Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Public education, the news media, and glass houses


I am an early riser on the weekends, so last Sunday I had the TV on as I worked in my office at 5AM. It was tuned to “The Journal Editorial Report” on the Fox News Network, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I was aware that Paul Gigot, the host, was blabbering on about their upcoming reports following commercials, and then I heard him use the phrase “our failing schools.” Using that term in my hearing is a little like waving a red flag in front of a bull, so Gigot definitely had my attention. I got ready for public education to take another bashing by the genuises in the news media. Gigot and his band of merry men didn't let me down.

The story itself was actually about some huge donations by rich donors to the KIPP program in Houston. Gigot and his cohorts mixed doses of praise for KIPP schools and the charter school movement in with their insults for public education. In the process, they demonstrated their ignorance of what really goes on in public schools.

Dan Henninger, the most obnoxious of a very obnoxious crew, proclaimed that today's public schools are not "your father's public school." The clear implication of this statement is that public schools were much better in the good ol' days. Like when, the 60s? I am fifty-five years old, so I went to public schools in the sixties, and test scores, which pundits like Henninger are usually so fond of talking about whenever they look bad, are basically the same as they were when I graduated. Which "fathers" is he talking about?

If Henninger told my wife that today's public schools are not those of a generation ago, my wife would probably tell him that's a very good thing. She suffered a series of ear infections that caused her to have a severe hearing problem when she was in elementary school in the 50s. Her hearing was so bad that she didn't know that walking on grass made sound until after a surgery she had when she was fourteen. Yet, she never received any help for her problem from her school system, and was even spanked once by a substitute teacher in front of the class because she couldn't say her name correctly. Things like that probably don't matter to people like Henninger, but public schools are definitely better than they used to be in a lot of ways.

The educational villain held up by Henninger and his buddies was one of the favorite whipping boys of conservatives: teachers' unions. Here is how Henninger put it: "These unions are running the schools like you would run a coal mine or an auto factory. They are like industrial unions. They are just simply in the grip of a straitjacket that is does not allow principals to choose teachers and put them where they want. And as a result, they're in decline." This statement was followed by a lot of nodding by the other "experts" on the panel.

Now, I have said numerous times that I believe principals should have the power that Henninger refers to. I agree that that is a problem. But anyone who says that is the root of the problems in public education simply doesn't know what he is talking about.

The amazing thing is that if they would take a close look at the KIPP schools that they were so eager to praise, and if they would think about why so many kids in those schools do so well, they could reach a much better understanding of the problems we have in public schools. KIPP schools are able to demand that the students work hard to learn. The KIPP schools are able to demand that their students behave appropriately. The KIPP schools are able to demand that parents take an active part in their children's education. Public policy determined by legislatures and courts make it impossible for regular public schools to do any of those things. You might think that journalists as wonderful and marvelous as those who get to be on the panel of The Journal Editorial Review might see some clues here as to why public school students don't perform as well as we would like, but nope! It's those darned unions!!

As I indicated, the panel members were all gloom and doom when looking at the performance and future of public schools. James Taranto said this: "You know, Paul, as you know, I'm an optimistic guy. But I find this subject of education unremittingly grim because here we are, sitting on television, talking about how wonderful it is that there are a few schools, here and there, that are actually able to educate children. Something is terribly wrong with education in this country." And of course, this fine segment on public education just wouldn't have been complete without a closing statement by Henninger: "I really have gotten to where I think the public school model is irreparably broken, because any potential reform gets gridlocked by politics now. And I think probably we're going to have to try to go to a more independently based school system."

I have been hearing crap like this from the news media for over thirty years now, and I'm sick of it. The only difference is that conservative journalists, like those on The Journal Editorial Report, have gotten increasingly shrill since vouchers have become an issue. They now see hope for their desire to privatize education. Oh, excuse me! I mean make it independently based. Well, I would like the panelists on The Journal Editorial Report, and other members of the news media to know that I don't think they're doing such a hot job. In fact, I think that their industry is irreparably broken. Henninger and company aren't pleased with the test scores of kids attending public schools. I wonder how the American public would do if they were tested on important current events that they should have learned from the news media. Last week, Jay Leno went out on the street and showed people pictures of Speaker of the House, Nance Pelosi. They didn't have a clue. I'll bet you nearly everyone would have known who it was if they'd have been shown pictures of Anna Nicole. The news networks might not have much coverage of the nation's most powerful Democrat, but their coverage of Anna Nicole has been unrelenting. Great job, guys!

I have argued, and continue to argue, that public schools have been doing a much better job than we are given credit for. One of the most important factors that I base this on is that, regardless of test scores, we are giving people what they want. I don't know any parents who care whether or not their kids do better than kids from India on an international test. I do know parents who want their kids to be able to go to college, and as long as they are able to pass that desire on to their children, they are almost always able to do so. If more kids wanted to go to college, our overall scores would be higher, but that's their choice. Some kids simply want to become mechanics or hair stylists, and that's what they end up being able to do. Is that a bad thing?

On the other hand, I know that I would like to get a reasonably unbiased source of information about what is going on in our nation and the world, but I can't find one. The major networks and CNN have a blatantly anti-Bush slant in nearly all of their political stories. Meanwhile, the Fox News Network is basically a 24-hour-a-day commercial for the Republican party. Oops, I take that back. They do have some swell stories on Anna Nicole, so maybe it's only 23-hours-a-day. One day I watched a news story dealing with President Bush, Congress, and Iraq on the Fox News Network, and then I switched channels and came to the news on CBS. The two networks were talking about the same story, but it was almost impossible to tell that. One slanted it completely one way, and the other slanted it completely the other. Unbiased journalism?? You bet!

The Fox News Network has the audacity to call itself fair and balanced. It is unquestionably the most biased network in the history of television. Have you ever watched Fox and Friends with its hosts Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade, or worse yet, Judge Andrew Napolitano? Have you ever watched John Gibson? I would challenge anyone but the most committed Republican to try to tell me that they are fair and balanced. This is the network that carries Dan Henninger, Paul Gigot and their friends on The Journal Editorial Report. I wonder if they've ever thought that the saying, "people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," might apply to them. Although throwing stones is apparently part of his job, Henninger, and journalists like him, are living in a very large glass skyscraper.


Blogger Elizabeth said...

Paul Gigot is (or was?) the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal and the garbage that he has allowed to be printed there--racist screeds for example--has been hard to believe.

4/04/2007 6:16 PM  
Blogger Chris Lehmann said...

Let's remember one other thing about KIPP. They don't respect teaching as a profession / career. They expect their teachers to log well over 60 hours a week, and they expect their teachers to only last three to four years at their schools.

I've had a KIPP administrator say to me, "Our model is sustainable if you view teachers as disposable."

Because that's a lesson we want to pass along to our kids, right?

4/05/2007 8:34 AM  
Blogger rightwingprof said...

"The Fox News Network has the audacity to call itself fair and balanced. It is unquestionably the most biased network in the history of television."

Really? I guess you don't watch Olberman on MSNBC, or CNN. At any rate, you're apparently too stupid from the examples you give to tell news from opinion. That alone makes you unfit to be anywhere near a classroom, much less putting yourself forward as an authority.

4/05/2007 8:37 AM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

Olbermann is MSNBC's answer to Fox's O'Reilly. When I watch Olbermann, I know that I'm watching one man's opinion on issues. I don't watch him for factual reporting.

I don't think you can say the same thing for much of what is on Fox. I also think that your attack on Dennis was unjustified - unless you were being facetious. However, because his opinion differs from yours, you don't think he belongs in the classroom? That is, simply put, ridiculous.

4/05/2007 10:07 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rightwingprof, and here I thought we were getting along so well! I did feel like I was ranting a bit when I wrote this post, and I have to admit that I might have been reaching in my logic in a couple of places. But after reading your rant, I went back and read the post, and it seemed like the epitome of calm and reason.

You can't seriously tell me that you find Fox News "fair and balanced." Since you are the Right Wing Prof, I'm sure you like it better than all the liberal networks, and I don't blame you for that, but come on! I said in my post that I think the other networks are bad when it comes to bias, but Fox is the worst, and that's not because they are conservative. I find it offensive that they advertise themselves as "fair and balanced" because in most of their programs that I watch, they make no attempt to be. With the other networks having an obvious liberal bias, there should certainly be room for one with a conservative bias. If they wanted to advertise themselves as a counter-weight to all of the other networks with their obvious liberal bias, it would be hard to criticize them. But they don't. They advertise themselves as "fair and balanced," and that is dishonest.

Regarding your comment about me putting myself forward as an authority, let me make something clear. The only thing that makes me an authority on public education is that I am a classroom teacher, and I have been one for a long time. When it comes to public education, I believe that classroom teachers are THE EXPERTS. I don't see myself as any more of an authority than other people who do what I do. The only thing that makes me a little different is that I took the time and made the investment to get a book published. I'm proud of having done that, but I'm don't ever intend on presenting myself as anything more than what I am. I am a classroom teacher in a public school, and I'm proud of it.

And Ms. Teacher, thank you!

4/05/2007 12:06 PM  
Blogger M said...

AMEN!!!! That is spot on! And yes, you ARE an authority actually - you're IN there!

4/06/2007 1:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With all due respect to Dennis - being "in there" makes him an expert on his own school, possibly on most schools in his district, and *maybe* on some schools in his state. It doesn't make him an expert on all public schools in all districts throughout the country, and thus it doesn't make him an expert on Public Education, which is a very, very large subject indeed.

4/06/2007 8:25 AM  
Anonymous Rose said...

You often say what I think, using better phrasing and in a more coherent manner. For that I thank you. I firmly believe that even if all school were functioning perfetly and our students were reaching the impossible 100% proficiency that the idiots in Washington who do not understand human nature,want us to, they would have to find some kind of problem with schools. We are an easy punching bag and always good for a story. We would probably be dinged for wanting a 35 minute lunch instead of a 30 minute one and thus be called slackers. It is so demoralizing and tiring,

Keep up the good fight. I wish my kids had had you as a teacher. They would have enjoyed you and learned a lot.(I think you would have like them too. They loved history)

4/06/2007 9:44 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Rose, thank you! You just gave me my favorite compliment, and I'm going to come back to that. Although I've never seen you or your kids, I'll bet you're right. I'll bet I would have loved having them.

Anonymous, picky, picky picky! ;)

Actually, I want to emphasize again that I am not saying, "I am the expert." I'm saying, "WE are the experts." WE know what it's like to try something in our classes and have it work, and we know what it's like to try something and have it fail. WE know what it's like to deal with motivated and well-behaved kids, and we know what it's like to deal with disruptive and unmotivated ones. WE have been there and done that.

You certainly have a point about me knowing more about my own school, and my own district, and even my own state than places like New York, California, or Florida. But by being in the classroom for so many years, I at least have an idea of what teachers are seeing in those places.

Our school is off today, so I had read your comment a little while ago, and then I went to do a little work around the house while I thought about how to answer you. I had come down to my office, and I was going to tell you about the favorite compliment that I have gotten on the book that I wrote. I was going to tell you that it was also the most frequent compliment that I had gotten, and that I had gotten it from teachers in my own school, from teachers in my own district, others from around the state, and believe it or not, from teachers in different parts of the country. That compliment is, "You said what I've been thinking." And then, I went to the comments section for this post, and there was Rose saying, "You often say what I think."

Believe me, I know that I am no great intellect. I don't come up with profound thoughts that nobody else has ever come up with. But, like other people who have spent some years teaching in a classroom, I do know what it's like. And because we really know what it's like, I maintain that WE ARE THE EXPERTS.

And nothing drives that point home harder than listening to journalists, politicians, or think-tank gurus who are treated as experts, but consistently say things and promote and make policies that demonstrate beyond a shadow of a doubt that they haven't got a clue. They've never been in a classroom, or if they have it was so long ago that they've forgotten what it was like, and they don't understand who the real experts are.

4/06/2007 10:19 AM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

I'm one of those people who came into teaching after doing other type of work. I've worked in the corporate world, in the political world, I've been a stay at home and I've owned my own small business. Before becoming a teacher, I had my own thoughts about education, much of it based on my own experience as a parent with children in public education, but also based on what I read and the opinions of other people I talked to. Many of us really thought "we" had the answers to the ills of education. HA!

It was only after I became an educator in a district in which many of its schools fail to meet API or AYP, I've come to the realization that there isn't an easy solution to any of the difficulties we as teachers face in the classroom on a daily basis.

I do think that DI is one possible solution. That being said, even in my intervention program, I still have a few students who are failing. I've been observed by people who have taught the program and who have been trained extensively using DI and have been told that I am doing the program correctly. The students who are failing have improved their reading rate and so do have a measure of success, however, they also continue to simply not care about their work product.

I cannot change the work ethic of some of my students. I cannot force the parents of these students to show up for conferences to discuss ways they can help their child at home. I cannot change the abject poverty that too many of my students face and I cannot change the dysfunction that occurs in too many of their homes.

All I can do is be there every day working harder than I have ever had to do in any other job I've ever held. And, when I talk to other teachers in other districts, in other states, and we realize that the difficulties we face are very similar, I feel like I have some expertise in talking about education.

(sorry Dennis that this was so long!)

4/06/2007 11:20 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ms. Teacher, I'm grateful everytime someone comments on my blog, no matter how long or how short, and even when they completely disagree with me. I said in my post that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. When it comes to length on comments, I think I'd better take my own advice. And besides, I thought yours was great!

4/06/2007 12:55 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Anonymous (David?), how quickly we forget! It just occurred to me who you are. I have to admit that I get mixed up on the people who comment from time to time, and when I saw "Anonymous," I forgot who you were. I hope you'll forgive me, but it's really easy to do in your case, because you are not the only "Anonymous" who has commented on various posts on this blog. I'm not taking back anything I said in my response to your comment, but I'd have tried not to be so preachy. I guess the bottom line is that whether or not you think that I am an expert, I think that YOU are.

4/06/2007 2:48 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

The right wing ain't what it used to used to be William F. Buckley Jr. Now it's Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly. Instead of a doctrine of fiscal conservatism and traditional values, it's hate speech, bigotry, mindless flag-waving, attacks on academics, libelous smears on Democratic politicians, and ad hominem blog attacks. Fascism started out with these.

4/07/2007 5:34 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I mean except for the blog attacks!

4/07/2007 5:34 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis, the straight news shows on Fox are Shep Smith and britt Hume, the rest are opinion shows. When Pew (I believe) analyzed the news shows on all th networks news programs, they found that fox did tilt slightly to the right but that tilt was far less than the leftward tilt of all the other "news" shows on the other network.

With respect to Ms. teachers problematic students: it is far better to teach these kids right the first time around thne to attempt to remediate them. Years of failure kills motivation. DI is good, but it's not a miracle.

4/07/2007 8:43 PM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

When my daughter was young, we used to watch professional wrestling together (long story, not worth going into).

Anyway, we discovered that one way to enjoy it was to think of it as a satire on television sports.

Did regular sports announcers pretend the game was more exciting and important than it was? Wrestling's announcers took it to the next level. Did regular announcers hype next week's game or whatever was "coming up next"? To the wrestling announcers, the next pay-per-view was always going to be the best ever. Did regular announcers pretend to be expert analysts while saying things like "you have to want to win"? Wrestling commentary was more transparent and more inane.

Did regular announcers pretend to be giving you the straight story, while serving as salesmen for the network and the league? Well, Bobby "The Brain" Heenan would tell you that the flagrant rule-breaking you were watching one of his favorites do was nothing but good hard wrestling--and then proclaim himself a "braodcast journalist."

We'd talk about story lines and what messages were being sent (e.g., look out for phonies and self-righteous censors). I was kind of hoping she'd go into economics or some sort of social science. Wouldn't you know it; she became an English major.

Anyway, I like to think of Fox's "fair and balanced" as satire.

From a distance. There are so many better places to get news than from tv.

Weather, on the other hand ...

4/08/2007 7:41 AM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

WE know what it's like to try something in our classes and have it work, and we know what it's like to try something and have it fail.

I wish I could say that. Oh, sure, I know when things have gotten out of hand and "not worked." I know when the kids seem to be following along. I have a good idea when they can tell me what I want to hear: my questions, their questions, the things they find difficult while doing an assignment or an activity, and finally how they do on quizzes and tests.

And yet ...

Last week a 9th grade physical science student stayed after school to make up the last chapter's test. She looked at it and announced, "I don't know any of this. We did this two weeks ago." I reminded myself that I was the adult and bit my tongue.

She acted like school was a matter of short-term memorization that had nothing to do with understanding. On my bad days, I fear that she is right.

My students always do significantly worse on mid-years and finals than they do on "assessments" during the term. My unscientific survey says this is true of other teachers as well.

It is almost a cliche that, "By August, they've forgotten most of what they've learned." Is it really accurate to talk of "learned" then?

I never know how much my students have actually learned, so I never know what has worked and what hasn't. Sometimes, it makes me crazy.

4/08/2007 9:50 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Elizabeth, I don't think I tolerate right-wingers any better than you do, but I don't like the left-wingers any better. I view Ann Coulter and Rosie O'Donnell as being the right and left armpits of the world. O'Reilly actually strikes me as belonging somewhere in the posterior section of the anatomy, and if Olberman is as bad as I've heard, he belongs right there with him.

KD, I don't know if I should admit this, but I probably get most of my news from Brit Hume's show. I enjoy the show, but it strikes me as being more than just a little right of center. And once again, my biggest objection to Fox is their attempt to sell themselves as a fair and balanced network, and I don't think they are just referring to their "news" shows. I'm not sure what exactly Fox and Friends would be considered, but they constantly use "fair and balanced" in reference to themselves, and that is a very bad joke.

Roger, I hear what you're saying. I thought the problem was the worst in social studies, but obviously you see a lot of it, too. It is really frustrating.

4/08/2007 2:20 PM  

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