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Media: Reform Opponents Are Winning Online (For Now)


There's a strange dynamic going on inside the online education reform debate in which the well-funded reformers play the role of wimpy David and the scrappy traditional educators are Goliath.  But the mismatch could change quickly in the new year, and if it does things will get noisier but also -- I hope -- a little more interesting.

As anyone who reads education sites or goes on Twitter knows, "reform critics" -- they're still working on a better term to describe their views -- have a slew of current teachers and veterans out there talking about their classroom experiences and opinions nearly every day.  Nancy Flanagan, TeacherKen, Anthony Cody, and John Thompson to name just a few. It's not just that they're out there shouting randomly into the wind, either.  At least some of them seem to be coordinated behind the scenes by SOS or PAA or Leonie's listserv, bird-dogging individual sites -- Caroline Grannan seems to have been (self-)assigned to this site -- and converging on a blog post or Twitter comment (as happened to me last week when I first posted on this topic).  If past experience is any guideline, the comments here and Twitter RTs will come from them.  

image from scholasticadministrator.typepad.comIn contrast, reformy folks have lacked a SWAT team of feisty and prolific school-level champions defending articulating their message. The now middle-aged reform movement seems to have relied on institutional and organizational voices -- Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, et al -- and mainstream news outlets, where they dominate.  But these voices are neither coming from the classroom nor active in the online debate during the days and weeks between mainstream news stories, which are an increasingly large part of the education discussion.  This leaves others - think tankers and crackpots and Whitney Tilsons and such -- to fill in the empty spaces. But those folks aren't numerous or prolific or tenacious or, ultimately, credible enough, either.  They are too self-important to leave comments on other sites, and too professional to post on weekends or after hours when everyone else with a day job is most active.    

This imbalance may be changing as more and more reform efforts focus on advocacy, teacher voices, and (so slowly!) embrace social media.  StudentsFirst did a decent job digging up pink-slipped teachers of the year to tell their anti-LIFO story and calling on supporters to write into Congress when the Senate was considering that ridiculous Harkin replacement bill.  Stand For Children could press a button that would encourage its supporters to write or email or tweet, and at some point soon will see fit to do so.  The CTQ has a bunch of teacher bloggers out there, many of them on a group blog at EdWeek -- which looks a little bland and slow by current standards but it's a start.  The folks at TeachPlus have a teacher evaluation post up at HuffPost here, which is again a start. There's a charter-positive TFA alumni named MathInAZ over at Teach For Us.

I'm not taking sides here as to who's more right or more wrong (most everyone's wrong, far as I'm concerned).  And perhaps there are bloggers and commenters out there I've missed in my looking and asking around.  I put out a call for school-based reform-positive voices last week and am happy to continue to learn more. 


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I think the Billionaire's boys club & the privateers don't tweet as much as we do primarily because they don't need to, since they get their way through naked hard cash and the political influence that flows through that money. Secondly, as their policies are not popular or supported by research, the more they operate in the dark the better off they are.

But we at PAA are not "reform opponents"; we just have a different, more progressive policy agenda. Ours also happens to be backed by research, as well as by parents, teachers, and others on the ground who know what they are talking about and want to save rather than undermine public education.

It can get a little lonely but as a former inner city public school teacher & administrator, and former PTA president, I do write comments nights & weekends. I've encountered the wrath of some folks you speak of. And our organization has worked with others to help change (improve) some laws, as well as bring together district and charter public school educators. You can find a weekly column I do at the home page of a group of Minnesota newspapers for which I write a weekly column, hometownsource.com/tag/joe-nathan/?category=columns-opinion

www.centerforschoolchange.org, and often at www.educationviews.org

Thanks for continuing to raise questions, Alex.

The voices that you hear online are authentic and none of them get paid by the likes of Broad or Gates. These education activists support public schools and education in general and most if not all of them are teachers or parents with children in public schools.

I agree with Leonie, as she makes valuable points about PAA and the lack of popularity and research backing what is known as corporate education reform. It needs to be emphasized and clarified that we have more effectively defined ourselves in the wider grassroots resistance to corporate education reform than "reform opponents".

It is not accurate and simplistic to describe the various forces who have become critical of corporate education reform and privatization as reflexively reactive. There has been an acknowledgment built that you cannot merely be opposed to the mantra of corporate education reform, you have to stand for your own version of meaningful reforms. This is why the term "real reform" and other variations on this term have come about, in an effort to differentiate between the many styles of reform in public education.

"Self-assigned" is correct, I guess. But it's organic -- authentic -- not organized. If PAA coordinated an effort to assign different advocates to different sites, I'm not aware of it.

I comment on the sites I like to read regularly, especially those where for whatever reason there aren't many reader comments, so no one else is there before me making the points I think need to be made. (I rarely comment on Valerie Strauss' or Jay Mathews' blogs for that reason, for example.) And this is one of the sites I read most regularly because it's done well, it's interesting and it's updated frequently.

@Joe, legitimate disagreement and criticism are not the same as "wrath." (Or, as other pro-corporate-reform voices like to call it, "slander.")

Alexander, what about @Stuart Buck? He has told me he's a public-school parent, which is the same credential I have*. He does lose it and start resorting to personal insults pretty rapidly, so he may not be the most temperate voice, but he may be an authentic one.

As I've said, you're unlikely to ever locate more than a few outlier public-school educators or parents -- "authentic voices" -- who support faddish corporate reforms. People who spend time in real-life classrooms know how bogus -- and destructive -- those nostrums are.

*My husband, a career-switching former mainstream journalist, is in his third year as a substitute teacher for the San Francisco Unified School District. So that's an additional credential nowadays -- but not one I had when I started following and critiquing corporate education reform more than 10 years ago, when then-hailed, now-failed for-profit Edison Schools Inc. was the "it's a miracle!" fad du jour.

You do realize this clause contains a clear redundancy: "crackpots and Whitney Tilsons."

Rather than provide a lengthy response to your observation, I'd like to posit that since corporate education reform originated from and serves only the interests of the plutocrat class, this is by and large a working class push-back against naked class warfare (that's what ed-reform is after all).

Professor Ravitch sums it up quite nicely on twitter: "Are critics of corporate reform "winning" debate? Isn't that like saying Occupy Wall Street is beating the banks and equity firms? Right."

Corporate education reform serves the 1%
Authentic reform serves the 99%

That's why all the billionaires you dote on Mr. Russo fund the former as opposed to the latter.

While the so-called reform efforts of the past 20 years have been downgrading the schools of the U.S., research in the neurosciences, learning theory, and instruction point out the wrong-headedness of the standards, drill, and test reforms of the current business-based model. We are on the right track if the goal is automatons who unquestioningly follow the directions of our overlords, but the wrong track if we seek the critical thinking problem solvers experts say we need for life in the 21st Century. See Yong Zhao, Marion Brady, etc. if you are looking for better models.

Where on the continuum do you place the reform outlined by the commissioners who recently released a report on creating a teacher-led profession? http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/Transforming_Teaching(2).pdf These are accomplished teachers trying to create the conditions for more teachers of excellence.

What an odd odd blog post, particularly in the defining of who gets to claim the reform label. I find it particularly amusing that the so-called "traditionalists" are actually the ones using new media while your innovative reformers are stuck in the practices and ideologies of the past - privatize the public good, influence-peddling, backroom deals and change from the top down. Rather than use labels to sort and divide, why not analyze practices, tactics and outcomes?

You can't claim you're "not taking sides" when you call one side of the debate "reform opponents" and "reform critics." Deb Meier correctly comments about your "reformy types" that "they have the daily regular media as their constant blog site." Still, I believe that facts and the people (i.e. Truth) win in the long run.

the need to argue is pretty strong here, i see.

my post basically points out the strength of those who are opposed to current reform effort in making the argument online, and yet those whose efforts i'm noting are having a devil of a time accepting the compliment.

why the argumentative response? why not just say "thanks, alexander, we've been working our tails off and appreciate the notice. we're kicking some ass and hope to continue doing so."

Hey, I complimented your site and said I read it regularly because I like it, not because I'm assigned to.

I think that to some readers, it's not clear from your post whether you truly believe that the corporate reformers are David and the voices of actual educators and public-school parents (the ones who actually work with challenged students/the ones with the day jobs) are Goliath.

I think what you're doing is pointing out the irony that in this particular arena, that's how it's lining up. Obviously that's not the case in the policy world or the mainstream media -- for now.

Of course, the corporate reformers try to make it out that they're the civil rights heroes fighting a scrappy battle for justice against the status quo behemoth, "the blob" -- and in some sectors, that ridiculous scenario sells. So you can't REALLY blame the people who have been pilloried for years now as "defenders of the failed status quo" for being touchy.

Personally, I appreciate your point.

The heart of the matter is that the snake oil only sells for so long.

Thanks, Alexander, we've been working our tails off and appreciate the notice. we're kicking some ass and hope to continue doing so. But in future, don't call us reform critics! call us the 99%.

Alexander -- haven't you heard? The new language is "No excuses" reformers and "Social context" reformers. [check the link below]

When you switch from "opponents of reform" to "Social context reformers," we'll say "Thank you Alexander."


While some people in corporations have strongly promoted expansion of early childhood education, it seems strange that Head Start and other such programs have not been tagged with the apparently negative term "corporate reform."

A variety of changes have been promoted by some families and some public school educators Some of these changes include public school choice, charter public schools, allowing high school students to take college level courses while in high school.

Yes, I agree that disagreement is not the same as "wrath." But some people who disagree with what I've worked on for about 40 years have gone well beyond disagreement.

One of the interesting outcomes of the charter public school movement is a group of schools whose boards include a majority of people who work as teachers in the schools. That's a pretty strong form of teacher empowerment, isn't it?

PDK, a national education group, and Gallup, a national polling organization have cooperated on a national poll about American's attitudes toward education for 40 years. It might be useful to review and discuss findings from this year, found at

Some of the key findings:
7!% have "trust and confidence in men & Women who are teaching in public schools"
74% would encourage brightest young person they know to be a teacher
70% favor the idea of charter schools

You might find these and many other results in this poll useful.

Joe Nathan

I would submit this, though, @Joe:

Pretty much everyone has had contact with teachers and is familiar with what they're like and what they do.

The average person knows very little, if anything, about charter schools.

So discussing the poll results of those two areas as though they carried equal weight isn't really valid, and not useful at all. I'd like to see the results if a poll just asked random respondents, "Do you know what charter schools are?" I'll bet well over 70% would say no.

(That's a different Mary commenting above). I don't mind your false-compliment at all, Alexander, but in fact: no, I don't feel inclined to thank you, either. You're calling for the paid "reform advocate" industry to get their act together, and imitate the genuine activism of teachers like me.

Yes, I've commented nights and weekends for three years, instead of sleeping, but nobody marshalled me. It's the actual truth I've been telling, as straight and clear as I can get it. Other people have caught on, too, from thousands of different perspectives, and we have converged on the mission of saving public education from the for-profit cheats and frauds behind your corrupt self-dealing "reform" drive. And, oh yes, we can.

Real reformers will always have the advantage in passion and drive because as Mary points out above, THIS IS PERSONAL to us. We are not paid to comment or fight, it's not even our "cause". It is our lives and the lives of real people we touch and interact with.

I do think the tide is actually, slowly starting to turn, thanks in part to all the tireless commenters, bloggers, and social media whizzes. See here: http://mskatiesramblings.blogspot.com/2011/12/tides-are-turnin.html

Hmmm. Not sure what to make of this post. There are a lot of us who are not "coordinated behind the scenes" but do follow a number of the same folks on Twitter, read many of the same blogs and comment when we feel a need to correct the record. I'm a public school parent, not an educator, not a union member, not a member of any acronyms -- just a parent who has watched public education go terribly wrong during my kids' school years. They are a senior and junior in high school, so they're part of that lucky group that got NCLB all through school and now get to jump onto the sinking ship of public education. We're in California, so it's an E-ticket ride all the way!

I guess I'm a reformed reformer. I got involved when I thought a charter school would be a good fit for my kids. The closer I looked at funding, policy and the real impact on our community when the charter school opened, the more I realized that things are going terribly wrong in public education policy. Living near one of the big-name reformers, I spent time really trying to see things from his (very insider) perspective, but truly think his free-market, privatized agenda is wrong for kids and communities.

Rambling way to say I'm just one example of an individual who uses social media as a way to voice concern against the juggernaut of big money, big media top-down education "reformers".

I tried to think of an example of a sincere, grassrooted, rational reform minded voice to share with you, but most of those folks that I follow have turned to the other side. One you might look at is Mike McGaillard in LA. Naive, but seems sincere.

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