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It's Complicated, Mr. Guggenheim; Lesley Off Base

Posted: 2010-11-08

This is from Schools Matter, Nov. 6, 2010.

Ohanian Comment: My first job out of college was at the largest advertising agency in the world. It didn't take me three weeks to realize that I'm the kind of person who needs to work at something worthwhile, and making Listerine commercials doesn't cut it. I figured, for resume purposes, one should stick with one's first job for six months, so I applied for and was accepted into the prestigious ad writing workshop. There, the leader relived the triumph of his career: He'd put cleanser into a blander and come up with the slogan built around "more bubbles." The fact that bubble volume had nothing to do with cleansing power was entirely beside the point. This guy was very very proud of his accomplishment. He inspired me to sign up for education classes at night school.

From Davis Guggenheim's recent HuffPo entry:

You can divide the education world into two camps. No, not democrat or republican. Not incrementalist or disrupter. Or even pro-union or pro-charter. The best way to know whether you are on the right side of school reform is determined by how you answer these two questions:

Do you dither?


Do you do?

Winston Churchill used the word "dithering" to describe his country's indecisiveness when it came to the looming Nazi threat. He was speaking to the carefully crafted but empty arguments from his countrymen which basically advocated doing nothing. The state of our public schools is also a serious threat and we too have a talented corp of ditherers. Just read the editorial pages of many newspapers and blogs and listen to those on the air. There are many experts who would rather make the issue more complicated, tangled and inspire the rest of us to inaction.

It is complicated, Davis, and your simplistic film doesn't even begin to get at some of the very serious issues facing our schools, students, teachers, and families.

This Week in Education's John Thompson left this thoughtful reply in the comments section (this is only a snippet):

The best way to help schools is to slow down, think through the issues, and stop gambling on a nonstop series of "reform." Let suburban schools deal with their problems. Focus on the problem, our failure to serve kids in concentrated neighborhoods of generational poverty. Focus on win-win solutions, even if they are modest, not win-lose gambles.

Data-DRIVEN decision-making to drive "reform" is just the latest fad, and our democractic principles will outlast it. We need data-INFORMED, evidenced-based decision-making. You call it dithering, but walk in my schools and you will see why its best for kids when adults think before they pick fights.

Well said, John. Too bad Davis will dismiss you as a ditherer. Dither on, my friend.

Meanwhile, the producer of the film (Lesley Chilcott) thinks our big problem is that there's a teacher branding problem:

Before I made documentaries like Waiting for 'Superman', I made commercials. And occasionally I still do. Advertising agencies are often charged with boiling down the essence of a message to 30 seconds, or less, which can be a difficult challenge. What is the essential message and what is the best way to communicate it? When you translate that to the issue of education, no matter who you talk to, the single most important factor in education is great teaching. This is the central message of what makes a great school.

[Two paragraphs then offer typical chatter about the need to "professionalize" teaching and the usual lip-service about the importance of the work]

Organizations like Teach for America are starting to make teaching competitive among college graduates, helping to brand teaching as a distinguished career choice. But this is only one path. There need to be many, many others.

Two years does not a career make, Lesley. And if you think teaching has a branding problem, what, exactly, in your film attempts to uplift the profession? Nothing -- and, in fact, you do harm to the profession (even though you pay lip-service to it) by advocating for the expansion of charters and evaluating teachers based primarily on test scores. Keep in mind, Lesley, that teachers in charters are generally paid less, have less job security, and, surprise surprise, there is much higher turnover in these privatized versions of public schools.

I'm not sure which blog posting is more concerning: the film maker's complaints over ditherers making things complicated, or the former commercial producer lamenting the teacher branding problem. Guggenheim seems content to do first, ask questions later (or don't ask them - just "do"); Chilcott seems to think the teaching profession needs a cosmetic makeover. Neither, of course, is a good way to promote sound public policy. But it might be catching and entertaining, just like their schlockumentary, but there's a serious lack of substance here.

Apologies -- I think I'm dithering. Time for me to do something. Maybe I'll get started on rebranding the teaching profession. That'd satisfy the desires of both the producer and director - but, of course, is unlikely to really improve public education in any meaningful way.

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