Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Tragic Sadness of Reformsters

So last week Alexander Russo posted his annual "Worst Education Journalism" awards. Matt Barnum and Valerie Strauss received a pair of undeserved anti-kudos from Russo, and a lot of people popped up on the interwebs to stick up for them, so it may have ended up as a net positive. But then Peter Cook had to pile on.


Who is Peter Cook? Cook likes to bill himself as a former teacher. Can you guess what his teaching experience is? Yes, in 2002, right after he graduated from Washington and Lee University with a BA in European History, he put in two years with Teach for America. A few years later he put in a year teaching math at a KIPP charter. The rest of his career has been as a consultanty expert with groups like The New Teacher Project. Most recently he has worked as the "Engagement Manager" with Mass Insight Education, and he's been particularly active in New Orleans where he serves on the DFER Lousianna board. So yes-- he's an other one of the instant experts in education working hard to get those public tax dollars into private pockets. Currently he runs a website that pushes hard on reform topics, and it's on that website that he decided to take shots at Valerie Strauss.

Full disclosure: While I have never met Strauss, we have emailed back and forth a few times and she periodically chooses to run some of my stuff.

Russo's criticism of Strauss (again, because he's made the complaint before) is that she's an aggregator who steals other peoples' bylines. I'm not sure that's valid-- Strauss's column on the Washington Post website is often a spot for straight reportage, but it's also the only place in the mainstream media world that you'll find pro-public education voices amplified. But that was beside the point, because Cook decided he wanted come at her with an old favorite narrative- The Story of the Sad, Unheard Reformsters. Russo touched on the issue of balance, and that's where Cook wants to go:

That last point is really the crux of the problem with Strauss’ output at the Washington Post: it is completely one-sided. Instead of presenting readers with views from both sides of the education debate, Strauss turns to the same anti-charter/testing/accountability folks again and again to share their views.

Strauss runs stories by Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, and the National Education Policy Center, and Fairtest. Where can someone turn to hear the voices of the folks in the ed reform camp?

We've heard this before. Eli Broad and his crew needed to unload millions of dollars to finance EducationPost because how else would they get their story out there? The 74 was going to be Campbell Brown's avenue for telling what she thought were the important stories of education (spoiler alert: the ones where public school teachers are awful). There are advocacy groups like Jeb Bush's FEE that spend a ton of money promoting their views, even launching faux-authentic social media campaigns. I'm not sure it's humanly possible to track all the different ways that Bill Gates spent money trying to flood the world with "positive news" about Common Core and his various other pet education projects. And that's before we get to pro-reform thinky tanks like American Enterprise Institute and the Fordham Institute where there are guys employed to do nothing at all except promote the reform point of view (Mike Petrilli alone has been quoted in roughly eighty gazillion education pieces).

Meanwhile, the pro-public ed forces are mostly unpaid volunteers, blogging during lunch breaks or later at night after they're done grading papers.

There may well be a David and Goliath scenario in the education debates, but the Goliath here is not the pro public ed folks.

"But but but-- teachers unions," is the usual reply, and sometimes I'm amazed at the incredible magical powers that NEA and AFT have. But then I remember that NEA and AFT are among the groups that took Gates money and promoted the Common Core, as well as pushing the mostly-reform Hillary Clinton as a candidate. As a force standing against the ed reform movement, the big unions have often been underwhelming.

No, the people who complain that ed reform voices aren't sufficiently heard belong to the same species as folks who think whites are the most oppressed ethnic group and the Christmas is under attack. As long as they still have millions to spend, ed reform folks are in no danger of having their voices silenced.

Two other things need to be said. First, that some ed reformers are perfectly okay with the pro public ed voices that are heard and are willing to engage in discussions that involve spirited debate rather than an attempt to silence opponents under a pile of money.

Second, is that the criticism of Strauss that I just spent a bunch of space opposing-- well, it doesn't really hold much water to begin with. Cook says that Strauss has run a piece from Carol Burris twenty whole times in the last seventeen months. But Strauss generally posts several times a day, so we're talking (as a conservative estimate, because I'm not going to go count) about twenty posts out of a thousand. If you look at Strauss's column, mostly what she publishes in news. She reports what the Ed Department says and does. She reports on school systems around the country. Cook is upset that she gives too much time to anti-reform "propaganda," and he wants equal time for pro-reform propaganda, but really, that area is already covered (including the Washington Post's own editorial board, which has happily pushed the reformster line on many occasions). Nor does she silence the voices of reform-- she just doesn't follow the practice of running their press releases uncritically.

Cook has his own website (which, who knows, he may just finance out of his own pocket) where he rails against Strauss regularly. It is certainly his right to put that out there, just as it's the right of the Flat Earth Society to rail against the oppressiveness of those over-amplified roundies. But Cook's a smart guy; surely he can think of a better way to spend his time.

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