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Bruno: Four Thoughts On The LA StudentsFirst Forum

ScreenHunter_01 Sep. 09 11.09
On Thursday, I attended the "Teacher Town Hall" that StudentsFirst put on in downtown Los Angeles. On the stage was a panel consisting of Michelle Rhee, George Parker, and Steve Perry. I don't have any single narrative to offer, but I came away with a few brief impressions: 

1. The event was well-attended. I was told the venue had 270 seats, and they appeared to be all full or almost full. An RSVP did not guarantee you a seat, and I'm not sure if anybody was turned away. There were some protesters outside (along with a police presence), but by the time I exited the building they seemed to have left.

2. Rhee and Parker had interesting things to say, and should elaborate on them more often and more thoroughly. Rhee seems genuinely sure the median teacher position on many reform issues is not that far from her own. That might or might not be true - she certainly overstated the case in some of the particulars, like on value-added measurement - but it's a good way of framing the debate that encourages people to get specific about what they believe or think their opponents believe.

For his part, Parker (a former union president) argued repeatedly that unions are good and have a role to play, but that their interests don't align with those of students as neatly as they could or should. That's a line of thinking reformers should be pursuing more frequently and carefully, but it was never really clear what Parker's alternative conception of teacher unions would look like in practice.

3. Perry didn't get the memo. The goal of the forum as stated was to have an "honest conversation" about education reform that avoided "extreme rhetoric and personal attacks". Perry either didn't know or didn't care. His answers consisted almost entirely of recklessly hasty generalizations from personal anecdotes, all inevitably pointing to somebody else's cowardice or indifference to children.

Perry might be an effective spokesman for the reform movement - he's casually funny and witty, and he's stridently moralistic in a way that seems to excite supporters - but his contributions were sufficiently "extreme" and "personal" to undercut the ostensible purpose of the event.

4. It's not clear that attendees were really looking to learn from the panelists anyway. Despite being encouraged to do so, only 16 audience members - roughly 6% of those present - submitted questions. My sense was that most of the people present were already high-information participants either looking to explicitly support (or oppose) the panelists or hoping to see some fireworks. (There weren't that many fireworks, though there was the occasional shouting.)

This is really symptomatic of one of the biggest challenges facing education reformers: there are just not that many people who highly prioritize education issues in general but are still persuadable on the details. It's not clear whether forums like this one will do more than highlight divisions between the already-invested. - PB (@MrPABruno) image via

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Actually, more than 16 people submitted questions. My girlfriend and I submitted a question that was not chosen to be answered. Many people who stood in line with us submitted questions. When I submitted my question into a plastic bin, I saw MANY other question cards in there (much more than 15). StudentsFirst simply decided to pick and choose certain questions to control the "conversation".

Is it not possible that people who were genuinely interested in a dialogue would not bother with a session that was put on by SF and included panelists from the group? SF has not presented itself as very inclusive or open to different ideas. Rather its generally MR saying what she believes and trying to make it clear why she thinks only she and her group are right.

@Hannah - That's certainly a possibility. I submitted an unanswered (so far - they said they'd answer them online) question as well, but somebody else walked it up for me so I never saw any of the bins myself. I should have said, "the moderator said 16", since I don't know whether any were filtered out for whatever reason or even if the moderator would have been aware of that.

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