One of the bravest, most astute, and honest scholar/journalists in the land is Naomi Schaefer Riley, who has written brilliantly about such touchy but crucial topics as the harm wrought by professorial tenure and the peculiar world of seriously religious universities. Ms. Riley has just been fired from her "brainstorm blogger" role by the Chronicle of Higher Education because she wrote the truth about another touchy topic, namely what passes for post-graduate scholarship in "black studies" departments on U.S. campuses. You can get some of the flavor of this squalid episode by reading her posts (here and here) and some of the hundreds of comments thereon. You can also read an account of the controversy here and can glimpse a sample of the vitriol heaped on Ms. Riley here. You can read the Chronicle's obsequious apologia on its blog. The editors obviously yielded to the (dare I use this phrase?) mau-mauing they received from commenters and "on-line petitioners." This is a truly reprehensible episode in the annals of American journalism, the more so for an influential and widely read publication that's been around since I was a graduate student myself and that boasts of its "vibrant discussion forums." Wrong. Vibrancy, it seems, has been replaced by political correctness and intimidation.
With trivial exceptions, Washington does not run schools, employ teachers, buy textbooks, write curriculum, hand out diplomas, or decide who gets promoted to 5th grade. Historically, it has contributed less than 10 percent of national K-12 spending. So its influence on what happens in U.S. schools is indirect and limited. Yet that influence can be profound, albeit not always in a helpful way.
Uncle Sam is dreadful at micromanaging what actually happens in schools and classrooms. What he's best at is setting agendas and driving priorities. Through a combination of jawboning, incentivizing, regulating, mandating, forbidding, spotlighting, and subsidizing, he can significantly influence the overall direction of the K-12 system and catalyze profound changes in it (though the system is so loosely coupled that these changes occur gradually and incompletely).
Washington's influence on U.S. schools is indirect and limited—but it can also be profound, albeit not always in a helpful way.
Photo by Joe Portnoy.
It's just as well that such big directional shifts don't happen very often, because the change, however gradual, can be wrenching. And it isn't apt to happen much more often in the future, either, because the "federal government" is no single entity. It is, at minimum, three branches, two political parties, 535 members of Congress, innumerable judges, the White
Fordham's bloggers didn't miss a beat this week, discussing all the week's most interesting education news, from Arizona to Ohio:
- Adam Emerson took Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to task for her rhetoric on school vouchers. Her explanation for vetoing a vouchers bill, he concluded on Choice Words, “pretends the expansion of private school choice would 'artificially manipulate' the market to the disadvantage of public schools.”
- “Why do we assume, when it comes to evaluating schools, that we must look at numbers alone?” wondered Mike Petrilli on Flypaper, advocating for the use of inspections in grading schools.
- “Shining light on the reality of how well our students are doing is the first step to upgrading expectations for students, schools, and the larger community, and ultimately developing the capacities needed to meet the challenge,” argued Emmy Partin on the Ohio Gadfly Daily.
- “Good schools can stem the tide of rural flight in some circumstances,” noted Chris Tessone on Stretching the School Dollar, “but once the process has reached critical mass, communities may have to dramatically reconfigure.”
- “Advocating for common standards and common assessments merely helps give parents the common language they need to understand that information,” argued Kathleen Porter-Magee on Common Core Watch. “In short: it’s a way of helping make parents more informed consumers.”
Paul Farhi of the Washington Post created a stir this weekend with an American Journalism Review article ripping mainstream education reporting for being uncritical of school reform. His comments were particularly pointed when it came to television coverage of the subject, especially NBC’s.
NBC has concentrated on initiatives favored by self-styled education reformers. The network has been particularly generous to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting teacher merit pay proposals and privately run charter schools—an agenda strongly opposed by many public school teachers, labor unions and educators.
During its first "Education Nation" summit in 2010, for example, "NBC Nightly News" aired a profile of a Gates Foundation initiative, "Measures of Effective Teaching," which seeks to create a database of effective teaching methods. The reporter was former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. During the second summit last fall, Brokaw showed up on "Today" with Melinda Gates to discuss the same Gates initiative. Turning from reporter to advocate, Brokaw told host Natalie Morales, "So what Bill and Melinda have done, and it's a great credit to them, and it's a great gift to this country, is that they have taken the kind of episodic values that we know about teaching and they've put them together in a way that everyone can learn from them. So that's a big, big step."
The media has indeed been obsessed with the teacher effectiveness agenda.
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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