The Arrogant Ignorance of Campbell Brown: Education Journalism in Decline

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Apparently facts don’t matter much to Campbell Brown.

 

 

Though her latest “fact” about public schools has once again been shown to be more truthiness than truth, she refuses to retract it.

 

 

During an interview published in Slate where she gave advice to the next president, she said:

 

 

“Two out of three eighth graders in this country cannot read or do math at grade level. We are not preparing our kids for what the future holds.”

 

It’s a scary statistic. The problem is it’s completely unsupported by evidence.

 

And when education experts called her out on it, she complained that SHE was being attacked.

 

When pressed, Brown admitted she got this figure from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) a test given to random samples of students in fourth and eighth grades every two years.

 

However, Brown either misunderstands or misinterprets the scores. If one were to interpret the data in the way Brown suggests, the highest scoring countries in the world would be full of children who can’t read at grade level. Hardly anyone in the world would be literate or could add and subtract. It’s beyond absurd.

 

And when she was notified of her error by authorities in the field including Carol Burris, Tom Loveless and Diane Ravitch – who, by the way, served on the NAEP Governing Board for seven years – Brown responded by likening her critics to Donald Trump.

 

She wrote:

 

“That the people who disagree with my characterization would react by attacking me personally… speaks volumes. Those feigning outrage over the difference between “grade level” and “grade level proficiency” are the people who profit off the system’s failure and feel compelled to defend it at all costs. Sadly, in the age of Donald Trump and Diane Ravitch, this is what constitutes discourse.”

 

I especially like the bit where she attacks experts, teachers, and PhDs because they “profit off the system’s failure.” It’s pretty rich stuff coming from Brown who makes a pretty penny retelling the fairytale of “failing public schools.”

 

Once upon a time, Brown was a respected reported for NBC and anchorperson for CNN.

 

 

Now she’s a paid Internet troll.

 

 

I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, but it’s true.

 

 

She co-founded and edits a Website called The Seventy Four – a reference to the 74 million children across the country who are 18 or younger.

 

 

It might be more honest to call it The Four, instead, for the $4 million she receives annually from the mega-rich backers of school privatization to bankroll the endeavor.

 

 

She claims her site is “nonpartisan.” Funny. I guess that explains why she continually backs every cause and campaign championed by her donors.

 

 

Change all public schools to private charter schools? Check.

 

Block teachers unions from collectively bargaining? Check.

 

 

Ignore the overwhelming preponderance of stories about charter schools cheating the public and their students? Check.

 

 

When called out on her bias, she proudly proclaimed, “I have learned that not every story has two sides… Is The Seventy Four journalism or advocacy? For 74 million reasons, we are both.”

 

 

Pithy. Yet it remains unclear exactly how the nation’s school children will benefit from Bill Gates and the Walton Family having an even larger say in education policy.

 

Brown has sold her image and rep as a journalist so it can be used to purposefully mislead the public into thinking she is still dedicated to those endeavors. She’s not. What she’s offering these days is not News. It’s bought-and-paid-for public relations meant to destroy our nation’s public schools.

 

If anyone thought Brown retained even a shred of journalistic integrity left, she should have removed it when she called herself, “a soldier in Eva’s army.” This is a reference to Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of a New York City charter school chain – Success Academy – where children are put under such pressure they wet themselves during testing and kids in first grade are shamed and berated for math mistakes.

 

As a public school teacher, myself, this makes me sad.

 

John Merrow, one of the elder statesmen of education journalism, recently proclaimed that we live in the “golden age of education reporting.”

 

I must respectfully disagree.

 

Yes, there is more being written about education policy and public schools than ever before.

 

But most of it is just paid advertisements from the standardization and privatization industry.

 

Look who’s funding these stories.

 

 

TV Networks such as NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo have broadcast various education segments on “Nightly News” and “Today” underwritten by Bill Gates and Eli Broad.

 

 

The Education Writers Association – which boasts more than 3,00 members – receives money from Gates and Walton. The L.A. Times receives funds from Broad for its Education Matters Digital initiative.

 

On-line publications also have been infiltrated. The Education Post took $12 million in start-up funds provided by Broad, Bloomberg and the Waltons. The site focuses on “K-12 academic standards, high-quality charter schools and how best to hold teachers and schools accountable for educating students,” according to the Washington Post.

 

Even well-respected education blogs including Chalkbeat and Education Week are funded in part by the Waltons (in the latter case, specifically for “coverage of school choice and [so-called] parent-empowerment issues.”) Education Week even tweets out paid advertisements for Teach for America as if they were news stories!

 

 

We’ve all seen “Waiting for Superman,” the infamous union bashing, charter loving propaganda film packaged as a documentary. Its popularity was helped with outreach and engagement funds by the Waltons and a host of other privatizers. It’s far from the only effort by market-driven billionaires to infiltrate popular culture with corporate education reform. They tried to sell the parent trigger law with “Won’t Back Down,” but no one was buying. Efforts continue in Marvel Studios television shows.

 

A plethora of teachers, academics and other grassroots bloggers have taken to the Internet to correct the record. But they are often ignored or drowned out by the white noise of the same corporate education reform narratives being told again-and-again without any firm footing in reality. In fact, after blogger and former teacher Anthony Cody won first prize from the Education Writers Association in 2014 for his criticism of Gates, the organization banned bloggers from subsequent consideration.

 

We bloggers are almost completely unpaid. We do it because we care about our profession. Meanwhile the so-called “news” sources are funded by corporate special interests, yet it is bloggers that are looked at as if they were somehow reprehensibly compromised and biased.

 

Education journalism is not going through a golden age. It’s a sham, a farce.

 

When we allow our news to be funded by private interests, we lose all objectivity. The stories are spun to meet the demands of the big foundations, the billionaires bankrolling them. And the real experts in the field are either not consulted or left to quixotically do whatever they can on their own time.

 

Education journalism isn’t about what’s best for children. It’s about how best to monetize the system to wring as many taxpayer dollars out of our schools as possible for corporate interests.

 

It goes something like this: reduce the quality to reduce the cost and swallow the savings as profit. But it’s sold to the public in propaganda that we call journalism.

 

As famed cartoonist and counter-culture figure Robert Crumb wrote in 2015:

 

“You don’t have journalists [in America] anymore. What they have is public relations people. Two-hundred and fifty thousand people in public relations. And a dwindling number of actual reporters and journalists.”

 

Nowhere is this as obvious as with Brown.

 

Just as Broad was initiating a plan in February to double the number of charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Brown’s site, the Seventy Four, was given control of the LA School Report, an on-line news site focusing on the second largest district in the country. Brown was expected to run interference for the takeover. She was running the propaganda arm of the privatization push.

 

And that’s really what’s happening with our education journalism.

 

I’m not saying there aren’t actual journalists out there trying to tell unbiased stories. But they are few and far between. They are beset by corporate interests. And anyone who wants to tell the truth is silenced or marginalized.

 

As we’ve seen, when you actually try to point out errors like Brown’s ridiculous assertions about eighth grade students, the media treats it as a he-said-she-said.

 

They say, “Wow! Teachers really hate Brown.” Shrug.

 

Meanwhile the truth is left murdered on the floor as our schools are pillaged and sacked.

Less Resources, Harder Tests: Common Core in the Last Days of Obama

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The bell hadn’t even rung to begin class yet, but Ce Ce already had enough.

 

She saw the pile of standardized test look-a-like sheets on the front desk and immediately asked if she could go to in-school suspension.

 

I’m not kidding.

 

She’d prefer to spend the day in silence doing homework isolated from the rest of the class than practicing high stakes testing with her peers.

 

And she’s not alone. This happens every year now. As assessment season gets closer, administrators push teachers to do test prep. And students revolt.

 

I’m not exactly sure why. Test replicas are not my favorite things to do, either, but they’re not THAT bad. I don’t think it can be my teaching since the mutiny usually happens before I’ve even begun.

 

It’s the testing. Pure and simple. Some students are so demoralized by the very prospect of skill-and-drill that spending one more second reading passages and filling in bubbles seems a fate worse than death.

 

And I can’t really blame them.

 

In the last two years, Pennsylvania has modified its mandatory assessments until it’s almost impossible for my students to pass.

 

Bureaucrats call it “raising standards,” but it’s really just making the unlikely almost unthinkable.

 

Impoverished students have traditionally had a harder time scoring as well as their wealthier peers. But the policy response has been to make things MORE difficult. How does that help?

 

Consider this: If a malnourished runner couldn’t finish the 50 yard dash, forcing him to run 100 yards isn’t raising standards. It’s piling on.

 

Oh. Both your arms are broken? Here. Bench press 300 lbs.

 

Both your feet were chopped off in an accident? Go climb Mt. Everest.

 

That’s what’s happening in the Keystone State and across the country. We’re adding extra layers of complexity to each assessment without regard to whether they’re developmentally appropriate or even necessary and fair to gauge individual skills.

 

Where Common Core State Standards have been adopted (and Pennsylvania has its own version called PA Core), annual tests have become irrationally difficult. That’s why last year’s state tests – which were the first completely aligned to PA Core – saw a steep drop off in passing scores. Students flunked it in droves.

 

Where the previous tests were bad, the new ones are beyond inappropriate.

 

Take Text Dependent Analysis (TDA). It’s something we’ve always done in language arts classes, but it’s meaning has subtly changed thanks to PA Core.

 

Two years ago, it used to denote that students had to refer to the text when writing essays. Now it’s come to mean something more – referring to the text (or texts) with at least two degrees of complexity.

 

On the Reading section of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, students must peruse several passages and respond in writing.

 

Before PA Core, middle school students might have had to read one passage and then explain what its main idea was. This would require them to cite specific examples from the text. For instance, “This passage is mostly about bears because the author writes about hunting them in the Klondike, the ways in which their habitat is affected and their hibernation instinct.” Then students would have to go into more detail highlighting sections of text that support this.

 

Now students have to read TWO passages and write about something that pervades BOTH but is still tremendously complex. For instance, a 6th grade example released from the state has students read a poem and a folktale about people tricking others into sharing food. Then they have to write about the theme of both pieces and analyze how it is developed in each text using specific references.

 

The texts concern nothing most students would find interesting and are difficult to understand for children of that age. Moreover, properly developing an essay of this type should be done over the course of several classes. But middle schoolers are expected to do this in a single testing session.

 

Test proctors are instructed to put aside about 80 minutes for the essay and several related multiple choice questions though, technically, students can take as long as they’d like. They could be given extended time to write for several hours if they want. But most children at this age simply don’t have that kind of stamina. They are not physically and mentally prepared to sit and concentrate like that.

 

It’s a task many adults would find challenging, but we’re expecting 10- and 11-year-olds to do it!

 

Can middle school students (ages 10-14) handle this level of complexity, especially in such a short amount of time?

 

Honestly, it depends on the child. Everyone matures at a different rate. However, for most of the students I have taught in over a decade of middle school experience as a Nationally Board Certified teacher with a Masters Degree in Education, it is my professional opinion that this level of mastery is out of reach.

 

In fact, at an in-service training, administrators at my building had the entire teaching staff attempt this essay to show us what was expected from students. The general consensus was that it was unreasonable.

 

Requiring this level of difficulty simply ignores children’s basic humanity. Most of my students come to me not knowing how to write a good essay. If they were all computers, I could break up everything they needed to know into small bits, give it to them piecemeal over the course of the year, and they would learn. But they are not computers – they are children.

 

That’s why they rebel. We’re demanding more from them than they can give.

 

It might be different if we met them half way. It might be more reachable if higher expectations came with additional help.

 

If my students had any chance to achieve at this level so early in their cognitive development, we would need to bring in a team of writing specialists, a flurry of councilors, nutritionists, and wrap around social services. However, no resources have been added to help students meet these added testing hardships. In fact, Pennsylvania has slashed school budgets by almost $1 billion annually.

 

All the responsibility is thrown on the underfunded schools as if the few teachers who haven’t already been furloughed can somehow perform magic.

 

A surgeon can’t operate without tools. Nor is he expected to do the job of nurse and physical therapist as well.

 

It’s a matter of less resources and harder tests, then blame teachers when it doesn’t work.

 

It’s not just bad policy; it’s a denial of reality.

 

Add to that the social, cultural and economic aspects. Lawmakers pretend everyone is starting from the same point, but this is demonstrably untrue.

 

I teach mostly black and brown kids at a high poverty district. Many of my students only get a hot meal at school. They’re malnourished, violence-scarred, and under-equipped. They have few books in the home. Their parents aren’t around because the adults are working multiple jobs to support them. They live in violent neighborhoods where gunshots, drive-bys and premature death are commonplace. And you think they somehow have the same chances of scoring well on standardized assessments as children without these problems!? You expect them to prioritize standardized testing!?

 

And after years of being subjected to child abuse as education policy, the only thing they’ve learned from testing is that they’re not good at it and they might as well not try.

 

Is it any wonder some of them would rather sit in our school’s version of prison than stay in class and practice test taking strategies?

 

We’re running up against the nature of cognition and how young minds grow. We’re ignoring the social, cultural and economic conditions in which these children live. And we’re pretending this is somehow a fair and just accounting of children’s academic skills and their teachers’ effectiveness.

 

Children need to be engaged. They need to see how an assignment affects their lives. They need to care. They need intrinsic motivation, which is almost impossible to find for a test that is essentially extrinsic.

 

Our current education policy is the equivalent of holding a gun on children and demanding they perform almost impossible tasks.

 

It is time to stop the violence. It’s time to end the child abuse.

 

But is anyone listening?

Putting the Arts Back in Language Arts – One Journal at a Time

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This is the fifth in a series of blog posts focused on the value of art in our lives, and the role art can play in resisting the test and punish model of education.  See the intro and links to other posts in the series here.


Sometimes in public school you’ve just got to cut the crap.

No testing. No close reading. No multiple choice nonsense.

Get back to basics – pass out notebooks, crack them open and students just write.

Not an essay. Not a formal narrative. Not an official document. Just pick up a pencil and see where your imagination takes you.

You’d be surprised the places you’ll go.

You might invent a new superhero and describe her adventures in a marshmallow wonderland. You might create a television show about strangers trapped in an elevator. You might imagine what life would be like if you were no bigger than a flea.

Or you might write about things closer to home. You might describe what it’s like to have to take care of your three younger brothers and sisters after school until just before bedtime when your mom comes back from her third minimum wage job. You might chronicle the dangers of walking home after dismissal where drug dealers rule certain corners and gangs patrol the alleys. You might report on where you got those black and blue marks on your arms, your shoulders, places no one can see when you’re fully clothed.

My class is not for the academic all stars. It’s for children from impoverished families, kids with mostly black and brown skin and test scores that threaten to close their school and put me out of work.

So all these topics and more are fair game. You can write about pretty much whatever you want. I might give you something to get you started. I might ask you a question to get you thinking, or try to challenge you to write about something you’ve never thought about or to avoid certain words or phrases that are just too darn obvious. I might ask your opinion of something in the news or what you think about the school dress code or get your thoughts about how things could improve.

Because I actually care what you think.

Strange, I know.

At times like these, I’m not asking you to dig through a nonfiction text or try to interpret a famous literary icon’s grasp of figurative language. It’s not the author’s opinion that matters – it’s yours – because you are the author. Yes, YOU.

You matter. Your thoughts matter. Your feelings. YOU MATTER!

And sometimes students raise their hands and ask me to read what they’ve written. And sometimes – more often than not – the first thing they say is, “It’s no good.” “I don’t like it.” “I did bad on this.”

So I stop reading, I look them right in the eyes and ask them who wrote it.

“Me?” they say.

And I respond, “Then I’m sure it’s excellent.” And it usually is.

My 8th grade students have been ground down so low under the weight of a society that could care less about their well being that they’ve begun to internalize it. They think their thoughts and feelings are worthless. No one cares about what they think.

But I do.

So I offer them a chance to share what they’ve written. I don’t demand. I don’t force anyone to read anything. I know that some things that spill out on the page aren’t for sharing. But I want them to know that I value what they’ve just put down and that I think it’s worth taking the class time to let others hear it, too.

“Mr. Singer, I wrote five pages,” Jaquae tells me this afternoon. “That’s too long to share.”

“I disagree,” I say. “If you think it’s worth our time, you should read it. You deserve our attention.”

So he reads, blows out a cleansing breath and smiles.

In the process, we all become ennobled. We become more. We become a community. We get a peak at our common humanity.

It’s so easy to look at others as mere adversaries. Even our national education policy sees things in terms of a competition, a race. We set children against each other for points, for grades, for attention, just to feel valuable. You’re a Proficient. You’re a Basic. You’re a Below Basic. And somewhere along the way they lose the sense that they’re all valuable because they’re all human beings with thoughts, feelings and experiences that no one else has ever gone through before – but with which everyone can relate.

So I write, too. Every time I set my students a journal, I put pen to paper, as well.

At the beginning of the year, I share what I wrote to show them that it’s okay. At the middle of the year I ask them if they want me to share. And at the end of the year I remain silent unless they ask me to do otherwise.

Because these class moments aren’t about me. They’re about them. I’m willing to be as much a part of their creative space as they want, but it’s a choice, not a dictate.

In my class I will make you learn, but I don’t control what you learn or how you feel about it.

I extend my students this respect because I know that what we’re really doing isn’t some meaningless exercise. We’re creating art.

Not just scribbles on a page. Not something done just to please the teacher. This is an excavation of the soul. We dive into the depths of ourselves and come back all the better for it.

That’s why my students journal almost every day.

That’s why we put mechanics and spelling and grammar aside for a few moments and just write what we need to say.

Because Language Arts, after all, is an Art. It says that right in the title.

My students are artists. I am their muse. I hold a mirror up to their fractured and beaten spirits to show them the grandeur of what resides inside them.

And hopefully they come away inspired.

Because they are wonders. They are joyous. They are little pieces of my heart.


NOTE: This article was also published in Living in Dialogue, the Badass Teachers Association Blog and mentioned on Diane Ravitch’s blog.