MEDIA WATCH: Amazing duality at Washington Post as Valerie Strauss's blog fights teacher bashing while the editorial Party Line stays corporate

At least The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are consistent. They bash teachers, praise the busting of unions, give a thousand times more ink to non-teaching teacher bashers (and union busters) like Michelle Rhee and Arne Duncan than to any dozen actual veteran classroom teachers, and honk their horns every time another teacher bashing union busting factoid is thrown their way like a bone at a hungry dog. The Times knows it represents America's corporate ruling class, as our contributor Susan Ohanian recently documented (in a story now available also in the Substance print edition). Without The New York Times, "Waiting for Superman" would already be on the three dollar table at Blockbuster alongside the seventh or eighth version of Saw. But since Barack Obama announced the appointment of Arne Duncan, Chicago's vacuous and fatuous former schools Chief Executive Officer, as U.S. Secretary of Education, the news columns — not just the op ed pages — of the Times have been filled with Duncanian PR. Even though Duncan still retains the services of some brilliant publicity people, all he really needs if for Sam Dillion of the Times to continue "reporting" Duncan's drivel as "news" (as he has since December 2008) and then leave it to the Internet to do the rest.

Two of America's foremost teacher bashers are currently out of jobs. Michelle Rhee (above left) abruptly left the Washington D.C. schools after her clout, Mayor Adrian Fenty, lost an election, while Chicago's Ron Huberman (above right) quit abruptly as Chicago schools CEO, after proclaiming how much he loved children, following the announcement that his clout, Mayor Richard M. Daley, wouldn't seek re-election. Rhee had a notorious but brief career as a failed Teach for American classroom teacher before becoming a darling of corporate "school reform." Huberman didn't even bother teaching before becoming the technocrat pushing "Data Driven Management" at Chicago's public schools.But what's been going on at The Washington Post, which is supposed to be the third leg in that three-legged stool of corporate propaganda's A List? For the past year, somewhat to our surprise (after all, until recently the Post was polluted with Newsweek, and it's still crippled and compromised by its ownership of Kaplan), the Post has actually asked some hard questions, and posted some very critical comments, about corporate "school reform." Most recently, Valerie Strauss, who is making her Post blog a must read for people who care about schools and children — and who abhor the prattlings of Geoffrey Canada, Michelle Rhee, Oprah, and Arne on what's best for public schools — and improving with each passing day.

On January 9, 2011, Strauss published a lengthy essay by Chicagoan Greg Michie that landed in Substance's "We couldn't have said it better ourselves..." box. So we're reprinting it here below, along with all the comments that came to it during the first 20 hours it was on line, because many of our readers, for very good reasons, don't spend much time at The Washington Post. As the COMMENTS show, most of the people who are paying attention are not Teacher for America and KIPP trolls, and at this point in history the snarky canned responses of the TFA and KIPP trolls stand out like tumescence in a convent.


How to be taken seriously as a reformer (don't be an educator), By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Gregory Michie, who teaches in the Department of Foundations, Social, Policy and Research at Concordia University Chicago. He is the author of "Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students" and co-editor of "City Kids, City Schools: More Reports from the Front Row."

By Gregory Michie

In the current upside-down world of education policy, there's one foolproof strategy for being taken seriously as a reformer: Make sure you're not an educator.

Urban districts nationwide, with Chicago leading the way, have hired those with business or legal backgrounds to head their school systems. Major voices in the reform conversation such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and philanthropist Eli Broad have never been teachers. And when Oprah wants to talk about schools, she invites Bill Gates or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg -- all the while reminding her audience how much she loves teachers.

So it probably shouldn't come as a huge surprise that "Performance Counts," a proposal that zoomed to the top of the legislative agenda in Illinois last week promising to "promote great teaching," boasts a roster of local supporters who aren't exactly known for their educational expertise: the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, and the Illinois Business Roundtable.

Backers of Performance Counts say it's pro-student, not anti-teacher or anti-union, but the wide-ranging changes it proposes are nearly all aimed at the state's teachers. The legislation would link tenure decisions to performance evaluations, make it easier to fire teachers, prohibit them from negotiating on issues such as class size, and make it virtually impossible for them to go on strike.

It's also no shock that the proposal has gained traction among corporate-minded reformers. It fits nicely within a narrative that's been gathering momentum since early last year, when both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan publicly applauded the mass firing of teachers at a Rhode Island high school: Our public schools are woeful, and teachers are a big part of the problem.

Shortly after the firings, Newsweek accompanied its cover story, "The key to saving American education," with a photo of the words "We must fire bad teachers" written repeatedly on a chalkboard. More recently, the much-discussed film Waiting for Superman hammered home the same theme, depicting teachers as dozing mopes in New York City's infamous "rubber room" or screaming lunatics manipulated by out-of-touch unions.

But focusing on getting rid of weak teachers as a cornerstone of school reform is a distraction from the kinds of changes we should be pursuing.

What kinds of changes? Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said in response to Performance Counts: "How do you improve schools? Lower class sizes, limit instructional time spent on standardized testing, fund schools based on need, not clout, and be sure that all children receive a full diet of art, music, physical education and foreign languages."

That'd be a good start. And it's what affluent parents -- including the Duncans and the Obamas -- demand for their own kids.

But the mainstream discussion about schools has a decidedly different character. An underlying assumption of almost every utterance is that standardized tests are an essential tool and are here to stay. Poverty's not on the radar. And the arts? What arts?

A big part of the problem is that the conversation has been hijacked by corporate leaders who think they know best how to improve our schools. I'll concede that some of these "new reformers" may have good intentions. But their arrogance is astounding, and their lack of interest in the wisdom of those who spend their days in classrooms speaks volumes.

The thing is, it's tough to understand the complexity of teaching if you've never done it. Sure, it's possible to come up with catchy slogans like "performance counts." But what exactly is teacher performance? For most of the business-minded reformers, it means raising student test scores. They may nod toward multiple measures of assessing teachers, but they're really looking at "the data," the bottom line.

During the decade I spent teaching in Chicago, I came to understand that being a good teacher is about far more than that. It's taking time after school hours to get to know the community in which you teach. It's figuring out how to create an opportunity for learning when one of your students uses racist or homophobic language in class. It's effectively planning research projects when your classroom has just two computers for 31 kids. How does "performance count" in situations like these?

I'm not trying to dodge the issues raised by the proposed Illinois legislation. And I would agree, as would many teachers I know, that tenure and evaluation processes need to be revisited and improved. But if we're serious about making schools places where meaningful learning happens, not just test prep, then directing our energies toward further dis-empowering and firing teachers is a horribly misguided approach. What's really strangling the life out of classrooms across this country are the myopic, test-crazy policies of the past 10 years.

Then again, I'm an education professor, so what do I know about schools? Maybe only this: If you really want to understand what's going on in them and the direction we need to be headed, don't ask Bill Gates or the Business Roundtable. Ask a teacher. 

Valerie Strauss: Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss | January 9, 2011; 10:30 AM ET Categories: Guest Bloggers, Standardized Tests, Teacher assessment, Teachers | Tags: Illiinois schools, Performance Counts, bill gates, eli broad, jeb bush, mark zuckerberg, obama and schools, obama daughters and school, oprah, performance counts, president obama and daughters, school reform, sidwell and obama, standardized tests, teacher assessment, teachers


Renaissance Man: A man who has broad intellectual interests and is accomplished in areas of both the arts and the sciences.


"And the arts? What arts?"

Thank you, Gregory Michie, for bringing up the arts. In this whole crazy reform movement, it is astounding to me that our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, had the nerve to associate his work in Chicago with the Renaissance, emphasizing competition and choice, with the arts only addressed as a specialized area; now, from his current platform, I have yet to read anything about the importance of the arts to one who would be considered learned in the tradition of a Renaissance person.

And what of innovation? The business community constantly cries for innovation, but much training of the mind for that very special attribute comes from experience with one or more of the arts. It is no accident that many scientists and doctors also play a musical instrument, or that great architects have a keen understanding of visual art.

And what of Shakespeare? Well before Freud and the field of psychology, Shakespeare saw how the theater could give people an understanding of human nature.

And dance, often the poorest of the arts, has a unique ability to combine physical strength, flexibility, personal expression and music.

Overlooking poverty is to overlook an impoverishment of the human essence as well, and if we keep on the current track so many of the current reformers are espousing, we will be a poor nation indeed.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 9, 2011 11:30 AM | Report abuse


"But their arrogance is astounding, and their lack of interest in the wisdom of those who spend their days in classrooms speaks volumes."


And a related "MUST-READ" to Gregory Michie's piece today is "Teachers Should be Seen and Not Heard" by the 2009 National Teacher of the Year, Anthony Mullen.

Posted by: MisterRog | January 9, 2011 11:31 AM | Report abuse

COMMENT: to:PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large

I just want to let you know that I so appreciate reading your insightful commentaries and seem to always find myself nodding in agreement! I am an art teacher and always mention to my students about how important it is to exercise our imaginative and creative minds! That we must be willing to take risks and to see new paths set by our accidental "failures". I love mentioning to students how velcro was discovered or how plastics were discovered to encourage them to get beyond this fear of failure or their belief that there is a "right and wrong answer"... that this "standardized testing climate" has promoted. Renaissance is about rebirth so lets hope that there is a rebirth in the spirit of humanity... all those tasty tidbits that make us lovers of life-long learning!

Posted by: teachermd | January 9, 2011 11:50 AM | Report abuse


Right on point. Thanks, MisterRog. The article "Teachers Should Be Seen and Not Heard" by Anthony Mullen is fantastic!

Posted by: bugrad | January 9, 2011 12:17 PM | Report abuse


Another excellent posting; thanks, Valorie for giving Gregory this opportunity to expose the inverted reality of whose voice matters. I am now working on the need for us to speak expert to celebrity in 2011, and Gregory's voice is the evidence of the former. . .

Posted by: plthomas3 | January 9, 2011 12:28 PM | Report abuse


Yes, of course the Obamas and the Duncans know perfectly well how best to educate their children, and so do many of the rest of us. In a nutshell you:

Make certain your children's basic needs are met;

Find a school with small classes and well-behaved and high-achieving students.

In this recession politicians know that there is no money to provide the poor with the same type of education offered to the affluent, but they need to let the voters think they are doing something and so they are scapegoating teachers. Well, the District of Columbia and Central Falls R.I. have given us a good glimpse into the futility of that approach. Read about the last episodes at Central Falls. Who failed those students: the teachers or the leaders who made life-changing decisions without ever teaching a single child?

The effects of the recession are now beginning to wane and so will teacher-bashing, especially since the female labor force is now going into all fields. Big changes are already happening in California with the new governor who has already rejected the anti-teacher focus. He's smart enough to know that a huge teacher shortage is projected for the next decade. "As California goes, so goes the nation."

While we're waiting for better days to return, three things would help education enormously:

Journalists could interview experts in education instead of repeating the ideas of rich and powerful people who have never taught;

Districts, such as D.C. could insist on fully qualified teachers with proven track records of success for their high-needs schools.

Philanthropists could focus on the preschool years, where so many of our educational problems begin.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 9, 2011 12:46 PM | Report abuse


Everyone would love a simple answer to this. Do these new "experts" really think that no one has ever thought of their ideas? I do agree that we would all love to think that a test would solve all the problems of evaluating students and teachers-and rewarding them. However, it does not.

I think of the saying, "nothing is new under the sun." When I was teaching poor children in the projects in the 1970's (elementary school), I took a summer workshop paid for by Title One. I learned some great things in that workshop, but I also learned lots of things that did not work. The "open classroom" was "in". I went back to school that Fall all excited about this and talked about it with one of the older teachers. Her comment was "I went through that with Dewey in North Carolina in the thirties--it didn't work then, and it is not going to work now!" I went ahead with my plans--and, to my surprise, she was right. However, I did continue to use aspects of this program which I did find helpful and useful. Open classrooms may work for some teachers, it did not work for me.

The same could be said for these highly structured programs being pushed now. When the program is so structured that the teacher cannot deviate from it, I do not think they work. It is too hard to stay on script when you are dealing with a dynamic environment. Shifting groups of children around from teacher to teacher can get quite complicated, as well.

My suggestion: put prospective teachers in the school early in their training. Start them with individual students and work into groups before putting them in front of classrooms. Let them see what works for them. Not all children are the same and neither are all teachers. What works for one may not work for another.

All administrators should have experience working directly with individual students and with large groups of students. They must have a sense of the trails that teachers go through. This is the problem with the "outsiders." They look at it in black and white.

Posted by: mmkm | January 9, 2011 1:18 PM | Report abuse


The Teach for America program has publicized one fact about K-12 teaching that has been established for many years but not well-known by the general public:

The brightest college students do not consider K-12 teaching as a career, and when they do, they usually leave after two or three years. Many of these people don't view teaching children (as opposed to teaching adults) as a worthy career choice. This is probably the primary source of our teacher probems. In all countries with enviable systems of education, teaching people of all ages is a highly regarded profession.

So our focus should be on recruiting and retaining well-qualified teachers since we already know how to get rid of them. I suggest the time-honored strategies of higher salaries, professional autonomy and better working conditions. A dash of prestige might help too.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 9, 2011 1:27 PM | Report abuse


Gregory Michie- Another education professor who defends ineffective teachers he keeps sending to the classroom.

The real problem isn't "teachers" per say. The problem is that anyone can become a teacher. The bar has been set so low for receiving teacher credentials that almost anyone with a pulse can become a teacher...many of the teachers, particularly in our most challenging schools, are not smart people. Let's be honest the profession of education is attracting many people who don't like competition, innovation or accountability. Why? Because education pays people on a step scale, not performance. So, if you suck and have more years then someone who is effective you are actually rewarded while the person who is more effective makes more money and has more protection- this doesn't increase innovation and it certainly doesn't attract smart, dedicated professionals.

This approach, favored by unions, attracts lazy people who want job security and career changers who couldn't make it in the private sector. Add to this that colleges give anyone breathing a credential in education and a license and you have a deep pool of incompetent idiots.

If you want people to revere teachers and you want to shift success give principals total autonomy over their budgets- let them determine the salaries of their teachers and set aside parts of their budgets for performance bonuses, and allow them to fire people who suck and just want a job for life. And immediately, you will attract the best college graduates, the smartest people and the most innovative educators. And you won't even have to prescribe to these people what they have to teach. All you will have to do is tell them the end goal and they will find ways to hit the target.

Currently, idiot teachers and the unions who protect them stifle creativity and financial incentives. If you give a principal a $5,000,000.00 budget and she finds a terrific candidate why shouldn't the principal be allowed to offer a $10,000.00 signing bonus and a great salary. If we could do this we would need fewer teachers and attract really intelligent people. This would change education and lead to tremendous results!

Imagine this scenario: A principal hires who she wants without consulting parents and inferior personnel- a process in DCPS that is hysterically stupid! A principal interviews a great candidate and starts the candidate at $80,000.00 and cuts 2 ineffective people who make $40,000.00 each. The principal offers this new candidate bonuses for content expertise, student assessment growth, professional development time and innovative approaches to student learning. What do you think would happen? I'll tell you- the 2 ineffective teachers would be fired and the new, smart and innovative teacher would change the results....

This isn't rocket science...give principals autonomy over hiring, salaries, bonuses and firing and you will attract the best candidates and change the results!

Posted by: teacher6402 | January 9, 2011 1:52 PM | Report abuse


I just posted an interesting look inside my classroom this week. Not sure how evaluators would grade my attempts to get all my students to commit to reading The Crucible, but I have found that a little carrot and a little stick goes a long way. Not sure what to call that technique. If possible, you might want to visit and see how my week in class went.

Posted by: dcproud1 | January 9, 2011 2:06 PM | Report abuse


to teachermd: Thank you! I should have guessed you were a fellow art teacher as your comments have me nodding my head in agreement as well. Our philosophies in education sound quite similar. Also glad that you are still teaching!

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 9, 2011 2:13 PM | Report abuse


I often chuckle to myself when I hear the cry for "jobs creation" but as a public school art teacher know how little emphasis school division's (and I would go so far as to say ALL school division's) place on the arts or any other elective, for that matter.

I have a poster hanging on my classroom door that lists about 200 jobs/occupations that are directly related to the arts. The arts are a multi-billion dollar business when we include all the possiblities. If we want to educate our children to be prepared for a lifetime of earnings, we are making a grave mistake when limiting our children to just math and science curriculum.

Our job as teachers is to open doors, create opportunities, initiate creative thinking and problem-solving skills, plant seeds for a future, develop a curiosity for learning...not just teach kids that a #2 pencil is preferred for filling out bubble sheets.

I believe all students should have some exposure to the arts before they leave high school.

But as Mr. Michie says...they never ask a teacher.

Posted by: ilcn | January 9, 2011 4:24 PM | Report abuse


The most intelligent statement from this article notes, "...focusing on getting rid of weak teachers as a cornerstone of school reform is a distraction from the kinds of changes we should be pursuing." That's right on the money, for me. There's much more to ed reform than the small percentage of anemic teachers; state and federal teacher unions (although the AFT has made significant improvements since Randi Weingarten became their president), poverty and non-existent parenting skills, lack of value in poor/minority communities on a quality education, to name just a few.

Now, from the bizarre side of the column, "If you really want to understand what's going on in school and the direction we need to be headed, don't ask Bill Gates or the Business Roundtable. Ask a teacher."

Gregory, Gregory, Gregory, Why exactly do you think teachers and the rest of the educational establishment have been left out of the ed reform debate? Who was in charge of our schools prior to A Nation At Risk and No Child Left Behind? The educational establishment, and our schools were a disaster.

There was no plan anywhere, from anyone, as to what was supposed to be taught in or when it was supposed to be taught.

As absent as this "PLAN" was there was even less from the accountability realm, if that was possible. Students were the recipients of ubiquitous grade inflation, social promotions, and everyone graduating from high school, regardless of performance or effort.

Teachers being evaluated? The evaluation process in most districts across the country has been an embarrassment to the profession. Many are never evaluated (not their fault) and the subjective administrative evaluations used in most districts somehow have most everyone coming out as "satisfactory."

If there was no plan and no accountability, who was it again in charge of this mayhem, this pell mell chaos?

That's right Greg. It was teachers and the educational establishment but they all seem to conveniently forget all about this when this discussion arises.

All someone has to do is read an article like this and they can figure out real fast why our schools are a joke and sinking fast.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 9, 2011 5:04 PM | Report abuse


Has anyone noticed the great achievements of the American people? We seem to excel in almost any human endeavor: law, government, medicine, academia, business, sports, the arts, defense and so forth. Name any prize and Americans are nicely represented among the winners. We are still first in productivity and the place to be if you are interested in technology and innovation. Our graduate schools are considered the best in the world and so many of the world's elite send their children to the United States to be educated.

Most of these talented and productive Americans attended our great public school system. Many of our own children have graduated from these schools and are easily able to compete with anyone in the world.

This is the proud and great legacy of the American schoolteacher, most of whom are women (sadly related to the current bashing). So it goes without saying that many (most?) of us do not agree with Phoss1. To us the great American public school system is among our greatest institutions and one that must be preserved. Have many children been poorly served? Yes, but to that we say: Let's strengthen, not destroy, a great system that has been a wonderful gift to so many of us. Let's find a way to make our public schools work for EVERY child and not just the children of the majority.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 9, 2011 5:47 PM | Report abuse


It's a tad pathetic to claim one cannot "understand" or have a supportable opinion on teacher quality if one has not been a teacher.

There are about 6 mil teachers active in our society and millions more who used to be. Plus, we have all had teachers and many of us are parents.

We know good teaching and bad when we see it. This is hardly some exclusive club. And good teaching is not a mystery.

And since we pay for education and care for our children, it is our right to speak up and demand that we only have only good and effective teachers in the classrooms.

Ducking evaluations and bombing anyone who just may voice an opinion only raises doubt about teacher quality in the first place.

Posted by: axolotl | January 9, 2011 5:55 PM | Report abuse

From phoss1:

"...There was no plan anywhere, from anyone, as to what was supposed to be taught in or when it was supposed to be taught.... "

Hello?!? I started teaching in the mid-70s, and during those years and all of those following, there was always a state curriculum, sequencing of classes like math, science & languages, class objectives, reports, evaluations and - *gasp* - tests.....

The real deal is that education is constantly in flux and evolving much as our society evolves and changes.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 9, 2011 6:11 PM | Report abuse


Always a state curriculum?

September 5, 2005, New York Times editorial, "Our schools are without a plan. They are being run by DEFAULT by local school boards and textbook publishers because the people from within the system have never formally developed anything."

What state was that you taught in? A state curriculum? I don't think so, Betty.

If states had plans, why was there bi-partisan support for NCLB in 2001-2002, with its initiation of standards based reform? Just why were the standards finally insisted upon? The standards, artists-at-large was to FINALLY put a plan in place as to what was to be taught and at what grade level.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 9, 2011 6:31 PM | Report abuse


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