John Kuhn is superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt school district in Texas. He first emerged as a national figure in the fight for better education for all children when he spoke at the national Save Our Schools march in 2011 and gave a rousing speech.

 

 

 

 

 

Education reformers have worked tirelessly for years to advance their preferred education policy ideas using a panoply of tactics, with mixed results.
As an example, reformers have steeped future big-city superintendents in #edreformthink through the (*cough-unaccredited-cough*) Broad Academy and then deployed them to try out their ideas in the real-life laboratory of various unlucky school districts. (Update: a refreshingly large number of these superintendents have gone on to transform urban education upend large school systems with no tangible positive results before being run out of town on a rail.)

 
Another effort aimed at advancing pro-reform policy has been the embedding of Teach for America alumni in congressional offices as staffers. Then again, there is the tried-and-true tactic of having a corporation-funded organization coordinate the development and introduction of model ed reform legislation nationwide. Or, if you’re a fan of the straightforward approach, you will appreciate efforts to just expend a ton of money to force the implementation of anointed ideas, ala Gates and Zuckerberg.

 
Back in the early years of the Education Wars (when Diane Ravitch was on Twitter and her blog didn’t exist yet) it became apparent that reformers—despite enjoying the generous fiscal backing of wealthy individuals and organizations and the political backing of influential officeholders from both parties—were losing the public relations battle, particularly on social media. Scrappy teacher-bloggers and Twitter-ers were running them ragged with asymmetrical PR warfare, and they knew it. So began in earnest the development of a Marvel Universe of pro-reform social media personalities and collectives.

 
In this short article, I will highlight a few of these actors—this is a back-of-an-envelope map of one corner of the reform echo chamber, if you will—and I will let you know what they’ve been up to this week. I will also let you know where each of these voices stands on a recent high-profile story, the infamous Success Academy video.

 
THE 74

 
Apparently named for the average IQ of its contributors (just kidding guys; I’m sure you’re all Ivy League), the 74 is the brainchild of Campbell Brown and hosts pro-reform Twitterfolk like Dmitri Mehlhorn and Chris Stewart. The 74 mixes pro-reform op-eds with a dab of more newsy education pieces (like one about a campaign to prevent student suicide, for example), apparently in an attempt to come across as neutral-ish. This is window-dressing, of course, as demonstrated by the fact that the top four articles on the page as of this writing are: Nevada parents hoping vouchers survive a court challenge; Chris Stewart trumpeting a slew of news stories about non-Success-Academy teachers being mean to students; a pretty balanced story on the effect of good teachers on students’ happiness; and a story about Trump University that spends one paragraph rapping the scourge of for-profit college scams before getting to “the real story” by indulging in a ten-paragraph call for the next President to “hold all colleges accountable.”

 
Position on the SA video: “but other schools do it too” and “stop hating”.

 
EDUCATION POST

 
Another slick effort to appear neutral and above the fray by offering a “better conversation” (for discriminating education connoisseurs, one would imagine), Education Post actually peddles orthodox ed reform ideas and is, per Mercedes Schneider, funded by Broad, Walton, and Bloomberg—not exactly the Triumvirate of Educational Neutrality. Contributors include Chris Stewart (again!), Eric Lerum, and Chris Barbic. Top articles today are one about a teacher acknowledging her own biases, one arguing that what TFA haters really hate are charter schools, one telling teachers to stop using lack of parent involvement as an excuse not to teach kids well, and a thoughtful article about the tensions of being in the education politics fight and having to choose where to send your own kids to school.

 
Position on the SA video: the video’s a bummer, but Success Academy is a target because it is so much better and everyone is jealous

 
EDUCATION NEXT and EDEXCELLENCE.NET

 
These are Fordham Institute/Michael Petrilli/Chester Finn vehicles. Instead of pretending to publish objective journalism ala The 74 and Education Post, these sites pretend to publish objective research. The duo are a vehicle for motivated scholarship, of the faux variety. Like the above online journals, they are really just political devices.

 
Top stories today at Education Next are: a story about how family background influences achievement and what schools can do about it, a story about how schools of choice expand opportunity for urban students, an article contending that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor, a paean to the Common Core arguing that it forced states that rejected CCSS to adopt tougher standards, a story on desegregation and a story about academic competitions. This carousel of stories—most of them related to the 50th anniversary of James Coleman’s report “Equality of Educational Opportunity” in an apparent effort to re-cast his report as a validation of reform orthodoxies rather than a call for equity—is followed by a reformer response to film critic David Denby’s New Yorker article calling out reformers for bashing teachers. Then comes an article by Petrilli arguing that NCLB spawned a bunch of smarter school policies. (Thanks, NCLB!) Oh, then there’s a call to end required union contributions.

 
Position on the SA video: conspicuously hard to find. A search of the site reveals the last mention of “Eva Moskowitz” to be in 2014, when the site chirped, “Talk about a ‘Tough Liberal!” and said charters like hers shouldn’t be criticized for lacking diversity. A search for “Success Academy” finally takes us to a 2/15/2016 post that summarizes a Vox.com article by Libby Nelson (with the telling quote “The video is undeniably upsetting. But…”) and then goes on to point to Education Post’s limp defense of poor wittle Success Academy.

 
THIS WEEK IN EDUCATION

 
Alexander Russo’s blog also pretends to be above the fray but really isn’t. However, unlike the others, Russo does directly criticize reformers on a fairly regular basis, probably because he fancies himself a gadfly with an independent streak. In reality, his pro-reform bias is evident to me, and maybe also to the casual reader. Where The 74 and Education Post dab on the makeup of objective reporting, Russo slathers it. He does a good enough job of posting too-numerous-to-count news pieces and fun/thought-provoking pieces that it effectively softens the blow of his bias and almost camouflages his running campaign to provide journalistic cover for the Broads and Waltons of the world. One blogger put it succinctly in saying that Russo “works the refs” for reform. He’s the guy in the bleachers who reliably highlights bad calls that go against his team and often ignores bad calls against the other team, unless they’re so painfully obvious that he feels he has to grudgingly acknowledge them. But at least he tells funny stories between being a total homer.
Top stories today are a video of Obama with Civil Rights leaders, a story on Detroit teachers trying to bring attention to their schools, a collection of news articles on various issues including how school safety issues are tracked and Common Core exam glitches. Where Russo shines as a reform ally is in his careful selection of others’ opinions that he broadcasts. The first quote one comes to today is from The 74, where Matt Barnum tries valiantly to jack the mojo of David Denby (the New Yorker film critic referred to above, who had the audacity to critique public school critics in his article called Stop Humiliating Teachers) by contending that what Denby wants is really the same thing as what the reformers want. (Really, Matt? Read the article again.) Russo earns a few objectivity points for the hilarious note from a CPS parent that says his sick daughter is feeling better and “eager to get back to school in hopes of achieving a high score on…Standardized Tests…given this year to insure that Private Corporations continue to receive huge and profitable contracts…” Russo has a soft spot for snark.

 
Position on the SA video: straddles the fence—SA didn’t respond well to the reporting and NYT didn’t report thoughtfully. Russo shared the video and followed up with SA’s response video and, later, a GIF of the original video.

 
DROPOUT NATION

 
RiShawn is a trench fighter for reform. Where Russo has snark, Biddle has meanness, and he has criticized people he calls “traditionalists” pretty relentlessly. If you think about the unending terrible treatment of poor American children of color, meanness is probably a proper response, though I almost always disagree with Biddle’s prescriptions for fixing the problem. I think it comes down to this: I believe we should force ourselves to fulfill the constitutional promises that we will provide a quality public education for all American children, and Biddle appears to believe that we never will fulfill that promise because we are helplessly racist, so we might as well give up on it and find salvation for poor city kids in school choice. It’s an honest disagreement—I personally think what Biddle and other reformers advocate is akin to the biblical tale of Esau trading his birthright for a bowl of soup. In this case, the birthright is the promise that the US and state governments will by constitutional obligation–prosecutable in court—ensure that all children are adequately educated; the bowl of soup is we can trust that chains of charters started by white-collar guys who want to make money will fill the void and educate everybody better than the government has or will.

 
It wouldn’t do me any good to argue with RiShawn because he’s as convinced that public schools are hopeless for minority children as I am convinced that charter schools are designed from the outset to keep most of those kids out. To use Michael Petrilli’s eternally useful phrase, they are meant to help the “strivers”. Of course, that leaves the non-strivers somewhere. Probably concentrated in whatever remains of the public school system.
Look, I understand “educate all children” is idealistic, and I understand that we are a nation that has never gotten past racial prejudice. I also understand that giving up the hill here—abandoning the notion that “educating all children” is what we SHOULD BE ABOUT and COULD BE ABOUT IF WE HAD THE COURAGE TO DO SO—giving up that fight ensures that we will never come back to the audacious promise of public education as the protector and perfecter of a diverse democracy. We will settle for less. Exponentially less. Bowl of soup instead of birthright less. We will settle for Taco Bell as a schooling model, we will give up courts for choice, and it won’t be any better—it will be the same or worse, but the upside of it—the maximum best it could ever be—won’t even PRETEND to be that it offers a quality education for ALL kids. We will forever abandon the notion that that was even ever possible in the United States of America, and that to me is intolerably depressing. The open arms concept of free and equal education for all will be lost to the archives and we will be stuck with a few lifeboat schools and a bunch of bobbing heads in the water.

 
But today I agree with RiShawn Biddle, because he has broken with Peter Cunningham from Education Post and Campbell Brown from The 74, in that he won’t countenance the notion that Success Academy merits a defense. In fact, his lead articles today are “Success Academy Merits No Defense” and “No Excuses for Moskowitz”. Biddle’s condemnation of Success Academy practices like the one captured in the video have resulted in harsh name-calling and criticism from fellow reformers like Michael Petrilli. And Biddle didn’t come late to the party. He wrote “The Hole Eva Moskowitz Keeps Digging” long before the video emerged, after John Merrow’s piece on disciplinary practices at SA emerged months ago.

 
I’m not naïve enough to think that RiShawn Biddle and I agree on much besides the fact that SA is wrong when it comes to its disciplinary treatment of children. Our views on equitable school funding are probably aligned, and maybe some other tangential issues too. But when it comes to the speculative promise of school choice versus the literal promise of school constitutional guarantees, there is a stark difference in where we two find hope for the nation’s future. Nevertheless, I have to pause and recognize that among all the reformers, Biddle is apparently the only one brave enough to call out what Success Academy and its defenders are doing wrong. How can we expect Success Academy to change its ways when its defenders rush forth with enabling op-eds? Where other reformers are scrambling to defend a model, Biddle is stepping up to defend children. If Eva Moskowitz is Ethan Couch, then Campbell Brown and Peter Cunningham are his mother taking him to Mexico to avoid punishment. I’m glad RiShawn Biddle is clearly saying this isn’t okay.