NBC News president Steve Capus said that his network’s Education Nation summit this week -- a multi-day affair that included interviews with President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan -- would be a fair, serious look at public education today.
It wasn’t even close.
The events, panels and discussions were sharply tilted toward Obama's school reform agenda -- focused in part on closing failing schools, expanding charter schools and using standardized test scores to evaluate teachers. It gave short shrift to the enormous backlash against the plan from educators and parents around the country who say that Obama's education priorities won't improve schools but will narrow curriculum and drive good teachers out of the profession.
NBC seemed to take for granted that Obama’s education policies are sound and will be effective. Seasoned journalists failed to ask hard questions and fell all over their subjects to be sympathetic. It was a forum for people to repeatedly misstate the positions of their opponents.
The one school district that was the subject of a panel was New Orleans, which was remade after Hurricane Katrina with public charter schools. (Never mind that charter schools educate less than five percent of the schoolchildren in the country and can never be a systemic solution to the troubles that ail urban districts.)
A panel on innovation was packed with charter school folks, sending a message that only charter schools are innovative, which they, by and large, are not.
Before Education Nation's televised panels, some participants in New York were treated to a screening of the movie "Waiting for Superman," a documentary that significantly skews the reality of public education. It, for example, blames teachers unions for failing schools, without noting that the problems remain the same in non-unionized states. On a panel that followed, the only person defending teachers was American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who could have used some help.
Matt Lauer interviewed Obama; Tom Brokaw interviewed Duncan; Andrea Mitchell interviewed D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. (“Michelle, you’ve been through so much, and you’ve been so plainspoken,” Mitchell said sympathetically, ignoring the fact that Rhee has, in fact, not been as plainspoken as all that.)
Other journalists interviewed other school reformers with little journalistic pushback. Sometimes credit was given where credit wasn't due. David Gregory said to Duncan:
“President Bush isn’t often given credit for driving accountability because No Child Left Behind became unpopular, and yet, indeed, that accountability is what the Obama administration has built on.”
Actually, No Child Left Behind became unpopular because it didn’t create real accountability and subverted teachers by putting standardized tests at the center of the learning experience.
The Obama administration is taking that obsession with standardized tests to a new level, funding programs that pay teachers by the test scores of their students. It doesn't seem to matter that such merit pay plans have been used off and on since the 1920s with less than stellar results, as education historian Diane Ravitch explained in this piece.
NBC is not the only media outlet to seemingly take for granted that Obama’s education initiative is the answer to fixing failing schools.
The recent project by the Los Angeles Times, in which some 6,000 teachers were evaluated solely on the basis of student test scores, was another example of a news organization promoting a highly controversial way to assess teachers as effective. The largest study to date on the “value-added” method of teacher evaluation, released earlier this month [from Vanderbilt University], found that linking test scores to teachers’ pay was not effective. That didn’t stop the Obama administration from handing out hundreds of millions of dollars to states to develop such programs. The study and earlier ones like it were not a big topic at Education Nation.
The New York Times' film critic reviewed “Waiting for Superman” and seemed to take as gospel the tendentious narrative in the film. Meanwhile, CBS anchor Katie Couric wrote about her Waiting for Superman impressions on her Couric & Co. blog:
“I was so inspired by how this documentary shines a light on so many issues -- the heartbreak of kids who don’t get into charter schools, the controversy over teachers’ unions and the failure factories that churn out kids who are unprepared or drop out in terrifying numbers. I admire the revolutionaries who are out there shaking up a broken system. So I became obsessed with covering with this story from multiple angles, and we’ve decided to spend a great deal of time this fall and throughout the school year looking at education.”
Capus and Lisa Gersh, NBC's president of strategic initiatives, told journalists at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. last week that the televised Education Nation Summit was not designed to support Obama's agenda and was intended to be the start of the network's focused look at education. Couric announced that CBS, like NBC, was launching a series of reports on education.
Education, the subject that people have long said was super-important but that never got much coverage, is suddenly huge news. The question is why it is not being examined with the same skeptical view that, say, Obama’s health care proposal was.
Obama-style school reform also became the focus of not one but two episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show last week, though one would not expect a journalistic objectivity from an entertainment show.
On one episode, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg used the occasion to announce to the world that he was donating $100 million to the ailing Newark, N.J., public school system for Obama-style business-driven reforms.
The money comes with strings, the most important that he, a man with no background in education reform, gets to decide what schools are working, according to this story in New Jersey's Star-Ledger.
Billionaires picking out school districts they want to help: What a great way to fund public education.
All this cheerleading for the administration can’t take away from this: There are excellent reasons, as well as evidence, to show that many of its education policies won’t work, and some may be counterproductive.
The biggest study of charter schools yet shows that only 17 percent of them are more effective than their neighborhood traditional public schools, and that more than double are worse. The tough prescription that Obama and Duncan have written for failing schools has proved to be more punitive than helpful, and has not worked in improving a majority of the schools that have undergone the process.
There will come a time when this current wave of “reform” proves as unsuccessful as past fads -- and journalists may look back on their fawning coverage and be very, very sorry that they gave their objectivity on this subject.
The problem is that the schools will likely be in worse shape then than they are today.