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Booker Outclasses Winfrey on Education

September 25, 2010

I was on the cross-trainer at the gym when the Oprah Winfrey Show came on the air Friday afternoon.  I’d been unsure whether I wanted to see the follow up to Monday’s show, which my colleague Anthony Cody called “Oprahpaganda”. Winfrey took shots all over the education blogosphere this week, and posts on Facebook and Twitter called her out for a fawning performance with Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Davis Guggenheim.  But curiosity won out after I saw the opening of today’s show.  Within a couple minutes, I had used my iPhone to remote start a recording on my home DVR.  Winfrey disappointed, not as much as she might have, but Newark Mayor Corey Booker made the show much more palatable.

This show started off with a montage of people’s reactions to the Monday program, and a couple of statements stood out.  First, there was the woman who earnestly opined, “Finally!  Someone’s paying attention!”  Was the “someone” the speaker herself, or Winfrey?  Then there was a teacher whose experience with her union led her to proclaim that “the” union only exists to protect bad teachers.  It’s regrettable that she had such a negative experience, because it seems to blind her to the plurality of unions and the variations in their work and effectiveness.

On the show itself, it took almost no time at all for Geoffrey Canada to say something that probably raised the ire of a number of teachers.  In comments left on, one teacher explains what I’m sure many of us were thinking.  Posting as “suziskye”, a former attorney who was “called” to teach, wrote: “I teach at a National Blue Ribbon School and have attained National Board Certification myself, so I feel that I can speak to this issue from a perspective of professionalism. If I were to do it all over again, I would not become an educator….not because I do not love my work or my students. I would not enter the teaching profession because of the ignorant position that is currently being furthered by politicians and the public. I am listening to Oprah’s follow-up show and when I hear her guest say that teachers need to “give” of themselves by donating just an hour a day, it makes me sick. I am at work at 7 in the morning. My school day with students is from 9:20-3:15. I typically spend at least 3 hours every evening outside of school doing planning and going over student work. And now I hear that this is not enough.”

While I was perusing those comments, I found one other that I thought captured an essential perspective worth sharing.  A teaching aide posting as “smann2199” wrote:

First of all, it is NOT the teachers. I’ve observed no difference in teaching style, pedegogy, dedication, intellegence, or abilities, between city and suburban schools’ teachers. In fact, I feel many of the teachers, I’ve observed in city schools, are more creative, dedicated, and hard-working than many of the suburban teachers I’ve worked with, as their situation warrents it.

The problem is that poor city schools, I’ve been in, have DOUBLE the amount of kids/class, as affluent suburban schools. There are 30 STUDENTS in the 5th grade city school I work in, compared to 15 STUDENTS, when I was in the suburban schools. You can imagine, how teaching 11 year olds changes, when the amount of children doubles. Classroom management simple take MUCH MORE TIME when there are double the kids, no matter how skilled an educator you are.

Funding through are current property tax system is the problem. Poor CITY school districts I’ve observed DO NOT HAVE ANY PLAYGROUNDS, HAVE DOUBLE THE KIDS/CLASS AS SUBURBAN SCHOOLS, REALLY DO NOT ALWAYS HAVE ENOUGH TEXTBOOKS, HAVE NO ASSISTANTS OR PARENT VOLUNTEERS LIKE IN SUBURBAN SCHOOLS. This could be ameliorated through funding, and correct allocations.

A few other thoughts from the rest of the show:

• In a moment that seemed to acknowledge the deluge of criticism, Winfrey conceded that there actually are many of us “good teachers” and since we know that the problems are so serious, we should all just work together.  Yes, we would love to work together.  Many of us are working with our school’s parents and communities and wearing ourselves out for students and schools – and have been for years.  But guess what?  Most of those “good teachers” are in unions, in public schools, doing that work every day, and you don’t make it easier for us to work together with our communities when you spend two days on your show generalizing about us having caused the problems.

• Arne Duncan appeared remotely and gave a nod to “good unions” – but mainly, he meant unions that have embraced all the elements of the Race to the Top, which he claims is about improving education.  The administration and the Department of Education have ignored volumes of research, including a significant study released this week, saying that performance pay won’t work, but “good” unions play ball and “bad” unions stand by the research.  Race to the Top rewards states that link teacher evaluations and pay to test scores, even though no major educational research organization stands behind that use of state tests, and the National Academies warned against that approach.  Still, “good” unions play ball and “bad” unions stand by the research.

• Duncan talked about contracts not protecting bad teachers anymore – as if contracts were prepared by the unions and not negotiated with school boards.  If there were ever contracts that “protect bad teachers” instead of detailing evaluation procedures and due process rights, then the school boards who approved those contracts are just as much to blame.  That kind of accountability however, doesn’t usually figure into Duncan’s thinking.  Recall that earlier this year he applauded the firing of an entire school staff in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  If that were really necessary, shouldn’t the entire school board and administration resign as well, for failing so completely as trustees and managers?

• Credit Winfrey with making an essential point about public education being an issue of importance to everyone, not just parents and teachers.  “This is your country,” she said, and for those who think they’re unaffected by problems in education, she urged them to “understand what this means for your country.”

• Newark’s mayor, Cory Booker, came on the set, and Winfrey’s first question was about the importance of the movie “Waiting for Superman.”  Right, let’s get back to the charter school promotion agenda.  Just for the record, I’m not opposed to charter schools as a concept, but there are forces and financiers swimming in these educational waters who would seek to elevate themselves by pulling traditional public schools under.

• Winfrey asks Booker if unions are the main obstacle, and passing up the opportunity to join her union-bashing approach, Booker says it’s time to “stop the blame game,” adding a moment later, “that will never solve this problem.”

• New Jersey’s governor, Chris Christie was there with Booker, and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg came along as well, announcing a $100-million matching grant to support Newark Public Schools.  Christie has a reputation for having a confrontational style and a particularly rancorous relationship with his state’s teaching union.  There was no acknowledgment on his part of the need to work together to make any reforms successful.  He did pull out the easy applause line of the day however: “It’s about the children.”

•  Booker related an anecdote about his conversation with a mother whose child gained entry to a charter school through the lottery process.  She told him that this juncture for her third-grader represented “the difference between college and jail.”  Without knowing any of the specifics, I won’t question her assumptions, but I might offer Booker and Christie a piece of advice: to be effective leaders for all of the schools under your watch, you need to take on that statement, not just pass it along.  Stand up for your schools, and for the good people working as hard as they can even when the school system overall might be in crisis.  Encourage your teachers by showing that you’re behind them, that you won’t just go along with the assumption of failure.  Even if you have doubts, and even if a statement of support will provide cover for some teachers who don’t deserve it, your success depends on keeping your best teachers and showing some appreciation for them.

• Let’s hear it for Mark Zuckerberg, who originally intended to stay anonymous in this project, and whose money will go to public schools – I heard no distinction between charter and traditional schools.  Contrast that with some of our California billionaires like Eli Broad, Reed Hastings, and the Fisher family, who by virtue of success in various businesses, decide they know the one, true path for education.  Instead of supporting schools directly, they see fit to use their money to advance one particular education agenda through campaign contributions.  The Broad Foundation also inserts itself into education by training administrators and placing them in leadership positions, or by funding only charter schools and organizations that promote charters.  Eli Broad  The Broad Foundation has also put half a million dollars into promoting “Waiting for Superman.” [EDIT 9/26/10 – correction, added link]

• I don’t know anything more of Cory Booker than I’ve seen in a few national appearances, but if he can walk the walk, he’s got the talk down.  Oprah Winfrey should have been taking notes, as he said we have to “support teachers, don’t bash them.”  He also said that the “charter versus district [school] debate is bunk” and what’s really needed is for us to “support excellence.”  That’s a sound bite to be sure – but his overall tone is encouraging, at least.

• Winfrey suggested Michelle Rhee as a possible new superintendent for Newark, and Booker deflected that idea beautifully.  Don’t focus on the individual, he suggested, and then added that there is “leadership that exists in Newark” and some “super people there.”  The aftermath of the recent primary in Washington D.C. suggests that Rhee is on her way out, due to her close association with the outgoing mayor who will not be able to stand for re-election in November.  Perhaps Booker has caught on to one theory regarding Rhee’s declining popularity with some voters – that they resented the idea of the out-of-town savior sent in to straighten out the community.  Perhaps no one came to Harpo Studios to see Cory Booker, but I hope what they saw was how he seriously outclassed Winfrey on the topic of education, and made a far better impression on this teacher than any other recent “education” guests on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 25, 2010 5:44 am

    I turned off several minutes into Canada – I could not stomach him, and cleaning the cat pans seemed far more appetizing than listening to that kind of bunk.

    Your piece is quite thorough. I know Booker is a close friend of Rachel Maddow, with whom he overlapped at Stanford. And he is right that in general terms we should stop the dichotomy between charter and regular public schools. Still, there are important distinctions that it sounds like were NOT addressed in the program. Continuing to allow the bashing of unions without a competent voice to respond is to turn the program into propaganda, not a meaningful exploration of the issues.

    Good job on this posting. I plan to retweet it.


  2. Vicki Embrey permalink
    September 25, 2010 6:28 am

    David–Thank you for this post. I, too, watched Oprah with the same feelings of discouragement. I was also relieved when Booker made his comments. I happen to teach in Montgomery County, MD which is a large suburban district (160K students, 200 schools, 12K teachers) adjacent to DC. My school system has received much national recognition for the reforms it has implemented and given the demographic composition of our student body, that is no easy feat . We have also been recognized for PAR which is our very comprehensive peer review evaluation system. Our superintendent has been a relentless supporter of teachers. Unfortunately our superintendent is retiring after 12 years and the talk in the community is that we should try to hire Michelle Rhee as the replacement. It’s shows like Oprah’s that just promote this given that Rhee has a combative management style and is overwhelmingly not qualified. MD won in the last round of RttT and our district won’t be receiving funds because we didn’t sign on with the state’s application. My frustration is that these “reforms” are being shoved on to all districts including the successful ones which have fostered different kinds of reforms. Why doesn’t anyone look at what works?

  3. Stan Karp permalink
    September 25, 2010 7:33 am

    Booker is an effective politician, although he is much more popular outside Newark than inside. I didn’t watch him on Oprah, but when it comes to public school policy in NJ he has not been on the right side. He is a longtime supporter of private school vouchers, not just charters, and is currently supporting legislation that would use public funds to pay private school tuition. He has a long history with the conservative groups and foundations that have bankrolled the voucher movement. He’s on the DFER Board of Advisors and has played a major role in moving the Democrats to the right on education issues. There is a lot of opposition in the community to handing control of the schools over to him.

    Booker and his new political partner Christie have also helped dismantle the most progressive set of state funding equity mandates in the country. After years of separate and unequal school the hard-won Abbott funding decisions brought equity to NJ’s poorest urban districts in the 90s. In just about 10 years, they resulted in over 40,000 3 & 4yr-olds attending the highest-quality pre-school program in the country, significant progress in closing achievement gaps, and the highest HS graduation rate in the country, including some of the highest rates for students of color. There are problematic aspects to these achievements, but they are not small accomplishments. A recent report from the Schott Foundation cites Newark as making major progress on black male graduation rights because of the Abbott investments. Linda Darling Hammond has a full charter on this history in her most recent book. But it has been left out of most media discussions of NJ and Newark because the narrative of total failure and “nothing has worked” is more useful to those looking to promote privatization, Mayoral control, Rhee-type reform. etc.

    The Abbott “supplemental programs” are the closest any state has come to mandating and funding with public dollars the types of wrap around supports so often hailed in Geoffrey’s Canada’s Harlem Children Zone, pre-K, extended school days, social & health services, tutoring, etc. [Two-thirds of HCZ funding comes from private sources.] Instead of defending those investments and expanding them for all kids, Booker & Christie have abandoned them in support of a bizarre, celebrity-driven end run around the most basic public accountability.

    Hold the cheering.

  4. Stan Karp permalink
    September 25, 2010 8:09 am

    For more on Newark & Booker/Zuckerberg’s plans see:


    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      September 26, 2010 8:33 pm

      This was a very useful, and troubling post. I always like to hear what Bruce Baker has to say and would recommend his School Finance 101 blog to anyone interested in education policy/governance. The fact that this story hits so close to home for Bruce makes it that much more interesting. Had I known then what I know now, I might have gushed a little less over his statements. Oh well, those were my reactions at the time, and at least he was talking a better game than anyone else on Oprah. The larger question of course: where are the teachers??

  5. Jim Davis permalink
    September 25, 2010 8:39 am

    David, I appreciate your review of yet another Winfry fiasco. Perhaps a deeper issue for our society, as passionate as I am about education, is the “elevation” of Winfrey and others (these billionaires included) to pseudo-experts through celebrity and social status. As educators, one great challenge we should seriously entertain is the cultivation of sufficient critical and civic literacy that our graduates will not be swayed by positions taken by those who have a platform due to celebrity and wealth. JSD

  6. ellaine permalink
    September 25, 2010 1:15 pm

    thank you for your informed opinion having been a volunteer in the school system for a few years I appreciate your wonderful way with words wish the powers that be would listen to some real voices blessed be

  7. September 25, 2010 8:21 pm

    There is little Oprah can say now that I will find valid or credible. Booker was impressive (I too DVR’d the “response” episode after the uproar following the first) but heavy on rhetoric and light on substance…imagine that from a politician on television. There were some great lines in there, but I didn’t hear a plan.

    I, too, was offended by the “give one more hour” plea and the pervasive sense that for a teacher to be effective they must be a martyr. The value in a martyr is that the martyr is rare and revered and thus is a model for others. Teachers are neither rare nor revered, regardless of whether they work their 7.5/day or 75 hours a week. I think Oprah thinks she’s done this country a service, but I think she’s just made it worlds harder for real reform to take place because now her hordes of followers will be more apt to take up pitchforks against any teacher who takes the time to stop and think critically about proposed reforms. Teachers will continue to be the convenient target, despite what Booker pushed her to believe, that the blame game only serves to absolve the blamer of a sense of responsibility (she looked irritated when he mentioned that teachers shouldn’t shoulder all the blame). Oprah’s blame is squarely on the backs of teachers. And there are millions of us (and we’re all lazy, unless we teach at a charter school) so it will be awful hard to make a change after alienating the masses.


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