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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 11/ 9/2010

Harvard’s strange ‘Strange Bedfellows’ education event

By Valerie Strauss

I would expect that a ticketed discussion on education reform at Harvard University's Institute of Politics would include people holding different views on how to improve public schools. I wouldn't expect to find an intellectual echo chamber.

So let’s look at the lineup for the Nov. 18 panel discussion, entitled “Strange Bedfellows: The Politics of Education and the Future of Reform,” scheduled for 6 p.m. in the JFK Forum. Here’s the panel:

Michelle Rhee. Former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. A strong supporter of standardized testing, charter schools, the Common Core standards, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education initiative, which pitted states against each other in a competition for federal dollars.

John Podesta. President of the Washington D.C.-based Center for American Progress and former chief of staff to President Clinton. A strong supporter of charter schools, standardized testing, the Common Core standards, and Race to the Top. His center is highly influential with the Obama administration.

Jeb Bush. Former Florida Republican governor. A strong supporter of charter schools, standardized testing and the Common Core standards. He has also supported Race to the Top, the biggest federal education initiative since his brother and Obama's predecessor, former president George W. Bush, passed the No Child Left Behind law). Bush is the founder of the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education, which is highly influential in Florida’s education politics and has a national reach.

Yup, all of the panelists are on board with the direction of Obama-style education reform. That not only includes an expansion of charter schools and standardized test regimes for students, but also using test results to assess and pay teachers.

If any of these “reform” efforts were shown to be successful in practice over time or in-depth research, it might be reasonable to limit a reform discussion to the best ways to implement them.

But since none of them have, and, in fact, assessment experts warn that some of these “reforms” are invalid and even harmful, it is at the very least short-sighted of the Institute of Politics to have such a limited discussion.

The only voice not quite in lockstep is the moderator, Margaret Spellings, a former secretary of education under Bush, who helped write and implement No Child Left Behind.

Spellings has called publicly for Congress to leave No Child Left Behind alone. She has been somewhat critical of the way Race to the Top money has been distributed, saying in an interview with the Hechinger Report that she would have spread it out among more states. But she's not a real dissenting voice about reform.

So what’s the harm in a single one-sided discussion?

This event, at such a respected venue, can only serve to reinforce the notion that there is a single way to think about “education reform” when, in fact, there is growing opposition across the country among parents, teachers, principals and even superintendents to the very reform that these three panelists support. But there is no one on the panel to debate them.

This is just the latest "discussion" of education reform that is markedly one-sided. We've had NBC News and its "Education Nation" coverage in September, a series of pro-charter school film documentaries, and now this dscussion.

Harvard should know better than to limit the scope of a public discussion on such an important topic.


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By Valerie Strauss  | November 9, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, National Standards, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  arne duncan, charter schools, education department, harvard, harvard university, institute of politics, iop, jeb bush, john podesta, margaret spellings, michelle rhee, no child left behind, obama education reform, president obama, race to the top, school reform  
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"I have learned to be less confident in the conclusions of human reason, and give more credit to the honesty of contrary opinions."
--Thomas Jefferson to Edward Livingston, 1824.

Posted by: shadwell1 | November 9, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse

While part of the title is misleading the part about "The Politics of Education" sounds like it is pretty right on as a description of the event.

Posted by: celestun100 | November 9, 2010 9:15 AM | Report abuse

The funny thing is that it's usually probably safe to assume this is done out of sheer cluelessness.

This is presumably the case with NBC -- the organizers of Education Nation were just too ignorant and uninformed even to know how ignorant and uninformed they were, and thus didn't even know there WERE different viewpoints to present. (They have to own up either to that or to admitting that they deliberately made the event one-sided.)

How, um, ironic if ignorance, lack of information and cluelessness were the Harvard organizers' excuses.

Posted by: CarolineSF | November 9, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

You can criticize the panel composition til the cows come home.

But where do you think the weight of US public opinion is centered? Needs? Desires for ed solutions?

Why do ed.schools freely admit they don't do a good job. Who has been presiding over the steep decline in public education -- the ed experts, the unions, and people like Ravitch. And now they want to complain. Let them bray, but don't let them undermine and wreck additional school systems.

Time to open minds and let others also try to come up with solutions.

Why have we spent a gajillion on ed research and find that it is largely ignored, or trampled upon, or does not work when applied? Harvard has certainly done its share of the damage, as has Stanford, and even up and coming Vanderbilt.

If you want a panel larded with ed phd's and lifelong teachers and, if u can find them, competent administrators, go have one at some prestigious venue -- listen to all the academic claptrap; sing Kumbaya and bemoan the politicians who just won't listen and fund research so in another decade we will get more abstruse claptrap. Stop wasting money that could be used, say, repairing bathrooms in rundown schools, a better investment.

Maybe the US Chamber of Commerce would host a panel of ed "experts," including plenty of professors and grizzled researchers who are driving the Big Mercedes, eh? [This is the "reciprocal" of the Harvard panel that Valerie is criticizing.]

I think Herr Doktor DHume1 would have some additional expert thoughts, eh?

Posted by: axolotl | November 9, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

This is where young women need to be discouraged from becoming teachers. They become prey for Rhee,and Jeb Bush. The only way young women can protect themselves is by not becoming teachers in the first place.

We need to warn young women about what is happening.

Posted by: educationlover54 | November 9, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

I actually agree with some of your points. I do agree that educational research is being ignored and I do agree the buildings need to be fixed.

I totally disagree with your throwing "lifelong teachers" into the mix of lard however. I think you must not know any experienced teachers. They are practical and would quickly disdain the "singing Kumbaya" idea. In fact many experienced teachers think the way you do, except they don't think that they are stupid merely because they have been teaching for awhile.

Look, there is good educational research and bad. That is why there has to be discussion and analysis of reform movements. You can't just take your own personal preferences and try to make policy from that.

This idea that teachers don't know anything about the students they teach or how to teach is just plain wrong.

If you want to base knowing something about education on student test scores, then talk to teachers who have raised test scores. Lots of them are "lifelong" teachers and are succeeding.

Posted by: celestun100 | November 9, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

This may be Bill Gates, Arne Duncan or others without a clue about education pushing their agenda, but they are doing it in the background so that it looks like what they are saying is the only information on reform.

Another con job by the rich and powerful.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 9, 2010 12:47 PM | Report abuse

@celestun100. I actually agree with some of your points.

To "lard" is totally correct, if dated, usage. Don't take it literally for goodness sake.

I have known many experienced teachers. I agree many are good, sharp, committed. However, quite a few long-tenured educators here in the District (where you do not teach) are not like that. Just read comments here and the few other blogues and talk w them. DCPS should not just stand by while they coast to big pensions.

You used the "s" word, not me, and it is misleading on yo part.

Lots of ed research is bad, bad, bad. So much of it is disputed, disregarded, dumped on, and, most of all, not used, or fails when used.

Certain people on this blogue would like to wait another 7-10 years for more "research" --while another generation of kids get shorted for education. It has become a delaying tactic, highly favored by the unionistas while parents and taxpayers have had enough of this. Lack of research is not the root of today's addressable problems.

Some teachers are simply grasping for one more reason not to be responsible or accountable. The devil made them do it. Thank goodness there are good teachers who don't push this view, but the ones that do bring a bad name to the field.

"This idea that teachers don't know anything about the students they teach or how to teach is just plain wrong." Agreed. I do not know why you assert this.

"If you want to base knowing something about education on student test scores, then talk to teachers who have raised test scores. Lots of them are "lifelong" teachers and are succeeding." Agree. But there are not many of such teachers in Washington, DC, lifelong or just a few years. We don't have to wait for research or Superman to address this issue.

Posted by: axolotl | November 9, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the response, but what makes you so sure that this current "reform" is any different from other "reforms" that have been tried?

For example, in teaching reading first they did only phonics, then only whole language, then did reading/writing strategies. Not one of these ideas (phonics only or whole language only) is going to work for every student or every teacher. The research helps teachers figure out what does work.

Maybe you would consider me a "unionista".
What do you mean by that? I see unions providing lawsuit protection for teachers. Sometimes parents will invent reasons to sue teachers, over grades, for example. The unions provide teachers with lawyers if needed. They also help to negotiate contracts. In my opinion, unions don't do enough for new teachers.

As for accountability, I think it is easy to get test scores up if the test goes with the curriculum being taught. Of course, the curriculum level has to match the students' ability levels. I don't think it is fair to grade students and teachers on a test that has nothing to do with what the school district requires them to teach or learn in the classroom.

I agree with you that we don't need to wait for more research. This Harvard meeting has to do with more than DC schools. For one thing, there are good teachers in DC, but, for another, surely, someone who can get to talk to Oprah can figure out how to talk to successful teachers from around the country.

I insist, an educational forum without teacher input is just the same old thing.

Posted by: celestun100 | November 9, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse


I see your point re teacher participation, but do not see it as essential for every gathering on education.

I use unionista just for the rabid union members in the District, who share a heavy measure of guilt for the steady decline of our schools. WTU membersdon't even vote in their own elections at a high rate....because....they don't give a damn. Do you think they appear committed and dedicated to The Children's success in the classroom? To the children? To the parents? Again, this is a subset, but one that is bent on maximum chaos and rolling things back would have to go back decades to find a "good" overall school system here. In the right circumstances, unions can be good for teachers and not too offensive to all the other stakeholders. In DC, the formerly felon-led union gets little respect from its members and is a known prevaricator in school affairs.

Good points on accountability -- but here the teachers refuse to shoulder any accountability, yet want respect and to be viewed as professionals. Our good teachers find it hard to escape bad vibes because of the postures of some of their colleagues.

Posted by: axolotl | November 9, 2010 7:07 PM | Report abuse


Sorry, no thoughts again for this whatever-it-is. But I do like the dialogue between you and celestun100.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 9, 2010 10:46 PM | Report abuse

Sadly, Ms. Strauss misses what is truly remarkable about this forum--four panelists from distinct and disparate political backgrounds sharing their views that are similar, though not identical. The intriguing part of the discussion is, of course, how these politicians arrived at their views.

Moreover, she presumes that just because at face value they seem to agree generally they must not be able to disagree on the specifics. I would be shocked to see such strong personalities--Bush, Rhee, Podesta, and Spellings--nod along in an exercise of futile groupthink. As a Harvard student that attends many such forums, I can guarantee you that the Institute of Politics would NOT put together a panel if they thought there would be no disagreement or substantive back-and-forth.

Finally, in a time of extreme political polarization, is it not refreshing to see a public display of at least some bipartisanship? Is Ms. Strauss really suggesting that the only legitimate policy discussion is one that is made to be purposefully--if not artificially--contentious and angry?

Posted by: mi2011 | November 10, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Wow, ml2011 -- that was quite an elegant defense of putting together a panel that's an echo chamber rather than an exchange of divergent views. I guess that's the kind of rhetorical skill it takes to get into Harvard. Thank goodness there won't be any contentious and angry disagreement!

Posted by: CarolineSF | November 11, 2010 1:05 AM | Report abuse

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