Education Nation in Los Angeles
Last year’s Education Nation programming on NBC was widely panned by most teachers whose opinions I read or heard. The heavy-hands of corporate sponsorship and foundation funding showed through in the design of the event, the selection of topics and guests, and the focus on a single and simplified narrative about public schools. My colleague Anthony Cody was not alone in seeing the event as part of a broader media “war on teachers.”
This year, Education Nation is back and NBC is taking it on the road. The only portion I’ve seen so far was the Los Angeles Teacher Town Hall (May 15, 2011), which was a webcast rather than a television broadcast. I was prepared to be disappointed, but due to the involvement of some friends, and friends of friends, I decided to watch and listen. The two-hour program covered many of the key issues in education, with a bit of a California focus to start, but overall, tackling the major issues in the national education debate. In short, I’d say that NBC and Education Nation took an important step towards redeeming their reputation among teachers. I don’t pretend to speak for other teachers, but I think I have a reasonable sense of how certain ideas and issues resonate among my peers, and how the presentation of those issues is likely to trigger certain responses. Among teacher leaders I communicate with fairly regularly, the reactions to today’s Education Nation were mostly positive. (Christal Watts has already contributed a guest blog post here at InterACT).
I won’t try to summarize the whole two hours, but here are some of my reflections on the event.
Rehema Ellis seemed like a well-prepared and fair moderator. My friend Jane Fung was in the audience and said she felt the moderation could have been stronger in terms of keeping the conversation focused. Sitting at home, I could see Jane’s point but thought that Ellis struck a decent balance between directing the conversation and allowing people to speak their minds. The portion of the program that seemed most contentious concerned charter schools. Ellis seemed momentarily to be reading from a Green Dot press release, (and there was a Green Dot school teacher on the panel at that point), but Ellis was also the one that brought up the 2009 CREDO studies, a widely cited evaluation of charter schools that is often cited to deflate occasional claims of charter superiority. When a speaker in the audience said the charter movement is part of a right-wing strategy aimed at the dismantling of public education, Ellis challenged him; I felt her challenge was more on style and substance, as she undercut his possible hyperbole with a reminder that charter schools account for a very small percentage of American schools overall (so far).
In the first panel discussion, Professor Theresa Montano did us all a service in clarifying that what we commonly refer to as “tenure” in K-12 public education is not actually tenure, but rather, permanent status – a guarantee of due process before being fired. Unlike a professor with tenure, we teachers lack a certain degree of academic freedom, and are subject to ongoing evaluation. (Or should be. The quality of that evaluation for most California teachers must be improved – as detailed in the ACT policy report on teacher evaluation). Montano followed up later with another important issue: her teacher education courses used to be full, and turning people away, but now she has a mere eight teachers-in-training, and they’re worried about finding jobs. Yet, when this economy comes back around, and our large cadre of teachers in their 50s and 60s retire, we’ll have a massive shortage. In that regard, the current cuts in California represent both short-term and long-term disasters.
A younger charter school teacher, Meredith Dadigan, was asked if she feels LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy has set goals that are attainable for students in the district. I doubt anyone was surprised when she said yes; perhaps some observers wondered, as I did, if Dadigan has any union protection if her principal doesn’t like her answer in such a public forum. But what followed was more revealing: she said she wouldn’t be alone in the effort, as she had instructional coaches and other resources to rely on. That raises the question of who’s funding what in public schools. LAUSD, and many other California public schools, cannot even afford librarians or counselors, and we have nation’s worst staffing ratios for high schools. So, I’m glad that Dadigan, and by extension, her students, can rely on some of the support that every student deserves. Los Angeles area educator and writer, Brian Jones, was in the audience, and said (via Twitter) that he raised his hand to mention that his school has grown from 500 students to 831, and still they have layoffs, and then to ask “where’s our philanthropist?” (Jones might have been reacting to Dadigan, but his comment also brings to mind last December’s bailout of charter operators in LAUSD). In a comment I don’t recall hearing at the time, the event’s official blog attributed this to Dadigan: “She says the most important thing in proficiency is teacher effectiveness.” If that’s her belief, I disagree. If that’s her understanding of educational research, it’s just plain wrong. If that’s the event blogger misquoting her, I’m sorry for passing it along.
There are a couple of other comments I’d like to connect on the issue of school quality. A teacher on the panel, Lisa Alva, said that we should be talking more about school effectiveness rather than teacher effectiveness, and I would agree that’s a better focus for reform efforts. There’s a tendency to attribute too much of classroom variability to the individual teacher; in psychology, that mistake is called fundamental attribution error, and business management guru W. Edwards Deming also warned against false assumptions regarding variability. A little bit after that, a teacher in the audience told about the high degree of turnover in her school, the hours and days spent building up a team only to see it broken up. So, when we evaluate the performance of the staff members in a school, and impose punitive measures from the state or federal level, to what extent are we even dealing with the same people from year to year? If it even made sense to using staff-replacement as a school-improvement strategy, wouldn’t the rationale be undercut by the fact that the most troubled schools already tend to have the most significant problems with turnover?
The subject of charter schools seemed the most contentious, though I would have predicted that an L.A. audience would criticize the L.A. Times more aggressively regarding it’s published rankings of supposed teacher effectiveness based on value-added measures. One teacher in the audience said he was rated highly by their measures and entirely dismissed the meaning and importance of the Times rankings, and that seemed to be enough. There were other statements about how insufficient the tests are and how abused, but nothing more I recall specifically about VAM or the L.A. Times.
Regarding charter schools, I’ve raised the topic already with regard to the moderator, (see above), but the audience really took on the charter school claims that surfaced. Unfortunately, since those claims were voiced by teachers, the event included some examples of teachers criticizing each other. Here’s an excerpt from the live-blog composed on the Education Nation webcast page:
- Audience member on charters: It boggles my mind that you can say that you’re not selective in the same sentence that you say you only accept parents who are willing to sign a homework pledge. Kids with behavior problems get kicked out of charters and sent to neighborhood schools. Charter schools exist by taking public school money and they are supported by billionaire philanthropists.
- Same audience member: Charter schools are dismantling public education.
- [Another] audience member is a Green Dot teacher: She says there are some myths about charter schools out there. Charter schools aren’t the only way to fix education. Her school has individualized education programs, her school creates alternatives for parents who can’t come into school, and sometimes her school takes kids who are kicked out of the local public school because the public school didn’t want them anymore.
At least a couple of viewers posted comments on Twitter seeming to feel that the Green Dot conversation reflected pro-charter propaganda (presumably because that particular organization had so much airtime). It’s clear that somehow Green Dot managed to place its people and information into the show (as did sponsor University of Phoenix), but I felt that the airing of the issues was balanced overall, much more so than I’d hoped for at the outset.
And finally, a couple of shout-outs for two of the educator-panelists. Mary Ann Pacheco was spot-on with her summary of the lack of social justice when educators have to beg for money and follow the will or whim of supposedly charitable funders. The money should flow to all schools and students, and the foundations and philanthropists should be asking what to do rather than telling teachers and schools what to do. Teacher and blogger Brian Crosby tweeted, “Pacheco just made 10 great points!!! Hope people are listening!!!” (Crosby was among the most outspoken critics of Education Nation and its biased selection of speakers last year).
And finally, Ashley Bettas represented us well by taking the high road at every opportunity. She repeatedly called attention to the fact that educational improvements are possible at traditional public schools, not just charters (though maybe borrowing an idea from a charter if it helps). The program Bettas referred to is unique to California – the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA). It was created as a result of actions by the California Teachers Association, and has yielded measurable results and positive reviews from most teachers I know working at a QEIA site. Bettas also highlighted her status as a National Board Certified Teacher, and used that certification to highlight the idea that accomplished teachers welcome rigorous evaluation and real accountability, and we engage in analysis and evaluation of our practices in part by looking at student learning.
By most teacher accounts, (but not only teachers) last fall’s Education Nation programming was a love-in for union-bashers and charter school supporters. What I saw today seems to represent one step towards a more complex and lively examination of what we really need to address in schools, for every teacher and every student to be more successful. Was this a reflection of a newfound sense of balance at NBC? Was it a web-only diversion to placate teachers until the next network broadcast that hangs us out to dry? Was it a reflection that the local affiliate was less under the thumb of the corporate overlords at General Electric? I think Education Nation has done enough for now to deserve teachers’ thanks for today, and our continued attention and open-mindedness for the future.