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Media: Finger-Wagging From A Cape Cod Vacation Home

Picture 47Over all, I find Joanne Barkan’s latest Dissent piece (Hired Guns) to be an overly familiar, frustratingly misleading read -- much less original and interesting than the previous stories she's put out. 

Her main premise, that school reformers have gone political, is nothing new at this point.  The same is true for most of her main points:  Jonah Edelman at Aspen, again?  Michelle Rhee being aggressive, again?  The unproven nature of RTTT reforms, again?  The lack of accountability for nonprofit foundations, again?  The fall 2011 Denver school board election, again?  Reformers are many of them white and well-educated and arrogant, again? These are all things you’ve read here and elsewhere (ad neauseam) going back months if not years.   

Most troubling of all is that in her new piece Barkan (pictured) presents a misleading, misguided, and perhaps even hypocritical vision of how education and democracy are supposed to work.  I don't think it's fair to reformers (not that they need me to defend them) or particularly helpful to those who are critical of reform efforts.  

Other than a few interesting tidbits like Joe Williams’s 2010 salary ($265,000) or or how much reformers spent in Michigan during the first six months of last year ($951,018), there’s not really much original reporting here, no new interviews or turning points. (Barkan even recycles the same May 2010 NSVF summit panel on political advocacy I and others have written about several times in the past.)   Even if I agreed with Barkan's concerns, I’d be asking myself if I got much new out of her piece.  

It's not just that Barkan's recycling stuff we've already read elsewhere, however.  The real problems are deeper: She's popularizing a description of teachers unions -- "elected leaders accountable to dues-paying members" -- that many rank and file teachers and parents would see as profoundly naive.   She's perpetuating the distaste for advocacy that has long held educators all of all stripes back from making the system work better for them and for kids.  (That's why Ford and Soros are funding advocacy efforts, not just Gates and Broad, and why the NAACP and AARP are 501c(4)s.) She lumps a broad swath of reformers together as if they agree on everything and are lock-step about how to proceed.  (She also describes reform critics as a single, undifferentiated group that includes “public school students, their families, their teachers, and believers in the link between democracy and public education.")

Most of all, Barkan can't seem to see (or acknowledge) the limitations of reformers' efforts even when they are embedded in her own story. One of three reform candidates in Denver lost, despite all the spending.  (The reform candidate in LA also lost.) Two of four reform candidates in New Jersey lost, despite lots of outside help.  Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein lost, too. 

Last but not least, Barkan makes a point of noting the race, gender, income, and alma mater of several reformers she criticizes but leaves out where she went to college or how she makes a living, or where she sent her kids if she has any.  At a quick glance, she seems to be doing quite well.  When she came and spoke at a Columbia University event last year, she seemed to be dressed quite fashionably.  In the screencap above from her 2011 MSNBC appearance, you can see how nicely her silver and gray hair is done.  She maintains homes in both Manhattan and on Cape Cod.  And yet, according to Barkan, it's only the reformers who might be out of touch.  


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I am not sure about your slam on Barkan for being well-dressed. Are those who point out race and class issues obliged to live in homeless shelters and dress in clothes from Salvation Army to legitimize their critique?

The idea that this is some kind of a balanced field, that Soros and Ford somehow counterbalance Gates, Walton, Broad et al, is not borne out by the numbers -- unless you have numbers I have not seen. I have seen no funding of advocacy groups dedicated to fighting the standardization/testing/privatization agenda that would rival what we have seen on the other side. And as one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools march last summer, I know that we got about $25K from each of the teacher unions, and the rest of the funds we raised were all from individual donors. The work that I see going forward against high stakes testing is not well-funded at all.

I have heard others suggest that since the "reformers" take different stances -- for example, some favor vouchers, and others do not -- this means they are not some monolithic movement. This is true up to a point, but there is an underlying message that is pushed forward by most of the "reformers" that our schools are in crisis, are broken, and must be rescued by dramatic change, which usually involves evaluating teachers, principals and schools using test scores, attaching tough consequences to test scores to push reform, and the expansion of charter schools. The minor differences among these "reformers" do not prevent them from coordinating politically to advance their common agenda. And they have the full weight of the Department of Education pushing forward these reforms through NCLB, Race to the Top, and now the NCLB waivers process.

And the fact that the "reformers" are not always able to win elections or in legislative fights is evidence that they are not invincible, but citing Michelle Rhee's loss is hardly convincing as a strategic defeat, given her current position as a national force, injecting funds into education races across the country.
Anthony Cody

You seem to forget that 99% (a familiar meme, no?) of people--and in this group I include most educators-- have no clue who Jonah Edelman is and paid no attention to the Denver Board race, because, guess what, it happened in Denver.

In fact, it has taken two decades of carefully planted stories and underground political money to establish the idea that public schools are "failing" everywhere (due to their very public-ness and their crappy teachers, another familiar meme). Even the fact that Michelle and Co. (still paying Change.Org $2.75 apiece for "supporters") dropped close to a million bucks to try, and fail, to influence a recall election for a state (!) legislator in Michigan is a Big Dark Secret to everyone here in my home state, except the union.

The "reformers" have been re-cycling the same simplistic anti-public stories endlessly, with much more funding. The head start they have on shaping public opinion is incalculable.

So now you decide to that the way to restore "fair and balanced" ed-journalism is hacking on Paul Farhi and Joanne Barkan, claiming that their well-written and researched pieces are Just Not Innovative and boring to those in the know, like you? Been there, read that? What's that scent--sour grapes fermenting?

By the way, any credibility you may have as education journalist is completely negated by your last paragraph. You have to be grasping at straws to decide from the way Barkan's hair looks--when she appears on national television, where all live commenters are "done"-- that she's rich, well-connected and therefore doesn't deserve a voice. Her "Got Dough?" piece which was deservedly passed around and RTed endlessly was as good as it gets in education journalism.

Nancy Flanagan


Ad hominem attacks like this one seem to be the "status quo" of the ed. reform movement: sans a reasonable response, without a thoughtful critique, Barkan's "hair style" becomes a nice dodge for having to deal substantially with her facts and analysis.

In general, I've noticed that your response to Barkan's work tends to be typical of education reform advocates: as soon as anyone challenges the dominant education narrative, they are not thoughtfully critiqued, but rather, dismissively insulted.

And this sort of personal attack is consistent with the the education reform narrative which few reporters, like Barkan, challenge: one which purports to be built on objective data, but is rather, is constructed on a flimsy foundation fear-mongering and vilifying.

Adam Bessie
Assistant Professor, English
Diablo Valley College
Pleasant Hill, CA

thanks for your comment, adam --

you and several other commenters seem to have missed the fact that i was calling barkan out for making race, sex, and income and issue -- without acknowledging the fundamental unfairness of doing so nor admitting to her own privilege.

you and several other commenters seem to think that i am a reform defender, which also would seem not to match up with factual reality.

my critique of her piece, if you read again, is that she fails to do much of any original reporting, that her description of the reform juggernaut and teachers' unions democratic functions is simplistic.

/ alexander

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