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Education Nation & Ideological Blindness

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As some of you know, I have been writing about school improvement and the political, corporate and ideological forces that have been attempting to claim "school reform" as their own invention for more than a decade for my blog, District Administration Magazine, The Huffington Post and GOOD Magazine (perhaps my most cogent discussion of the "School Wars" and the desire to surrender the public treasure of public education to private hands.)

You may also beware of my serious misgivings about what I view as NBC News' unprecedented attack on public education in the guise of Education Nation. I so annoyed NBC News earlier this week that they had me blocked from posting on Facebook for a time. Since my social media sentence was commuted, I continue to try and correct the record on Education Nation's Facebook page and via Twitter.

My greatest concern about Education Nation is the one-sided depiction of both the "crisis" in public education and the "solution" to said crisis. Despite NBC News' cries that 300 people are participating in their televised panels and therefore diversity is automatically achieved, citizens would be well-advised to heed the advice of Watergate's "Deep Throat," and follow the money.

Merely adding Al Sharpton or NBC and Oprah's resident education expert, R&B singer John Legend, to a discussion does not ensure that multiple perspectives will be heard or that expertise is bestowed upon unqualified folks with access to the media. Colin Powell might be an expert on creating "Don't Ask Don't Tell" or on starting a war in Iraq, but this does not qualify him as a leading voice on school reform.

Simply stated, Education Nation does not represent the well-informed, research-based expertise of many successful urban school reformers and education experts including obvious choices, MacArthur Genius Deborah Meier; bestselling author, Alfie Kohn, outspoken critic of the corporate takeover of public education, Susan Ohanian; serial urban school reformer, Dennis Litty or Jonathan Kozol.

Many brave and vocal educators, such as Carolyn Foote, have held NBC News' feet to the fire and demanded to know why teacher voices were not being adequately represented in the Education Nation programming. Carolyn and others have rightfully pointed out that the participating teachers are unlikely to receive proper billing or sufficient airtime. NBC News responded by indicating that "some of Education Nation's best friends are teachers."

However, we make a huge mistake if we accept NBC's claims of teacher involvement by counting heads or are persuaded by the impressive biographies of the teachers chosen to participate without exploring why such invitations were extended to those particular teachers. In this case, a few clicks of the mouse allows one to follow the money and follow the ideological blindness.

I do not in any way mean to denigrate the teachers being showcased by NBC News. I have no reason to believe that they are anything but hard-working, dedicated and excellent educators. I merely wish to make the case that they were chosen by NBC to advance a particular narrative. That narrative is based on the following myths:
  1. Public education is destroying America
  2. There is a sudden emergency of bad teachers sweeping the land
  3. Schools should be run more like businesses (Education Nation's patron Eli Broad believes this, but should we listen to a man who served on the board of AIG?)
  4. Charter schools, merit pay, standardized testing and mayoral control are the magic beans that will save children from wretched teachers
  5. When we fire all of the zillions of bad teachers a whole new crop of fantastic ones will grow in a Washington DC cornfield
  6. The best and brightest will eagerly become teachers when we remove all teacher autonomy and reduce teaching to test prep and script reading
  7. Unqualified is the new qualified as exemplified by Teach for America's zeal to create unqualified missionaries to replace teachers
  8. Getting tougher is the same as reform
  9. Michelle Rhee was victimized by enemies of school reform (teachers) when voters rejected her tactics and bankrupt educational vision (thanks Nora O'Donnell)
  10. Billionaires are smart!
  11. Racism and inter-generational poverty have nothing to do with academic achievement
  12. The purpose of education is job readiness
  13. Teacher layoffs, budget cuts and union busting are just three ways of saying "We should pay teachers more, but hold them accountable."
  14. Poor children need educational experiences much different from those afforded the children of the powerful
  15. We should all run out to the cineplex and see Waiting for 'Superman'!
Here are the teachers NBC touts as being representative of educators' interests.

Kaycee Eckhardt had been teaching for four years in Japan when Hurricane Katrina hit her native Louisiana on her 25th birthday. Inspired to return home and teach in New Orleans, she took a job as a 9th grade reading teacher at New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy. Her school serves some of the areas hit worst by Hurricane Katrina and often struggles to provide hot food, running water, and electricity. Despite that, in the past two years, Kaycee's students have averaged a phenomenal three years of growth each year. In addition, Kaycee's students have the highest math and science scores of any school in New Orleans. In 2009, she was awarded the Louisiana Charter School Association Teacher of the Year award.

A charter school teacher who may not hold a teaching credential and who is participating in TeachNola, a spin-off of Teach-for-America and the New Teacher Project that "streamlines" the process of learning to become a qualified educator. This is the same path Michelle Rhee took in her meteoric rise and fall as D.C. Schools Chancellor.

Sarah Zuckerman teaches art in Indianapolis, Indiana. As an art teacher she is deeply committed to making sure students develop core literacy skills and integrates literacy into all her art lessons. As a result her students have shown consistent academic growth in all their tested subjects. Sarah has taught abroad in China and Mexico and is a practicing artist who has shown her work nationally and internationally. Sarah received the Sontag Prize for Urban Education in 2010 and was a 2009 Teach Plus Fellow.

Wealthier children enjoy art education for aesthetic, cultural and creative reasons, not to raise test scores. The Sontag Prize is funded by Boston Public Schools and the Lynch Foundation, an advocate of Catholic Schools. It is unclear whether Ms. Zuckerman is a "trained" educator.

Shakera Walker is an award-winning kindergarten teacher and a passionate advocate for the education reform movement and early childhood education. With over eight years of teaching experience, Shakera continues to have a dramatic impact on student achievement. As a result of her incredible leadership, Shakera was awarded The Sontag Prize in Urban Education (2010).

The Sontag Prize is funded by Boston Public Schools and the Lynch Foundation, an advocate of Catholic Schools.

Joseph Almeida teaches sixth grade math at KIPP Infinity in New York City. He has created a YouTube channel with tailored lessons recorded for his students so that they can learn both inside and outside of the classroom. Joseph was awarded the Sue Lehman Award for Teaching excellence by Teach for America and was featured in the recently released book Teaching as Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher's Guide in Closing the Achievement Gap, a book that has been hailed for both its policy and pedagogical influence.

KIPP and Teach for America affiliations. Works in a charter school. Not sure if he is a credentialed teacher.

David Wu, who spent part of his life in Taiwan, is a high school chemistry teacher at Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. Originally headed to medical school, he decided to join Teach for America for two years and has now stayed four. His students, who often start far below the district and statewide averages for chemistry, have beaten both the district average and state average the last two years on the California Standards Test. He is also the first teacher at Dorsey High School to see one of his students score a perfect score on the CST -- and he's had two students do it in the last two years.

Yet another Teach for America teacher. Works in a charter school. Not sure if he is a credentialed teacher. More emphasis on meaningless standardized test scores.

Kelly Burnette is a high school Biology and Physical Science teacher from Nassau, Florida. Her school district, which has quickly transformed from a rural community to a bustling suburb, has one brand-new state-of-the-art high school and another one built in 1912. Kelly just recently transferred from the new school in the suburbs to the older school in an under-served area in an attempt to help that school turn around. At her previous school, Kelly helped lead teachers at a school that had been given a "D" grade in 2007-2008 to an "A" rating in 2008-2009. For her work, she was chosen as a finalist for Florida's Teacher of the Year award.

Ms. Burnette might be an actual public school educator! Hooray! (I will assume that all of the school grade nonsense is beyond her control.)

Abigail Garland teaches 12th grade history at IDEA College Prep, a charter school in Donna, Texas, at which 80% of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch. She previously taught at Jaurez-Lincoln High School in La Joya, Texas. For the past three years, not a single student of Abigail's has failed his or her state assessment, and 80% scored a 90% or higher on the 11th grade Social Studies exam. In 2008-2009 she was awarded the Humanities Texas award as an outstanding teacher. Since becoming Department Head the school's state assessment passing rate has not fallen below 99% and commended scores (scores of 90% or higher) have risen from 50% to 73%. Abigail is passionate about higher education, and her classroom goals are derived from her hope that every student will have the ability to succeed in college.

Charter school teacher. More obsession with test scores.

Doris Milano is an elementary school teacher in Palm Beach County, Florida. During her 16-year tenure as an educator in her community, Doris has inspired and challenged her students to soar beyond mediocrity. For three consecutive years, Doris students have made more than a year and a half of growth in a year's time in all subject areas. Doris has won numerous awards for her teaching practice, including the EXCEL Award from the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

The implication that other teachers strive for mediocrity is offensive. The award she has received is from Jeb Bush's nonprofit dedicated to the failed or unconstitutional strategies of private school vouchers, charter schools, merit pay and standardized testing.

Fatima Rich teaches 4th and 5th grade at Greenbrier Elementary in Indianapolis, IN. Although 77% of the students at Greenbrier qualify for Free or Reduced Price Lunch, she has seen phenomenal growth in her student's test scores, with more than 30% increase in the number of students who scored proficient or advanced in one year and her students are now beating the state average on the 5th grade math assessment.

Another example of reducing education to test preparation and standardized test scores.

Erin Dukeshire has taught middle school science in Miami and Boston and currently took a job as the science teacher at a turnaround school called Orchard Gardens because she wanted to transform a Boston school where only 3% of the students are proficient in math and none were proficient in science. At her previous school Erin lifted her students' science scores from 15% below the state average to well above the average.

Might be a great teacher, but "turnaround schools" are under-performing schools that can circumvent teacher union contracts.

Pamela Heuer is a 7th and 8th Grade Reading teacher in Indianapolis Public Schools. An alumna of Teach For America, Heuer's students averaged 1.9 years of growth in one semester during the 2008-2009 school year, and her students were recognized as the fastest growing students in the entire Indianapolis school district. For spearheading a peer reading program with a neighboring elementary school, Heuer received the Eli Lilly New Teacher Challenge Award.

Teach for America affiliation and advocate.

Claudia Aguirre is the principal at MS 247 Dual Language Middle School in Manhattan. That school, which teaches about half of its classes in each language, has quickly moved up the ranks of New York City's middle schools because of Claudia's efforts to impose strict program of classes and work, add academic help sessions and social activities after regular school hours. MS 247 now tests on par with the average middle school in the state across the board, a marked improvement from the scores before Claudia took over.

An actual school principal. Nothing particular jumps out from her bio except for the emphasis on "strict" and after school hours which indicate that this might be a school unlike those parents of means might embrace for their children.

Michelle Henry teachers 3rd-5th Grade Mathematics at Witter Elementary in Florida. Although a full 93 percent of Witter's students qualify for Free or Reduced Lunch, the school had an 82 percent AYP rating in 2009. In addition, the Foundation for Excellence in Education recently presented Henry an award for having some of the greatest math gains of any teacher in the state of Florida. Henry is the recipient of the Mary Fraiser National Scholar of Gifted Education Award is rated an "Outstanding Teacher" under MAP and the Teacher Incentive Fund.

Another recipient of an award from Jeb Bush's foundation and citation of the No Child Left Behind Annual Yearly Progress rating.

Pam Williams, the current Georgia Teacher of the Year, is a high school social studies and economics teacher from rural Appling County in southern Georgia. A strong advocate for the Common Core State Standards, Pam is spending part of this year touring the state to talk to teachers and advocate for them at the state level. She has previously taught in a self-contained 6th grade classroom, middle school Spanish, music, language arts, and social studies before moving to the high school level. In the last two years, she has taken over the economics program at Appling County High School and saw a 33% increase in the number of students passing the statewide End of Year Test after she redesigned the curriculum."

Another emphasis on test-prep and an embrace of "Common Core Standards," a fancy euphemism for "standardized national curriculum."

In closing, it's worth exploring the sponsors of Education Nation. The following foundations and corporations have their fingerprints on many of the most regressive educational practices in the United States today.
  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are major sponsors of Waiting for Superman directly and through their spin-off organization, Get Schooled. They are also a sponsor of Education Nation. Gates also appears on Oprah and Education Nation as an education expert. The Gates Foundation's influence on public education is enormous from its advocacy of KIPP Schools for other people's children to its staffing of the US Department of Education.
  • The Broad Foundation is a sponsor of Waiting for Superman and of Education Nation, plus a host of the other organizations being represented during Education Nation.
  • The Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart) is a sponsor of Waiting for Superman and advocate for school vouchers (privatization).
  • The University of Phoenix is a sponsor of Education Nation despite admitting to fraud in its educational recruiting practices and its self-service advocacy of for-profit education.
  • Microsoft is another sponsor of Education Nation. I believe that they might have a connection to The Gates Foundation. Some readers might find Microsoft's record on labor practices disturbing and be unsurprised by its longstanding antipathy towards labor unions. Oh yeah, don't forget to check out how Microsoft created an educational disaster in the Philadelphia public schools.
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