Huffpost Media
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John Merrow Headshot

Two Town Halls, And a Peek Into the Future

Posted: Updated:

For the first time in my life, I am channeling Sarah Palin -- specifically, her complaints about what she calls 'the lamestream media.' I feel like a victim, even though I was merely in the audience for an old fashioned "Town Hall" that was reported on by The Washington Post. By contrast, a few days later I was the interviewer in a two-person "Town Hall" on Twitter (the interviewee was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), an event that went directly to its audience without interpretation by the media. It pains me to confront the frailties of my profession, but that's what's on my mind.

The old-fashioned event -- about education and race -- was a slam-dunk winner from Day One. It had everything going for it: (1) It was organized by Henry Louis "Skip" Gates and his capable team at the DuBois Institute at Harvard; (2) The moderator was the incomparable Charlayne Hunter-Gault; and (3) It had cast of heavyweights: Dr. James Comer, Diane Ravitch, Michelle Rhee and Professor Angel Harris of Princeton. Even the title of the event was reassuring: "The Education Gap" -- not "The Achievement Gap" -- a choice revealed that the organizers understood the complexity of the issue. This was certain to be substantive.

Substantive yes, but limited in its reach. About 400 people filled the historic Whaling Church in Edgartown (on Martha's Vineyard) on August 18th, and, while it's possible that a few people tweeted about the conversation as it was going on, it was a closed loop. One of these days the entire session will be posted on the DuBois Institute website, but you'll have to wade through the full two hours; it apparently won't be searchable or divided into segments.

Wonderfully substantive for those in attendance, close to inaccessible for the rest of the world.

Here's just part of what we learned: A child born in poverty (black or white) has a 10% chance of getting to college, and our poverty rate eclipses that of other industrialized nations. By graduation day, there's a 4-year skills gap between black and white graduates -- and that does not factor in those who drop out. We also lock up more of our citizens than other countries, and the black/white incarceration ratio is 8:1. Angel Harris of Princeton spoke persuasively about the depth of the 'Education Gap' and the public's failure to grasp that. Because we don't get it, he asserted, we grasp at 'silver bullets' and 'magical cures' instead of hunkering down and committing to long term solutions.

He provided a great example: the 'silver bullet' of parental involvement. Be careful what you wish for, he said, because there are different forms of involvement. When black parents get involved, they are more likely to be negative and punitive, and that doesn't help the teacher get through to the child. In addition, Harris says that parental engagement only explains very small percentage of the education gap, while parent education and income explain 25% of the gap.

Dr. James Comer, the Yale physician whose 'Comer Schools' are beacons of hope, brought the crowd to life with his eloquent explanation of why and how so many schools for poor children fail. It is, he asserted, largely because teachers and administrators do not understand child development and the needs of children. Time was, Comer told the audience, when most families were able to meet their children's developmental needs, but today, with about 35% of children living in poverty, the schools and teachers are overwhelmed. And, to make matters worse, schools of education do not prepare teachers to understand, let alone meet, developmental needs, Comer said.

Diane Ravitch sounded some familiar themes: Poverty is the key here. Small classes make a difference. She bemoaned that, because of No Child Left Behind and its testing requirements, schools are eliminating art, music, PE and "all the stuff that keeps kids coming to school." And she suggested that we take some of the billions we spend on testing and spend it on early childhood education instead.

Michelle Rhee, who was directly or indirectly criticized as a proponent of 'accountability,' agreed that schools cannot 'cure' poverty. However, she said, teachers do make a difference. Society needs a sense of urgency and cannot afford to give demonstrably poor teachers years to improve.

Rhee and Ravitch agreed that society must be 'aspirational.' The attitude "I've got mine, so who cares about anyone else?" will bring the nation down.

In short, the two hours was filled with light, with occasional heat. Unfortunately, for these messages to get beyond the 400 or so who were in the audience, it fell to the media to report what happened.

And that's my problem because a Washington Post reporter filed a piece that made the afternoon sound like a polite disagreement between Rhee and Ravitch, who are well-known for their antagonism. Not a word about Comer, Harris or Hunter-Gault or about the substance of the session.

My hunch is that the reporter arrived expecting fireworks between Rhee and Ravitch, well-known as antagonists -- and when no food fight took place, the reporter made that the story: they were polite.

Criticizing the Post reporter is not my central point. I am wondering now just how often we journalists fail to get beyond our preconceptions about people and events. I write about this in my book, The Influence of Teachers, specifically about the irrelevant 'war' going on now about teachers and teaching. The latest example of reporters getting it wrong, in my opinion, is Steven Brill, who devotes 400+ pages to the 'war' without ever questioning his own premises.

Is there a better way to reach the public? Are 'social media' operations, such as Twitter, the answer? Can substance -- like the Edgartown meeting -- be conveyed in 'tweets' of 140 characters or less?

That brings me to my second "Town Meeting," which took place on Twitter on August 24. And it's probably wrong to use the past tense, because it's all still up there for anyone who's interested. Here's how it worked: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and I (the interviewer) sat in his conference room. He responded to my questions, while, off to one side, two aides translated everything into 'tweets.' The video was live and is now archived in case anyone wants to check the accuracy of the tweets against what was actually said.

Here's the transcript.

Just over 1, 200 people 'tuned in' to watch the live feed, but the 68,000 followers of the Department's Twitter feed (@usedgov) 'followed' the Town Meeting on Twitter. Many thousands more follow @askarne and other Twitter feeds, and so the audience must have been well over 100,000. Hundreds of followers added their own tweets, commenting on the Secretary's answers or my questions, or just venting about the administration. Some tweets were subsequently re-tweeted, keeping the conversation going.

The run-up to the Twitter Town Hall is also noteworthy, because the Department and I both solicited questions. About 100 came to me directly, generally thoughtful and well-written. The Department received many more, which it passed along to me. I chose the questions without any prior review by the Department.

Was Arne Duncan's Twitter Town Hall substantive, by which I mean 'did it have the potential to change viewpoints and expand perspectives?' By itself, no, but the re-tweets and the comments and its archived presence taken together feel 'substantial' -- to me anyway.

What about the Town Hall on Race and Education? Could its substance have been captured and conveyed on Twitter? I doubt it, but I feel strongly that those who are committed to the old-fashioned approach must adapt so millions, not just a fortunate few, can benefit. Sessions like that can be fed live on the web and then later segmented and indexed so that visitors can pick and choose from a menu, rather than having to watch it all. (And they can tweet their favorites to their Twitter followers.)

I am not trying to talk myself or any other journalist out of a job. For openers, I wouldn't trust a "Town Hall" with a politician if the interviewer were anyone other than a qualified reporter. However, I think a healthy skepticism about most reporting is warranted, unless and until you develop a trust in the reporter and his/her outlet.

But social media is the future. And, while there's now a clear a trade-off between substance and immediacy, the challenge is to embrace Twitter and other social media to increase their depth. That's the future.

John's book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.