By James Bishop, Jr.
(December 13, 2012)
Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt
– From Measure for Measure
Sunlight is the best disinfectant
– Mr. Dooley
As time goes by, life is becoming so complicated that even Fourth Estate reporters shun delving into challenging conundrums. Consider our energy and our food distribution systems which often cause veteran reporters to stumble all over themselves trying to understand how the global economy actually works. Such is the case with the nation’s educational dilemmas asserts prize-winning Arizona teacher, Elaine Watkins: “In my opinion, the media does a surface job with education. It may be that they can’t understand it.”
Confirming her view pile up like apples falling from a tree at harvest time. In that regard, few illustrations trump an article in Newsweek Magazine in March 2010. Enticingly, the cover said “The Key to Saving American Education.” Behind that promising sounding headline was a blackboard upon which was written ever and over again, “We must fire bad teachers. We must fire bad teachers.” Why because the article stated, “Once upon a time, American students tested better than any other students in the world…..no longer.” Shockingly, according to Newsweek, American students now have steadily dropped down on the list of nations, down to the student performance in Lithuania; “a national embarrassment as well as a threat to the nation’s future,” Newsweek charged. Quite a story of decline, a narrative of failure and redemption was that article wrote Diane Ravitch, foremost influential scholar on education and well aware of other shortcomings. However, there was one hitch in her view: “The story was a fairy tale because there was no time in the past when American schools were first in international tests.”
Indeed avowed the late philosopher Aldous Huxley, “facts do not cease to exist just because they are ignored.” Despite Newsweek’s “fairy tale,” and others which followed it pick up the pace of the so-called “reform movement” the thrust of which is that students would be performing ever so much better if not for “bad teachers,” protected in their positions by unions and tenure. To be sure, reform movements were nothing new to our public school systems, driven by dissidents pushing for better salaries and working hours. Few in the media bother to report about the history of “reform movements.” From the 1820s to now, self-styled reformers belly ached about low standards, ignorant teachers, and incompetent school boards During the Reagan presidency, “A Nation at Risk” was published telling the world that low student performance due to “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” How many in the media try to define “a rising tide of mediocrity? No did they harken back to New York City in the early 1900s when there was a movement to ban spelling and grammar to make school more fun; when William Maxwell, superintendent of New York City schools insisted that “vertical penmanship” was the answer to all educational problems; when another reformer maintained that recess was a “relic of barbarism.” In those days, sunlight was the best disinfectant and “yellow journalism” was daily fare. This time around, it was a scholar and author, not a journalist who dug into the forces driving the current reform movement—Diane Ravitch, a Research Professor of Education at NYU, and the recipient of Daniel Moynihan Award from the American Academy of Political and Social Science “for her careful use of social science research to advance the public good.”
This writer encountered her work reading The New York Review of Book in 2012. Reacting to another jeremiad, this one put out by the Council on Foreign Relations and stating that public schools are so bad they threaten national security, she asked: “How is it possible that this nation became so successful if its public schools, which enroll 90 percent of its children, have been consistently failing for the past generation?”
Because of spotty reporting by the mass media, the public only sees flashes of the forces behind the current reform movement which is led and financed, for the most part, by people with little or no background or expertise in education. This time around, the reform movement in the early 21st century is led by Wall Street moguls, millionaires, conservative foundations, leaders of technology firms bound together by the belief that the real problem with the nation’s public school system is because of a large number of “bad teachers.” This group of so-called reformers, many disciples of Ayn Rand and the Tea Party movement believe that the private sector, meaning businesses, always perform better than the public center. Unreported by the mass media, including the big eastern press is that a major scandal is brewing. For-profit charter schools rake in some $30 billion a year in federal student loans and grants so what do they have to show for it? Their loan default is twice that of traditional schools, and only 20 percent of their funding on actual instruction vs. much more on marketing.
Talk about a story which was mostly ignored by the press/media. Talk about another story that was essential ignored, what determines a “bad teacher.” Talk about the real motive of the money-driven reform movement, to replace big city public school systems in the name of so-called free market competition with charter schools fueled by taxpayer money. Do students do better? Doubtful!
In all fairness to the media, the time has passed long ago when magazines and newspapers hired education reporters. The result is that many of the true problems facing the public school systems are reported by general assignment reporters without deep backgrounds in education. At the same time, although funding comes from the Nation’s capital many of the best stories—like the last of the one-room schoolhouses, like schools running against the trend, teaching art—are to be found in the states, in one state, and not yet a national trend. Idaho is a good example what with the teachers going to court to stop computers and their on-line programs from driving teachers away. Such resistance has not been reported elsewhere in the U.S.
To be sure there examples where the media/press has performed well in the public interest. Leading the list is Time magazine’s takeout on the revival of vocational education on May 14th, 2012. To be sure, the prior way of regarding vocational schools was that they were for dumb kids because they were not fit for classroom learning. According to Time “the old notion of vocational education has been stood on its head.” Indeed it is now called CTE for career and technical education and it is becoming an attractive route for college-bound advanced-placement students.
No question, a new reporter on the education scene would have trouble deciding where to focus, where to start. Questions arise. Are teachers really to blame for poor student performance? If elected officials stopped chopping teacher salaries would that improve student scores? Are rigid testing programs a help or a hindrance to public school students? Will public schools survive the rush to charter schools? What does it take for a student to want to learn? Are parents responsible for their children’s poor grades? Why has No Child Left Behind Failed? Can the Internet make a difference to educating children?
Ironically, the preeminent reporting on the nation’s public school challenge has been done by reporters and writers from overseas, namely the London-based Economist which was the first report that “non-school factors”
Such as family income account for as much as 60% of a child’s performance in school. It is interesting that back in 1899, John Dewey, academic theorist, published “The School and Society” in which he argued that schooling should reflect the lives of children. Nowadays the name of the game is every one wishes to measure outcomes. The magazine also reported that when one compares Western reforms with Eastern practice the main difference was that in Hong Kong, “the effective teacher is seen as a figure of authority, morality and benevolence…. Some Western parents might like a taste of such Confucianism in their own children’s classrooms.”
What is the answer?
Kicker are letters