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The Annual Meeting of Education Reporters, Writers and Editors: Plenty of Wattage but Not Much Illumination

Susan Notes: This action research will show you why teachers have more to learn from the Chicago Curie High School teachers who stood up to a rotten test than from the Education Writers Association.

Chicago--April 24-26, 2003--The W Hotel. I was in Chicago for the Annual Meeting of Education Reporters, Writers and Editors (EWA). For the record, EWA, not I, omits that comma after "writers," but so it goes.

Okay, I live in Vermont--greatest per capita cow population in the U.S.--so I won't go on and on about how dark are the lobby and hallways of the W hotel. Nor will I whine about the live and loud Acid Techno cacophony that filled the place, making me long for elevator music or even Celine Dion. I'd just point out that the W Hotel, home of the Education Writers Association conference, does not sell newspapers in its gift shop. It's not surprising that the doormen wore black, but how many times have you seen the receptionist write your room number on a black card? Upstairs in the conference room, the hotel provided black notepads.

Although the W Hotel's hallways were dark, the EWA conference room had plenty of wattage; what it lacked was intellectual illumination. The conference title was No Child Left Behind: Possibilities, Limits and Loopholes, and plenty of the Princes of Darkness--henchmen of the U. S. Department of Education and their sycophants--were there. What was missing were people speaking up for teachers, people speaking up for children, people willing to say that NCLB is a plague on the land. The token super teacher was there--29 years in the classroom and still enthusiastic. Well, good for her. But she was a token. Missing were high-powered researchers to point out that not only does the Emperor of NCLB have no clothes; he's got VD.

Kicked Off the EWA Listserv

Let me backtrack for just a moment and explain that I had been on the Education Writers Association listserv for half a year or so--long enough to see that sometimes the way an education story is put together resembles sausage making--something maybe we'd be better off not watching.

I kept quiet on the list until one reporter posted advice to another reporter that the annual Quality Counts accountability rankings from Education Week might be a good way to tell if one state is using easier tests than another-in order to reach NCLB proficiency.

At 2:45 p.m. I wrote to the list:

Ha! I've nearly bit clear through my tongue--trying to keep quiet--but not succeeding. My state of Vermont ranks low on Ed Week's--and Fordham Foundation's--accountability rankings. We give the New Standards test, not regarded as low or easy--but Ed Week and Fordham don't like our loosey-goosey standards (we don't specify at which grade a kid should master the semi-colon). By best estimates, NCLB will put about 85% of our schools in the "needs improvement" category--because--as with NAEP, percentage scoring "proficient" on New Standards is relatively low. Nothing like the Texas mastery miracle.

Vermont would be much better off on NCLB rankings to buy an off-the-shelf test. Cheaper than New Standards and our kids would ace it. But that's not what we want to do. There is considerable controversy on this point. Most Vermont educators don't want to follow the Texas-Florida model. According to Ed Week, Vermont standards are not "clear, specific, and grounded in content."

I devoted several pages in One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards to how states did or did not measure up on Ed Week's arbitrary grading system, suggesting that maybe it's a bit odd to rate Maine teachers, for example, at the bottom of "teacher knowledge and skills" when Maine students show up at the top on national assessments. I have rented an exhibit table in Chicago--hoping to inform all you ed reporters about the grass roots resistance to NCLB. I'll give the first ten people who show up interested in this phenomenon of how Fordham and Ed Week rate state standards a copy of my book. Also at my table in Chicago is an article from the May Phi Delta Kappan. Written by a very savvy Vermont superintendent, it shows how much NCLB costs states. There's a growing groundswell of people figuring out that the numbers not only don't add up; they'll cripple a state.
I wrote that at 2:45. At 3:59, I received notification from the Executive Director of the Education Writers Association that I was removed from the list. She said that although I am a dues-paying member of EWA, only "working reporters" are eligible to be on the listserv. Funny thing: I thought Substance was a newspaper. Maybe to qualify as "working" you have to get paid.

Oh well, surely getting kicked off the list gives me certain bragging rights.

Reporters Couldn't Miss Us, But They Could Ignore Us

What's discouraging is that at the conference, no reporter expressed interest in finding out how Ed Week comes up with their report cards on the states.

Reporters didn't show much interest in anything on the table that Washington button queen and candidate for state superintendent of schools Juanita Doyon and I set up. Located between NAEP and Kaplan test prep and directly across from The Partnership for Reading, we weren't exactly in birds-of-a-feather territory. The woman at the NAEP table expressed discouragement that nobody was visiting her table either, though she mentioned that someone was stopping by in the dark of night to eat the candy kisses she had out. Juanita and I had a supply of lollipops, each bearing a "We're no suckers-- STOP NCLB Insanity" label.

Our table was jammed with broadsides from grass roots resistance groups and individuals from around the country. Heart-breaking stories of smart kids failing kindergarten and smart kids pushed out of high school. We had counter-establishment newspapers from Milwaukee and New York City. Shouldn't reporters care about newspapers? Shouldn't reporters care that there is grassroots resistance springing up across the country?

Juanita and I also wore bright Anti-No Child Left Behind T-shirts. They couldn't miss us, but they could ignore us.

Lots of Teacher-Bashing Highlights Conference

The reporters paid close attention to the speakers: A representative from the Education Commission of the States gave reporters tips on how to use the NCLB database to compare their states with others; a NAEP person explained NAEP's role in NCLB. U. S. Undersecretary of Education Eugene Hickok and Department of Education staff explained what the NCLB law requires. There was nobody there to challenge anything he said. I kept wishing Jerry Bracey were there to pound his shoe on the table.

The National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges released their high-gloss report The Neglected "R": The Need for a Writing Revolution at the conference. This report feels and smells like money: The paper oozes money--thicker and shinier even than the paper in the disreputable Nation at Risk report, whose anniversary speakers noted with a genuflection toward the Business Roundtable. Know that the National Commission on Writing "was made possible" by the Trustees and officers of the College Board. I won't harangue about the smarminess of this connection, the gentle reader being able to figure it out for herself. I would note that College Board President Gaston Caperton alluded to a Chicago Tribune article quoting a teacher who said that her kids' writing has gotten worse after instruction, complaining that now their writing is formulaic. Caperton implied that inadequate teaching was the problem, failing to note that the test prep for the inane writing prompts shipped out by test producers is responsible for such formulaic writing (see Here's How Standardisto States Prep Kids for Writing Failurefor a few examples).

Caperton, like others, chose to blame the teachers. Teachers can be blamed for not starting a revolution; they can't be blamed for the test prep.

I don't know how Taylor Branch ended up on the Commission, but he had the grace to admit, "I'm not in the front line; I'm way in the rear."

In a session titled "What Makes a Qualified Teacher?" Richard Whitmire, EWA Board Member and USA Today writer, Kati Haycock of Education Trust and Rosalind Rossi of the Chicago Sun-Times upset me so much with their teacher bashing that they erased what Richard Ingersoll of the University of Pennsylvania had to say. Whitmire's resume includes his articles being picked up by Thomas B. Fordham Foundation publications; last year he was listed among "policymakers, practitioners, and leading experts, forum participants" at a meeting hosted by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI)[I've issued warnings about this neoliberal outfit before], the National Education Knowledge Industry Association (NEKIA), and the Education Quality Institute (EQI). In my Chicago program, I wrote a couple of expletives while he spoke. He's a teacher basher, blaming "teaching quality" for the fact that all kids are not going to be NCLB proficient by 2014.


Rosalind Rossi of the Chicago Sun-Times added her teacher-bashing remarks, bragging about the series she wrote about how dumb Chicago teachers are. Surprise. Surprise. Rossi's work has also been reprinted by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Kati Haycock, though, was the one who really came up to the table for No Child Left Behind, reiterating these points:
  • Colleges of education are still teaching reading the way we thought it should be taught ten years ago.
  • There's a "scientific" way to teach reading and teachers should be trained to do it.
  • Reporters should take the basic teacher licensure exams--to see how are very low level they are. Anyone can pass them.
  • More evidence of teacher stupidity is the fact that elementary teachers score much lower than other college graduates on SATs and other exams.
  • "Whopping differences" in effectiveness of teachers was a favored phrases. She peppered her presentation with it.
  • There are no financial penalties under NCLB.

  • Tell that last one to superintendents around the country who are trying to figure out how they will survive. Read Vermont Superintendent William Mathis' article in the May 2003 Phi Delta Kappan.

    For more about Haycock and her pals' views on NCLB, see With Friends Like These Progressives, Who Needs to Worry About Conservative School-Bashers?

    Speakers Insist Standards And Tests Are About What Kids Need To Know

    On a panel titled "Testing and Proficiency--The Ultimate Measure of Reform," Michael Cohen of Achieve told the audience that the new tests aren't out to fail kids, that the tests contain material kids need to know. "These systems are designed to encourage certain behaviors and discourage certain behaviors." There was a very strong hint that "we can get this right" when we get the same academic content in schools nationwide. Lynn Olson of Education Week, on the same panel, said that the whole reason for standards is to define what people need to be successful in later life. This is the great myth of our times. For starters, please show me the business tycoon who can use a semi-colon, analyze an essay by Roger Ascham, or solve quadratic equations. As well as a senior editor at Education Week, Olson is project editor for "Quality Counts," the annual report card on the states published by Education Week.

    I didn't fall out of my chair when, in a session titled "Has Testing Changed Teaching," Jennifer McDermott of the Center for Improvement at the University of Chicago attested to the worthiness of the New York tests. I have scores of examples of how shoddy those tests are. Leslie Siskin of Columbia University insisted that teachers like the idea of standards. She made the interesting observation that teachers were part of the national conversations on standards through their professional organizations, not through their state education departments. That's something worth following up on. Veteran Evanston middle school English teacher Judith Ruhana was one of the very few conference presenters who talked about what children face. She pointed out that for Texas students taking algebra, remedial algebra, and test-prep algebra--all in the same year--there is no room in the schedule for them to be in any classes that they like.

    It takes a middle school teacher to worry about kids finding something in school to like.

    Richard Colvin presided at the Saturday lunch. Former Los Angeles Times writer, Colvin's nasty screeds about teachers are well known--and admired by the Hoover Institute, where he has been a media fellow. I guess my favorite quote from Colvin is in an article proclaiming that because of retiring California State Board of Education member Marion Joseph, "elementary school children across America are getting better reading instruction than they would have otherwise." Because of Joseph's determination to make every teacher and every consultant toe the party line and teach only in one prescribed way, I'm "banned in California" and have a letter from the state education department--and a T-shirt--to prove it. But that's another story.

    Other speakers at the EWA conference included Arne Duncan, Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools since June 2001 and co-chair of Mayor Daley's Reading Advisory Council; Barbara Eason-Watkins, Chief Education Officer of Chicago Public Schools; Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner of assessment for the National Center for Education Statistics at the U. S. Department of Education (who is listed as being responsible for the NAEP); Duncan Chaplin of the Urban Institute; Chris Chapman, statistician at the U. S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. And so on. You can see a program here.

    (Most) Reporters aren't dumb and they aren't naive. I wasn't the only conference attendee who noticed that the program had a certain tilt. I heard several reporters grumble that nothing negative was heard about NCLB until Lorna Jimerson of the Rural and Community Trust made her presentation on the last day of the conference. She provided telling evidence about the children who will be left behind by NCLB.

    Money Talks

    I did notice some little coincidences: The American Council on Education sponsored the Continental Breakfast on Friday. They had speakers on the program Thursday afternoon. Chicago's Catalyst "generously supported" the reception Thursday evening; their speaker presented Friday morning. Education Week also sponsored the Reception; they had speakers Friday morning. The Sun-Times is listed as contributing "up to $1,000"; their representative spoke Friday. The Hegler Institute donated $1,001-$2,500, and their chair, Blouke Carus, made a few remarks at the Friday lunch.

    And so on. As they say, money talks. Lesson learned: It you want to be heard, don't rent an exhibit table--make a direct payoff.

    At the sparsely attended business meeting Saturday morning, Anne Lewis, columnist for Phi Delta Kappan, expressed concern that the names of and materials from Benefactors (over $5,000), Partners ($2,501-$5,000), Friends ($1,001-$2,500), and Supporters (up to $1,000) were so prominently displayed at meal functions and elsewhere--in addition to being listed on the first page of the program. She was assured that there was no "influence" peddled. I raised my hand to ask about the lack of balance in the presentations in the program--the absence of people countering the party line about NCLB. I was not recognized.

    I'll admit that a huge part of my disappointment in the conference is not only the plane ticket and hotel: I paid a lot of money for an exhibit table stuck in the back of a large hall. And I can't blame the reporters too much for the lack of traffic. After anyone sits through 1 1/2 hours of talking heads, knowing they will face another 1 1/2 hours of the same in just fifteen minutes, they dash--not to the exhibit area in the back of the hall--but to the nearest exit--and refreshments.

    Everybody but teachers, that is. Anybody who has been to a teacher conference knows that teachers would have crowded the exhibit tables, eager for information.

    Another interesting little twist on being a power broker: Outfits like Achieve, Education Week, and the Hoover Institute Press did not have tables in the exhibit area. Their wares were on a row of tables directly in front of the doors to the conference room. Exiting the room, attendees found themselves standing in front of these wares. I brought home copies of Education Week's 2003 Quality Counts, Paul E. Peterson's new book, and a stack of other material that I will, no doubt, love to hate. All free.

    So the high rollers got premium space while the rest of us were left whining in the background. Juanita and I kept putting our stuff out on these premium tables. We can dream that reporters were the ones who took it away.

    But even the reporters who visited us at the back of the hall did not walk away with much material. I'd printed off 200 copies of numerous papers detailing LOTS of grassroots activity. People had sent me 200 copies of their manifestos. There it sat. This taught me something I should have known already: Reporters aren't like teachers. They get their information, not from printed matter but from conversations. The good ones go out and walk the streets (and even a few school hallways). If I'd told a teacher listserv that I had ten books to give away, there would have been a long line at my table. Not reporters. When I told one education reporter that I'd give him an important article on the economics of NCLB--coming out in next month's Phi Delta Kappan--he asked, "What's that?"

    What's that? How can you be an education reporter and not know about the must-read journal for people who care about education issues?

    A number of reporters at the conference were eager to talk about teacher proficiency. Maybe we teachers should come up with a test for reporters--things they should know to be qualified to cover the education beat. And since they aren't readers, maybe we should give them Phi Delta Kappan managing editor Bruce Smith's phone number.

    As I noted, few people attended the business meeting. But The Education Writers Association needs to know that conflicts of interest between purveyors of information and purveyors of products is a hot topic these days. According to Scott Hensley, who writes about the health care and pharmaceutical industry for The Wall Street Journal, currently, the drug industry defrays nearly 60% of the cost of the courses offered by medical schools to doctors needing to upgrade their skills. Watchdogs, of course, worry that drug-firm subsidies skew the teaching agenda.

    Harvard Medical School and a for-profit education provider called Pri-Med have come up with a different way to operate: Harvard and Pri-Med keep the drug industry out of classrooms but allow it into the adjacent exhibition halls. Doctors taking the courses, not the drug industry, pay for the courses. Hensley reports that of the more than 200 professional development courses offered by Harvard each year, 90% accept no industry contributions. "For most of these sessions, doctors, most of them specialists, pay as much as $200 a day for the privilege of learning at the feet of acknowledged medical masters."

    Whoever paid for the lectures at EWA, I wish I could report that the audience was learning at the feet of acknowledged education masters. They weren't. They were listening to cheerleaders for the party line. Putting U. S. Department of Education lackeys at the podium in a conference about No Child Left Behind--with no voice from the opposition--does worse than skew the agenda; it poisons it.

    This conference taught me that if we grassroots resisters want to impress reporters, we'd better put away our books, even put away our anecdotes. We have to use the Chicago Curie 12 teachers as role models. We have to stand up and refuse to harm children. That means saying "No!" to high-stakes tests. Nobody is going to do this for us: not the legislators, not the judges. We have to stand up and refuse. Then, the reporters will come--but we won't much care--because the children will be safe, which has been the point all along.

    — Susan Ohanian
    May 2003


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