THE BLOG
06/22/2011 02:43 pm ET | Updated Aug 22, 2011

Bad Air Day

Every so often, I step back to see what staunch proponents of "corporate reform" are saying now. Maybe there's new evidence? Maybe I've missed some critical research validating the privatization of public education or some new study on merit pay that supersedes a multitude of others stating that merit pay doesn't work.

Perhaps a political pundit can enlighten me on what's best for public education?

A corporate reformer would get an earful from the vast untapped resource of involved parents on the front lines. I've absorbed a great deal working alongside conscientious teachers and principals on real world issues, or while leading PTAs, or while voting on budgetary issues facing School Advisory Boards.

Wanting to increase my knowledge of corporate reform initiatives, therefore, I tuned in to Dave Sirota's Denver June 8th talk show.

Sirota featured a widely promoted debate between two opposing views on education reform. On one side, Bloomberg News journalist Jonathan Alter and on the other, education historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education Dr. Diane Ravitch.

Alter is a political pundit who writes about many topics. He appears to have little direct experience with public education. To this outside listener, he was no match for a historian of education who dedicated nearly half a century to research, analyze, and document her findings in nearly two dozen books on the subject.

One week earlier, Alter published an incendiary editorial containing a personal attack on Dr. Ravitch. ("Don't Believe Critics") Alter claimed he was commenting on Dr. Ravitch's NY Times article ("Waiting for a School Miracle" ), which challenged politicians who overstated the success of four (4) turnaround schools. The inappropriate personal nature of Alter's venomous attack made me question Alter's motives. Seeing that Mayor Bloomberg was one of the politicians criticized in Ravitch's piece and knowing Alter works for Bloomberg, gave me cause to think about the underlying motive.

In the on the air debate, Alter ignored evidence offered by a calm, collected, and brilliant Dr. Ravitch. Alter evaded meaningful questions posed by the moderator, Dave Sirota, and instead spewed generalizations and falsehoods with an exasperated, know-it-all type air about him.

A la Alter's embarrassing op ed, he over-compensated for his dearth of knowledge on what is happening in public schools by mis-characterizing the current wave of attacks on teachers and by repeatedly taking pot shots at Dr. Ravitch.

It was difficult to give Alter the benefit of the doubt going in to this debate after his bizarre references to Dr. Ravitch in his opinion piece, such as equating her to a "communist" spy as well as his psycho babble quote attributed to Secretary Duncan.

I had hoped that Alter would open the debate with a civilized apology for his ad hominem attack on Dr. Ravitch. That didn't happen.

Since when is it permissible for sitting Cabinet members to lambaste individuals with whom they disagree and psychoanalyze the motives of other public figures? Perhaps I'm "in denial" of how things are supposed to work in a civilized, respectful environment. In my opinion, the remarks of Secretary Duncan and Jonathan "Alter-cation" disgracefully plummeted Obama's Administration to a new low. But, I digress.

Alter's on air performance unraveled his credibility on the topic of public education, in my opinion, and may have rendered him useless to corporate reformers.

Here are some of Alter's fact-less statements. The entire broadcast is posted here.

LOWLIGHT OF DEBATE:

Jonathan Alter: "Not all education reformers, in fact, most education reformers do not demonize teachers." "They don't appreciate being called teacher-bashers by Diane. There is a lot of caricature going on here by Diane."

FACTS:

1. What was the theme of Waiting for Superman, Mr. Alter?

Superman was predicated on teacher-bashing. Who hopped around the airwaves -- unchallenged -- for weeks and repeatedly talked about "crappy teachers," "crappy education," "weeding out all the bad teachers," etc. Along with our own Secretary of Education, Chancellors Rhee and Klein, Mayor Bloomberg, Geoffrey Canada, Eric Hanushek, Oprah, Bill Gates, and numerous other paid sycophants of the Broad, Walton, and Gates Foundations, the voices echoed each other using the same ugly teacher-bashing narrative. Teachers became a political punching bag.

Waiting for Superman
appeared to be a misleading, propaganda-filled infomercial produced to promote charter schools. ( see: "The Myths of Charters" ) If corporate reformers "sold" disdain for public schools and teachers, it would, in turn, drive more people to seek charters.

In the film, economist Eric Hanushek proposed that our nation fire the bottom 5%-10% of bad teachers every year. That demoralizing rhetoric made teachers Public Enemy #1 in our nation.

Teacher-bashing is disturbingly real. It's not a caricature and it's a disgrace.

2. How about last year's cover of Newsweek?

Last year's Newsweek cover, where Jonathan Alter then worked, displayed: "The Key to Saving American Education: We Must Fire Bad Teachers" repeatedly written on a chalkboard. The story inside boasted about the value of firing entire teaching staffs and replacing them with inexperienced new teachers.

3. How about the Secretary of Education cheering when the Central Falls staff was fired?

4. How about the Secretary of Education -- almost alone among educators -- supporting the L.A. Times publishing teacher effectiveness measurements?

This is teacher-bashing at its worst. It's unconscionable for any leader in the teaching profession to engage in it. Tearing down the dignity of the teaching profession before an entire nation should be a punishable crime. I can assure you it is not listed as a "Best Practice" in Finland!

5. Alter's Altered Theory

Alter undermined his own efforts to dismiss the reality of teacher-bashing when he did it himself, right on the air, launching into a diatribe about the difficulty in firing drunk and perverted teachers. (Alter: "Drunks and manifest incompetent teachers who write threatening sexually creepy letters to their students...")

Seriously? If his remarks weren't so offensive, they would be comical. It was as if Comedy Central's writers penned that script. Who are these drunks, incompetents, and perverts? Alter didn't say.

LOWLIGHT OF DEBATE:

Jonathan Alter: "No serious education reformer believes poverty doesn't matter. They know it does."

Of course, Waiting for Superman, in which Alter was on camera, made precisely that claim!

And, wasn't that why the politicians described in Ravitch's article were hyping the four (4) turnaround schools? That is, to attempt to prove that poverty doesn't matter because they claimed they achieved amazing results?

I attended a Public Agenda Forum a few weeks ago where Chester Finn of the Fordham Institute emphatically stated that poverty does not matter. Geoffrey Canada stated the same sentiment on several stages over the past year along with Secretary Duncan, Bill Gates, former DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee and many others. There are numerous references to this sentiment.

I've previously enjoyed reading Mr. Alter's informed perspectives on other political issues. I am puzzled as to why he would tackle the topic of public education now when he appears to lack a solid knowledge base of the issues. Again, this brings around the question of motive.

Unfortunately, Alter didn't offer any new evidence supporting corporate education reform. I heard words extracted out of context from Dr. Ravitch's incisive editorial in an attempt to convert them to some sinister plot. I heard distortions of reality. I heard insults flung at a dignified woman of integrity who served this country and who continues to assist the children of our nation. That lack of civility and respect afforded Dr. Diane Ravitch both on the air and in print upsets me.

Unfortunately, yet ironically, Alter's Bad Air Day proved that he, in fact, is the individual who is "in denial."