What I Learned at NBC's Education Nation Summit

Education Nation was effectively a two and a half day-long meeting of the minds for those who see privatization as the last word in fixing America's public schools. They are known as the "reform" movement.
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Last week I participated in a panel discussion at NBC's Education Nation summit.

For those who missed it, Education Nation was effectively a two and a half day-long meeting of the minds for those who see privatization as the last word in fixing America's public schools. They are known as the "reform" movement.

Yes, NBC eventually conceded that some teachers needed to be sprinkled around the summit, and even some union leaders. But organizations such as Class Size Matters, or the new social justice-oriented leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union, or educators who promote progressive pedagogy, such as Rethinking Schools were, unfortunately, not included.

I was invited to speak on the recommendation of Steven Brill, who moderated the panel, and whom I originally met last year when he came to my school to research his latest feature article for the New York Times Magazine.

The "reform" line of thinking goes like this: The main problem with the schools is that the teachers have no incentive to work hard, and they are protected by a union; if we remove the union, teachers can respond to individual financial incentives and great things will become possible. That, wrapped in a powerful emotional package, with clever cartoons and brilliant editing, is the message delivered succinctly to the general public in the new film, "Waiting for 'Superman' ".

It occurs to me that this is a rather convenient storyline for the recession. Just as millions are losing their homes and facing endless months of unemployment, along comes a "movement" of billionaires -- Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Mark Zuckerberg -- fighting for "justice". The rich, you see, are altruistic. They're high-minded, they don't think about themselves, just the children. Meanwhile, the teachers, so the story goes, are the greedy ones. The teachers are selfish and self-interested. Really, it's a wonder we trust them around children at all.

If you were quite angry with Goldman Sachs a few months ago, don't be. They just gave Geoffrey Canada $20 million to build another charter school. If you thought that all these foreclosures and layoffs were caused by the wealthy, then "Waiting for 'Superman' " will tell you it's the opposite: it's the schools (specifically, the teachers in the schools) that are dragging down our neighborhoods.

My panel, "Good Apples: How can we keep good teachers, get rid of the bad ones, and put a new shine on the profession?" fit neatly into that narrative.

You can watch the panel online here and judge for yourself. Below, I simply want to develop a few points that were raised in the discussion.

How to train great teachers? I dared to suggest that it takes time to become a great teacher. Geoffrey Canada cut me off, saying, "We don't have time! We can't wait another ten years!" (He later backtracked and admitted that it takes time for a teacher to hone their craft.)

Yes, we have to have a sense of urgency. No one feels that more than parents. But he who shouts loudest about the problems doesn't necessarily have the answers.

"Waiting for 'Superman' " paints Canada as a kind of educational Chuck Yeager -- the pilot who first broke the sound barrier. So he seemed particularly incensed that I brought up the fact that after New York's test scores were re-scaled last year, only 38 percent of his students in Harlem Children's Zone 1 fell within the benchmark for "proficient" reading ability. Canada tried to change the subject to the better scoring Harlem Children's Zone 2.

But even if we assume that he's doing something wonderful, then we have to ask the question: what does it take to do that something wonderful? Apparently it takes the kind of wrap-around services that Canada aspires to provide his students from the cradle to graduation, such as health care. And, we should note, it apparently takes tens of millions of dollars.

Yet, while taking large checks from Wall Street on one hand, Canada insists that "it's not about resources" on the other.

I argued that wealthy people, who spend five figures on their own children's education, insist on small classes, beautiful facilities, and experienced teachers. I mentioned that the Harlem Children's Zone flagship building on 125th Street is beautiful, and that all children deserve such attractive surroundings.

Canada countered that his highest performing school is in a building with no windows. Then why, I wonder, does he need $20 million for new construction, especially when Harlem has the lowest school utilization rate in the city? Still, Canada insisted, "It's the not the building that drives teaching, it's what's going on inside those classrooms; not whether or not kids have a window to look out of, which ours don't."

Here we have a message honed to perfection... for the wealthy: the unions are the problem; the teachers need to be cheaper; give me money now for a few beautiful schools that can help break the unions and open up the education market; but don't worry, we don't want too much; we certainly don't want what your children have.

That's what I learned from NBC's Education Nation Summit. Beware CEOs who say teachers are the problem. And beware CEO solutions. You might find yourself in a room without windows.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Educators dedicated to real reform in NYC can be contacted at http://www.waitingforsupermantruth.org/

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