I attend each Connecticut Forum event hoping to leave smarter than when I arrive. This is usually a slam dunk, no doubt it’ll happen thing for any given Forum event. Except, that is, for last night.
The topic was Our Great Education Challenge. The panel consisted of:
- Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker behind Waiting for Superman & An Inconvenient Truth
- Lily Eskelsen, VP of the National Educators Association (NEA), the largest teachers’ union
- Joel Klein, the current and outgoing chancellor of the New York City public schools
- Deborah Gist, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education
- Jon Schnur, CEO of New Leaders for New Schools
- The panel was moderated by MSNBC correspondent Norah O’Donnell.
Looking at that list, it seems like this group was (unintentionally, I’m sure) set up to fail to reach any sort of consensus or real conversation.
It helps, at this point, to be familiar with Waiting for Superman. If you haven’t seen the movie, you can quickly read my review of the film. Short version: the film concludes unions are at the heart of America’s education problem because they prevent principals and schools from coaching, firing, or adequately managing teachers.
As it turns out, every person on the panel (plus the moderator) basically took the Superman position as a given except Lily Eskelsen (the sole union perspective on the panel). This is unsurprising considering their backgrounds – two are school administrators who spar with unions constantly. Guggenheim obviously agrees with his own film. Excluding Schnur, then, you have the makings of a pile on for Eskelsen. So, that’s essentially what we got. The entire Forum consisted of the panelists delivering applause lines ripping on the unions or going back and forth with Eskelsen.
It would’ve been more productive to talk about specific union concessions that would make school improvements easier, or to discuss whether the union even has a purpose in today’s school system. I’d be interested in understanding why only 17% of charter schools perform better than public schools, or why Joel Klein thinks that’s a success rate worth “cherishing.” Or, why Deborah Gist thinks school systems would negotiate these weird, applause line worthy rules into their teacher contracts.
It’s not that I believe these people are playing fast and loose with the numbers, or have some hidden agenda. In fact, I believe they have sound reasons for their perspectives (and they wear their agendas pretty plainly out in the open). I just think they’re used to talking about this topic with other educators and school reformers. So, they mention things like “alternative evaluation systems” without explaining what that means because, well, everyone on the panel knows.
This seems like a flaw in the Forum format. The moderators are often prepared to discuss the issues and to facilitate conversation among the panel, but not so much to facilitate understanding for the audience. It’s really a missed opportunity. I would love a moderator who worked to get panelists to explain terms or concepts that may not be obvious to non-experts.
For example, teacher evaluation was a key topic of discussion. During the Forum, Eskelsen brought up concerns with using test scores as a sole measure of teacher effectiveness. A number of panelists mentioned that some districts were testing alternative and more comprehensive teacher evaluation systems. No one, however, ever bothered to explain what some of them are or what else they look at beyond a standardized test. I was really curious about that and felt let down when the topics shifted.
My other takeaway from the forum was that there were lots of anecdotes or quips that highlighted some ridiculous policy or other that everyone universally could hate or be amused by. Applause lines, if you will. Last night, I called it sloganeering. That still seems like the best description of last night’s conversation.
For example, at one point, Norah O’Donnell turned to the audience and called teachers heroes who have a tough job and work very hard. Its the constant refrain, didn’t seem particularly sincere. Mere minutes later, a panelist cracks a joke about teachers leaving at 3PM even though their schools are failing. Well, which one is it? There’s a weird sort of contradiction that comes up in education reform conversations. Teachers are both working really hard and lazy, overpaid and underpaid, and so on. Doesn’t really help the conversation.
Ultimately, I walked away with the same questions I had at the end of Superman, which was disappointing. There was one exception, though. During the audience Q&A portion, O’Donnell asked a question I submitted about class size (cool!). Joel Klein pointed out that one of the Harlem charters has 30 kids in some classes. Eskelsen pointed out that she’s taught up to 39 in one. Pretty big difference, and one reason I remain skeptical that firing teachers has anything to do with charter success.
I’m hoping we can continue this discussion in the coming weeks among ourselves. I have some ideas on how to bring this conversation along, and I want to start by looking at some of the questions I asked in my review of Superman. I also have a bunch of questions jotted down in my notes from the Forum last night. Between the two, there are a lot of items worth a follow up. On that front, the Forum was a rousing success.