Just Between Us…

In the wake of this proposed WaPo salon series there is a lively debate going on in Washington right now about off-the-record dinners and meetings where there is an intersection of policymakers, journalists, and corporate interests.  In the course of taking Atlantic Media’s David Bradley to task over Atlantic’s off-the-record dinners Slate’s Jack Shafer writes:

It’s Bradley’s corporate salons and his defense of them that deserve scrutiny. He claims that the sessions are placed off the record to avoid canned remarks. “My own view is that there is a great deal of constructive conversation that can take place only with the promise that no headline is being written,” he writes.

Has Bradley never attended a function at the Cato Institute, where the repeal of the drug laws, the phasing out of Social Security, the privatization of education, the dismantling of the Cold War war machine, and other contentious topics are discussed openly and cordially on a regular basis? The same can be said for discussions at the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for American Progress, and other think tank venues. Elsewhere in his memo, Bradley applauds his company’s ability to attract “authors and activists” representing “all sides of an issue” at its talks: “conservatives and liberals, conservative think tanks and liberal think tanks, corporations and consumer groups, all manner of associations and all manner of environmental, health advocacy and public interest groups. The art here is bringing disparate parties to table for a constructive conversation.”

It’s fantasy to imagine that there’s any “art” to staging constructive conversation in Washington, and Bradley knows it…

In general there’s obviously a legitimate debate about dinners and events of this type and where to draw the line on media activity and corporate sponsorship.  However, having attended some I suspect the suspicion and paranoia is disproportionate to what actually goes on.   But, I think on this off/on-the-record issue Shafer is mistaken and Bradley is onto something.  It seems Shafer is conflating conflict with candid and while we’ve got plenty of the former we don’t have much of the latter.  The town doesn’t reward it.  So, at these public events you do often get a back and forth.  But it’s generally predictable and often staged.  Sadly, it’s only in private that you often hear a lot of nuance, textured positions, caveats, and all the rest.  These are not immutable laws, of course, and skillful moderation at public events can help, but it’s frequent enough to be a real issue. 

For instance, a few weeks ago the journal Democracy  (which if you’re not reading you should) hosted a meeting at the Brookings Institution with the education and political media and some players from the education reform world.  Originally off-the-record, at the insistence of many of the journos who attended the session was put on the record.   Michelle Rhee, Randi Weingarten, and Joel Klein!  In the same room!  Talking teachers’ contracts!  Gates Foundation personnel, too! E.J. Dionne moderating!   The result of that all-star line up?  Snooze…Absolutely predictable, filibusters, little candor, etc…you could have written a script for it.

So sure, to Shafer’s point there was engagement, even some back and forth, but none of the really complicated issues were broached nor was there in-depth discussion of serious points of disagreement among those in the room.   There likely would have been more of that in an off-the-record setting.  How do I know that?  Call it the wisdom of that crowd.   I have real time emails and texts from media and participants alike making the same point…In addition, at one point Randi Weingarten offered to go off-the-record to share some information I know is interesting because I’m involved, but the reporters wouldn’t let her change the rules for that instance.  So she said nothing.  How was that helpful?

Overall this is unfortunate because while the public might have missed out on that actual discussion at Brookings, had it been off-the-record, I’d like to think subsequent reporting would have been enriched by more context, nuance, and understanding as the result of a candid conversation.   Perhaps no one was fooled but I still think the format left something on the table and because reporters go off the record with sources all the time I don’t see the line that is being crossed by sometimes doing it in group sessions. 

13 Replies to “Just Between Us…”

  1. I think you’re completely right that there’s a national shortage of candor in education. But it’s not because of who’s on the record and who isn’t. It has much more to do with the fact that most folks — even really smart ones — don’t have any ideas worth being candid about. Platitudes abound, on the record and off, when people have little else to say. And as our current approaches to reform show, even the “educati” don’t have good solutions for us to chew on.

    So I ask the question “Why?” Our country is full of smart folks. Why are so many so dumb on when it comes to fixing schools? I suspect it’s because few have ever worked in enough of them to understand what the real problems are — and what real solutions would look like.

    For example, does anyone want to speak candidly about teacher training in America? With so many teachers leaving the profession, how we get new ones would, I think, be at the top of everyone’s agenda. But as it stands, most of the big mouths are mum. I think that’s because they don’t know how to reform teacher training and certification on a national level. Same goes for training principals. Surely a worthy goal. But no one wants to talk about it.

    Then there’s testing and standards. No one really wants to be candid about those because if you’re against them for any reason, you marginalize yourself. How could testing and standards be bad? the educati ask. But then, they don’t have to work with them.

    And what can one say about charter schools? In all candor, most don’t do such a great job. And the few that do don’t appear to be highly replicable. You can be a charter fanatic but there’s precious little reality to back you up.

    So onto merit pay and vouchers and that supposedly revolutionary (but not) Green Dot collective bargaining agreement, and the NEA finally figuring out that it IS a union after all, and value-added testing, and confidence intervals, etc. There’s just nothing here that would inspire any passion in anyone sincerely interested in ed reform.

    What does inspire passion? Better teachers. About the only thing we know for sure is that better teachers make better learners. Yet there is no clamor or candor about this issue. Why? Because, again, it doesn’t seem like any of the educati know how to do it. (And there’s no money in it for a corporate interest.)

    Or how about this bland but beautiful topic: school attendance and classroom discipline. Wow, does this make a huge difference, especially in schools full of at-risk kids. And there’s so much literature on the topic that it’s easy to implement at any school. But does anyone speak candidly about how badly the discipline is in some schools? And how tightly that correlates with academic achievement? Why no hue and cry? Maybe it’s just too simple. Or maybe, once again, no one can gain any advantage by talking about it.

    Most of the discussion I hear about education, and virtually everything I read, is smothered in self-interest. If someone doesn’t have an axe to to grind they seem to have one to sell. So naturally, things that don’t grind or can’t be sold don’t get talked about. And yet, these are precisely the things that will make a difference in our schools.

    * Good teachers.
    * Good principals.
    * Good discipline and classroom management.

    Why don’t we put those on the agenda for the next private salon? Maybe it’s because those in attendance won’t have anything to talk about.

  2. Steve Peha neglects to mention good curricula along with his other three items. He isn’t the only one who neglects it.

  3. JD

    My colleague went with his wife to look at a nearby urban elementary school for their 5 year old.

    He: So, can you tell me about the math curriculum?

    Teacher: Curriculum? Sure. We got that. We got curriculum. Math, you name it. It’s over there. In the corner. Go ahead and look.

  4. Dear Mr. Dewey,

    I think the notion of “good” curriculum is something of a myth. For one thing, there just haven’t been any good longitudinal studies comparing curricula. So we don’t have much science to go by. Second, I let kids choose a lot of what they study (within responsible ranges) and this always produces better learning for me. What I end up with is a much richer and more varied curriculum than anything i would make up on my own, or anything a standards document might offer. The kids are also a lot more motivated and tend to learn a lot more as a result. Finally, there is no logic to the notion of better curriculum when, historically, we are still using the same curriculum we used in the post-Sputnik era. We’re still teaching reading, writing, math, social studies, science, PE, and the arts. This can’t possibly be an optimized curriculum for today’s kids. It leaves out all kinds of important things we know kids need for today and tomorrow. So until someone can prove that one curriculum is better than another, or that a state-mandated curriculum supports more learning than the guided choice framework I use, I think I’ll stick to leaving curriculum out of any discussions of reform. But thanks for your feedback.

  5. Finally, there is no logic to the notion of better curriculum when, historically, we are still using the same curriculum we used in the post-Sputnik era. We’re still teaching reading, writing, math, social studies, science, PE, and the arts. This can’t possibly be an optimized curriculum for today’s kids. It leaves out all kinds of important things we know kids need for today and tomorrow.

    I would imagine we’re leaving out critical thinking skills, internet usage, working in teams, learning how to learn, etc.

    Do you let your students pick what they want to learn in math as well? There are good curricula in math despite the canard that traditional approaches have “failed large numbers of students”.

    And while we’re still teaching reading, writing, math, social studies, and science, as you point out, there is a tendency toward student-centered, inquiry based and interdisciplinary based approaches which on the surface makes it appear that students are killing a lot of birds with one stone, whereas it’s more like jack of all trades and master of none.

  6. I think the notion of “good” curriculum is something of a myth.

    This is why parents must organize and demand a ‘seat at the table.’ Demand it, or take it.

    There is simply no way to resolve this argument. Without political organization, those of us who profoundly value and desire with all our hearts a liberal education for our children have no means of compelling the state to provide it – or, failing that, simply to grant us the tax credits, vouchers, and direct funding to support homeschools that would allow us to find it outside the system.

    Not only do “good” curricula exist, classic curricula exist that are going extinct. I have on my desk, where I can keep an eye on it, one of the last remaining solution manuals for Moise & Downs Geometry. Copyright 1964, it is old, delicate, yellowing. Moise and Downs was used in the post-Sputnik era, and now….it is dying. Dolciani, too. Frank Allen’s Algebra text appears to be gone.

    And where is Warriner’s Grammar these days?

    Parents see the beauty of these works, but we are not “players,” and we do not have a vote.

    So until someone can prove that one curriculum is better than another, or that a state-mandated curriculum supports more learning than the guided choice framework I use, I think I’ll stick to leaving curriculum out of any discussions of reform.

    I’m quite sure of that.

  7. “I think the notion of ‘good’ curriculum is something of a myth.”

    Another good reason to push for full school choice and for laws that don’t restrict that choice. Many of us parents are not so clueless when it comes to picking curricula.

  8. What I can’t believe is this whole little industry out there of educational policy types who’ve never been in a classroom. By that I mean have never worked as a teacher, especially in an urban school. You have these jobs where you write policy papers about education or do research yet think you’re too smart, too talented, too special, to actually teach. Do you want to make a difference in kids’ lives? Teach a few. You’ll see why José (his real name) is acting up in class, because his mother left him to live with her new boyfriend and his aunt is raising him. He sleeps with his grandma on a couch in the living room. Oh, and abuelita is 42. Or that Shawn cries for his daddy and says “I’m gonna kill somebody so I can go to jail and be with my daddy. ”
    I dare some of you to quit your jobs of prestige to go teach. And stay in the field. And become a positive force in a low-income school community. Or is that too much slumming for you career-wise? At least now when people ask what you do, it definitely has more caché than doing lunch and recess duty. Try it.

  9. If we think of Curriculum as delivered through Instructional Materials and practices, then selected Curricula makes a huge difference especially for educationally disadvantaged learners. On the Rez. and other high poverty situations where I worked the types of practices used in whole language and reform math were devastating. A careful reading of two papers:
    #1 …Geary’s recently published study, “An Evolutionarily Informed Education Science,” the target article in a special issue on “Evolution and Education” in the “Educational Psychologist” journal. … and …
    #2 …”Instructional Implications of David C. Geary’s Evolutionary Educational Psychology” by John Sweller
    Sweller writes:
    David C. Geary’s thesis has the potential to alter our understanding of those aspects of human cognition relevant to instruction. His distinction between “biologically primary knowledge” that we have evolved to acquire and “biologically secondary knowledge” that is culturally important, taught in educational institutions and which we have not evolved to acquire in modular form, is critical to instructional design.
    Briefly: learning to speak a primary language as a child is easy it is biologically primary knowledge but learning to read is not so easy it is biologically secondary knowledge.
    The change in the math curriculum in California had a huge impact on the learning of four early adopting school districts with high poverty and high ELL populations. 1998-2002 Sacramento, Azuza, Baldwin Park, and Bassett showed incredible achieve gains on State tests as large increases in “Explicit Instruction” replaced the largely unfocused Inquiry & Exploration of Reform Math. (see Hook-Bishop-Hook’s peer reviewed “A Quality Curriculum …..”)
    In Washington State a huge shift in instructional materials took place as most districts chose WASL aligned math materials……
    The result: from 2003 to 2007
    Washington’s achievement gap change in math for Black and Hispanic students at grades 4 and 8 expanded at nearly the highest rate in the nation.
    Those of us that work or have worked in high poverty schools know that a variety of things contribute to low achievement but poor Curricula has been a large factor that can be corrected and in many places has been.
    Reporting from the Lummi Nation School on the Rez.

  10. Toby,

    What you say is true – lots of talk that doesn’t address your problem. But I think your problem isn’t really an education problem, just one that schools and teachers are forced to deal with. It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect kids coming from the situations yours exemplifies to think that algebra or the classics are the most important things going on in their lives.

    But perhaps the answer isn’t for “wonks” to stop being wonks, but to realize that for many students, the way a subject is being taught or the kind of school they attend isn’t what’s important. If we can get kids interested in SOMETHING and set a positive example, perhaps we’ll be achieving more for many kids than if we introduce “the right” curriculum. The purpose of school (in my mind) isn’t to teach any particular subject, it is to help prepare the CHILD for their life as an ADULT.

    It doesn’t do much good to teach someone how to swim the butterfly stroke if they’re afraid to get into the water.

  11. Do I let kids choose their own math? Yes, I have had especially good luck here. But remember, this is not free choice, it is guided choice, and I have several good rules that I use for guidance. Mostly, in math, I teach kids how name and create their own problems within a particular unit of study. So if we’re studying 2×2 multiplication, they can make their 2×2 multiplication. They also set their own goals for homework and have to justify their choice of problem sets based on what they know about their own strengths and weaknesses.

    Toby — you’re right. Too many policy folks have not spent enough time in the classroom. My rule: Never trust anybody who doesn’t a little chalk on his hands. (Or dry erase marker.)

  12. From where I sit, the problem isn’t that policymakers and advocates can’t talk with candor or nuance on the record, in groups or solo; it’s that some of them are getting out of the habit. They aren’t made to. They don’t like to. Why should they? It makes it so much harder to control what gets reported. It puts the reporter on equal footing with the (often powerful) source. It’s convenient self-interest disguised as a favor.

    The solution isn’t to dummy down what gets reported with more off-the-record conversations. Instead, let’s get sources back in the habit of knowing that if they don’t want to talk for attribution a journalist will find someone else who will. There’s no shortage of knowledgeable sources out there. [And let’s make sure reporters are held accountable for getting the full meaning of a source’s statement, not just the sound bite.]


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