My Weekend at the Network for Public Education Conference

Education Post believes “better conversation” can help lead to “better education” so I attended the Network for Public Education (NPE) conference in Chicago this weekend to listen and engage with people opposed to education reform. To help get in the mood, I sat for an interview with blogger Jennifer Berkshire (aka Edushyster). I won’t share anything since she asked for the interview, which I assume she will publish soon, except to say that when I asked her how to refer to people opposed to education reform, she said she calls them, “Team Status Quo.” I think she was kidding but it’s hard to tell with her. I arrived at the conference Saturday morning for the opening keynote speech from Jitu Brown, a Chicago community organizer I have known for a number of years. In his passionate speech, “A Reason to Fight and a Reason to Believe,” he likened reformers to “colonizers,” and accused us of sharing values with people who used African-American babies as “alligator bait.” He all but blamed education reform for the fatal police shooting of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown and pushed back on reformers appropriating the language of the civil rights movement. Mostly he exhorted the audience to organize for the long term. I attended a panel discussion with educators Deborah Meier and Marjorie Larner. My ears perked up when Meier, who started teaching in Chicago in the 1960s, said, “There were no good old days.” She said she was “horrified” and the schools “were terrible.” She also said teachers were fearful back then and are even more so today. A number of teachers in the audience lamented new systems of teacher evaluations. Some said classroom observations were too frequent; others said they were not frequent enough. Virtually all who spoke oppose any use of test scores in evaluation, no matter how small the percentage. Several seemed to miss the nuance in state evaluation policies, implying they are “all about test scores,” rather than based on multiple measures. One audience member also pointed out that the only high school in his California district to meet performance goals explicitly did not teach to the test. We broke into small groups and I had a conversation with two college professors from California and a Michigan high school teacher. The college professors were making a documentary and asked me to sit for an interview, which I did, in a hotel room upstairs under glaring light. We parted collegially and vowed to stay in touch. Next up was a panel discussion on debunking disinformation led by marketing and communications consultant Jeff Bryant. Hilary Tone of Media Matters suggested finding pro-reform voices who are willing to admit that all reforms are not working as well as they had hoped. Diallo Brooks of People for the American Way said that anti-reformers are, “Too often nice when the other side is not.” Many reformers say the same of anti-reformers. I was also struck by one comment from Bryant who said he often feels like he is arguing with people he agrees with on “90 percent of the issues.” Education historian Diane Ravitch, one of the NPE founders, took the mic at one point and quoted noted communications “framer” George Lakoff, who said that “narrative” not “facts” are what persuade. She said the reform narrative—that schools are “failing”—is false, citing record high test scores and graduation rates, though she concedes this isn’t true everywhere. Saturday lunch featured Edushyster interviewing blogger Jose Vilson, a New York City public school teacher, and blogger Peter Greene, who teaches in rural Pennsylvania. I often hear that teachers are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisal, but these two clearly aren’t and have still managed to keep their jobs. I regularly read and share Vilson’s blogs on race and education. I briefly chatted with Professor Ravitch, who I got to know when I worked at the U.S. Department of Education from 2009 to 2012 and even brought her in for a private meeting with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. She was polite and friendly, which is worth mentioning since I have been publicly critical of her a few times. I returned Sunday morning for a panel on “How to Have Conversations with Teach For America Supporters,” moderated by California State University Professor Julian Vasquez-Heilig and featuring ex-corps members and other Teach For America critics. They called on teachers to publicly challenge the alternative certification program that has brought nearly 50,000 people into the field of teaching, many of whom have become state, district, school and even union leaders. Finally, I attended the keynote event of the day—Diane Ravitch interviewing National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. There was a lot of talk about union-busting, over-testing and privatization along with a few choice words for former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and my old boss and good friend Secretary Duncan. Mostly, it was a pep rally for an energized audience of teachers frustrated by the current era of accountability and choice. President Weingarten highlighted one challenge for the anti-reform movement, which is that most leaders of color support federally mandated accountability because they don’t trust states and districts to protect children at risk. A related challenge is that most charter school students are African American and Latino, and support for choice remains high in the minority community. Missing from the panels I attended was an even larger threat to both the anti-reform movement and education in general, which is underfunding of schools. As of last fall, 35 states were still below pre-recession funding levels for education. It is hard to see how organized resistance to accountability will reverse this deeply troubling trend; I argue that it also drives choice. I left the conference appreciating that the attendees are serious, knowledgeable and increasingly organized. While I was not much moved by their arguments, I respect their passion and commitment to children and welcome continued dialogue.  
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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