Two Cheers for PBS's TED Education Talks

Two cheers for the Public Broadcast System's TED Talks: The Education Revolution. The special report featured Nadia Lopez, the New York City principal who has recently authored The Bridge to Brilliance. Even better, several TED speakers proclaimed teaching as an act of love. We've endured twenty years of soul-killing corporate school reform and PBS, once again, contributes to the multi-media call for 21st century schools worthy of an American democracy. But, for some reason, it ignored the way that test-driven, competition-driven reform took all of the problems documented in the presentations and made them much worse.

Sal Kahn, a former hedge fund entrepreneur, kicked off the talks by explaining how technology could launch a future of joyful learning. In a rational era of school improvement, digital tools would promote learning for mastery and a growth mindset. Before No Child Left Untested, and before the Billionaires Boys Club's public relations spin corrupted the language of education, adaptive technologies held great promise for nurturing real personalized learning. In an age of accountability-driven reform, however, those digital miracles degenerated into "credit recovery," or the mindless charade of "passing kids on," which my inner city students derided as "exercising the right click finger."

Filmmaker Greg Whiteley then summarized the hundred-year history of schools performing as "factories of learning." The next presentation could have tackled the question why Silicon Valley, paradoxically, has funded the data-driven reformers' effort to turn schools back into a sped-up Model T assembly line. Ironically, it often was entrepreneurs and geeks like Bill Gates who drove creativity and individuality out of classrooms, replacing them with hi-tech versions of worksheet-driven, rote instruction. Inexplicably, PBS didn't address the resulting dictates for nonstop remediation that drove holistic instruction out of so many schools.

The TED presenters also could have addressed the irony of billionaires, who made their money from innovation, but who drove the retrograde test-driven, competition-driven school reform movement. Top-down reformers essentially sought to impose the same accelerated educational conveyor belt on diverse classrooms across the nation - while calling it "personalized learning" for "rigor." They often mandated educational monocultures where educators were required to be "all on the same page" in rushing skin-deep through a scripted curriculum designed to jack up primitive bubble-in tests scores.

The next presenters may have been very different than what I hoped for but they were excellent. Arizbeth, a 20-year-old undocumented immigrant expressed the pain of learning that "they" of Atlanta "don't want me." The presentations were complemented by mixed media and music. Meshell Ndegeocello sang "Please, don't let me be misunderstood." Her lyrics also affirmed "a soul whose intentions is good." Ndegeocello implicitly declared what output-driven reformers misunderstood - that our children's souls are beautiful. Their dignity can't be honored by a test and punish regime based on the assumptions that educators' intentions are bad.

It would have been nice to hear a public school educator urging us to treat children as full human beings, not test scores; Julie Lythcott-Haims, How to Raise an Adult, was just as good, urging the parents of college students to treat their children as humans, not their G.P.A.s. Then, Victor Rios called for loving relationships with students at risk of being "pushed out" of schools by archaic discipline systems, and advocated for "Restorative Justice" for all of the nation's high schools. Rios and Geeta Gambhir and Perri Peltz' film on implicit bias condemned the first cousin of data-driven school reform, the data-driven War on Drugs, as well as the education status quo. We all share the blame for unconscious bias and "the school to prison pipeline." However, both education reformers and the criminal justice system took longstanding injustices and made them worse. Both were especially brutal in treating poor children as numbers, not as people.

The TED stories were consistent with the themes of The Wire, the awesome series about the Baltimore power structure, and the way that the criminal justice system and school reformers "juked the stats" to the detriment of our poorest citizens. It may be the authoritative account of how the misuse of metrics corrupts social institutions. It's rare for even the most sensitive and creative authors or artists to rival the brilliance of The Wire.

Anna Deavere Smith's presentation, however, is destined to be remembered as equally incomparable. Smith voiced the words and the emotions of two young people in Baltimore. A summary of her TED contribution requires an entire post, so I will merely note her closing words from a young man whose dignity is repeatedly challenged by the police. He explains why young black people in urban America don't make eye contact with the police, and why he believes you don't "fuss" with them." The young man understands how and why the authorities misuse their power, and argues back, "You got a Big Stick. So, so ... hey."

And that would have been the perfect lead-in to TED Talks about how the test-driven, competition-driven Big Stick school of reform took the inhumanities described by the presenters and put them on steroids. Because they were oblivious to the people side of schooling, true believers in market-driven reform trusted solely in incentives and disincentives to supposedly drive "transformational change." Corporate reformers promoted increased racial and economic segregation by charter management organizations in order to create dissent-free education cultures where everyone was on board with paced instruction for primitive standardized tests. They embraced soul-killing behaviorism in the faith that, someday, after progressive educators are driven from the profession, the clash of ideas, art, music, and creativity might be reintroduced into urban schools.

These technocrats might have had no idea why their mandates for test, sort, reward, and punish would impose the most harm on the poorest children of color. Elite reformers swung their Big Stick at teachers, unions, and progressives committed to the policies promoted by The Education Revolution. These micromanagers didn't know how or why the venom they dumped on teachers would pour down on students.

I must emphasize that each individual TED presenter made excellent contributions to a vision of schools that we can achieve after we move beyond the punitive culture of the contemporary school reform movement. Surely, the PBS Education Desk, the house that John Merrow built, understands why we can't discuss what is wrong with our schools without explaining how every problem portrayed in the TED talks is linked with the last two decades of school reform. Yet, they chose not to fuss with elite, top-down reformers who remain committed to test, sort, reward, and punish.