Peter Cunningham Reflects on the 2016 Network for Public Education Conference

I arrived in North Carolina for the 2016 conference of The Network for Public Education and the first person I met is the organization’s founder and the intellectual godmother of the anti-reform movement, Diane Ravitch. We have known each other since my time in Washington (2009-2012) and she suggested we pose for pictures, which the conference organizers tweeted out. We chatted amiably about politics, agreed on the best strategy for electoral success and cordially parted ways. I attended a blogging seminar featuring Sacramento State education professor and devoted Teach For America critic Julian Vasquez-Heilig. He claims to be active on six social media platforms, which makes me wonder how he finds time for his day job. I can barely handle blogging and tweeting. I can’t find publicly available data on whether teachers trained at Sacramento State do well in their classroom careers. On the other hand there is lots of data about Professor Vasquez-Heilig’s social media activities and they are impressive. He proudly showed the audience his Klout score, which puts him among the top education tweeters in the country. I then met with Jennifer Berkshire (a.k.a. “Edushyster”) to set the ground rules for our Sunday morning panel on, “The Future of the Education Reform Wars.” We agreed on brief opening statements from each of us, snarky zingers encouraged, followed by an agreed-upon set of topics for discussion, and then Q&A. She warned me to expect some rotten vegetables from the audience and sure enough, one of her allies vowed to supply them in a twitter exchange later in the afternoon. The one topic she didn’t want to talk about was Common Core, the learning standards currently in place in all but a handful of states. I agreed. Why gloat? I attended a panel discussion on teacher evaluation and after an introduction from long-time Oakland teacher (now retired) and Edweek blogger Anthony Cody, audience members read comments from teachers saying that evaluation policies that include student test scores are ruining public education and consuming needed time for collaboration and teaching. At one point Cody said that, when he was teaching, evaluation took almost no time. He didn’t say whether it helped him become a better teacher. My last panel of the day featured Black teachers from Chicago talking to a mostly white audience about the importance of cultural competency and lamenting all of the young “Caucasian girls” who were socially unequipped to teach inner-city kids. They pointed out that, for the first time in history, a majority of U.S. students are people of color. Meanwhile, the teaching profession is still 85 percent white. Unclear if they attributed this to historic discrimination in the field or something else, but the clear implication was that reform was disproportionately hurting Black teachers. Somehow they neglected to salute the most diverse teacher training program in the country, Teach For America, where nearly half are people of color and half are from low-income backgrounds. Blogger Peter Greene shared the fact that his Pennsylvania high school, which he attended and where he has taught for many years, has almost no African-American students or teachers, an acknowledgement that too many Americans still live in hyper-segregated communities. The day ended with a keynote speech from former New York Times reporter Bob Herbert, an African-American columnist and author who opposes education reform. He spoke about his upbringing in suburban Montclair, New Jersey, and the role that education played in his life that brought him to the pinnacle of his field. Herbert took a few swipes at standardized testing and “corporate reform” but devoted most of his speech to the political crisis in America manifested by the rise of Donald Trump. He believes Trump‘s electoral success is brought on by inadequate education that leads to low voter turnout, even though Trump’s non college-educated supporters appear to be voting in droves. Herbert said that if more people had voted in 2000, Al Gore would have won and test-based accountability would never have come to pass. He ignored the fact that arch-liberals like Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy and California Congressman George Miller led the bipartisan effort to pass No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Moreover, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton voted for NCLB, and supports its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which continues the policy of annual testing. Herbert tried to link Trump and the failures of our education system to the education reform policies of the last 15 years. Someone should have told him that Trump’s white, working-class voters largely come from rural and middle-income suburban communities that are relatively untouched by education reform. Someone also should have mentioned that communities of color across America overwhelmingly support the core pillars of reform, including high standards, accountability and choice. Herbert closed by imploring everyone to vote. Hear, hear!
Photo courtesy of The Network for Public Education.
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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