at a conference jointly sponsored by the Education Writers Association (EWA) and the Carnegie Corporation of NY. The title of the one-day get-together was "The Promises and Pitfalls of Improving the Teaching Profession."
Organized by Linda Perlstein, public editor of EWA, this was the first time such a conference included not only journalists but also some prominent teacher/bloggers. I was not on the original list of invitees, but was invited when a good friend could not make the event and suggested me as her replacement. Originally the plan was to try to have journalists who cover particular school systems with teachers from those systems. There were also a number of national education journalists not tied to a specific school system, such as Claudio Sanchez of NPR and Amanda Ripley, who has written for Time Magazine and is now working on a book on education.
I previously posted An idea for journalists covering education, in which I offered a few comments about this event. Let me now place the entire event into context.
Those of us invited as teachers were under the impression when we accepted that this was to be a dialog. Thus when we saw the announcement of the structure of the event, we were mildly upset. Other than the continental breakfast, this was the outline of the day:
9-9:15 a.m. Welcome
Caroline Hendrie, Education Writers Association
9:15-10 a.m. Introduction: The Strategic Management of Human Capital
Talia Milgrom-Elcott, Carnegie Corporation of New York
10-11:30 a.m. Teaching Teachers: Education Schools and Alternative Pathways
Hamilton Lankford, SUNY, Albany and Teacher Pathways Project
Sharon Robinson, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
Kate Walsh, National Council on Teacher Quality
Moderator: Linda Perlstein, EWA
11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Bringing in the Best: Recruiting and Hiring Practices
Vicki Bernstein, New York City Department of Education
Dan Goldhaber, Center on Education Data & Research
Spencer Kympton, Teach for America
Moderator: Caroline Hendrie, EWA
1-2:15 p.m. Lunch
2:15-3:45 Learning on the Job: Improving Professional Development
Karen Hawley Miles, Education Resource Strategies
Ted Preston, Achievement Network
Judy Zimny, ASCD
Moderator: Stephen Sawchuk, Education Week
3:45-5 p.m. A Conversation Among Participants
Moderator: Linda Perlstein, EWA
No teachers were on the panel. We had been under the impression that we had been invited at least in part to offer our perspective as teacher/bloggers who were both recognized as effective teachers and had demonstrated our ability to articulate about matters of education. Two of us, Steve Lazar and myself, were union building reps. Two others, Ariel Sacks and Jose Luis Vilson, were among the authors of an important book on teaching by teachers, Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools--Now and in the Future (about which I wrote in this piece). No teachers were on the panels - although to be fair, except for moderating, neither were journalists. Still, we thought we were going to be offering our insights.
As you might imagine, there was some reaction. Several of us wrote letters to Linda Perlstein, to which she responded about her intent in how she was shaping this. She asked that we trust her and see how it worked out. Meanwhile the teachers began to communicate among themselves and with others whose judgment about education and educational journalism we trusted. Linda did ask that we submit questions for the first part of each panel, a request to which only a few of us responded, several making it clear that they wanted their interchanges with the 'experts' on the panel to be fresh, not canned, in the 2nd half of each panel session.
Steve Lazar organized some of us getting together the evening before. 7 of the 12 educators who would participate were able to make that dinner. Some of us knew others: four of us, Dan Brown (who was not able to make the dinner), Jose Vilson, Ariel Sacks, and I are members of the Teacher Leaders Network (I was a replacement for Renee Moore, also a member, who was another author of Teaching 2030 but who could not attend). Steve had sat with Ariel at the Teacher Town Hall of Education Nation, after he came off stage (he was in the very first panel with Brian Williams). Steve had met several of the others from around New York.
We got to know one another, shared our concerns and our hopes about the event. We did not agree on everything, as would become clear during the next day.
First, we are all grateful for the opportunity. As you can see in the post in which Ariel Sacks posed her suggestion for journalists, she began like this:
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of being at a conference on hosted by the Education Writer's Association and the Carnegie Foundation here in NYC. It brought together an interesting group of education reporters, teacher bloggers, and education "experts" (=policy people & researchers) to discuss the topic of teacher effectiveness. The event was quite unique and engaging, though I would have liked to see teachers featured on panels as "education experts" as well.
Like Ariel, I would have liked to see the voices of teachers included other than as questioners during the formal part of the seminar, although in fairness the journalists were quite willing to hear what we had to say, particularly during the Conversation Among Participants. That was really three separate conversations, three different groups, one around each of the topics presented by the panels of "experts." I know that the conversation in which I participate, which ostensibly focused on "Teaching Teachers," traveled over much of what had been said during the seminar. It was free-flowing.
There were some interesting moments. One was to hear Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality basically dismiss Teach for America as a model. When I spoke with her afterward and expressed my surprise, she told me she says that all the time, that given their concern with teacher quality they simply do not believe TFA or similar programs with brief training programs provides students with a quality teacher. That was a positive moment.
Another positive moment, or if you will series of moments, came during the final panel. Judy Zimny of ASCD had been both a teacher and a principal, and her experience in classrooms and schools came through consistently. As it happens, she was also part of the Conversation at the end in which I participated, and she continued to offer cogent opinions. She clearly had expertise on the subjects on which she opined.
There were also some not so positive moments. During one of the other conversations a journalist who shall remain nameless wanted to know how s/he could identify the 'bad teachers' so s/he could write about them. Somehow that seemed entirely alien to the purpose of the seminar, at least to the teacher who related the exchange to me. There were several moments stemming from the words of a man there on behalf of Education Next. He chose to bash Paolo Freire and praise Ed Hirsch as the fount of all wisdom, and both in the 'question' he posed during one of the sessions and in his remarks in the Conversation (he was seated next to me) had a very narrow focus of what he seemed willing to consider and seemed reluctant to hear what others had to offer, although during a conversation with another teacher during drinks before the closing dinner some of us attended was apparently some what more open.
A number of us there were live-tweeting. We were encouraged to do so, and you can get something of a sense of how it went by going to the hashtag #ewateachers - go all the way down to the bottom and read up, and you will get a very good sense. Just remember, there were more than a few people who were following our tweets and jumping in, as I found out when I asked Bruce Baker of SchoolFinanceBlog where he was sitting, since i had not seen him there.
A number of people have asked my reaction. I am grateful for the opportunity. I found some of the journalists quite open, and wanting to learn. I found many of them lacking what I consider basic knowledge - for example, in our conversation, I asked how many of them knew of Campbell's Law, the famous axiom of social science, which reads The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor. In a period where much of our educational policy has been to use various measures in a high stakes fashion, Campbell's insight is critical to understanding the problems that creates. Of the non-educators at the table, only Linda Perlstein was familiar with it. I view this as a problem in education writing, which is the lack of understanding some journalists have. I remember in a conversation over drinks later that evening Bill Turque of the Washington Post, who came to education coverage from a long career writing about politics, admitting that when he began three years ago he had not even heard of Reggio Emilia, which is a critically important model for early childhood education.
On the other hand, most of the journalists were willing to listen and to learn. We were asked for suggestions for things to read, which they dutifully noted.
We also learned some of the difficulties they have, from their perspectives. Sometimes they have trouble getting access to teachers or students. Even if they can get access to teachers, many are reluctant to talk on the record, fearful perhaps of retaliation - and not always from administrators or school boards - if they are critical of what they see.
I recognize that. But they had a dozen educators before them, all of whom write online about education, all of whom are willing to be quite candid - of the structure of our schools, about how teachers are trained, supervised, etc. Even the two of us who are union building reps are willing to acknowledge that unions have not been what they should be, a point made forcefully in Teaching 2030, where the authors talk about the need for the unions to become more of professional guilds.
Thus if I had to assess the occasion, I would have to describe it as a partially missed opportunity. I think the journalists and the teachers could have done far better simply talking as we did in the end, perhaps with some "experts" also participating, it might have been more productive.
I recognize that from Linda Perlstein's perspective, she wanted to provide important background information to the journalists, and the inclusion of those of us who were teachers was not the main focus, but rather an added bonus. There was some diversity among the presenters, although I think the panels were tilted far too much in the direction of the 'reformers.' Yes, there was SOME diversity on each panel, a person who could provide a somewhat different viewpoint: Sharon Robinson of AACTE, Vicki Bernstein (no relation)of NYC Dept of Education, Judy Zimny of ASCD. Still, until we got to the questions, and the voices of teachers were among those able to speak, I think, with the exception of the final panel, the presentations were somewhat unbalanced and thus did something of a disservice to the Education Writers.
Would I do it again, even knowing how it was structured? I think I would, because we need to take advantage of the opportunity to have the voices of teachers heard, to help broaden the perspective of those who write about education for the general public.
Thus while I admit some disappointment in the missed opportunity, it was far from a waste of time. I formed some new and important friendships among the other teachers. I got to understand the point of view of what the journalists must address.
It was a start.
We need more such conversations.
I encourage journalists who cover education and teachers who are willing to speak and write about education to sit down and talk with another.
It was worth the time. I hope Carnegie Corp. feels it was worth their money. They were gracious hosts.