Afflicting the Comfortable

by Robert Pondiscio
August 16th, 2010

“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” Finley Peter Dunne  (1867 — 1936)

Is there any newspaper in America right now more varied, cacophonous, and fearlessly independent in its education coverage than the Washington Post? 

Over the weekend, the Post’s Dana Milbank suggested that if Ed Sec. Arne Duncan wants to get serious about curbing bullying in U.S. schools, he should start by reigning in “the the biggest bully in America’s schools right now,” President Obama.  “In federal education policy, the president and his education secretary have been the neighborhood toughs — bullying teachers, civil rights groups, even Obama’s revered community organizers.”  Obama, Milbank writes, has taken the Bush obsession with testing and amplified it.

Obama has expanded the importance of standardized testing to determine how much teachers will be paid, which educators will be fired and which schools will be closed — despite evidence that such practices are harmful. In the process, he’s offended just about all the liberals involved in or advocating for education without gaining much support from conservatives.

Locally, Bill Turque has run afoul of Michelle Rhee and even his own paper with his coverage of the DC school system, while the editorial page is consistently supportive of the DC chancellor.  In the blogosphere, the Post’s Valerie Strauss and Jay Mathews often come across as the Carville and Matalin of edubloggers, with the latter generally supportive of the ed reform agenda, and the former mightily skeptical.  

Milbank’s piece this weekend is spectacularly pointed, calling out the admininstration for an obsession with testing and refusal to listen to criticism.

“There’s an attitude that if you aren’t with us, you are against us — and therefore against children and reform,” a Democratic friend of mine who runs an education advocacy group in Washington told me. The administration, she said, “tries to bully and condemn any opposition, even if it is from groups that should be their allies.”

The Post is clearly giving its writers and opinionators a long leash.  Agree or disagree with their varied takes–and it’s impossible not to do one or the other, often daily–it’s bravura newspapering, and consistently great reading.

Listening to Teachers?

by Robert Pondiscio
May 27th, 2010

If you spend your edublog time on policy blogs rather than teacher blogs, you may have missed out an interesting story that has played out over the past few months, and which may be coming to a head this week.  Last November, Anthony Cody, a veteran science teacher, blogger and Obama supporter, wrote an open letter to the President expressing his frustration with many of the Administration’s policies.  The column soon morphed into what another veteran teacher-blogger, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, described as “a full-on social networking movement.”  A Facebook group (naturally) quickly attracted  2,000 members, eager to weigh in on ed policy as a network of independent teachers.  Letters were sent, polls were taken, and attention paid.  The climax occurred Monday, when 12 teachers including Cody, Wolpert-Gawron, and frequent Core Knowledge Blog commenter Nancy Flanagan were invited to participate in a 30-minute conference call with Ed Secretary Arne Duncan.

The climax was anti-climactic.  Technical problems plagued the call, few got a chance to speak, and the teachers walked away more frustrated than satisfied by their audience with Duncan.  “I want to find positive things to take from what unfolded, but it is challenging,” was Cody’s take on the call.  Flanagan’s synopsis is here.    End of story?  It might have been until yesterday, when Cody’s phone rang. 

It was Arne Duncan calling.

Charm offensive?  Earnest engagement?  Time will tell. Cody & Co. have already done the profession a solid by taking the first steps toward establishing a badly needed back channel for teachers, independent of the unions.