THE BLOG
11/04/2010 06:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Fairy Tale of School Reform

Struggling to drum up dissipating ad revenue and to stay afloat in the sea of cable news slime, most media organizations have resorted to sloshing around in the infotainment gutter for shock and schlock. No surprise then that the issue of school reform has played out with all the depth and journalistic standards of an Ali G. interview. And while it's had innumerable opportunities to unravel the eternal conundrum of public education through exhaustive research and nuanced reporting, the press has all but ignored its obligation to offer the public a sober, informed, balanced discourse on a topic with such critical short- and long-term import.

Instead, the school reform debate screeches to its ignoble crescendo. The media has gone all STORM WATCH on us, opting for a sensational script over substance, and emphasizing the fear factor by manufacturing predictable boogie men. For the most part, the American public has jumped onboard for yet another ride on the self-righteous victimhood express.

This half-baked journalistic approach is put on full display in a recent Time expose, wherein the magazine dedicates 16 pages of prime real estate to the school reform quandary. One of the many confounding nuggets broached in the piece is the need for more effective teacher training. Reporter John Cloud writes:

More than 85% of U.S. teachers have an education degree. But many ed schools are fusty, politicized institutions that seem designed to turn out reliable teachers'-union members rather than reliable educators.

He's dead wrong, of course. But Cloud's not alone. Substituting commentary and speculation for substance is all critical to maintaining a compelling narrative. But rather than making a broad assumption based on pure speculation and hearsay, Cloud might have interviewed actual teachers-in-training and impending credential candidates -- though that would have required actual work. Had he sat in on some classes, Cloud would have discovered how patently ridiculous his claim of union infiltration is. Most credential and certification programs are on some level affiliated with local school districts, most of which serve as unions' bitter nemeses. Throughout my own two-plus year credentialing odyssey at Cal. State University, Northridge, I didn't hear the word "union" uttered once, in any context. In fact, along with the annoyance of being given stilted, theoretical -- oftentimes impractical -- lessons in pedagogy and classroom management by instructors who'd been out of public school teaching for years (and, in some cases, decades), a common complaint among my fellow students was that the CSUN teacher preparation curriculum hewed too narrowly to district-sanctioned, state-generated student learning standards -- guidelines that unions had virtually zero input in creating.

When I asked him to reflect on his recently completed CSUN credentialing experience, Greg Cover, a third-year Algebra 2 and Pre-Calculus teacher at a public high school located in Van Nuys, CA said, "Some parts were better than others. However, I still think I'm learning to become a better teacher and figuring out what works as I'm teaching. Teaching theory in a book is nothing compared to actually teaching in the classroom." And as for the union's influence? "No," Cover replied. "The union was never mentioned."

Now, I won't say Cloud's lying, but he's clearly been caught up in the vortex of myth-making that camouflages journalism in commentary and speculation. But uncomfortable contradictions and persistent ambiguities kill the buzz of righteous indignation. So lest we let facts bog down a gripping narrative, I submit to you the grand morality tale of school reform.

Once upon a time...

... There lived a group of altruists known as the public school reformists. These munificent spirits selflessly set aside their unfathomably important lives in addressing such a dire issue. What this rarefied collection of heaven-sent do-gooders lacked in basic knowledge of classroom pedagogy and actual firsthand contact with nanny-less human schoolchildren, they more than compensated for in name recognition; soaring rhetoric; and the blind, unwavering conviction that nothing less than a systemic upheaval of the current school system could salvage public education.

Standing in their way were the teachers' unions, Machiavellian cash cows and indomitable incarnations of evil. These oppressors of excellence and ambition enacted a scorched earth policy that forged unholy alliances, bulldozed opposition and entrenched mediocrity for evermore. Their dizzying array of political machinations created a trickle-down effect that was responsible for mashing the dreams of schoolchildren hopelessly lodged in a system that set them on a path for a lifetime of failure, misery, and working at El Pollo Loco.

Thankfully, unions were largely unwelcome inside the kingdom of charter schools. (If you're not sure what one looks like, follow the next rainbow you see: It will inevitably lead to one of these bastions of hope and academic success.) Hailed by reformists as the great new panacea of public education, and fiercely championed by beacons of social justice such as the Obama administration and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (and just about every other guilt-ridden, well-heeled philanthropist who wouldn't dare release his or her own children into the lion's den of a public school campus), these islands of student achievement offered disenchanted parents and their children hope for a sound education that was free of charge and free from the crushing bureaucracy that otherwise hinders a child's intellectual development.

Tragically, not all public schoolchildren were fortunate enough to gain admission to their charter school of choice, a conundrum that inevitably spelled permanent doom for their academic prospects. These unfortunate youngsters became innocent victims in the charade of failing school and ineffective teacher roulette. By this point, all were fully aware that the main reason kids failed was not because they were oftentimes lazy or complacent; not because their parents weren't injecting themselves into their lives in meaningful ways; not because their curiosity, love of learning, and relationship with the written word hadn't been snuffed out by years of high-stakes test prep and spleen-crushing, soul-ravaging literature anthologies; and not because they'd consumed thousands of prime learning and developmental hours Facebooking, TV-watching or all-night XBox Live marathoning: It was because teachers kept giving up on them!

And oh, those dastardly teachers...

... Snug inside their comfy tenure-pension-padded cocoons, these so-called educators were little more than abetting agents of the status quo. As impossible to fire as Supreme Court justices, their daily highlights included slurping gallons of coffee, surfing the Net, and treating students like fungible livestock. Some of the younger, more idealistic ones were passable at their craft for a while. But unable to stave off the evil wrought by eight weeks of summer recess, caffeine addiction, and the power to issue or deny restroom passes most transitioned to the dark side within a handful of years. And the closer their classrooms were to the teacher's cafeteria -- where self-righteous indignation was served up with as much frequency as tuna helper -- the more rapid the descent.

So there you have it: The story of school reform as framed by the national media.

Obviously, the final chapter of this hyperbolic fairy tale from hell has yet to be written. But by now, it's blatantly obvious where it's all headed. In the end, there will be no surprises, no twists of fate. We'll get exactly what we've been asking for all along: easy, concrete "solutions" to some of the most doggedly perplexing problems since the advent of the public school system.

Nevertheless, stay tuned as I attempt to debunk every last bit of it.