A Times Derby: Gates, Parents, Rhee, and, of course, “Beyond Tests” with Michael Winerip

The New York Times has had a veritable flock of noteworthy education stories the last several days and, at the risk of bursting readers’ 20 article bubble, I would recommend all five.

Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates That’s the headline over the front-page story in my Early Edition Sunday Times and I was looking forward to some juicy tidbits about the billionaire secretly funding a Bill Ayers power-to-the-people project. In fact, Ayers is not mentioned, but just about everyone else in the education world is, including our own Checker Finn.  But Harvard?  Grass-roots?  Randi Weingarten?  Jack Jennings?  Rick Hess?  The most interesting part of the story is that the Gates Foundation “new strategy,” as Sam Dillon writes, is to “overhaul… the nation’s education policies.”  He quotes Allan Golston, president of the foundation’s United States program: “We’ve learned that school-level investments aren’t enough to drive system changes…  The importance of advocacy has gotten clearer and clearer.”

Strange Bedfellows Dillon calls it a “strange-bedfellows twist,” and his story describes how Michelle Rhee, former D.C. superintendent, has hired George Parker, former head of the district’s teachers union, as a part time senior fellow at her new advocacy organization Students First. Dillon writes that Parker “says Ms. Rhee hates teachers’ unions less than most people think.”  Now he tells us!

The Math of Heartbreak If they hand out Pulitzers for headlines, this would qualify.  Writer Michael Sokolove tells a touching story of a working-class Pennsylvania school district’s attempts to come to terms with its financial challenges.  “Everything that is going to be presented tonight is not good for our kids,” the superintendent told his school board and a room full of teachers, parents and students. “We are heartbroken.”  Unlike his colleague Michael Winerip (see next item), Sokolove doesn’t seem bent on scoring political points here, as he describes how Bristol Township is facing its $10 million deficit (in a $123 million budget) “much like a couple talking around their kitchen table with a stack of bills, no hope of paying them and nothing but bad options.”

Teaching Beyond the Test As much as I try to give Michael Winerip the benefit of the doubt (see here), he seems intent on delivering a message with his reporting – nothing wrong with that except that the message gets in the way of the facts. In this case, a story about a 25-year veteran teacher’s admirable efforts to teach  his U.S. History AP students about the Iraq and Afghanistan  wars is littered with pat phrases intended to score points against education reformers. (Intention is always a hard nut to crack, but Winerip’s asides are so whacky that they can’t be attributed to accident.)  He says, for instance, that the teacher, Chris Doyle, used to teach current events, but “standardized testing and canned curriculums have squeezed most of that out of public education.”  Oh yah?  He doesn’t even have his veteran teacher saying such a thing.  In fact, Doyle, whose class sounds terrific (despite Winerip’s sappy attempt at making Doyle into a rebel by having him do “what teachers did in the olden days: creates his own curriculum”), and who worries most about why the scores in his AP classes vary so much (from 50—85 percent) from year to year.  Could it be because the school doesn’t have a good, consistent curriculum? Could it be that the teachers the kids have in earlier grades are not so hot?  Instead of digging into that, of course, Winerip jumps to the predictable conclusion that “evaluating teachers based on their students test scores may not be foolproof.” Please Mr. Winerap, just the facts.

Punishing Parents This is an interesting take on the elusive parental involvement monster.  As writer Lisa Belkin says, “teachers are fed up with being blamed for the failures of American education, and legislators are starting to hear them.”  She discusses several states’ efforts to fix education with “parent-participation” laws. Belkin unfortunately succumbs to the frying-pan-into-the-fire problem by quoting Diane Ravitch criticizing the “punish the parents” laws and suggesting that “the root problem is poverty.” Will someone correct me, but weren’t public schools created to make up for bad parenting skills and poverty by teaching kids to be better and smarter than their parents?  How did we get to the point where we now can’t teach kids unless we first fix their parents and make them middle class?

–Peter Meyer

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