Friday, February 6, 2015

Goliath and the Changing Ed Conversation

If you want to see a story confirming that there are, in fact, limits to what one can accomplish with money, power and connections, look no further that Education Post. It's a giant, dusty monument to some of the differences that truly separate the reformsters from the defenders of traditional public education.

Education Post debuted on September 1st to considerable fanfare, including a nice infomercial on the launch in Washington Post. The head honcho was (and still is) Peter Cunningham. Cunningham is an old Chicago hand who traveled to DC with Arne Duncan to become the voice of Duncan's office (some others characterized him as its brains). The site was bankrolled ($12 million) by money from Bloomsburg, Broad and Walton philanthropies. It proposed to make the education debates more civil and pleasant and reasoned and based on facts-not-anecdotes, and all of that noble purpose lasted about as long as it took to post the first handful of articles that established that Education Post would be shilling hard for the Obama administration's reformster agenda. Fittingly enough, their logo features a bulhorn, not ordinarily a weapon of choice for civil, reasoned conversation.

EdWeek covered the launch and tossed up this detail about the site's function:

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.

The Washington Post profile included this:

Cunningham 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.

So what we're really talking about is a campaign politics style PR attack office determined to blitzkreig its way into control of the narrative. And they followed through swiftly. The very day I ran my first piece about the site, I had two contributors? employees? operatives?  whatever you want to call thems all up in my twitter with some spicy "So when did you stop beating your wife?" challenges. Cunningham called out Jose Luis Vilson within the first week on the site.
Three weeks later the site tried to take on Carol Burris, decided to dial it back, and still mounted a weak non-conversational assault. And after that, things just got quiet.

In the first few days, the site had drawn many dissenting posts in the comments section. Those were swiftly erased. In response to the complaints, EdPost tweeted "Hoping for a better conversation. Stay tuned." But that conversation never happened-- not even a chorus of happy sock puppets to sing the praises of the stable of writers. Education Post became one more demonstration that the opposite of love is indifference.

It certainly wasn't that people on either side of the education debates hate to converse. Mike Petrilli, Andy Smarick, and Rick Hess are just three examples of hard-driving reformsters who are perfectly capable of having intelligent conversations with public school advocates.

But Education Post was not really interested in a conversation. Instead, they revealed themselves fairly quickly to be a twelve million dollar troll. They had said they wanted to amplify the voices of reformy success stories, but they also devoted time to playing gotcha with voices on the side of public education. They added a feature where they marked up pro-public-ed documents with red pen, like a petulant schoolmarm, and that didn't seem like a conversation starter, either. But clearly they had hoped that they could be at the center of education policy firestorms, and they had a box of matches and a tank of gasoline already to go but... well, nobody wanted to play. Time and again they set out the bait, grabbed ahold of their club, and waited under their bridge but.... crickets.

This is not the first time reformsters have tried to harness the interwebs and some of that social medias the kids are all tweetering about, and it's not the first time that reformsters have failed miserably doing so (see Jeb Bush/FEE's now defunct "Learn More Go Further" campaign for another example). But this might be the most expensive.

I thought I'd check to see how big the fail was, and plugged some sites into the admittedly-imperfect site, which ranks all the websites in the world by traffic. Here's what I got (we'll stick with US ranks and ignore the international). This is the rank in America as roughly estimated by Alexa:

EducationPost--  223,516
Diane Ravitch's blog--  20,380

So, Ravitch, with a staff of one and a budget of maybe a hundred bucks, cleaned their clocks. Is it their politics? Let's see what the very-reformy thinky tank Fordham Foundation site clocks in at:

EdExcellence-- 67,360

So, no, it's possible to draw some attention from their side of the tracks. Maybe other sites rank higher because they've been around longer? How about Living in Dialogue, a pro-public ed website launched at just about the same time, for considerably less that $12 million.

Living in Dialogue-- 138,616

How do they compare to a simple high school English teacher who (even though I've been online longer) just blogs in his spare time with a budget of $0.00?

Curmudgucation-- 119,612

I've checked other independent public ed bloggers, and the results are similar. We can also check metrics like sites linking in to the site-- EducationPost has 81, which is not an impressive number.

Bottom line-- in money spent per number people getting the message, EducationPost is at the bottom of the heap. It's proof once again that while the reformsters can keep outspending everybody else, that doesn't mean they're actually convincing anybody else. The reformster movement is lifted up by a giant bag of hot air, and that air is heated by constantly burning a giant pile of money. When the money runs out, or is withdrawn, the balloon will deflate and the reformster initiative will float back to earth with the rest of us.

It can seem like the reformsters are winning-- they have the pretty sites, the shiny PR, the well-paid PR rapid response operatives. What they don't have are the people who are pouring their blood and sweat and heart and soul into a cause that is bigger than profit and power.

Meanwhile, EducationPost continues to troll hard, most recently going after activist mom/blogger Sarah Blaine (because you have to stop those moms from messing wit the narrative) and Diane Ravitch herself by pointing out that she used to say different things than she does now, trying to discredit today's education activity by bringing up what she said way back in the day, as if Ravitch hadn't already written a book herself explaining what beliefs changed and why. These trolling runs have not made EducationPost a center of conversation. No firestorm. Not even a smokescreen. Just a short quiet correction from Mercedes Schneider. It is possible that EducationPost could be more efficient by simply posting, "Notice Me, Dammit" as a headline.

But it's a 2015 world, and people mostly understand that you don't feed the trolls (which is why you'll find no links in this story, or any of my newer stuff, to the EducationPost website). More than that, defenders of US public education are coming to understand that not every reformster requires or deserves a response. Paul Thomas once called for Phase Three in the resistance, and perhaps this is it-- a phase in which we realize that we are no longer backed into a corner and no longer have to respond to every cockamamie attack on public education, even as some reformsters try to get us to start up the same old fight. Maybe EducationPost is not about trying to go forward to better conversations, but to actually sucker us into the same old dynamic and thereby preserve the narrative that reformsters are the ones with all the power, while we have to fight and scrape to get our point across. They aren't Goliath. They're just a big troll on life support.

If that's the case, than the irrelevance of EducationPost (because, really, does it matter whether they close up shop or not?) is one more true sign that Things Have Changed, that money can't win everything, and that we all need to have real conversations about the future of American public education, not simply a battle of rapid-response PR blitzes and stale talking points.

The premise of EducationPost was that the conversation about public education was their conversation to be held at their table under their terms. But now they are sitting at the table alone, while more important conversations are held elsewhere. Good news for the rest of us, but if I were Bloomberg, Broad and Walton, I'd want my $12 million back.


  1. Dear Peter Greene.

    I wrote to Senator Alexander over the weekend between January and February and told him that, with high-stakes standardized testing, teachers now spent all the third quarter of instruction teaching to the narrow band of information that might be on the test. I implored the committee to “ax the test” for the good of the children (and that included references to poor children that NAACP thinks will benefit from this intense testing. After all is said and done, I believe they won't benefit at all. This is all a ruse to get poor schools to not demand more $$$$$ funding.)

    I am writing about several of your posts, so this may seem a little jumbled. In other posts, you have lamented that Senator Lamar Alexander and other people promote the movement towards Charter Schools, so it seems to be a very sure thing that it will be hard to fight for public schools.

    Yes, it certainly seems so. However Senator Alexander seems to be inclined to get rid of Standardized Testing as a Federal Government “over-reach.” Other sources say that Republican Senators, Congressmen, and Governors are now “walking back” their support of Common Core because they have found out that their base hates Common Core.

    It is entirely possible that both Standardized Testing and Common Core might be rejected by the Republican majority soon, and maybe before the 2016 election. This would reduce our fight to only Charter schools. WOOT!, sort of...

    I may be a cock-eyed optimist, but I say: If you can believe nothing else, believe that Michelle Rhee, oops, excuse me, “She Who Cannot Be Named” bugged out of Charters for a very good reason.

    Maybe it's all over but the shouting. But, please keep writing and telling the rest of us where we might put in input. Writing to Senator Alexander gave me GREAT satisfaction.

    Thank you for your blog.


  2. I don't know - I've found their attempts at "conversation" to be helpful in prodding me to more fully define my own POV. *grin*

    Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, right? ;-)

  3. I was the subject on an EducationPost red pen column.

    The author focused on the title of my essay, which the author surmised (correctly) was chosen by an editor.

    Um, is that the best you can do?

  4. Thanks for this, Peter. You are absolutely right. We have important work to do, and there is no point in feeding the trolls.