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Education Nation in Los Angeles

May 16, 2011

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.

Meredith Dadigan

Meredith Dadigan on Education Nation Teacher Town Hall, 5/15/11.

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).

Ashley Bettas

Ashley Bettas, NBCT, on Education Nation (5/15/11)

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.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom permalink
    May 16, 2011 7:27 am

    Great post, David. I’m glad this debate is starting to become more nuanced.

  2. Christina permalink
    May 16, 2011 12:40 pm

    Hi David,

    This is a very thorough summary of the Town Hall, hats off. I’m actually the second Green Dot teacher that spoke from the audience. I just wanted to make sure it was clear– Green Dot did not ask me to attend this event. In fact, most of Green Dot’s teachers, from what I understand, did not know about the event (since I told them). I was invited by Teach For America.

    As someone that participated, the event actually felt tense and frustrating. Instead of 2 hours of finding solutions, we spent two hours venting about all the things that are wrong (myself included). We (I include myself in this) were not a credit to our profession. As one reporter put it, we’ve known what’s been wrong for 14 years– when are we going to come together to fix it? As David Wu, one speaker, pointed out– there are teachers that ARE thriving and doing great things, despite the flaws and cuts– why not try and replicate that in other places?

    I understand the concerns about charter schools– and I share them. Personally, I wish we lived in a world where everyone got a phenomenal free and public education. I don’t think charters are the final answer. That said, they are a great way to have the autonomy and small-school feel that is allowing us to experiment, try new things, and collaborate in a system that is, for the most part, broken. I don’t see why we can’t work with each other– charter and non-charter– to fix the bigger issue of providing a great education.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      May 16, 2011 1:20 pm

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Christina. I share your concern that we should stick together as teachers and focus on solutions. I hope my blog post didn’t insinuate too negatively about “placing” people in the program. I don’t have a problem with the idea that the show’s producers might know people at Green Dot and invite their teachers (though I did note, above, that there was one portion that sounded like Green Dot PR copy). Overall, it seems like this show aired multiple perspectives in a respectful way – quite an improvement over their prior effort.

      Maybe you can tell me how this strikes you: teachers who have pride in their work and pride in their school will want to defend both. Since this was a teacher event, criticisms of systems landed on teachers, and teachers were the ones there to answer for the schools. As a result, the debate about the systems took on a personal dynamic that wasn’t necessary. Our network, Accomplished California Teachers, includes teachers at both charter schools and traditional public schools, and I think we can have a calm, reasoned discussion about the differences. (My co-blogger, Kelly Kovacic, teaches at a charter school in San Diego).

      As for the balance between venting problems and proposing solutions, I don’t see such a sharp divide. Sometimes, identifying the problem suggests the solution: e.g., there’s someone standing on my neck and I can’t breathe, or, we spend twenty days a year administering very poorly designed tests to students. We teachers, however, do not have the power “to come together and fix it” on our own. We have to keep talking, stay active, and tell our stories.

  3. Bill Younglove permalink
    May 16, 2011 7:12 pm

    Tom, David, Christina, et al.,
    Thanks for the sharings. Personally, I thought it was a great town hall sharing–the greatest honesty about educational matters, by teachers, who matter, in one room, in a long time. That said, I wish that someone had noted that the first charter school was in Minnesota in 1991; its chief prupose was to take students who were not being successfully educated by the public school–and demonstrate strategies that would be successful, so that said appoaches could be replicated in the less successful public schools. (California’s first charter started in 1993.) Can someone please tell me just where, within the some 800 California charters and some 5000 nationwide charters (2010), the charter successes to date have specifically, positively impacted public school students’ achievement?
    Bill Younglove

    • May 16, 2011 8:44 pm

      “where … the charter successes to date have specifically, positively impacted public school students’ achievement?” Since the charter schools are public schools, their students are public school students, and any charter school success or failure is the success or failure of a public school.

      I think that the false dichotomy of charter vs. public has been stalling a lot of innovation by dividing teachers and communities and giving them something bogus to fight about, diverting attention from the real issues (like wholesale layoffs of teachers and librarians).

  4. Jane permalink
    May 17, 2011 6:22 am


    You are way too fast! I am glad that as a viewer you got a more positive sense from the Town Hall. Lets hope the general audience saw that too. I like, Christina, and many others that were there felt somewhat different. How could we have ended what was such a promising event for teacher and the profession with such anger and passion. I felt it was more of a battle of Charter vs Public and teacher vs teacher. I also felt the media somewhat encouraged that at the end. I was standing for a long time waiting and ready to speak when the conversation shifted from Teacher Quality being evaluated and published to a debate on Charter schools. Here is the problem, and I am just guessing, that the newer teachers in the audience were mostly from charter schools and why? Because in LA, we have NO new teachers! That is the problem! Okay, I am going to be late to school and I still have to get two sleepy boys ready. The important thing is that we are talking to teachers! Lets make it more about teaching and learning and not about where we are doing this.

    I will write about the experience as soon as I can find some time in my life! Until then, you did a nice job recapping what you saw.

  5. Beatrice permalink
    May 17, 2011 1:56 pm

    Why is anyone surprised that a gathering of teachers would be tense and brimming with frustration? California just issued 20,000 pink slips. The “reform” agenda from left and right is decidedly hostile to teachers. Our own education secretary and his attack dog press secretary foster this climate. I am a parent, I do not work for a school district and had I been in that room, I, too would have wanted to vent, unload and have a cathartic experience.

    As for the charter vs. district schools tension, sadly the political and policy leaders set that stage. From Arne Duncan to Gloria Romero, Michelle Rhee to Ben Austin, Joel Klein to Deasy — it’s condemnation and competition that are emphasized. It’s great to call for collaboration, but let’s make that plea to our educational leaders.

    Increased funding isn’t going to magically sweep away this tension — it’s driven as much by policy as resources. This post from a charter school teacher is a disappointing take on the forum, in that while she decries the charter-district conflict, she lays the blame at the feet of district teachers: one step short of the ad hominem “defenders of the status quo” argument.

    As for the commenter above, I have yet to see an example of a charter school bringing a replicable practice or innovation to a neighborhood school that doesn’t rely on self-selection of motivated, capable students and their families.

  6. May 17, 2011 6:41 pm

    Thank you, David for some really good reporting on this Town Hall (that’s coming from a former journalist and journalism teacher)!

    I had been waiting to hear how this year’s round of events might compare to last year’s, which I agree were atrociously unbalanced and promoted much misinformation. I also understand that some National Board Certified teachers were able to participate and speak up on behalf of what we DO already know about effective teaching and how to measure it accurately.

    Keep putting out the good information; we desperately need it.

    • Jane permalink
      May 17, 2011 9:08 pm

      Hi Renee!

      NBCTs were definitely there! I sat next to almost an entire row of them and I know that at least 2 of the panelist were also NBCT and spoke to such. Two hours to solve the problems with the system is not enough time, but it was a start.

  7. May 17, 2011 9:38 pm

    I feel teachers being given a forum in which they were allowed to voice their thoughts and opinions was important, and will continue to be important. The profession can be very isolating sometimes. A teacher’s classroom, a grade level, a school, a district, a state. These are all these factors that can separate us. So it was important to me to hear these concerns, and to understand on a broader scale some of problems within the system. No two schools are the same, which is good, but we need policies in place that respect and reflect that. I don’t think the broader public understands the depth and complexity of some of these issues. So, to me, having so many turn out to speak to them was invaluable.

    Teachers want to do a good job. We want to be supported in serving our students. And when we are upset, it is because we don’t feel we have the tools/support/autonomy necessary to do what we know is best for our students. There are some very damaging policies in place and we do need reform. But teachers should not be blamed. There are much bigger hands involved in all of it, and teachers just don’t want to be scapegoated without the public knowing the seriousness of the situation in which we have little to no say or control over.

    I can say for sure that my life is dedicated to the well-being of my students. For an entire school year, I am doing nothing but considering how I can best serve them, but support them, best reach them, and best motivate them. I work in my sleep, dreaming about new lessons and ideas. And in the summer, I am figuring out how to improve upon the year before, while teaching summer school teacher or working on other school projects.

    Teacher voice is important. It has gone unheard for far too long. So, in my opinion, the Education Nation Teacher Town Hall event was a success in that it gave teachers a real voice. I took away with me some valuable insight, confirmation, and understanding. Now I will take those real ideas that we are developing by talking to one another, and put that into action and forward movement in advocating for effective and important action and change.


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