Tuesday, September 28

A New Low, If Such A Thing Were Imaginable, Let Alone Possible

NBC's Education Week coverage last night was just some bottom-of-the-screen bunting shy of its Shock and Awe coverage. Is Our Networks Learning? Here's what we learned last night, courtesy NBC News Chief Personality and Tanning Salon Model Brian Williams:

1. American (public) schools are failing. We know this because we know it. Plus, millions of eighth graders do no read at eighth grade level. Plus a poll!

2. The reason public schools are failing is teachers' unions. Because bad teachers. Because hate Change. Because lazy. Because tenure. Because arcane work rules.

3. The obvious solution is Innovation. The obvious place to look for innovation is among people who earn all or a part of their sizable incomes bashing the public schools.

No, really. That's it. Go take a look. Lemme know where I missed the slightest hint there may be other viewpoints out there, or any problems with that one.

Here's Bob Somerby, the morning before this thing kicked off, commenting on a Richard Cohen column of equal value. Bob Somerby is one of the very best writers on education in the country. He has a blog. Pam Geller and Michelle Malkin are on the teevee regularly:
Cohen goes on to offer an offbeat assessment; he breaks from the society’s Standard Assessment about the alleged monstrous failure of the nation’s schools. In that Standard Scripted Assessment, teachers and their teacher unions are the villains of the piece; they are the reason—the only reason—why “this nation's schools, particularly the big city ones, are an unforgivable mess.” That script is part of a much larger war, in which the nation’s plutocrats began to target the nation’s unions about forty years ago. But when it comes to those teachers unions, every good journalist knows what to say. NBC’s mewling David Gregory recited the script on yesterday’s Meet the Press, although he doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about when it comes to the nation’s schools. As the day proceeded on MSNBC, Brian Williams, Joe and Mika all continued to pound the script home.

NBC came under fire last week because teachers, and their side, were all but excluded from its little summit. In response, NBC News President Steve Capus disavowed any responsibility for fairness, accuracy, or knowledge of the topic, insisting "the role of a news organization is to put a spotlight on these issues/challenges, and on the people who are doing incredibly strong work to try to affect change."

Interesting, really, that no one ever uses examples of our Plutocrats talking like that, and expecting other people to buy it, at full retail, to question the efficacy of our education system.

We got to hear--at length--from Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone. Mr. Canada is a dynamic speaker, passionate, and a man who has accomplished much good. He is also the man whose flagship charter school has raised $100 million in private donations. Let's just say that under the circumstances I find his lack of enthusiasm for traditional public schools less than surprising.

No one seems to notice--certainly the raccoon-eyed Mr. Williams didn't interrupt the love-fest to mention--that Mr. Canada comes pre-loaded with a Charter School defense perimeter, which included, at one point, the out-of-the-blue declaration that there were failing Charter Schools and such should and could be closed. This was not in response to any tough questioning from Williams; neither did he follow up as to why, if closing failing charters is a sufficient response, why closing failing public schools is not sufficient to preclude charters altogether. The fact is that Canada needs a prolonged defense of the Charter Movement because it hasn't begun to live up to the claims its proponents were making ten years ago, and, in fact, it clearly has, on balance, simply drawn resources from the public schools while producing roughly the same results.
A lot of charters don't have unions, so they're free to innovate.

declares Canada, letting Brian and the rest of the NBC gang know he's caught the evening's theme. We get this with as much evidence as we get the rest of the evening, namely, none. The night's other theme.

Where does this come from? To begin with, anyone making such a statement is simply lying: there's no national teacher contract, no national test (the closest thing being the NAEP, which these people don't want to talk about, because test scores are pretty much exactly where they've always been), no philosophical basis for the claims of testing expertise or comparison of results. It's an argument (and an anti-union one) disguised as a profound moral truth. Because it has no other sort of truth to offer.

What are the possible impacts teacher contracts have on "innovation"? Well, it might depend on what state you happen to be in (there was a great deal of blather about tenure last night; there's no such thing as tenure in Indiana.) Here unions may bargain for teachers--it's an open, not a closed shop--over conditions delineated by the state legislature. Wages, class size, number of classes taught per day, prep periods, extra requirements, grievance procedures. Are these things dragging down the American education system?

We've known since the Coleman Report to the Johnson administration that economic level is the key predictor of educational achievement. Nothing's ever changed that or even challenged it. At the same time, we've known this since the Johnson administration. The primary issue is that we've done fuck-all about it for forty-five years, except continue using public schools as a political football. It is the height of insanity to imagine that we're going to get different results by changing the air pressure, or moving the kickoff back ten yards. If we'd pumped $100 million into every public school in America would we be getting different results? If we put $100 million into every community for health care and social services, would we be better off? How 'bout if we stopped creating Saviors, and started creating opportunities for poverty-stricken children that go beyond getting them to do better on a math test? The government's supposed to be deeply invested in turning out little earners, but the government's supposed to keep its corrupt and incompetent mitts off the Free Market.

Next up was NBC education reporter Rehema Ellis, fluffing Race to the Top. Ellis is NBC's education reporter because she's the one who reads education stories. It's not her full-time beat; Our Nation's Failing Schools don't merit a full-timer at NBC, nor one with any more expertise than a J-school degree bestows. Ellis, of course, was up on the night's purpose:
[Tennessee's bid elicited] promises from powerful players often labelled as holdouts against change--legislators, union leaders, and even some teachers.

Yes, even some powerful teachers signed on, allowing the governor and state legislators of Tennessee (Motto: Home of the Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park!) to proceed. (I'm going to say this again, and again, as long as necessary: How long have we be listening to demands for educational change and "innovation"? How much has already been put into place, over the anti-progress protestations of teachers and their powerful unions? When do the innovators start to be held accountable? When do the union busters' grades come out? When do the forces for returning our biology instruction to the 18th century, and making our history correspond to how some people would like it get called to account?)

And Ellis narrated the evening's telling statistic, the one moment of scientificalistics:
In a nation where 68% of eighth graders can't read at grade level...

If you froze the screen and caught the boilerplate, it credited the National Center for Education Statistics Learner Outcomes. Here's the graph. In case you were educated in a public school, I'll interpret. 2009: percentage below Basic 8th grade reading level: 25. Twenty-five. In case you were educated in public school, that leaves 75% reading at Basic 8th grade level or above. You have to throw Basic proficiency into the Trash Heap of Uncaring Union Teachers to get a 68% failure rate. I'm sure this was just an oversight.

Finally, well, look: Brian made a big deal about the final segment featuring a teacher who "tossed a grenade" at their Teachers' Town Hall meeting. Here we go I told my Poor Wife when I heard the exit tease. Go ahead: sit through the commercial and look at the clip, then come back and let me know who in the audience acted like they hadn't heard this same shit their entire professional careers. 1) Early Twenty-something 2) elementary school teacher 3) doesn't see the need for tenure (so move to Indiana, e.g.) because 4) what her students really need is Phonics (or Objectivism, Magic Crystals, and Alien Lizard Masters) and 5) Teachers who spend all their free time doing unpaid tutoring. As a rule I do not hit girls, or boys, and I don't care to now. Check back when you're married. Or check back when you've done this for twenty years, and tell us all the wonderful stories of your 1020 volunteer weekends. Right. Meanwhile, the instruction of ten-year-old Spanish speakers in the rudiments of test-score achievement is an admirable pursuit; I'm glad, and a little surprised, it hasn't aged you more yet. But it's not fucking applicable to every last education issue in the whole goddam country. You're young, and may learn; Mr. Williams is not, and won't. Hand-grenade? Not even a rubber horseshoe.

By the way: what does NBC's prime-time line-up contribute to Our Nation's Education exactly?


Kathy said...

As you point out, the main purpose of the show was , plain and simple. With an emphasis on Government Worker's Unions.

Our 2% elite are (successfully) blaming Unions for the country's unemployment problems, all failing scores in all schools, and probably the weather.

Unions and Government Workers (who go together in the Public School context) are in the gunsights of the "force 95% of US workers into 3rd world status" folk.

Government workers make a living wage adjusted for inflation, and their jobs are fairly secure, and they have decent benefits. This is intolerable! They must be CRUSHED. Then everyone can compete on an even playing field, and the Free Market will be allowed to make slaves of us all.

Kathy said...

The goal of the show was UNION BUSTING. How that got deleted from the first sentence, I don't know.

Rugosa said...

This NY Times article http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/28/education/28school.html?hpw is about Brockton (Mass.) High School, where featherbedding, change-resistant union teachers have brought the school from failing to outperforming 90% of Massachusetts schools in the past 10 years.

Narya said...

Yeah, that Times article was quite interesting, actually.

As for one of your questions, teachers have been blamed--and more administration and less unionizing have been recommended--for more than a century.

arithmoquine said...

Surely, you cannot think that we should be satisfied with students performing at "Basic" rather than "At or above proficiency"! All our children must work at that higher level or our schools have failed, failed, failed. Grade level should be defined as proficiency or even as perfection. Indeed, since I know that my child is perfect, as are all other children, the fact that 99% of children performed less than perfectly indicates a failure of the teachers and their dastardly unions. There can be no other explanation. And especially it cannot be my fault. Or the fault of the grinding, abject poverty in which so many children are forced to live. Better to find a scapegoat and ignore such possibilities.

scripto said...

"and started creating opportunities for poverty-stricken children that go beyond getting them to do better on a math test?"

Amen to that. Do these dipshits even bother to drive through the neighborhoods where some of these schools are located? A thousand Mr. Chips aren't going to fix those problems.

JMC said...

Capitalism has a natural drive to find and exploit vulnerable public institutions, to privatize them and destroy them, to make... money. Each time the reason is "innovation." Out from under the repressive hand of the (public utilities commission, teacher's unions, securities and exchange commission, and so forth) we can "innovate." This has brought us collateralized debt obligations, and phone conversations featuring the exciting retro drama of shouting "over" to indicate the discontinuance of a sentence.

We are at the precipice of another wave of such nonsense. Our erstwhile leader just wants to be friends with everybody, and our leader's party is very shy of hurting feelings, so abuse of teachers will likely be the least of the problems we'll face, even though it is a very serious problem indeed.

bjkeefe said...

This was even better than the last few rants of yours I've read on this edumacation topic.

I am moved to say that I am glad that I do not have children.

Keep up the good fight, Mr. Riley (and Your Poor Wife). We are rooting for you both.

I wish I could say more. I am trying to be optimistic, despite the powerful reasons you give me not to be.

unclemike said...

The police have unions. The firefighters have unions. Yet, whenever there is an uptick in crime or arson, nobody thinks to blame their respective unions--the solution is, usually, "We need more cops/firefighters."

I wonder why the same cannot be said for teachers? Most of the time, the solution to bad test scores seems to be to attack the union and cram more kids into the room.

My Algebra classes have 35 kids in them. The Geometry teach next door has 45 in one class. This is no way to teach, I'm telling ya.