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Saturday, September 29, 2012

Education Nation, style over substance

From the Nation, by Donald Earl Collins 
This weekend, for the third year in a row, NBC will kick off their Education Nation Week in New York City. It will involve MSNBC's rising stars like Melissa Harris-Perry, Chuck Todd and Alex Wagner. It will include a two-day summit broken down into a series of case studies about the various issues in K-12 education and how to improve it for America's children. It will also include a teacher town hall and a student town hall.
In the end, it will all be a staged pageant of concern about kids, a subliminal message of corporatized education reform, a series of half-baked ideas that wouldn't have been good for schools a hundred years ago, much less now. I don't normally trash events before they begin, but I've seen this movie before. It's the one that's been given a bad title, a poor script worked on by five writers, with poor character development, mediocre actors and a wholly implausible ending.
NBC's Education Nation Week fits all of those because its hosts know about as much about the nuances of education as I do about the interactions of neutrinos with the Higgs boson particle. The week-long event is sponsored by University of Phoenix, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ExxonMobil, Target, Citi and the General Motors Foundation (the last one as a "Knowledge Partner"). Seriously? A for-profit institution with a ten (10) percent graduation rate? The biggest funder of ill-conceived education reform efforts, ones that have little chance of actually creating better conditions for teachers to effectively teach students of all stripes? Not to mention a bunch of corporations that have little incentive to reform public education for America's low-income students in a way that would truly level the playing field? Are you kidding me?
In light of the recent Chicago Teachers Union strike and the serious issues that the union, Chicago's parents and the local (notthe national) media raised about the corporate-based assumptions behind education reform, NBC's should (but won't) call off this year's Education Nation Week. High-stakes testing and a concentration on teacher effectiveness as reflected by test scores is the mantra of the mainstream education reform movement these days. Along with charter schools as "choice" for low-income families, battles to weaken teacher's unions, an insistence on STEM fields as the content-based focus of reform, and the creation of a standard curriculum that is neither standard nor a full curriculum.
All in all, a prescription that would make the technocrats at the Gates Foundation and ExxonMobil feel better. But given the lack of funding at the state and federal level these days for everyday school needs -- much less funding to implement such reforms -- it simply cannot work. Without any concentration on critical thinking, writing comprehension skills, physical education, music, art, creativity, the leaders and hosts of Education Nation Week expect teachers and students to do more with less in a system that was never meant to work for most students in the first place.
Harris-Perry's all-over-the-place commentary on the CTU strike in The Nation this week is an example of media ignorance of what reforms would actually look like in the long-term, even in the case of a prominent political science professor. Her piece "Casualties in the Education Reform Wars" is based on a suffer-the-little-children (and parents) premise that demonizes all sides of the education deform battles. It shows that she has little understanding of education history, policy and politics.
This is by far the most disappointing piece I've ever read by Harris-Perry. It's a piece based purely on emotion, and not on the challenges that educational policy/politics have forced on teachers, administrators, students and parents. A system based on high-stakes testing and the corporatized education reform movement doesn't work for anyone. Evaluating teachers based primarily on exams created by technocrats from afar and taken by their students means a watery gruel of education for all of our kids.
Unlike Harris-Perry, cursing all sides isn't an option for most of us. Engaging and engaged teachers, school leaders, and yes, being involved in our kids' education is where we need to start. Holding our politicians' feet to the fire on real education reform is another piece. And also, holding columnists' feet to the fire when they write a piece short on facts and long on hand-wringing when writing on educational issues is something we as parents and educators must do. Especially since folks like Harris-Perry only write about these issues after a strike or a tragedy.
I can guarantee, sadly, that NBC's Education Nation Week, with the vapid thinking of thinkers like Harris-Perry involved, will be yet another media event devoid of substance and full of style points. In other words, endless drivel.

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