Are We All Part of the Problem?

Last week, I attended the Education Writers Association National Seminar in San Francisco. Journalists from across the country took part, representing publications large and small. Edu-bloggers and online reporters were there as well, in bigger numbers than ever before.

The networking was great, as was the company. It's refreshing to be surrounded by grizzled skeptics. There are no sacred cows as far as this crowd is concerned.

Two themes emerged that I found especially interesting. One was a growing impatience among journalists with today's self-styled reformers. A number of veteran education writers said this group's certainty about the correctness of its positions borders on the arrogant and hubristic.

The other oft-repeated theme was disgust with "the polarized education conversation" (there was even a session by that name) and the media's role in exacerbating that polarization.

First, the journalists' view of reformers. For some conference participants, an appearance by filmmaker Davis Guggenheim epitomized the reformers' smugness. Guggenheim, who directed An Inconvenient Truth, has a new documentary film coming out in October, focused on education reform. Waiting for Superman is being awaited with breathless anticipation by the reform crowd.

Guggenheim showed about 20 minutes worth of clips from the film. It's beautifully made, and delivers a powerful message about how the latest generation of change agents (Geoffrey Canada, KIPP's Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, Harlem Success Academy founder Eva Moskowitz) are transforming education despite stiff resistance from entrenched interests.

I believe in much of that message, up to a point. But Waiting for Superman is the third new or soon-to-be-released movie focused on this theme I've been exposed to in the past few weeks. The other two are The Lottery, centered on Moskowitz's Harlem campuses, and The Cartel, a film that cheerleads for charters and vouchers and paints an annoyingly shallow, black-and-white portrait of "reformers" versus unions and recalcitrant bureaucrats.

Taken in the aggregate, these films are effective propaganda. But even though I agree with much of their advocacy, they leave me feeling used and manipulated rather than informed. They present a simplistic view of challenges facing public education. They may effectively advocate for the "reformer" position, but in the end they fail to elevate or advance the debate.

During the Q&A session, I asked Guggenheim why he thinks so many school reform documentaries are being made now. He replied that more people are recognizing this is a "break the sound barrier" moment. In Waiting for Superman, there's a scene about uber-pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier when most people thought it could not be done. Cutting-edge reformers like Canada and the KIPPsters are playing a similar role in transforming public education against seemingly hopeless odds, the film asserts.

Guggenheim said that when his film comes out this fall, a campaign to push for large-scale reform will accompany it. This campaign will build on lessons learned from the reaction to An Inconvenient Truth. Film can prompt effective, broad-based campaigns for change, he said.

Guggenheim is an engaging guy. I enjoyed listening to him. Afterwards, though, chatting with other journalists over beer, I heard a lot of grumbling--and I found myself agreeing with much of it.

"He's so sure he's right." "He's like all these foundation types and hedge fund guys who think they've found the answer and anyone who doesn't see it their way is an idiot and a Neanderthal." "Nice message, but when will these people admit that the jury is still out on the sustainability and replicability of the KIPPs and the Harlem Children's Zones of the world?" "It's just not that black-and-white."

This wasn't an expression of hostility toward the reform camp, but rather journalists' frustration over the intractable and increasingly ugly nature of current disputes - for which they blamed both sides - and themselves.

I heard these views amplified during the jam-packed session on the polarized school reform debate the following day. Reporters in the room agreed that entrenched interests fighting change - most notably unions and district bureaucracies - are a big part of the problem. But so, they said, are the reformers.

New York-based reporters, for example, said that Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein have created such a "climate of fear" in New York schools that it is hard to get educators who view the reforms skeptically to talk to journalists even off the record. And one reporter said that Moskowitz in particular brings the debate down to a personal level that breeds acrimony.

"Maybe we just need to declare a moratorium on quoting these people," the reporter suggested.

One idea that won favor was that reporters should seek out more people on the ground, living the school experience every day. Stop quoting the "usual suspects" - the Randi Weingartens and Eva Moskowitzes - and find some teachers and principals in the trenches. To keep going back to the same sources with their predictable sound-bites is to feed the anger and bitterness that's fueling the increasing nasty debate over changing public education.

The debate in Colorado is at least as polarized as it is elsewhere. Some of the healthiest give and take in recent months has taken place in comments on the Education News Colorado blog, where educators like Mark Sass, Jeff Buck and J.J. Miller have put admirably nuanced thinking and ox-goring on display for all to read and appreciate.

My pledge to readers is that we will keep pushing this kind of debate to the forefront. If we can't always avoid the "usual suspects," we will augment their views with those of people closer to the ground.

Even if this kind of dialogue seems frustratingly inconclusive at times, that ambiguity accurately reflects the reality of school reform in 2010.