MEDIA WATCH: Duncan and Bloomberg news products go after Diane Ravitch... Billionaire Boys Club getting desperate?

[Editor's Note at Substance. The following was first posted by Jim Horn at Schools Matter and comes to Substance from Jim, who is considered a part of our staff. We hope that all Substance readers will regularly visit Jim's site, as well as the other sites recommended in our Links. However, since Jim's first comment came in, there has been a huge outpouring of teacher commentary regarding the ignorance and hypocrisy of both Jonathan Alter and Arne Duncan, on the one hand, and in support of Diane Ravitch, on the other. So below we are adding one commentary below Jim Horn's -- that of Anthony Cody -- and finally Diane Ravitch's original New York Times Op Ed piece. Apparently Arne Duncan is afraid The New York Times will stop being the uncritical mouthpiece for his nonsense that it has been since it reported his appointment in a front page story in December 2008. We'll see.]

The infamous Newsweek cover (March 15, 2010) which proclaimed the beginning of the offensive to "Fire Bad Teachers" from corporate America's version of "school reform." Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, along with reporters like Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert (who once knew better than to be a corporate propagandist) have been providing the quick-and-dirty clips to fill the corporate coffers to push union-busting, privatizing and teacher bashing legislation across the USA. Now they are also joining Arne Duncan and other media in trying to lynch one of their most powerful critics, Diane Ravitch.Duncan and Bloomberg News Go After Ravitch

There's an old quote that comes out the early labor movement: "First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you."

From the heat coming off the attacks from ed journalism's junkyard jackass opinionator, Jon Alter, there is a fire now being stoked by the Billionaire Boys Club, where an inability to buy the truth has reached a crisis point that demands that the truth tellers, now, be burned at the stake.

Long before the stakes were set and the wood piled, however, Alter was the well-worn, um, tool, shall we say, for the corporate thrusting that has long sought to degrade and humiliate those resisting the corporatization of schools. A couple of earlier examples that would come to inspire the likes of Governor Scott Walker and Chris Christie, the first from 2008, when Alter was writing for the bankrupt rag, Newsweek:

. . . .Railing against the tyranny of tests is fashionable, but it isn't going to save our children and our economy in the 21st century. Nor will more money for important programs like art and music. The more basic problem is that we have no way of determining which teachers can actually teach. That's right: teaching is arguably the only profession in the country with ironclad job security and a well-honed hostility to measuring results.. . .

. . . .General elections are won among moderate swing voters, many of whom would respond well to a Democratic candidate willing to show he can slip the ideological stranglehold of a retrograde liberal interest group. Obama's right that the NCLB-inspired testing mania is out of control, but wrong to give teachers "ownership over the design of better assessment tools." That's a recipe for no assessment, because the teachers unions, for all their lip service, don't believe their members should be judged on performance. They still believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children. . . . .

This rant goes on with all the Gates/Broad/Walton talking points, expressed through Alter's tough-twerp rhetoric, but here is my favorite part, where Alter suggests holding back Title I funds (for those poorest children that Alter wants to help) as a way to bribe school systems (RTTT, anyone?) to make alterations in collective bargaining arrangements with teachers:

Obama should hold a summit of all 50 governors and move them toward national standards and better recruitment, training and evaluation of teachers. He should advocate using Title I federal funding as a lever to encourage "thin contracts" free of the insane work rules and bias toward seniority, as offered by the brilliant new superintendent in Washington, D.C., Michelle Rhee. . . .

And this from December, 2008, again reporting for his patron, Bill Gates:

He [Gates] called President-elect Obama last week and reports back cheerily that Obama "said all the right things" about including big money for education in the stimulus package and making fundamental school reform (not the fake kind pushed by teachers unions) a priority. . . . When I lumped Gates in with the "bomb throwers" on education, he chuckled and didn't disagree.

And a gem from 2010, again part of another borderline-erotic tribute to Alter's "micro-hard hombre" patron, Bill Gates:

There’s a backlash against the rich taking on school reform as a cause. Some liberals figure they must have an angle and are scapegoating teachers. But most of the wealthy people underwriting this long-delayed social movement for better performance are on the right track. I can see them, all former Corps (TFA) members, sipping lattes and hugging their clipboards around the table at the Gates Foundation and singing KIPP Shall Overcome.

The latest from Alter came yesterday, this poorly-written and hurried piece of drivel that recycles Alter's previously-used Whitaker Chambers insult aimed at Diane Ravitch, for whom the bonfire is now laid. Alter was even handed a jibe to throw in from Oligarchs' chief stooge at ED, Arne Duncan:

Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s normally mild- mannered education secretary, has finally had enough. “Diane Ravitch is in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day,” he said when I asked about Ravitch this week.

Eight pro-Ravitch comments were posted at the Bloomberg site before they stopped taking any more, even though hundreds of anti-Alter tweets have been posted.

The Oligarchs' strategy is obvious: Invite the shrinking minority of teachers at schools that haven't been blown up yet to the bonfire, where the stakes are in place for those who speak the truth. This came from Arne's press secretary yesterday afternoon:

EDPressSec @arneduncan: @DianeRavitch in denial & insulting hardworking teachers, principals & students proving her wrong every day

I hope everyone reading this has a hundred characters or so to say on the matter.

I was going to respond specifically to Alter's attack, but it seems that Alex Pareene at Salon has beat me to the punch. And a good response it is:


Michael Bloomberg and Jonathan Alter

The conflict of interest inherent in having a media company owned by a powerful politician would probably be easier to explain away if that media company's new opinion arm refrained from directly attacking prominent critics of the boss. But Bloomberg View, like Bloomberg himself, doesn't care what nitpicking critics say. That's why no editor there thought it unseemly of Bloomberg View to run a Jonathan Alter piece attacking education policy expert Diane Ravitch, a vociferous critic of Mayor Bloomberg's handing of the New York City schools system.

Bloomberg View is the unasked-for opinion arm of Bloomberg L.P., the financial information company founded and owned by the billionaire mayor of New York City. Before it launched, one of its editors promised that it would run only "ideology-free, empirically-based editorial positions about the pressing issues of our time," because the ideology of the wealthy elite does not count as ideology.

There was already a minor controversy when it was reported that the opinion arm of Bloomberg's media company — a company he is not supposed to be directly running while he's mayor — would be located not at corporate HQ, but at the offices of the Bloomberg Family Foundation, where the mayor is allowed to participate in day-to-day operations.

Alter, formerly of Newsweek, is no lazy hack. He is smart and hard- working. Mayor Bloomberg didn't directly assign some shameless attack dog to go after one of his critics. Alter obviously sincerely agrees with the Bloomberg philosophy. But it still looks seriously inappropriate, like Mayor Mike's P.R. department firing off a response to this recent Ravitch op-ed.

And Alter's piece is not very impressive or convincing! It basically says that Alter and his friends are right and Ravitch is wrong, and it is full of very un-self-aware passages accusing her of caricature while very clumsily caricaturing all of Ravitch's arguments.

Ravitch is the author of a very good book that deflates many of the "success stories" and arguments of the very well-funded and powerful education reform movement, a movement supported by the elites in both political parties and on almost every editorial board in the nation. All the money is behind it. The only powerful institutional force that isn't gung-ho about the McKinsey-ification of public schooling is the teachers' unions, and so Ravitch is generally painted as a pawn of that particular "special interest." (Right-wing think tankers, millionaire centrist liberals, and highly paid corporate consultants are not a "special interest," they are just the people who are right about everything.)

When Alter says Ravitch "uses phony empiricism to rationalize almost every tired argument offered by teachers unions," we're meant to hiss at the invocation of the bad guy in this story. "Phony empiricism" means "data that contradict data used by pro-reform sources." Like the data that showed that the miraculous test score gains made by New York school children after two terms of complete control of the school system by Mayor Bloomberg were illusory.

But it's fine for Alter to disagree with Ravitch or accuse her of misusing statistics or insulting hard-working MBAs opening up for- profit charter schools across this great nation. It's just doesn't seem right to read this side of the argument under the name "BLOOMBERG."

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene More: Alex Pareene

Posted By Jim Horn to Schools Matter at 6/04/2011 09:34:00 AM


Posted this morning, June 5, 2011, at Living in Dialogue: http://blogs.edweek. org/teachers/living-in dialogue/2011/06/jonathan_alter_kicks_the_horne.html

Jonathan Alter Kicks the Hornet's Nest. By Anthony Cody on June 5, 2011 10:09 AM

It has happened again. An "education reformer" has used the pages of corporate media to go on the attack against a leading critic, Diane Ravitch. And lived to regret it. Jonathan Alter, an MSNBC commentator and former Newsweek columnist, penned an op-ed two days ago in the Bloomberg website. Titled, "Don't Believe Critics, Education Reform Works," the piece was long on ad hominem attacks and short on substance.

I wrote a response and posted it on the site — and was soon joined by scores of others, almost all scathing. Then came the next round of responses, on the blogs of educators around the country.

Alter has been given a shellacking he will not soon forget. And the paragraph that perhaps inspired the most heat was the one where he quoted Arne Duncan, who said, "Diane Ravitch is in denial and she is insulting all of the hardworking teachers, principals and students all across the country who are proving her wrong every day."

I don't know about principals and students, but teachers have put Arne Duncan on notice that he does not speak for us. In fact, this episode brings to mind Duncan's unfortunate and poorly received paean to teachers a month ago during Teacher Appreciation Week.

It is getting very tough for education "reformers" to air their views without finding that they have the effect of kicking off a counter-reaction far more resonant than their original statement.

Last fall, Waiting For Superman director Davis Guggenheim invited teachers to share their reaction to his movie with him, and got a similar lambasting.

Why do they write these things? It is a sign that critics like Ravitch are making a dent in the "education reform" narrative. She is especially devastating, because she focuses on the heart of the mythology the "reformers" have offered to justify their policies. This Alter hit was provoked after Ravitch unspun the latest "miracle schools" that supposedly prove poverty doesn't matter, and that high expectations and accountability are the keys to success. Ravitch knows that it takes on-the-ground facts to defeat a mythology, and provides them in her writing.

But the response has outweighed Alter's weak attack tenfold. And the response is far more authoritative than his original bluster. Dozens of teachers are stepping up, as did Alice Mercer, to point out how education reform policies actually affect their schools.

Teachers are not letting people like Arne Duncan or Jonathan Alter pretend to be experts on education any longer. We are here to speak for ourselves, and for our students.

And we are coming to Washington, DC, July 30th, to make sure our voices are heard.

Here is the response I posted to Alter's piece myself:

Wow! I consider myself a "fellow traveler" with Dr. Ravitch, but I did not realize that our central thesis was that teachers could do no better. I think we can do much better, but the path our "education reformers" have chosen is not the way.

I have worked in the high-poverty schools in Oakland, California, for the past 24 years, 18 of them as a classroom teacher. I have a firsthand understanding of what works, and what does not. Making a fetish out of test scores, and spending endless hours poring over test score data, does not work. It just makes teachers focus narrowly on test scores at the expense of real learning. Labeling school s as failures and firing key staff does not work, it just creates an atmosphere of fear -- but that seems to be one of the key weapons in the "reform" arsenal.

Alter asserts that reformers do not deny the reality of poverty. On the contrary, they do. Otherwise, how would we have a system that demands 100% of our students reach proficiency in a few short years? How would we have a system that requires Special Ed and English Language Learners be given the same tests and meet the same expectations as students without these disadvantages?

I wish Jonathan Alter would take a job for a single semester at an urban middle school. Take on the accountability for students that you write about so glibly. Then come back and tell us how you wish to be held accountable.

We WILL do better when we let go of the illusion that mandates and tests will improve our schools. That we can simultaneously improve an institution while systematically denigrating and disempowering the professionals who work there. We will do better when we recognize the importance of stabilizing a teaching staff, and giving them time and space, and respect for the critical collaborative work they need to do to improve. We will do better when we fund our schools properly, so they do not have to choose between a library and a nurse. Or worse yet, where they have neither. We will do better when education policy makers take the time to listen to people who work in our schools,and not 'reformers' funded by billionaires.

What do you think of the dust-up caused by Alter's hit piece? Is your voice as an educator going to be given any weight by the media? jonathan_alter_ kicks_the_horne.html

Anthony Cody


WAITING FOR A SCHOOL MIRACLE, New York Times Op. Ed. Column -- June 1, 2011, By Diane Ravitch

Ten years ago, Congress adopted the No Child Left Behind legislation, mandating that all students must be proficient in reading or mathematics by 2014 or their school would be punished.

Teachers and principals have been fired and schools that were once fixtures in their community have been closed and replaced. In time, many of the new schools will close, too, unless they avoid enrolling low-performing students, like those who don’t read English or are homeless or have profound disabilities.

Educators know that 100 percent proficiency is impossible, given the enormous variation among students and the impact of family income on academic performance. Nevertheless, some politicians believe that the right combination of incentives and punishments will produce dramatic improvement. Anyone who objects to this utopian mandate, they maintain, is just making an excuse for low expectations and bad teachers.

To prove that poverty doesn’t matter, political leaders point to schools that have achieved stunning results in only a few years despite the poverty around them. But the accounts of miracle schools demand closer scrutiny. Usually, they are the result of statistical legerdemain.

In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama hailed the Bruce Randolph School in Denver, where the first senior class had a graduation rate of 97 percent. At a celebration in February for Teach for America’s 20th anniversary, Education Secretary Arne Duncan sang the praises of an all-male, largely black charter school in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, Urban Prep Academy, which replaced a high school deemed a failure. And in March, Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan joined Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, to laud the transformation of Miami Central Senior High School.

But the only miracle at these schools was a triumph of public relations.

Mr. Obama’s praise for Randolph, which he said had been “one of the worst schools in Colorado,” seems misplaced. Noel Hammatt, a former teacher and instructor at Louisiana State University, looked at data from the Web site of the Colorado Department of Education.

True, Randolph (originally a middle school, to which a high school was added) had a high graduation rate, but its ACT scores were far below the state average, indicating that students are not well prepared for college. In its middle school, only 21 percent were proficient or advanced in math, placing Randolph in the fifth percentile in the state (meaning that 95 percent of schools performed better). Only 10 percent met the state science standards. In writing and reading, the school was in the first percentile.

Gary Rubinstein, an education blogger and Teach for America alumnus who has been critical of the program, checked Mr. Duncan’s claims about Urban Prep. Of 166 students who entered as ninth graders, only 107 graduated. Astonishingly, the state Web site showed that only 17 percent passed state tests, compared to 64 percent in the low-performing Chicago public school district.

Miami Central had been “reconstituted,” meaning that the principal and half the staff members were fired. The president said that “performance has skyrocketed by more than 60 percent in math,” and that graduation rates rose to 63 percent, from 36 percent. But in math, it ranks 430th out of 469 high schools in Florida. Only 56 percent of its students meet state math standards, and only 16 percent met state reading standards. The graduation rate rose, but the school still ranks 431st, well below the state median graduation rate of 87 percent. The improvements at Miami Central are too small and too new to conclude that firing principals and teachers works.

To be sure, the hyping of test-score improvements that prove to be fleeting predated the Obama administration.

In 2005, New York’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, held a news conference at Public School 33 in the Bronx to celebrate an astonishing 49-point jump in the proportion of fourth grade students there who met state standards in reading. In 2004, only 34 percent reached proficiency, but in 2005, 83 percent did.

It seemed too good to be true — and it was. A year later, the proportion of fourth-graders at P.S. 33 who passed the state reading test dropped by 41 points. By 2010, the passing rate was 37 percent, nearly the same as before 2005.

What is to be learned from these examples of inflated success? The news media and the public should respond with skepticism to any claims of miraculous transformation. The achievement gap between children from different income levels exists before children enter school.

Families are children’s most important educators. Our society must invest in parental education, prenatal care and preschool. Of course, schools must improve; every one should have a stable, experienced staff, adequate resources and a balanced curriculum including the arts, foreign languages, history and science.

If every child arrived in school well-nourished, healthy and ready to learn, from a family with a stable home and a steady income, many of our educational problems would be solved. And that would be a miracle.

- Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, is the author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.”


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