I was about to author a blog post and had all of my notes lined up. But something forced me to set my notes asise and leave that topc for another day. What was this “something?” It was a teacher’s blog post on EducationWeek, a trade publication that is prime source of content for my blog. In fact, I was getting ready to lead a civil, spirited debate about this blog, until someone from what I gather is the “teaching establishment,” decided to string together a diatribe of baseless accusations on my character and my point of view. I had to formulate my thoughts and author a post about the subject at hand, which was yesterday’s Oprah show where she had Davis Guggenheim, producer of “Waiting for Superman,” along with Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee.
Let me start off by saying that everyone, and I mean everyone on both sides of the debate, must put the episode in its proper perspective. Yes, Oprah is looking at ratings, and bringing this group together was a major ratings driver. As a former broadcasting executive, I’d love to see the Nielsen numbers. But Oprah has the ability, through her status, to put a major spotlight on an issue that is very much in the national dialogue. So regardless of what one might think of the content, I believe it is important to publicize this documentary. But at the same time, I agree with many of the dissidents that Oprah should have had representatives from both sides of the debate on the same show, instead of having them on separate shows.
So what led people to personally assail me and some other social entrepreneurs in the comment section of this blog? The author raises some points that I very much agree with, that there were some “exaggerations” and inaccuracies in the comments made on the show. That’s why you need both sides represented on talk shows.
While it is important for this film to be discussed around the water cooler, I have repeatedly noted in my blog throughout the past few years that people like Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee, while doing noble work, believe the issues lie with teachers. I share the frustration of the teachers here, because teachers are a end product of a system that is fundamentally flawed and outdated. We need to completely redesign the education system, and teachers need to be better trained, better educated, better compensated, and more effectively evaluated, the latter using criteria that is balanced and equitable. Then there are other threshold elements such as organizational structure, updated standards and assessment, funding processes, etc. We’re in a democracy, yet we have a public education system that is bureucratic and borderline socialistic. Barriers need to be removed that have historically hampered innovation. In every industry sector, market forces and innovation have prevailed. But not in education.
In the scathing comment, the user states:
“Al, technology, and the eduepreneurs who push for it, won’t fix a thing. You and your soul-mate, Tom Vanderark, think this might be a great way to make some money, so you are jumping in. You may be right, but you’re not helping the kids, you’re helping yourself, not unlike war profiteers.
It’s guys like you that make it difficult for “cooler heads” to prevail because you are hot for $$$$.
If you want to help, get your credential and go teach.”
Without any empirical evidence or strategic rationale, the user has assumed a number of things without knowing anything about me: i) that because I have never taught in a K-12 classroom, I’m not qualified to add input here; ii) that for-profit companies have no place in the system; and iii) entrepreneurs only care about making money and that we don’t care about the kids.
Let me pick apart this gentleman’s extreme comments one by one, because I would like to suggest that he does not embody the perspective of the average teacher.
1. While I have never taught in a classroom, I have spoken to students on a regular basis. And most importantly, I watched my mother teach for the better part of her 25 years as a public education teacher. My mother was so dedicated to her students, and she has also highly educated (a few credits and discertation shy of a Ph.D). I saw firsthand how teaching is a 24/7 job, as she would be up past midnight nearly every night grading papers. So I know how noble a profession teaching is. And separately, as a taxpayer who helps fund the system, I have every right to state my opinion, just like shareholders in a public company can state theirs.
2. This can be discussed in detail in another post, but I believe that under the right circumstances, for-profit companies can be a critical part of the solution we all desire. Competition drives innovation, and if designed properly, these new charter schools and other school designs, including virtual schools, can help the public schools benchmark ways to make themselves better. The problem is, many charter schools are not funded to compete directly with public schools, which in part forms the basis for the documentary, “Waiting for Superman.” Kids and their parents are hoping they get the “golden ticket” in the annual lotteries to enroll in these charter schools.
3. That entrepreneurs only care about making $ and don’t care about the kids. You can make $ and be socially responsible. Entreprenurship drives innovation, but the outdated system makes it nearly impossible for education startups to survive, unless they’re funded by government grants. I have started a nonprofit organization, called The Atlanta Music Project, that will provide hope to many inner-city children because the public education system has failed them. How has it failed them? It has eliminated band and orchestra programs from the elementary schools. This program will fill that void. So how am I not thinking about the kids? And if there is ever a situation where an entrepreneur breaches his “social contract” with the schools or students, they will be run out of business, because customers, just like in the private sector, will stop using their products or services.
It is ok for teachers to be irate about the Oprah show. But rather than flog the messenger and dismiss it as more “OprahPaganda,” the teachers should scream through their administrators and politicians that things have to fundamentally change. And teachers should express their feelings in the public forum, and Oprah should let the NEA and other thought leaders express their opinions once they have seen the movie.
This could have been just pre-movie launch marketing, but Oprah opened this up to controversy because she did not bring contrarian points of view onto this particular episode. I do, however, applaud the author of this blog, an 18 year veteran of the public schools in Oakland, CA.
Thank you for having the courage to voice your opinion. That’s what makes our democracy great.