Thursday, May 13, 2010

Propagating a dishonest narrative

Democracy depends upon an informed electorate - that is the main reason the Minnesota Constitution mandates primary and secondary education. A polity cannot make rational decisions about self-government without reliable information about the country and state, along with citizens who can make sense of that information. It is one of the reasons we have the First Amendment.

In the field of education discourse, the notion of an informed electorate is in the trash bin, as it has been since 1983, when the Reagan Administration issued its erroneous and inflammatory Nation At Risk study, which implied that without big changes in our education system the country would be on a downward trajectory. That was the first insult to honest discourse in education.

The second came eight years later, when the first president Bush and some of the nation's governors, taking Nation At Risk seriously, commissioned a comprehensive study of American education, charging the reputable national lab at Sandia with putting its quality and effectiveness in historical and international perspective.

But the Republicans didn't get what they expected from the researchers at Sandia. Contrary to the chicken-little proclamations of Nation At Risk, it turned out that education in this country was basically excellent - and had been improving for 20 years. Indeed, said the Sandia report:
To our surprise, on nearly every measure we found steady or slightly improving trends.
Not only that, but
America's on-time high school graduation rate has remained steady for more than 20 years, hovering somewhere between 75% and 80%
Perhaps most significant was NAR's lie that the future workforce was threatened:
Our research on the technical work forces of various nationals also reflected well on the U.S. education system...the overall technical degree attainment by the work force is unparalleled in the world.
Nation At Risk had turned statistics on their heads. For example, NAR stated that SAT scores had been dropping. But it failed to note they were dropping because more students - from lower echelons of high school attainment - were now taking the test, and bringing the mean down. If researchers controlled for high school attainment the drop in scores disappeared.

When Sandia got ready to submit its report a firestorm erupted in the Republican government in Washington and the report was buried. It wasn't published until two years later, in 1993, in an educational journal, where it was almost completely ignored in traditional media (although those in deep education discourse took notice), making it Project Censored's number three most ignored report for 1993.

Which is a shame, because in one sector of the report, titled "Status of educators," the authors worried not that bad teachers couldn't be fired, but that regular teachers would be demoralized by unfounded attacks based on faulty assertions:
We believe that the low opinion educators hold of themselves and the poor public perception of teachers are based on misinterpretations of simplistic data...
This unfortunate cycle of low self-esteem, followed by unfounded criticism from the public, raises the specter of a downward spiral in future educational quality.
So the report on the accusations contained in the the Nation At Risk study basically said it was bunk, and that a public worked up into a frenzy against public school teachers could actually hurt primary and secondary education. But as I said, the Sandia report had virtually no impact on public discourse. It didn't advance the right wing narrative that our schools were going to hell in a hand basket, taking our children with them, and the fault lay with those nasty teachers' unions, and so it was ignored.

Twenty years later and we know the results of the efforts of the so-called reformers of the 80s, 90s and aughts: They have failed. The experimental schools they proposed - voucher and charter schools - do a worse job of educating children. At the same time public school teachers have been under relentless attack. The predictions of the Sandia study have come true.

Even hard core supporters of NAR and school choice have now admitted their errors - Diane Ravitch being the most obvious example. Even the scientific racist Charles Murray now admits the experiment failed. And yet - we continue on. Now a Democratic - Democratic! - president is advancing this false narrative, seeking to create more failed charter schools and pushing for loosened teacher certification standards. The president seems to think that all that time teachers spend in college learning how to teach is worth nothing.

Given the false narrative propagated of both failing public schools and the supposed culpability of teachers' unions in their failure it should come as no surprise that politically driven traditional media would jump on this bandwagon. It is simply too much to ask that popular media either resist or correct false narratives that pander to important media constituencies such as advertisers, who tend to be conservative, or vocal institutional critics such as those setup by conservative philanthropies.

So it is that the Star Tribune in Minneapolis should be on a permanent campaign against regular public school teachers and their unions, from dishonest op-eds, to dishonest editorials, to dishonest stories in its news pages - the narrative is always the same - our public schools suck, and the reason is teachers' unions.

I can imagine the conversation in the Star Tribune newsroom a few weeks back as it launched its latest broadside, "State's Bad teachers rarely get fired", against public school teachers, starting with editors charging reporters with the task of proving that the state's school districts suck because they cannot fire bad teachers. Normally good-government reporting would start with having to prove that the issue they were addressing - a supposed decline in the quality of public primary and secondary education, in this case - was truly a problem.

In the case of education reporting, however, the narrative is all that matters. Reporting in the Strib never comes close to analyzing if there really is a problem with public primary and secondary education. It jumps right over that step, and several others as well, right to the headline, "State's bad teachers rarely get fired." Editors know that readers understand the underlying narrative that has been blasted at them for years.

Are there really a lot of bad teachers in Minnesota? The story admits this question is virtually impossible to answer. How much does teacher quality affect education, anyways? And is it really difficult to fire bad teachers? This is where the Strib story really gets into false narrative.

Since there is no real scientific proof that our schools are failing horribly, or that teachers' unions are the reason, when media looks for "experts" to ratify the prevailing narrative they most often turn to the people who ramped up the attack in the first place.

In the Strib's case they turned to something called the "National Council on Teacher Quality" to corroborate the author's own assertion that
"...overwhelming evidence...shows how important good teachers are to student learning. Minnesota has been hammered by one national study after another in recent months for not doing enough to fire bad teachers and having no system to evaluate them."
The charges from the NCTQ were alarming, to say the least:
In January, the National Council on Teacher Quality gave Minnesota an "F" in "exiting ineffective teachers" on its annual report card on state teacher policies. The council also cited the state as one of 23 having no state policy for getting rid of bad teachers.
But what is the National Council on Teacher Quality? Despite using the NCTQ as a bedrock source,  the Strib doesn't qualify it in ANY way - it merely implies the organization's apparent objectivity.

It turns out, though, the NCTQ is a right wing outfit funded by usual conservative philanthropies that have agitated against teachers' unions using changing rationales for decades, including the loathsome Bradley Foundation, the virtual fount of the movement. Its board is filled with the people who populate right wing think tanks funded by those same philanthropies, who have plotted and carried out the dishonest attack on public schools.

One notable person on the board is Chester Finn, perhaps one of the most important voices in the attacks on public school teachers. Finn has been advocating for school choice for decades. When someone finally asked him how competition would help the left behind schools, he basically had no answer. The magical market would do the trick, he ridiculously asserts.

So in order to justify its entire story, the Strib relied on an organization funded and staffed by right wing Republican critics of public school teachers, without ever informing readers of the nature of that organization. How does that happen? The writers of the censored Sandia report had specifically warned about "..unfounded criticism [of school teachers] from the public [that] raises the specter of a downward spiral in future educational quality." It's as if the reporters at the Strib had read the Sandia report and decided to make the researchers' worst fears come true. Of course in all likelihood the reporters have never even heard of the report.

The story then goes on to make an even more simplistic and ignorant assertion that
Meanwhile, Minnesota recently lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars in the federal "Race to the Top" competition for schools, partly because its teacher quality policies were deemed inadequate.
In fact, as the authors could easily find out, the whole Race To The Top "competition" was a fraud, and the outsourced authors of Minnesota's application - paid for by some of the same philanthropies that support the NCTQ - wrote a piece of junk, lacking required data and making other fundamental errors. Not that it would have mattered - the "competition" - if that's what you want to call it, was bogus. A report from the Economic Policy Institute- a liberal think tank, which might explain why Strib reporters seem to have never heard of it, stated:
“...examination [of the applications for Race To The Top funds] suggests that the selection of Delaware and Tennessee was subjective and arbitrary, more a matter of bias or chance than a result of these states’ superior compliance with reform policies.”
And that
“The necessary subjective judgments required both for category selection and weight assignment makes a fair competition practically impossible, even if the competition is undertaken with great care.”
But of course the notion that Race To The Top might be a joke, or that someone other than school teachers are responsible for Minnesota not "winning" the competition doesn't fit the narrative of public school teachers being the bane of education's existence.

The story never actually proves the headline's baseless accusation that teachers cannot be fired, by the way, as pointed out by the superintendent of the Richfield public schools, who replied in a letter following the story's publication. It turns out, he writes, that the fake issue of "firing bad teachers" is a canard:
School districts in Minnesota already "weed out" many low-performing teachers. The Star Tribune's article stressed how few teachers are fired. It did not calculate how many teachers are let go in the first three years of their contracts. Districts in Minnesota (and Wisconsin) hire carefully. And they use the first three years to identify the very few substandard teachers they do hire. If a district is doing a good job (and I can attest to the fact Richfield and Mequon are), it will very seldom have to fire a teacher after three years.
So the very premise of the Strib's story "..bad teachers rarely get fired," first, isn't true, and second, is a meaningless statement given the methods used to hire teachers. The experts the story cites to justify its attitude turn out to be right wing operators who have been attacking teachers' unions for decades, only the Strib doesn't tell its readers this crucial fact. Nevertheless, reading the story, and the comments from readers, it is clear that it will be believed, and added to the arsenal of falsehoods used to attack teachers' unions.

This is what true advocates of public education are up against: a poisonous narrative that paints a deliberately false picture of education in America in order to gain political advantage, supported by a complicit and ignorant traditional media. Make no mistake about it, the more success the so-called "reformers" have the worse our education system will be. That is the true impact of today's journalism.

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