Sunday, September 7, 2014

No, Education Post Is Not About Conversation

Twelve million dollars buys you a big splash. Many of us have launched blogs; very few of us have had heavy press coverage of the launch.

When Anthony Cody, a nationally known education writer and activist left the nest at Education Week to launch Living in Dialogue, a website that features work from many of the top writers in education policy today, the Washington Post did not dispatch Lindsey Layton to cover the new addition to the education conversation. But when Education Post, a site with a similar format (multiple writers cover education issues) and a similar stated mission (further the education conversation), launched last week, it got the royal treatment in other media outlets.

It's telling that Education Post's logo is a bullhorn. Its intention of providing a new education conversation vanishes immediately in its press coverage. In the Washington Post coverage, Bloomberg guy Howard Wolfson said

There hasn’t really been an organization dedicated to sharing the successes of education reform around the country. You have local success, but it isn’t amplified elsewhere.

Bruce Reed, from the Broad Foundation, is even clearer. 

One of the goals of Education Post is to publicize what works in public education.

Reed also offers this characterization of the problem voices in the debate

Most of the people in the organizations we work with are too busy starting schools or teaching kids to spend much time to take part in a policy debate about what they do. They're showing up at 7 in the morning to run a school and grading papers late into the night. They're not blogging vicious comments at the bottom of every education news story that gets written. [emphasis mine]

Just for the record, I get to school at 7 AM and grade papers late into the night and a few other things besides. I still make time to burn bandwidth because education is important to me. Just sayin'.

Education Post is not just about its own website. In Mark Walsh's EdWeek piece on the launch, we find this tidbit

Cunningha, said some of the group's work will be behind the scenes, drafting op-ed articles for policymakers, educators, and others, as well as providing strategic advice. But a more public effort
will involve writing blog posts and responding to public misconceptions.

In the Washington Post piece, it comes out like this   

Education Post also will have a “rapid response” capacity to “knock down false narratives” and will focus on “hot spots” around the country where conflicts with national implications are playing out, Cunningham said.

So, not conversation. Now, if reformsters want to put together a site devoted to getting out their message, that fine. When I go to Anthony Cody's site, I expect that I'll find a certain point of view represented, and my policy here at this blog is that I stick to saying things that I believe are true.

But Education Post goes a step beyond a simple bloggy point of view. It's looking a lot more like a well-financed, well-populated political PR rapid response team. And it has already shown its rapid response skills. When I wrote my initial take on the site, I had two twitter accounts associated with the group challenging me by the end of the afternoon, talking points at the ready. The second round of blogs include, along with pieces in praise of standardized testing and the new teacher evaluation models, a piece entitled "I'm All Ears, Jose." It's a response to Jose Luis Vilson, one of the A-list ed bloggers to take an early look at EP, and it reads a little like Peter Cunningham's version of "Was there something you wanted to tell the whole class?"

Again, there's nothing wrong with having a point of view, and  nothing wrong with being assertive about it. But these guys are not exploring or conversing; they're selling something, and they are defining "toxic" conversation as words that interfere with their sales pitch. This is not an attempt to have a conversation, but an attempt to shape and control one.

Controlling the narrative is all the rage in these issues. Mercedes Schneider and Paul Thomas have both written recent pieces that show this subtle and powerful technique in action. I say, "So there we were, winning the game with superior skills, when some people got upset, apparently about some foul in the third quarter. We are totally open to discussing that third quarter foul situation," and if you want to engage in the argument about the foul, that's fine with me because we've now sold the notion that my team was winning and that we have superior skill.

EdPost's narrative is that we were all just sitting around, talking pleasantly about how to accomplish great things with these really successful ed reforms, and suddenly the conversation turned ugly and unpleasantly toxic. Now we just need people to calm down so that we can talk about all the great successes of ed reform.

This is disingenuous on two levels. First, it's what people who believe in marketing way too much do. When their Big Poop Sandwich is selling poorly, they work with the assumption that's there's a problem with their messaging and not a problem with trying sell a sandwich filled with poop. Second, they already know when the conversation turned ugly. It was back a few years ago when reformsters refused to listen to any dissenting voices and proceeded to dismiss all critics as cranks and fringe elements and hysterically deluded suburban white moms. Back then a combative tone was okay because they thought they would win that conversation. Now they would like a new choice, please.

There is another secondary story here-- the tale of the former Obama administration figures who have become field operatives for hard-edged reformster promotion. From this PR initiative to the East Coast Vergara lawsuit of Campbell Brown, we're seeing former Obama/Duncan folks resurface as reformster warriors. At the very least, a reminder that it's a mistake to assume that a Democrat is on the side of public education.

Look, I'm all for civil conversation. I count a large number of reformster types with whom I have had plenty of civil exchanges. But those exchanges include honesty and listening and an intention to understand what the other person is saying. Education Post and its extremely well-funded megaphone appear to come up a bit short.

Put another way-- if your neighbor drives a tank into his driveway and parks it next to a few cases of ammo, and then he tells you, "Look! I got a great new sailboat! Pretty soon we'll all be heading out onto the lake together," you'd be right to have a few doubts. Education Post may want to promote itself as a sailboat, but it sure looks like a tank to me.


  1. Am very grateful for your rebuttal to the Washington Post article by Michele Rhee because of which I discovered your page. I am a substitute in our high school district and see the colossal waste in funding each year on things that have no direct bearing on the students. Very tragic case of affairs.

  2. More lipstick on a Pig. The Democrats should suffer at the polls for this back handed assault on public ed.

  3. thanks for sharing your ideas regarding education and its conversation,

    Natasha (certified medical assistant from USA)

  4. Thank you for making the reformsters' agenda/ Big Poop Sandwich and tactics clear.