bear the greatest burden for the education of our children, the parents and the teachers? --Kenneth Bernstein, Cooperative Catalyst
Just as Obama's pursued the Republican party line on education, NBC has taken a page from Fox News and Oprah. Their lineup on a two-day policy summit with a dozen conference panels--you know, the kind of panels usually filled with folks with credible expertise in the topic--features politicians, astronauts, TV anchors, musicians, corporate executives, and charter-school entrepreneurs.
But somehow they completely failed to include practicing teachers, scholars of learning, or even recognized analysts of education policy. All day Monday and Tuesday, the only figure in the summit remotely acquainted with the scholarship of learning was Randi Weingarten, AFT president. She had to do double and triple duty, since she was simultaneously the only voice for practicing teachers, or for any policy recommendation other than those endorsed by Duncan's Race to the Top.
Burn the Witch!
Incredibly, Weingarten played the same role all day Sunday. On Meet the Press and other programs, she was consistently positioned as a solitary voice against a solid bloc of panelists and journalists pounding away at the Duncan-Rhee party line. NBC positioned her on the extreme edge of the outdoor panel, literally in the wind, with her hair flying sidewise like the Wicked Witch piloting a broomstick.
Later, she faced an even larger panel completely united against her, this time featuring the propagandists who scored her appearances in Waiting With Superman with ominous chords redolent of Darth Vader.
They can feature both the director and composer of the film who painted her as the captain of the Death Star but not one credible authority on the positions being pushed by the film?
Interestingly, despite the outrageous set-up, on both programs Weingarten spoke more than any other participant--nearly as much all of the other participants combined.
Seems the shows' hosts had to ask her to talk to nearly every point precisely because she was the only person who could provide any other perspective.
Perhaps also because she was the only person who actually had anything to say?
A Failed Hit Job
The one place where NBC allowed teachers--not scholars of learning or credible policy analysts--to have a few words was in a carefully scripted "town hall" program, segregated from all of the marquee shows and policy conference.
They stacked the audience with school administrators and charter-school teachers, allprimed to spout their propaganda: "Teachers are under attack and we should be!" shouted one, on cue. "We young teachers don't need tenure to do our jobs," said another.
Even in the complete absence of journalistic scrutiny, the stories of these plants didn't stand up to their own telling.
One charter-school hero stood up to mouth the no-excuses "challenge education" mantra that anybody can overcome any learning obstacle if they are confronted with sufficiently absurd expectations.
As an example, he cited his willingness to offer free day care to one of his students' siblings in his classroom from 7am to 7pm, freeing the student from family-care responsibilities and allowing her to do her homework.
While laudable, his willingness to address the poverty of the student's family in this way is not, as they say, a scalable solution to the problem. Um, duh, most teachers have families of their own that they can't and shouldn't neglect to offer 12 hours of day care to others.
Right on the surface of this vignette is the cruel hypocritical absurdity--that those who are already sacrificing (the half of teachers who don't quit in despair in the first five years) are not just asked but are really being forced to sacrifice more.
For instance, we could solve a lot of poverty-related issues if physicians or TV journalists or Wall Street banks turned their facililties into day-care centers and staffed them after hours.
Hey, let's just say that everyone should work 12 hours a day for a teacher's wage!
Any takers? I didn't think so.
Nose Ring vs. Soul Patch
NBC made the mistake of letting a few actual veteran teachers in the room (actually a tent on Rockefeller plaza). And the atmosphere was apparently charged: anchor Brian Williams called the room "a beehive, a cauldron of activity and emotion," and joked about being in "physical danger." (He also called one reporter "honey," and flirted with one of the teachers on stage. Patronizing and chauvinist much? Guess we really are heading back to the Eisenhower era.)
Because NBC failed to make sure everyone in the room was an administrator or a twentysomething working-slash-volunteering before law school at a charter, we saw a couple of flashes of honest teacher feeling and insight.
These included thoughtful defenses of tenure as due process and analyses of the real issues (funding, poverty, support for professional development, workload, retention).
You could have heard a pin drop on Fifth Avenue when one California principal described her guilt at hiring a new teacher on the salary she was allowed to offer: "I basically condemned her to never owning her own home," she said.
Astonishingly, one teacher that made it onto the show because she was acquainted with the anchor actually compared Davis Guggenheim to Hitler's most brilliant propagandist, calling him "the Leni Riefenstahl of 2010."
Personally I think that kind of comparison isn't worth the backlash, but I think it could prove the most telling moment of the week.
In my experience, persons reaching for the Nazi comparison are intellectually or emotionally stunted, or else desperate. Since this apparently kind and thoughtful, intellectual person was evidently not the former, I think she was struggling to communicate--in the few seconds she was permitted--the stifled frustration and outrage of the tens of millions of parents, teachers, scholars and students who are being hurtled toward yet more schoolroom misery by this tsunami of pro-Duncan propaganda.
If you want to capture the essence of the tension that kept erupting through this scripted event, just fast forward to the middle of program, the second featured panel.
Comprising a charter-school reading teacher in blond dreadlocks and nose ring, and a public-school science teacher of the year sporting a soul patch, the panel was intended to talk about teaching technique.
Asked to describe how she succeeded as a teacher, Nose Ring was unable to manage a syllable describing or defending her teaching practice. She floundered helplessly ("well, you just show them how far behind they are in the world") until the moderator let her off the hook, summarizing her philosophy: "Just teach 'em hard, huh?"
Invited to share his own teaching tips, Soul Patch, a public school teacher of the year, gently rebutted much of the propaganda previously circulated. American top students, he pointed out, perform at the same level as the top students anywhere in the world. The problem is inequality and unfairness, he observed.
Asked to celebrate the Duncan-Obama grim focus on STEM fields, science teacher of the year Soul Patch demurred, pointing out that his own practice and education research showed the importance of "right brain" creativity, of "movement and music right in the science classroom."
Up until a firestorm of complaint forced them to open the forum, NBC aggressively censored the one place where teachers and parents were mainly allowed to participate--on a Facebook page promoting the event. Even established columnists for national mainstream education journals like Education Week were repeatedly "unfriended" or had their comments removed.
Obama's Today Show interview
This was only about 20 minutes on education before Lauer moved on, but kudos to Lauer for acting more like a journalist than anyone else NBC has put forward.
To his credit, Lauer only gave the administration props for the one initiative (pre-K schooling) actually supported by research, and showed that research in the video package. He challenged the president on the unfair demonizing of teachers and teacher unions in Waiting for Superman. He pointed out that most charter schools underperform union schools.
Above all, he kept the focus on funding and support, quoting Clinton: "It's not just a money thing, but it is a money thing." Obama tried to counter with the Republican bromide that it "isn't a problem we can spend our way out of," and began mouthing accountability and competition cliches.
But Lauer kept at it finally getting the President to concede that there is no problem recruiting teachers into the profession--just a massive problem retaining them.
Most young teachers find they "can't afford to stay" in the profession, Obama confessed, "especially when it comes to having families of their own."