Wednesday, May 26, 2010

“Listening and Learning” = feigned interest + intentional shut out

Separate, but very similar, experiences of a set of public school teachers, members of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English), students in Philadelphia, and Alexander Russo, inform us of the Department of Education’s modus operandi.

Earlier this week, nationally certified science teacher-coach Anthony Cody (of Teacher Magazine’s “Living in Dialogue”) reported on his recent “meeting” with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Cody initiated a campaign to provide a way for teachers to hopefully share their ideas with the administration. After six months of working on the project, he and 11 other teachers obtained what they had been seeking: an opportunity to talk to Duncan.

Here's Cody’s account of the meeting, “Talking into a Tin Can on a string 3000 miles long: Our Talk with Duncan”:

So we twelve finally had our thirty minutes to speak with Secretary Duncan. We spent weeks preparing what we would say. We polled the 2000 members of Teachers' Letters to Obama and got more than 270 teachers to take time to share their ideas of what we should say. We knew we would not have much time, so we paired up, and wrote short statements carrying our experiences and insights. We wanted to be critical but constructive.

I want to find positive things to take from what unfolded, but it is challenging. Here is what happened. We were given a magic phone number to call in. There were about six Dept of Ed people back in DC in a room with Arne Duncan, who introduced themselves one by one. Then Secretary Duncan took the mic and talked very fast. He talked about how wonderful teachers are, and how much they had learned about the problems associated with NCLB, and how they were looking forward to making many changes…

Then, about halfway through our thirty minutes, it was our chance to talk…

…In a conversation after the call, Alaska Teacher of the Year Bob Williams, who also missed his chance to speak, said that perhaps the whole experience was a metaphor. Secretary Duncan and his staff could hear one another very well, but teachers' voices had a very hard time getting through…

…The funny thing about the conversation was that the whole time, they seemed to think we had questions, and their job was to answer them. We had actually approached the conversation from a different place. We thought perhaps they might want to ask US questions, or hear our ideas about how to improve schools.

The day after the above post, Cody received a personal phone call from Duncan who is obviously trying to smooth things over to maintain the appearance of being a good guy.

But here's what Chicagoan Julie Woestehoff of P.U.R.E. had to say in a comment to Cody's post about the phone call from A.D.:

Anthony- As someone who dealt with Mr. Duncan for over eight years in Chicago, I support your degree of skepticism about any positive outcome of this phone call.

Duncan is where he is because he sounds very sincere when he lies, prevaricates, and covers up the truth. His role has been to pour oil on troubled waters, not to improve schools or educate children. He is the "aw shucks" face of the school privatizers, period.

However, the fact that you did get him to respond is definitely a sign that you're now perceived as a threat. You have brought together and made public so many powerful, compelling statements from teachers. Your strategic approach to the forum was just the kind of careful preparation and follow up work that devastates Duncan and his gang.

You can tell from his vague, pandering comments that he means to assuage you and your allies, not change direction.

But you don't have to roll over for such an obvious ploy. Keep doing what you are doing -- crank it up! lots of us will help! -- and pretty soon Arne's act won't be enough. They may have to actually do something different.

Stephen Krashen, as a member of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English), took part in a different "conversation" with people at the Ed Department. He, too, reported being shut out. You think he’ll get a phone call, too?

From Krashen’s entry at Schools Matter: Are we participants or just an audience?

I just participated in the "conversation" between members of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) and the US Dept of Education. It was supposed to be a conversation, and we had interactive software set up.

It wasn't a conversation. Even though only a few people were involved, maybe a dozen or so (not counting staff members), there was apparently no time for any interaction. The feds wasted a half hour telling us what we already knew, that is, what was in the Blueprint, then discussed (at length) a few of the questions that were sent in that they had selected. They even took time to discuss a question that wasn't sent in that a staff member thought was interesting.

I send in my questions in advance, as requested. None were answered.

I resent them during the session, as requested. None were answered.

I "raised my hand" electronically three times and got no response. Each time, my "raised hand" was electronically shut off.

None of my questions significantly overlapped with those chosen.

I asked how the feds could justify so much testing, more than we have ever had before.

I asked if they were aware of the evidence showing that the real problem in American education is poverty, not a lack of standards and tests.

I asked why there was such a push for STEM when we clearly have a surplus in these fields and are doing quite well in technology and science.

I asked why there was so much focus on college, why a high-school diploma will soon be a certificate of qualification for college when college is not for everybody: people have different interests, different talents.

Krashen only had four reasonable, clearly-stated questions to which he was seeking a response. Read more about them here.

Last fall, members of the Philadelphia Student Union were subjected to something similar. Duncan, the Reverend Al Sharpton, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited their city as part of the “Listening and Learning Tour.”

Students, parents, teachers, and community organizations were left wondering who the group was really listening to, since none of us were included in the tour’s agenda. We were only able to speak with them through a locked and guarded wrought-iron fence...

The tour stopped at one of the Mastery Charter Schools located in West Philadelphia and also McDaniel Elementary School in the Point Breeze section of the city. There were no stops in any comprehensive neighborhood high schools, arguably the schools in most need of attention here in the city. We had been told that a press conference was to be held in the parking lot of McDaniel Elementary at 2:15 p.m., an impossible time for students, and an inconvenient one for parents. Nevertheless, and on extremely short notice, PSU and YUC mobilized a group of 30 students, parents and allies from among our stakeholder groups to attend the press conference. We arrived to find an empty parking lot with a lonely podium and a multitude of police and security agents on hand to deny us entry to the building. The press conference had been moved inside…

Two student organizers, one from PSU (Koby's first hand reaction to the encounter) [A must read] and one from YUC requested that Mr. Duncan and Reverend Sharpton return to Philadelphia to meet with grassroots stakeholders and those who are most impacted by educational reform policies. The students were surprised to be told that they were “meeting right now”. The pair did eventually commit to setting up a meeting on substantive issues such as teacher quality and transforming low performing schools.

Here's the footage of Duncan and Sharpton promising a future meeting, but there is no evidence that it has ever taken place. I wonder when the students of the P.S.U. will get their phone call?

In an effort to dutifully inform the public, Alexander Russo used to post Duncan’s weekly media schedule. Over the past year he has become increasingly irritated by the Department of Ed's information stonewalling and procrastination (classic passive-aggressive tactics).

March 3, 2009: "When, I wonder, will some journalist with access -- they won't give me an interview -- pin Duncan down on some of these mistruths and changed tunes? It's OK that he's thinking about things differently now, but it's not that OK that he gets to make things up or ignore his own record.”

March 12, 2009: "Think maybe John Merrow can get something besides canned talking points and that grimace of a smile out of the EdSec?"

July 23, 2009 in “DUNCAN: What Does That Guy Do All Day?:

A few days ago, I asked the nice people at the USDE press office for a copy of the Secretary's schedule, hoping to find out a little more about what that guy does all day in between press events (In Search Of The Secretary's Schedule). Some of you thought that was a good idea. Some of you probably thought it was ridiculous. After thinking it over for a little while, the word came back: No. I was politely directed to the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] site.

Now, I really didn't want to FOIA anyone. I'm really lazy and I wasn't even sure why I wanted to see the Secretary's schedule. But I felt like I had no other choice. My other request, which was to spend an "all-access" day with the Secretary, was also rebuffed.

Plus, I was curious about whether the Department -- bastion of transparency and accountability -- would do something amusing like invoking executive privilege or citing national security concerns.

So now I've done it. What happens next, I have no idea. But it's probably not good. My FOIA request is below. Duncan is doing some sort of RttT event with the White House on Friday and playing basketball in Louisville this weekend.

September 24, 2009: “Still no word on if and when we get to see the schedule and visitor logs for Arne Duncan, though the White House recently decided to release visitor information for the President.”

October 5, 2009: “But by now we're used to having things omitted from this highly selected list of media photo ops.”

October 20, 2009: "'s the official media schedule for the USDE for this week. In a word: Speeches, speeches, speeches, speeches. As always, education reporters, do remember to report these events as if they contained real news. References to "dog and pony show" and use of the words "spin," "propaganda," "more hot air" and wishful thinking" are generally frowned upon.”

November 2, 2009: "Of all the Secretary's news-free media events this week, I pick the Wednesday event with the President in Wisconsin as the biggest, emptiest, most gloriously rhetorical of the lot.”

November 30, 2009: Re Duncan's upcoming schedule of media events and photo ops: “Be assured there will be the usual mix of fear-mongering, repetition of talking points, and exhortation.”

January 4, 2010: Russo is becoming profoundly disenchanted, “The White House gives out monthly logs of visitors and lets pool reporters track nearly everything the President does. We get this measly schedule of photo opportunities (below). It tells us what is newsworthy and we believe it."

January 5, 2010: Frustrated by the ongoing lack of transparency, Russo compares the communication from the Department of Education to the communication from the White House. “The White House is releasing monthly visitor logs so we can see who's stopping by to see the President or his senior staff, but there's no such transparency (yet) from the Education Department. No, I can't give it a rest. No, I don't have anything better to do."

January 26, 2010: “Better late than never, the USDE released the Duncan media schedule for the week at noon Monday. However, as you'll see below, there's nothing on it."

April 23, 2010: Russo is now calling for heckling. "Nothing much to get excited about in Duncan's weekly media schedule for next week, though there's always hope that the teachers of the year will get brave and and heckle him. One year not too long ago the teachers got together and weighed in with policy recommendations, which was pretty cool. But mostly they just act meek and obedient, which is a shame. Maybe a couple will Twitter heckle him during the event, at least?"

Think Russo will ever get the information he's been seeking?

In early May, when asked to respond a survey by the Pew Research Center which found the department of education’s approval rating had fallen most sharply of all federal agencies (to 40 percent from 61 percent in 1998), Duncan said he encounters no public opposition,"Zero," he said. "There's just an outpouring of support..." to the "changes" and "investments," he added. It's not likely that Duncan is oblivious to the widespread opposition to his policies. So flat-out denial is how he has decided to spin the truth.

Duncan cheerfully markets the idea that he is listening, when in fact he does not. This is because his main goal is to implement the predetermined agenda set by the functionaries of the ed deform crowd. His purpose is to advance the privatization of public education.

These people are after a "politics free zone." "Politics free zone" (= absence of democracy) was a phrase DFER’s Joe Williams once used in his 2007 Center for Education Reform report about the history of the reform attempts in Oakland under a newly installed, Broad-trained state administration (read my entry here).

In the report, Williams explains that a group of "small school creators, activists, technocrats, and philanthropists" [no identifying names, naturally] had been waiting for an opportunity to make their major changes. When State Superintendent Jack O’Connell (recipient of large campaign contributions from Broad and pals) implemented a state takeover of Oakland Unified, their wish came true for a "politics free zone" where "the conditions were indeed ripe to try something big," and the local voice was rendered mute.

So don’t be fooled by Duncan's smiles and cheerful talk. Calling it "reform," ed deformers are now running things at the Department of Education. They are pursuing a specific plan and have zero interest in considering the views of people from outside their extremely tight DFER/NewSchools Venture Fund/Eli Broad/Bill Gates-type circle.

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