Tuesday, April 19, 2016

A Conversation about Ed Reform

It's not very often that two voices from differing sides of the education reform debates talk it out, but last weekend at the Network for Public Education conference in Raleigh, NC, Jennifer Berkshire and Peter Cunningham sat down to talk about some of the pressing issues of education reform in this country.

Jennifer Berkshire writes the blog Edushyster and also hosts the podcast Have You Heard. Last year, after I met her in person for the first time, I called her a "manic pixie dream girl," missing the negative associations that the term has for folks, so let me take that back and simply observe that she is one of the most literally disarming people I've ever seen in action, a gifted interviewer who is absolutely comfortable and charming without giving up an inch of her own convictions, and with a willingness to hear any point of view.

Peter Cunningham has been around for a while, but is currently holding down a gig running Education Post, one of the major voices of education reform. He came to Raleigh for the full conference (as he did last year in Chicago-- I don't know about the first year); I give him points for entering what was clearly not going to be a friendly environment.

The conversation opened with some light banter, including a gift from Cunningham of a child's game entitled Race to the Top. Also, we learned that he lives right by Mike Klonsky. So there's that.

My notes are not perfect or complete, but I thought I'd jot down my impressions. Soon enough there should be video available if you want to watch the whole thing.

Berkshire opened the seriouser portion by noting that many of the Big Individuals who shaped the early days of Ed Reform have now stepped away from the field , asking Cunningham what he thought of the current state of reform?

Cunningham allowed as how many have "hard chargers" have moved on, but there are still forty-three states that have "raised" standards, and forty-three states allow for charters, and this is probably as good a a time as any to note that if you're a regular reader here, you're going to find much of what Cunningham said objectionable. Common Core and its various mutant siblings aren't my idea of raised standards, nor am I excited about the current state of charterization, but you at least see where his heart is. Also, a number of states are trying to come up with ways to "support and advance teachers" which is the rhetoric that has replaced "find and get rid of Bad Teachers" as justification for evaluation systems.

Berkshire noted that some of her reformster contacts have confided that tying teacher evaluation to test scores was a disaster. Cunningham characterizes the policy as "very difficult" and that one size fits all solutions are also "very difficult." But he sees Berkshire's reformy contacts and raises her teachers that he hears from who say "We need something." Perhaps it all went too far, too fast, he says, and slides in the observation that back at the beginning all sorts of people were signing off on these policies. Now a few years later it isn't working. It's the plaintive cry of Common Core fueled reform-- all these people used to love me just fine until they got to know me. Of course, I might point out plenty of actual teachers have been calling the future fails from Day One, but nobody (including national union leadership) was paying any attention.

Some more transitional chat, including the introduction of Berkshire's sister, a teacher. Then Cunningham made some of his first disingenuous remarks. As a country, he said, people think we should spend more money on education at the same time we're locked in a "noisy" debate about accountability. He misrepresents two of the pro-public school arguments by saying 1) that some people are saying that we can't really educate students of poverty and 2) that teachers don't really make that much difference. This was the first time the crowd started to really mutter angrily.

Reform fans repeatedly mischaracterize the argument as "Poverty can't be overcome and those children are doomed," and I'd challenge you to find me any responsible public ed advocate who has said that. Certainly not the tens of thousands of teachers who are teaching students of poverty. Everybody agrees that poverty creates some obstacles to learning that are not present in students of wealthy families, but it has been reformsters like Cunningham's old boss Arne Duncan who insist that if we just expect real hard or send in really super-duper folks like TFA, the problems of poverty will vanish. Of course, some reformsters have figured it out- like Chris Barbic who, on his way out the door from Tennessee's Achievement School District observed, "Hey, teaching all these poor kids is really hard."

The influence thing-- that's just a matter of research. Teachers have an effect on student test scores (which is the only measure we're using for "student achievement" these days) somewhere in the teens.

It's at this point in the conversation that the question of, "If not this, then what" first comes up (and I've actually addressed that elsewhere on the blog). Berkshire mentioned the work of Jack Schneider with a community-based evaluation system, and then the conversation pivoted to billionaires.

Berkshire moves to the larger issues (because she's a keen observer of the connection between the detail stuff and the large issue stuff) and brings up the issue of excessive influence from a few people with a lot of money whose voices are amplified by that money, but who just don't care.

Cunningham is ready to defend the billionaires. "You don't think Gates wants to get better teaching?" And the real answer to that is that Gates' idea of "better teaching"-- specifically "better teaching for the class of Lessers who can't afford the kind of private schools that the children of the intensely wealthy attend"-- is not necessarily connected to anybody else's view.

Berkshire makes this point, that actual surveys have been done that indicate that billionaires have different views and priorities, that they are out of touch with the rest of us. Cunningham has a kind of Eddie Haskell smile that comes out at these points. He shakes his head. He doesn't agree with this. In 2010, policy priorities were set by Congress, teachers, parents- not rich guys. Which is true, but skips over the huge amount of money and influence exerted by the rich guys in order to convince Congress, teachers and parents to set those policy priorities the Right Way.

I think some folks in the audience may have found it annoying, but I kind of appreciated the way that Cunningham at some points would simply say "I don't think so" or "I disagree" or "That's not so." He said what he thought and he didn't try to hide it behind a fig bush of obfuscatory verbage (I may have been influenced by the session just before this one, which featured VP's of AFT and NEA using a battleship-load of argle bargle to justify the early-bird no-rank-and-file-input endorsements of HRC).

Berkshire expressed her frustration that the education debate remains small (also "overheated and stale"). And that works around to the question of whether or not Education Post is pretty narrow.

Cunningham says that the EP focus was intended to be, and remains, standards, accountability, and charters.

Berkshire broadens the focus to the question of why so much reform activity seems to result in loss of democratic control, and Cunningham counters that parents choosing charters is a sort of democratic choice, and that's just a kettle of fish that can't be dumped out in even an hour. Berkshire focuses on the point that charters have expanded at expense of public schools, which in most charter settings have become schools of last resort. Cunningham flatly disagrees and cites a couple of Chicago neighborhood schools as counter-evidence. It's a weak argument. I know one black guy who became President; pretty sure that doesn't mean we can declare that racism is no longer an issue in America.

Cunningham also swings to saying "you're imagining a conspiracy." Who had this conversation? That of course reduces the notion of a network of like-minded reformsters with shared values and goals to a cartoon version of shadowy figures in a darkened room-- a nice mix of reductio ad absurdum and a straw man, but beside the point. Berkshire bores in. Charters are expanded at cost to district schools with no thought to the larger consequences. Cunningham disagrees. We'll circle this point for a few more minutes, but Cunningham isn't budging and we're going nowhere.

So, shift. Charter regulation up now. Berkshire sees us as entering an Enron phase, where the corporate pressure is to deregulate the industry even as the public pushes for more regulation. Cunningham allows that we need charter regulation-- just be careful not to ruin it. He's even willing to name names-- Michigan, for example, needs some regulation. Berkshire notes that Cunningham's patron Eli Broad is a huge opponent of regulation, and could Cunningham make a phone call>

"I can't call him," says Cunningham. "He funds me to do certain things" and other people to do other things.

Charter advocates worry about perception that charter fraud is out of control. "Worrisome?" asks Berkshire. Not the biggest problem facing education, says Cunningham. Not even close.

Many states are considering multiple authorizers, which seems like a recipe for more trouble. Just a sign of how great the parent demand is, says Cunningham. Accountability would help-- how money is spent, results to be recognized, etc, though Cunningham doesn't mention how aggressively some charters have resisted attempts to implement any such accountability. Now that such accountability is parked at the state level "we won't have a remotely consistent view" of accountability, which Cunningham considers Not a Good Thing.

In a discussion of unionization, Cunningham slides in the observation that unions are driven by desire for higher salary, more benefits, job protections-- he's reinforcing the narrative that unions are in it for the money, not the children. He also observes that everybody should start charters because bureaucracy is what gets in the way of everything good-- better teaching, better schooling, teacher autonomy. I read this one a lot, and I'm always puzzled-- why is it that starting a whole new school is always seen as a better fix than attacking existing bureaucracy? Also, I'm doubtful of the claim, as charters often come fully loaded with their own internal bureaucracy, particularly the big chains where the Main Office can be thousands of miles away from the school itself.

Berkshire notes that charters are all about scale, and mom and pop start-ups that Cunningham likes can't take on the major chains. Cunningham says if the charter system isn't working for you, co-opt it. Take it over. I think he has momentarily forgotten who has all the money and power here.

Finally, Berkshire asks if EP has in fact improved the conversation. Is it better? How betterer is it, according to what metric? Cunningham notes that everyone should reach out to someone with whom they disagree, and also says that you can't measure everything. He's smiling. He knows that's a cute comment from him.

But the follow-up answer is a repeat of one of the most hilarious narratives associated with EP-- Reformsters were feeling beat up and they wanted to create a safe place for folks to Say Reformy Stuff. Yes, Eli Broad, who owns various media outlets, who has created his own school for superintendents and gotten them hired around the country, who has used his money to make a dent in elections, who regularly hangs out with policy makers, and who can lay out $12 million to set up an organization devoted to pushing his narrative into the world-- this is a guy who feels unheard and beaten up. Berkshire's wry response was that she was remaining composed and professional, but laughing on the inside.

The conversation was followed by the audience question section, though Berkshire has to ask people to make their comments a little more questiony. There were several intriguing moments here, including Michelle Gunderson "reframing" (aka "correcting") Cunningham's information about Chicago and unions.

Anthony Cody asked what one spends $12 million on, since that's about $12 million more than the rest of us are spending on the oppression of poor, downtrodden Eli Broad (I am typing this while finishing up the last of my cafeteria chicken salad wrap). Cunningham notes that EP is more than just a website, but also exists to provide communications support to certain folks and making it possible for people to be heard who otherwise would not be (which opens up some questions about the operation of the free marketplace of ideas, but let's save that for another day).

At one point, Cunningham made the observation that in the battle against poverty and all manner of social ills and issues, "You teachers are all we have." The crowd was not pleased, and Berkshire announced "I am officially agitated." Cunningham's line is not a new one, and it's often meant to be taken as an appreciation of the Good And Noble Work of Teachers-- but as those of us paying attention have long since noted, it's also a way of shifting blame for literally all of society's ills onto the backs of teachers. It's also a handy way of absolving government of responsibility. Try to fix systemic poverty and income inequity? No need. We've already got teachers on the case.

Someone also attempted to bring up the kind of charter mess now prevailing in New Orleans and other places where charters have become engines of resegregation. Did Cunningham support something something charter something? If that's what the parents choose, was his answer. I'd hesitate to say that he said segregation is okay if parents want it, but at a minimum he failed to pick up on the main concern of the question.

The session finished up with a gentleman from Seattle who, among other things, wanted to let Cunningham know that the Obama administration, for which this man campaigned hard, broke his heart. In a sense, that's water under the bridge. But it's also the subtext for much discussion of ed reform and certainly the subtext (if not text) of the election cycle. It was not a particularly cheery way to end the session, but tempus does fuigit.

There was no reason to expect that the session would change minds or win hearts for anybody. But a little dialogue never hurt anybody, particularly if they can behave like grown up professionals.


  1. Thanks, Peter, for a great dissection of this conversation.

    "Cunningham has a kind of Eddie Haskell smile that comes out at these points. He shakes his head. He doesn't agree with this."

    The Eddie Haskell comparison is spot on. Cunningham is an actor playing a role. He gets paid $12 million of Eli's money to portray himself this way. He doesn't have to believe in what he says; he's just doing his job - his fulltime job.

    The last gentleman called out the reformistas, saying quite sincerely - "You have hurt a lot of people". For the rest of us, those of us who are collateral damage, this is really real.

    Christine Langhoff

  2. You missed one ironic moment. Before the panel started, somebody mistook me for Peter Greene and she told me how she reads my blog religiously and really loves it.