Friday, May 1, 2015

Edushyster: Peter Cunningham's Woes

I have now met Jennifer "Edushyster" Berkshire, and I totally get it. I don't believe there is a human being on the planet who, upon sitting down with her, would not want to answer every question just to prolong the conversation and once you're talking, well, lying to the woman would be like kicking a puppy.

So it makes perfect sense that just about anybody would be willing to talk to her, even if she is on the Pro-Public Education side of the fence.

She's just put up an interview with Peter Cunningham, the former Arne Duncan wordifier who now runs Education Post, a pro-reformster political war room style rapid response operation (I knew I'd moved up in the blogging world when they took the time to spank me personally).

I don't imagine there are people who read this blog who do not also read Edushyster, but I'm going to keep linking/exhorting you to head over and check out this interview while I note a few of my own responses here.

There are a couple of eyebrow-raisers in the interview that really underline the differences between the reformsters and the pro-public ed side of these debates. In particular, Cunningham notes that many reformsters feel isolated and under attack. When explaining how Broad approached him about starting EP, Cunningham says

There was a broad feeling that the anti-reform community was very effective at piling on and that no one was organizing that on our side. 

Organized?! Organized!!?? It is possible that Broad et al have simply misdiagnosed their problem. Because I'm pretty sure that the pro-public ed advocate world, at least the part of it that I've seen, is not organized at all. But we believe what we are writing, so much so that the vast majority of us do it for free in our spare time (I am eating a bag lunch at my desk as I type this), and we pass on the things we read that we agree with. 

In fact, it occurs to me that contrary to what one might expect, we are the people using the Free Market version of distributing ideas-- we create, we put it out there, we let it sink or swim in the marketplace of ideas. Meanwhile, the reformsters try to mount some sort of Central Planning approach, where they pay people to come up with ideas, pay people to promote those ideas, pay people to write about those ideas, and try to buy the marketplace so that their products can be prominently displayed. 

It is the exact same mistake that they have brought to education reform-- the inability to distinguish between the appearance of success and actual success. If students look like they are succeeding (i.e. scoring high on tests they've been carefully prepped for), then they must be learning. If it looks like everybody is talking about our ideas (i.e. we bought lots of website space and hired cool writers and graphics), then we must be winning hearts and minds.

But what is Cunningham to do to save these poor beleaguered millionaires in their cushy offices (who are probably not eating a bag lunch at their desks as I type this-- isolated and alone in my classroom, I might add)?

I’ve created the ability to swarm, because everyone felt like they were being swarmed. We now have people who will, when asked, lean in on the debate, when people feel like they’re just under siege.

"Lean in" is a great way to put it. I've been "leaned in" upon. It just feels kind of mean, and definitely not like an attempt to create a better conversation. Which is, well, odd , because I've actually had some certainly fine conversations with people on the other side of the edu-fence. It's really not impossible, or even difficult. 

Cunningham himself has proven capable of critiquing the reformster party line. But he's been hired to do a job, and he's doing it. Which is perhaps part of the problem.

Mind you, I'm not by any stretch of the imagination claiming that I am extra-noble or super-swell because I toil away in unfunded obscurity. There are people (Jennifer is one of them) who do this as their main gig and ought to be getting deservedly rich for it; the fact that I'm not doesn't make me a better person.

But it tells us something about the two sides of the fence that the separate pastures are fertilized with such different-- yeah, let's drop that analogy. It says something that if all the money evaporated from the pro-public ed movement, things wouldn't change much at all. But take away Gates money and Broad money and Walton money, and we wouldn't be having these conversations. Reform has consistently side-stepped both the democratic process and the marketplace of ideas, adopting instead the corporate boss model of, "I'm paying your salary. Do as I say." Since democracy and the market place of ideas started fighting back, reformsters have been trying to adapt. But it's hard. And lonely.

Cunningham notes that by 2012-2013, pro-public ed was "very effectively calling a lot of reform ideas into question." Well, not exactly. They were effectively pointing out that a lot of reform ideas were crap. Marketing and PR do not necessarily beat actual substance. But Cunningham is a man who's been given a giant pile of money to hire swarms and bloggers and a big, shiny website, so he's going to spend it. for at least two more years. Read the edushyster interview.


  1. When I think of Peter Cunningham, the first thing that comes to mind the comic spectacle of his choosing to review Ravitch's book REIGN OF ERROR... without doing her the courtesy of reading it first:

    I'm picturing Peter at his desk dressed as Johnny Carson's "Carnac"---in a black turtleneck, with a big, sparkling, puffed-out faux-turban on his head---holding REIGN OF ERROR to his forehead with one hand, and typing the Huffpost review with the other hand... (while talking in Carson's nasal-ly Carnac voice.)

    CUNNINGHAM (from HUFFPOST) : "I understand that Dr. Ravitch is about to publish another book attacking education reform. She will go after my good friend Arne Duncan. She will attack... she will attack... she will attack... "

    "What she will not do is... she will ... she will... "

    What's is this guy? Nostradamus?

    Hey, Peter. Here's an idea you could look into...

    1) first read the book (after you buy the book or check it out your library, of course)...


    2) write your review.

    Seriously, my students all do this, and it works wonders.

    Sure, based on her recent writings, one can guess much of what Ravitch will write in a book about ed. issues, but still... what was the point of reviewing it without reading it? Doing it the right way allows one to cite quotations, read everything in context, discover and correct misunderstandings... and on and on...

    By the way, I'm working up a Cunningham-as-Carnac routine... here's some spitballing... (they're not all winners, so show mercy)

    CUNNINGHAM: "Frosted flakes."
    ---(opens the envelope and reads it)
    "What do you get when you lock Teacher for America teachers in a meat locker?"

    CUNNINGHAM: (Carnac voice) "A Few Good Men"
    ---(opens an envelope)
    "How many people would it take to do all the REIGN OF ERROR research that Diane Ravitch did all by herself?"

    CUNNINGHAM: "Twelve Years as a Slave."
    ---(opens the envelope and reads it)
    "What does Carrie Walton-Penner desire for all present and future public school teachers' careers?"

    CUNNINGHAM: "House of Cards."
    ---(opens the envelope and reads it)
    "Upon what foundation does value-added measurement theory rest?"

    CUNNINGHAM: "Billions and billions."
    ---(opens the envelope and reads it)
    "To date, how much has Michelle Rhee made bashing teachers?"

    CUNNINGHAM: "Big Ben, Tom Brady, and Campbell Brown's defense for not revealing her donors."
    ---(opens the envelope and reads it)
    "Name a clock, a jock, and a crock."

    CUNNINGHAM: "Criminal Minds."
    ---(opens the envelope and reads it)
    "To be admitted, what must all potential Broad Academy candidates possess?"

    CUNNINGHAM: "A teaching credential, a pair of urine-free underpants, and a special ed student."
    ---(opens the envelope and reads it)
    "Name three things you won't find in an Eva Moskowitz' SUCCESS ACADEMY."


  2. Peter - Agreed that Cunningham's response was jaw dropping.

    What to do? I suggest we call this out whenever we see it: on blogs, Twitter, letters to the editor, comments in newspaper articles on the web, comments on blogs. It will take seconds. Six characters is all we need: