One of the running themes in the battle over reforming American public education is that education traditionalists and even some reformers have little interest in including the voices of those outside education into this most-important discussion. From where they sit, the thought is “how dare these interlopers who have never taught in classrooms come in and criticize practices that have served us, the adults, well for so long.” And among some longtime education reporters, the very thought of another reporter coming in and gaining notice for opening up eyes to these issues is also just plain galling. One can see this in the criticism of Steven Brill’s new book, Class Warfare, which has been tarred and feathered for allegedly overstating the importance of teachers (even though it doesn’t) and engages in what American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten calls”demagoguery” (funny given what her own union has done lately).
What all these folks fail to realize is that we can’t overhaul American public education for all children unless we engage everyone. Even someone such as a Matt Damon (whose views on teacher compensation are incorrect) should be engaged in this conversation and play their part in helping every child succeed in school and life. And given the role education plays in our economic present and future — and the reality that the so-called experts among education traditionalists have helped foster the abysmal conditions that rob far too many children of worthwhile futures — we need all the outsiders playing their part and bringing their expertise to the table.
In this Best of Dropout Nation from December, Editor RiShawn Biddle takes aim at similar criticisms, this over the movie Waiting for “Superman”. It is time for the cloisters of education to be fully open to view, and given the full scrutiny needed to help all our children get the high-quality education they deserve.
The biggest problem with education people – and this includes some in the school reform movement – is their insistence that somehow folks outside of their ivory towers shouldn’t be there. This conceited, myopic thinking usually exhibits itself in their arguments that others don’t have the expertise (which is funny given that they demand humility in analysis from journalists and economists looking at education, but don’t engage in the same when they criticize fields about which they know little). And though it plays well to their colleagues inside the teachers’ lounges, ed school classrooms and think tank offices, it comes off rather badly to observers from the outside – especially after the circular logic of education types is given closer evaluation.
One would expect Rick Hess, the American Enterprise Institute’s education reform guru (whose latest book, The Same Thing Over and Over, critiques reformers for tired thinking) to behave differently. But in his trashing of the highly-touted (and well worth watching) Davis Guggenheim documentary, Waiting for “Superman” — including declaring the movie a bust and arguing that it was simplistic — Hess engages in the kind of activity that has brought down the (never solid) standing of Diane Ravitch as an education thinker in more-respectable circles.
The fact that Hess doesn’t understand the art of filmmaking – in which complex ideas must be whittled down to be easily digestible and grab the attention of audiences looking for a nice night out – is pretty clear. Your editor, who has covered the business of entertainment, could also tell Hess that box office numbers tell you little. After all, most movies (especially documentaries) never make money at the box office because of heavy marketing and distribution costs; in any case, the studios and the producers are never going to let on about the real costs or income from any film (it is why studios still use cash accounting in negotiating contracts with actors and directors, while sticking with accrual accounting for providing income data to the public shareholders who own them as part of larger media conglomerates).
Hess’s argument that Guggenheim oversimplifies the reality of what is needed to reform American public education is also largely off base. Certainly Hess is right that it isn’t easy to challenge institutions and we don’t have all the solutions to dealing with the complexities of educating students. But Guggenheim is also more right than Hess will ever admit: Taking action is actually quite simple; it just comes down to political will. As Martin Luther King would say, it is always the right time to do the right thing and its easy to do when your mind is set on the right path. We know that kids need high-quality teaching and we know the systemic problems in education — including traditional teacher compensation — is part of the problem; in fact, Hess points this out in The Same Thing Over and Over. So, in all honesty, starting the path towards reforming education isn’t exactly rocket science.
That’s all beside the point. The bigger issue is that Hess is exhibiting the same myopia (including the over-emphasis on expertise that is part of the reason why American public education is in the proverbial toilet) that is a trait of the defenders of the status quo he rightly condemns.
Hess fails to realize this: For the time since probably the days of Horace Mann and the battles over the kind of Protestantism that should make up the nation’s civic religion in schools (and the anti-Catholic bigotry that accompanied it), people outside of education who generally have no interest in it are actually paying attention. And this time, we’re not talking about an occasional Time cover, a rare Stand and Deliver and a President Eisenhower talking about a Sputnik moment. This year, there have been at least four documentaries that have captured attention outside of education circles. A television network hosted a summit on school reform. And Oprah Winfrey has done at least three shows featuring people who would otherwise not be considered outside of education circles.
We’re talking about Fantasia touting charter schools, Tichina Arnold serving as an ambassador for National PTA, and John Legend criticizing the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. As someone who used to think and sometimes still believes that celebrities should stay out of politics and other issues (I mean you, Sean Penn), the presence these figures – along with the emergence of folks such as former U.S. Department of Justice player Joel Klein as leading reformers – is heartwarming. Whether or not you think people should pay a whole lot of attention, we live in a celebrity culture; it’s a good idea to take advantage of that in order to shut down dropout factories. Even Hess — a celebrity in education circles — should understand that.
If anything, we need more movies like Waiting for “Superman“, The Lottery, The Cartel and The Providence Effect because these movies hit people where they live. In fact, I dare say that Ridley Scott should produce a film in which teachers union bosses are portrayed in a damning and critical light, while parents and reform-minded educators standing heroically against the grain. Certainly, you need data; but as former National PTA CEO Byron Garrett pointed out at yesterday’s State of Black CT event on school reform, rallying people around school reform will take more than a few data-points people sort of know already (even if they really don’t). More importantly, they’re not going to pick up AEI reports, attend Center for American Progress sessions, or even pick up A Byte At the Apple. For those of us who write them (including me), the facts hurt. But it is what it is.
You need images of empty Lee Jeans factories in Trenton; photos of young white and black men loitering around 38th Street in Indianapolis; cinematography of teachers in Grosse Pointe damning their futures of their students with low expectations; and scenes inside unemployment offices in rural Southern Illinois with dropouts looking for work. The data highlights what is seen. From where I sit, it’s still saddening that three decades later, Lean on Me and Stand and Deliver are still the only dramas that cast some damning light on how the culture of mediocrity within American public education condemns the economic and social destinies of so many young men and women. It’s time for a whole slew of new movies dramatizing school reform. (And yes, my screenwriting pals and I have scripts at the ready.)
School reformers need to realize that the battle to reform American public education will not be won only in policy rooms, statehouse hallways, or school board meetings. It’s going to take action by men and women on urban streets, in suburban cul-de-sacs and in rural neighborhood. They need information at their fingertips, passion in their hearts for the kids around them, and knowledgeable fear that if they don’t reform education now, there may be no American Way left. And they will need the Rick Hesses, the Joel Kleins and Davis Guggenheims to stand in the crowd with them yelling: “Hell no, this won’t continue no more.”
Many reformers not named Hess already get pieces of it — including a reformer who has a little more gray hair on his head. It’s why the Education Trust has an artist-in-residence and why some reformers are investing heavily in new media. In fact, the fact that celebrities are paying attention is an important sign that reformers are winning over hearts and minds; it is also why the NEA, the AFT and suburban Republicans such as incoming House Education and Labor Committee Chairman John Kline won’t be able to turn back time. Hess should give this some thought.
As an admirer of Hess and his general thinking, I’m not fond of lobbing this criticism. But then, it isn’t the first time I’ve given Hess the business for failing to walk the talk when it comes to school reform and innovation. More importantly, he should know better. Hess and his family (along with other school reformers and my growing household) can easily avoid the worst that American public education has to offer (even if the best isn’t anywhere near good enough).
As for the rest of us – the first-time middle class residents such as my elders back in South Ozone Park, the strivers cutting hair at the barber shop to which I go, the new immigrant families in Arlington and South Gate, and the poor families of all races and colors? This is hardly so. Their communities are littered with failure factories and they want better. Which means we need as many people from different backgrounds – including Davis Guggenheim and his fellow documentarians – casting gimlet eyes on the teachers unions, ed schools and other defenders of the indefensible — storming the gates of an education system that needs tearing down and rebuilding. Hess should welcome Davis Guggenheim into the fold instead of showing myopic ignorance.