Public education, the news media, and glass houses
NOTE: IF YOU WANT TO READ THE DISCUSSION IN THE TRANSCRIPT (SEE LINK), IT FOLLOWS THE SECOND COMMERCIAL BREAK. IT IS AFTER THE DISCUSSION ABOUT MITT ROMNEY AND THE OTHER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES.
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.