In ‘reform’ vs. ‘status quo’: a rhetorical no-contest

Sean Cavanaugh has a good article in Education Week describing how advocates of charter schools, vouchers and merit pay have managed to label themselves as “reformers” and their critics as the “education establishment” and defenders of the “status quo.”

“Using rhetoric to frame policies in a flattering or negative light is, of course, as old as politics itself,” he writes. “But the pervasiveness of today’s education language, often echoed uncritically in the media, is striking, and reflects the extent to which self-described supporters of reform have seized the rhetorical high ground in making their case.”

Cavanaugh also notes how “reform” advocates claim their policies are good for students or children, while their opponents want what’s best for adults. He cites the “Putting Students First” agenda of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and state Superintendent Tony Bennett; Idaho Republican leaders’ “Students Come First” program; and Michelle Rhee’s new organization, StudentsFirst.

It’s an uphill battle for those who think choice, union-busting and high-stakes testing aren’t panaceas. How do you capture skepticism in an inspirational slogan?

Gates: bigger class sizes can be better

Microsoft founder and education super-philanthropist Bill Gates writes in the Washington Post that the U.S. needs to “flip the curve” to get more bang for its education buck. To do so, he says, “we have to identify great teachers, find out what makes them so effective and transfer those skills to others so more students can enjoy top teachers and high achievement.”

He makes the usual reformist argument that the key to improving education is to hire, retain and reward great teachers – and that advanced degrees and experience are unrelated to teacher effectiveness. And he suggests paying more to the best teachers if they agree to teach more students.

This makes logical sense. It will be more persuasive when elite private schools start advertising their large class sizes – you know, to better share the benefits of having excellent teachers.

Fifteen yards (and an indefinite delay of game) for taunting

Lafayette attorney Doug Masson uses a football analogy to describe the impasse in the Indiana House on his Masson’s Blog. House Democrats fled to Illinois last week, claiming that Republican over-reaching on anti-labor and education measures forced them to shut down the process.

“The House G.O.P. reminds me of one of those receivers that catches a deep pass in the open field, then starts showboating short of the end zone before being stripped by a second-stringer too dumb or stubborn to know the game is supposed to be over,” Masson writes. “It’s all the more maddening because the guy who stripped the ball is a short dude with bad hair.”

The short dude, of course, is Rep. Pat Bauer, D-South Bend, the House minority leader who led the Democratic exodus to Urbana, Ill. The dude is nothing if not stubborn.

Wait ends for ‘Superman’

The hype and buzz for Davis Guggenheim’s charter-schools documentary film Waiting for “Superman” seemed to fizzle. The expected Oscar nomination didn’t come through.

The movie apparently passed through Indiana theaters in December without much notice. But we’ll have a chance to see it again in Bloomington, thanks to the Indiana University School of Education and several student groups, including EDPOSA, the Education Policy Student Association.

The screening, at 6 p.m. Friday (March 4) at the IU School of Education auditorium, will be followed by a panel discussion with IU education professors Larry Mikulecky, Jesse Goodman and Jonathan Plucker and possibly area teachers. It’s free and open to the public.

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‘Superman’ saga continues

The news stories and commentary keep coming about the documentary film Waiting for “Superman.” At the risk of beating a dead horse, here are a few more examples:

Must have been an oversight

The film had its Indianapolis debut Tuesday at an invitation-only screening sponsored by Mind Trust, a local education reform organization.

Speaking at the event were Mind Trust CEO David Harris, former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and M. Karega Rausch, education assistant to current Mayor Greg Ballard. The audience included Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Eugene White and at least a couple of writers for the Indianapolis Star.

Star columnist Matt Tully praises Waiting for “Superman” and urges readers to see it, but says it may bear the burden of unreasonable expectations – it’s too much to think that one movie may “finally put the country on a path toward solving its massive education problems.”

Another story describes the film and quotes Bennett and Harris. It also notes that representatives of the 50,000-member Indiana State Teachers Association were apparently left off the invitation list.

“We find it very disappointing that we were not included to participate (Tuesday) evening,” ISTA spokesman Mark Shoup told the Star. Continue reading

Writing about ‘Waiting for “Superman”’

Whatever the merits of the new movie Waiting for “Superman,” it’s inspiring some good education journalism, including stories in publications that usually don’t devote much ink to schools. Here are a few examples:

Dana Goldstein’s long piece in The Nation is titled “Grading ‘Waiting for ‘Superman,’” and the article does fault the movie for its heroes-and-villains plot line, calling it “a moving but vastly oversimplified brief on American educational inequality.” But Goldstein goes further, writing a balanced and well researched story that examines the influence in the school-policy debate of billionaire Bill Gates and journalist Steven Brill and reports how teachers’ unions in Denver, Memphis and Los Angeles have taken the lead in pushing for reform.

Goldstein is spending the year writing about education as a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University. At a time when some newspapers and magazines seem to be cutting back on education coverage, hats off to the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation for helping fill the gap.

In the New Yorker, Nicholas Lemann make a persuasive case that America’s education system, on the whole, is succeeding. “So it’s odd that a narrative of crisis, of a systemic failure, in American education is currently so persuasive,” he writes, citing Waiting for “Superman” as a leading example.

Lemann says we should be suspicious when “an enormous, complicated realm of life takes on the characteristics of a stock drama” – and we should be wary of plans to reform large, complex systems. Continue reading

An overly convenient solution

People who care about the nation’s schools – and the nation’s children – should probably take heart in the buzz that’s being generated by the new documentary Waiting for Superman. Anything that gets people excited about the importance of schools should have potential for good.

But accounts from people who have seen the film – which premiered this week in Washington, D.C., after months of feverish build-up — suggest that director Davis Guggenheim may be asking the right questions but leaping to the wrong answers.

Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about Al Gore and climate change, tells a dramatic story of five young students who are entered in lotteries for coveted slots in charter schools – portrayed as a make-or-break gamble for their educational future. Besides the kids and their parents, its heroes include Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of District of Columbia Schools, and Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

And Waiting for Superman isn’t just a movie. It’s a crusade, with audiences pledging to see the film and get involved, corporations pouring money into promotional activities, and Washington politicians, Hollywood types and pop music stars getting into the act. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman went all wide-eyed over the film. Multibillionaire Bill Gates and musician John Legend are among the many celebrities joining Guggenheim to promote it.

The title comes from Geoffrey Canada, who makes the point that we can’t wait for Superman to rescue us from our problems; we have to rescue ourselves. But it sounds a lot like Guggenheim, the director, is making comic-book heroes of Canada, Rhee and some cherry-picked charter schools. Continue reading