A Better Conversation?

I talk to Education Post creator Peter Cunningham about what *better* means, the art of the swarm and what Arne Duncan might have done differently…

EdPost1EduShysterEducation Post is now nine months old. How much better has the conversation gotten?

Peter Cunningham: I see elements here and there. I see other people calling for it. Even Nicholas Kristof’s piece in the New York Times where he says, look, there’s been a lot of blood spilled in this debate. Why can’t we unite around early learning? I think that’s a good illustration. Vitriol isn’t getting us anywhere. I’ve published people who disagree with me and I’d like to do more of that. I don’t want to just create a platform where people can spout off; I think there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. I want to give people a chance to honestly present other arguments.

EduShyster: Do you have a metric for measuring *better-ness*?

EdPost2Cunningham:  I think that an awful lot of people on the reform side of the fence are thrilled by what we’re doing. They really feel like *thank God somebody is standing up for us when we get attacked* and *thank God somebody is willing to call out people when they say things that are obviously false or that we think are false.* When I was asked to create this organization—it wasn’t my idea; I was initially approached by Broad—it was specifically because a lot of reform leaders felt like they were being piled on and that no one would come to their defense. They said somebody just needs to help right the ship here. There was a broad feeling that the anti-reform community was very effective at piling on and that no one was organizing that on our side. There was unequivocally a call to create a community of voices that would rise to the defense of people pushing reform who felt like they were isolated and alone. 

EduShyster: That expression you see on my face is incredulity. But please go on sir. I want to hear more about the isolation and alone-ness of people pushing reform. How are they faring today?

swarmCunningham:  Take Kevin Huffman. Now you can disagree with him on policy, but he felt like people were waking up everyday and just attacking him on social media. He tried to respond, and he just felt like it didn’t matter. By 2012-2013, Team Status Quo—your label not mine—was very effectively calling a lot of reform ideas into question. I mean look around the country. Huffman’s gone, John King is gone, John Deasy is gone, Michelle Rhee is gone. I’ve created the ability to swarm, because everyone felt like they were being swarmed. We now have people who will, when asked, lean in on the debate, when people feel like they’re just under siege.

I’ve created the ability to swarm, because everyone felt like they were being swarmed. We now have people who will, when asked, lean in on the debate, when people feel like they’re just under siege.

EduShyster: I like that word *swarm* because that’s kind of how I imagine the scene at EdPost HQ. Somewhere somebody on the Internets says something hurtful about, say, PARCC, and an alarm sounds, activating the team members who then proceed to badger the offender into submission.

Cunningham: Unfortunately what people pay attention to are the fights. A lot of times when we share the voices of teachers and parents and what they’re excited about—some of them are excited about PARCC, or charter schools, or Common Coreno one sees it.

belief gapEduShyster: You mean like the EdPost post by the dad who is excited about not opting out? I saw that one! Seriously though, the debate about testing in particular feels to be shifting really quickly with the critics of overtesting and all of its unintended consequence gaining ground. Any chance we’ll start to see that shift reflected over at EdPost?

Cunningham: You think all we’re doing is saying *testing is great,* but we are saying over and over on our blog that overtesting is a problem and that we should be reducing it, and reminding people that the federal mandate is only 17 teststhe typical kid takes 113. Let’s take a look at the other causes of overtesting, things that are locally controlled and can be fixed right away. We’re having a debate in Washington about how much testing to do under ESEA. Finelet’s have the debate. But in the meantime we can radically reduce testing at the local level.

redpenpage4EduShyster: Let’s move on. I think people who only know EdPost and aren’t familiar with you, Peter Cunningham, might be surprised at how critical you are of reform movement rhetoric. I first heard you speak at JebFest in Boston and you told the audience that if they didn’t stop harping on failure, they were going to lose the debate. The crowd was not happy. What else have you been telling reformers?

Cunningham: One of my big messages to the funders early on was that we have to be much more open and transparent about where we’ve gone wrong, and that we have to stop touting success stories when we’re only 50% successful, or 70% or 30% or 20%. My big message to the charter community has been that you need to talk about quality not growth. You have a quality control problem that you hear reformers acknowledge behind closed doors: *out of 6500 charter schools, how many would you send your own kids to?* Those are the kinds of honest questions we should be asking.

EduShyster: You’ve worked with Arne Duncan since back in the days he was running the Chicago Public Schools, and you went with him to Washington. Anything you think he should have done differently?

redpenpage2Cunningham: The sequencing of higher standards, curriculum training, evaluation, accountabilityI wish we’d thought that through more. The world is set up in a way that everyone is in a hurry. You think you have a good idea and it’s like that Billy Crystal line: you figure out who you want to spend the rest of your life with and you want the rest of your life to start right away. We all decided high standards and accountability are great, choice is greatwe wanted to do everything we could to make them available to people sooner rather than later. I wish I’d really war gamed out that sequencing issue beforejust understood it. I didn’t because I’m not a policy person; this isn’t really my world. I trusted a lot of policy people who said *we can do this.* But we’d never really done anything like this in the history of America. We were completely stunned that 40 some states adopted higher standards so quickly. We were completely stunned that so many states applied for Race to the Top. It was a pretty heady time and we were drinking from the firehose. I wish I’d thought that through more. I didn’t.

EduShyster: What do you see as the future of EdPost? Will there be a moment in time when the conversation has gotten so much measurably better that you can fold up your tent and move on?

Cunningham: That would be great. We’re funded through the middle of 2017. If we get to January 2017 and the reform landscape is in a different place, everyone takes a breather and we have a new president who is at least broadly aligned with the broad policies and states haven’t really retreated, I think that I would then go to my funders and propose that we really spend a lot more time educating parents, which is a much more expensive thing to do. Maybe educating is the wrong wordI think it’s engaging them and spending a lot more time elevating their voice, letting them tell us what they really want and then figuring out how to do it. From a process standpoint most education leaders just don’t invest in that effort. I’d love to see a true national engagement effort with parents that says *these are your schools, these are your kids, this is your future and we really want you to have the ability to shape it.*

I’d love to see a true national engagement effort with parents that says *these are your schools, these are your kids, this is your future and we really want you to have the ability to shape it.*

EduShyster: Last question. StudentsFirst pays bloggers to promote its particular brand of education reform on social media. How is what EdPost does any different?

Cunningham: I don’t know that it is. We hire bloggers and we subsidize bloggers who are already out there and who we want to support or give more lift. I think it’s fine. As you know, I have all this money. I have to spend it.

Peter Cunningham is the Executive Director of Education Post and served as Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama Administration’s first term.

Send tips or comments to tips@haveyouheardblog.com. Like my work? Your financial support will help me do more of it. 

.

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0Print this pageEmail this to someone

43 Comments

  1. There is a name for people who sell themselves and do immoral things for money… Some would call it pimping or prostituting. Just sayin.

  2. Wow, just wow! So the mean, mean anti-privatization forces were so mean to the edu-reformers that they felt all alone and powerless? How deeply I wish that we had the power to make all of the Michelle Rhees of the world go away! And he was surprised that the bribery of Race to the Top worked? I do think he is on to something when he wishes that they had thought things through more–oh, excuse me, “really war gamed out that sequencing issue” before raining destruction down on schools, kids, and families across the US. This interview truly made my day!

  3. “*out of 6500 charter schools, how many would you send your own kids to?*”

    Would Mr. Cunningham care to answer his own question? Enquiring minds want to know.

  4. “Maybe educating is the wrong word—I think it’s engaging them and spending a lot more time elevating their voice, letting them tell us what they really want and then figuring out how to do it.”

    Then how come you never listen when parents try to tell you what they want? How many thousands of parents need to pack community meetings and tell you to stop closing their public schools before you’ll stop closing public schools? How many parents need to tell you where to put your charter schools before you’ll put your charter schools there? (Hint: it’s not a sunny place.) How many people have to tell you to buzz off with your BS Tests before you’ll buzz off? Sounds to me like when parents do tell you what they want, you call it “piling on”.

  5. “I would then go to my funders and propose that we really spend a lot more time educating parents…” He tries to walk it back by saying “engage”, but the truth came out first. The plutocrats always know what’s best!

    I’d say Cunningham could write “Pedagogy of the Oppressed – as Written by the Oppressor” if Doug Lemov hadn’t already done it with “Teach Like a Champion”.

  6. If you have to pay people to support your side, then it isn’t a real conversation.

  7. 1. “We have all this money, and we have to spend it”. Question: is that my tax dollars you’re spending to promote a failed policy?
    2. Surprised 40 states signed on to Common Core? Really? It was right after the recession hit and states stood to lose large chunks of their operating funding. The choice to sign on was based on economic realities after Wall Street greed crashed the economy. Signing on to Common Core was NOT an endorsement of it. After all, many states signed on sight unseen.
    3. Of course the feds want to reduce state and local testing, but not federal testing. Unfortunately, the testing that parents most abhor is precisely the federal testing because of the way the results are being misused.

  8. Regarding the corporate reformers’ manufacturing (fabricating a phony facade) of public opinion—waging a “truth campaign” is how they put it—please read this article:

    http://www.alternet.org/education/anti-union-group-studentsfirst-launched-astroturf-campaign-undermine-teachers

    BELOW is an excerpt with the email job listing…

    Holy sh#%! is all I have to say
    ———————-

    “One way for an organization that is starting to lose its base is to rebrand, or to disguise its activities. An email Alternet has obtained shows StudentsFirst emailing individuals in New Mexico (and reportedly other states), offering to pay them to blog and social media comment in favor of its preferred anti-teachers union policies.

    “Here’s a copy of the email we received from a source who says it appeared over the summer:
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
    The Truth Campaign for Teachers (TCT) is looking for:

    ·3-5 New Mexicans who are willing to blog at least twice/week on a variety of pro-reform issues

    ·3-5 New Mexicans who are willing to comment on/promote content on social media

    Bloggers

    — ideal candidate is passionate about education reform and is willing to be vocal about issues like the ones StudentsFirst supports.

    ·TCT would supply them with:

    -Daily emails with suggested content and they would choose which topics to write on

    -Before posts are final, a TCT write will provide feedback on post to form a compelling blog post

    -(Help set up blog if person does not have one yet)

    ·Prefer that individual is willing to be named, but we can work with anonymous bloggers as well

    ·Trying to get as many volunteers as possible

    Social Media Commenters

    ·Ideal candidates are passionate about education reform

    ·Have the ability to respond quickly

    ·Preferred that they a twitter following but not mandatory
    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

  9. When I think of Peter Cunningham, the first thing that comes to mind is the comic spectacle of his choosing to review Ravitch’s book REIGN OF ERROR… without doing everyone the courtesy of reading it first:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/peter-cunningham/ravitch-redux_b_3768887.html

    I’m picturing Peter at his desk dressed as Johnny Carson’s “Carnac”—in a black turtleneck, with a big, sparkling, puffed-out faux-turban on his head—holding REIGN OF ERROR to his forehead with one hand, and typing the Huffpost review with the other hand… (while talking in Carson’s nasal-ly Carnac voice.)

    CUNNINGHAM (from HUFFPOST) : “I understand that Dr. Ravitch is about to publish another book attacking education reform. She will go after my good friend Arne Duncan. She will attack… she will attack… she will attack… ”

    “What she will not do is… she will … she will… ”

    What’s is this guy? Nostradamus?

    Hey, Peter. Here’s an idea you could look into…

    1) first read the book (after you buy the book or check it out your library, of course)…

    THEN

    2) write your review.

    Seriously, my students all do this, and it works wonders.

    Sure, based on her recent writings, one can guess much of what Ravitch will write in a book about ed. issues, but still… what was the point of reviewing it without reading it? Doing it the right way allows one to cite quotations, read everything in context, discover and correct misunderstandings… and on and on…

    By the way, I’m working up a Cunningham-as-Carnac routine… here’s some spitballing… (they’re not all winners, so show mercy)

    CUNNINGHAM: “Frosted flakes.”
    —(opens the envelope and reads it)
    “What do you get when you lock Teacher for America teachers in a meat freezer?”

    CUNNINGHAM: (Carnac voice) “A Few Good Men”
    —(opens an envelope)
    “How many people would it take to do all the REIGN OF ERROR research that Diane Ravitch did all by herself?”

    CUNNINGHAM: “Twelve Years as a Slave.”
    —(opens the envelope and reads it)
    “What does Carrie Walton-Penner desire for all present and future public school teachers’ careers?”

    CUNNINGHAM: “House of Cards.”
    —(opens the envelope and reads it)
    “Upon what foundation does value-added measurement theory rest?”

    CUNNINGHAM: “Billions and billions.”
    —(opens the envelope and reads it)
    “To date, how much has Michelle Rhee made bashing teachers?”

    CUNNINGHAM: “Big Ben, Tom Brady, and Campbell Brown’s defense for not revealing her donors.”
    —(opens the envelope and reads it)
    “Name a clock, a jock, and a crock.”

    CUNNINGHAM: “Criminal Minds.”
    —(opens the envelope and reads it)
    “To be admitted, what must all potential Broad Academy candidates possess?”

    CUNNINGHAM: “A teaching credential, a pair of urine-free underpants, and a special ed student.”
    —(opens the envelope and reads it)
    “Name three things you won’t find in an Eva Moskowitz’ SUCCESS ACADEMY.”

    ED McMAHON: “YOU ARE CORRECT, SIR!!!”

    1. Brilliant, Jack!
      Now, Edushyster, I suggest that we forget about this @%!* Cunningham (&–for that matter–no space/conversation should even be wasted on Arne–“What he coulda, shoulda done”) & concentrate ALL of our efforts on working for/fundraising/getting Progressive Dems to the convention to elect Bernie Sanders the Dem candidate for 2016. Again–99% is > 1% (I learned this from my excellent Math teachers), & Alan Grayson was–against all odds–elected FL Congressman
      from the 99%’s $$.
      As one of my very wise middle school students once said, “Stop your whining & start your winning!”
      FORGET Obama/Duncan, don’t say, “May I have another,Sir?” (i.e., Hillary Clinton–different name/gender–same game), & START WORKING!!

  10. The contrast between this caparisoned shill and our homespun host compels me to donate to the latter.

  11. Peter Cunningham’s comments are completely disingenuous because he does not acknowledge the true motivation behind the corporatization of public schools. It’s not about better schools, or better education, or giving parents and students what they want and need. It never has been. It’s about money. Standardized testing, Teach for America, vouchers, charter schools — all about privatization and money.

    And for the record, teachers and parents are not “anti-reform.” Just because they don’t want to see the public school system sold to the highest bidder does not mean they are “anti-reform.” They’re only anti-idiotic reform.

    (“There was a broad feeling that the anti-reform community was very effective at piling on and that no one was organizing that on our side.”)

  12. “We hire bloggers and we subsidize bloggers who are already out there and who we want to support or give more lift. I think it’s fine. As you know, I have all this money. I have to spend it.”

    True confessions of an edreform sock puppet. And congratulations, Edushyster. You should get Pulitzer for getting the “money quote” of the year!

    1. “You should get Pulitzer….”

      Yes, many of them. This interview in particular is priceless.

  13. I’ve always thought we know how and what a person thinks by his or her unconscious language. The phrase “war gamed out that sequencing” tells us all we need to know about Cunningham’s mindset, and it has nothing to do with providing learning.

    1. With that incredibly edu-jargony phrase, which is worse than some of the jargon I heard in business school (which is saying something) Cunningham has gone and ruined my favorite 80’s movie, WAR GAMES, for me. : / Remember the lesson of that film? “Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” #optout

      1. ““Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.””

        Wow. Who knew the movies of the 80s were that prescient?

  14. Mr. Cunningham wishes he and his allies had really thought out policy more….before pushing policy all in one direction so quickly.

    *head desk*

  15. So many choice morsels in this, but the final two are 1) the swarming for the swarmed swarmers, all while working in a Leaning In reference– crafty (and proof of what $12mm will get you in the blogosphere– mastery of essential skills) and 2) ” I have all this money. I have to spend it.” Wow. Nice.

    Funny here in our city we are not reformy at all– more blocking and tackling (work) than fleaflickers– but it is pretty encouraging what is going on in our Athens community schools— high needs (80% FRL), high achieving (see below) and dare I say, innovative, district:

    From just this weekend’s local paper:

    1) http://bit.ly/1JgaYGL

    Clarke Central High School Decision Day:

    More than 200 of Clarke Central’s 279 seniors are headed to college or the military next year, said Darnell Shelton, a recent Morehouse College graduate who is the school’s college adviser and a member of the Georgia College Advising Corps. The corps is a program is designed to help first-generation college, under-represented and low-income students get into post-secondary schools, and to graduate from them. It works, too, said Clarke Central Principal Robbie Hooker, looking on as the seniors declared their intentions and then attended a reception in the school’s gymnasium.
    “It has been a great resource,” Hooker said.
    2) http://bit.ly/1I18L3f
    Athens Land Trust’s “Young Urban Farmers Program.”
    3) http://bit.ly/1JikjO6
    Partnership helps Clarke students, helps train UGA teachers too

    Failing public schools!? Sorry reformers, that’s just not true and it can be done district-wide, as we all know— if we commit to equity and quality for all. As Phil Lanoue, our National Superintendent of the Year, keeps saying (and doing) And meanwhile, all of the programs cited could use some donations if Peter or anyone else happens to be interested.

  16. Oh, these people. “There aren’t that many federal tests! We just need to reduce or eliminate all the other standardized tests.” But when schools, districts, and states are threatened with dire consequences for failing to adequately raise scores on the federally mandated tests, *of course* they will use additional standardized tests. They need to predict what their scores are likely to be, and figure out how to raise them, before it counts for federal-mandate purposes. And they need students to practice taking standardized tests, because practice is how people get better at things. High-stakes testing fosters more testing. How could it be otherwise?

  17. “There was a broad feeling that the anti-reform community was very effective at piling on and that no one was organizing that on our side.”

    Can you find the missing capitalization in the above sentence?

    1. “There was a Broad feeling that the anti-reform community was very effective at piling on and that no one was organizing that on our side.”

  18. I always suspected that RTTT policies were scribbled in haste on a yellow pad during a flight in business class. Now we know, thanks to you. What I love about your blog, and our blogging, is our freedom to say what we want, when we want, where we want. They have to pay and recruit. That says a lot right there.

  19. This is a stunning read. As a teacher (turned lawyer after President Obama chose to re-brand NCLB as RTTT and elevated Sec. Duncan, a market-based reform toady who wants to sit at the rich kids’ table, over Linda Darling-Hammond), I would often listen to a student’s ardent arguments that were rife with logical fallacies and think, “I wonder how I might make him.her hear him/herself.

    Let me give it a little go here:
    Cunningham: “I didn’t [understand market-based reform strategies/implications] because I’m not a policy person; this isn’t really my world. I trusted a lot of policy people who said *we can do this.* But we’d never really done anything like this in the history of America.”

    (1) If you are not qualified in an area, you should become so before taking an active role – before you start throwing money and rhetoric at important ideas that ma potentially damage millions of lives and, in this case, a cornerstone of American culture and democracy. For example, in my successful application to UNC Law, I wrote my reasons for wanting to attend law school, one of which was, “Anyone who wants to play a role in public policy ought first understand it.” This seems axiomatic. The reverse notion is pure hubris, which even my public high school sophomores with the most rudimentary knowledge of Greek tragedy and world history could tell you does not end well for the proud and over-confident.

    (2) Who did you trust? Were these people with years in public education education? Did you read their articles and books about teaching and public school funding and about the sources of “under achievement”? Did you read major policy tomes in disagreement with these individuals? Or were you swayed by big money rhetoric that sought with no proven programs to apply profit-making business principles to rearing and education of all of our country’s children? Did you review the many times of decades that “accountability” programs, especially merit-based teacher pay had been tried and had failed? [Did it occur to you that if generations of scholarly, experienced, life-time educators had been unable to solve certain problems, perhaps they could not easily be solved? Even Bill Gates has admitted to fighting a wildfire with a garden hose!) Did it occur to you that the moral and civic duty to fully educate all of our countries children might be substantively different from the economic desire to turn a profit? You listened to a bunch of ken-doll business wannabes with access to money – the “cool kids” who boasted expertise they did not have and promised results they could never deliver.
    You chose poorly, now you take their money to spin for the arrogant, unqualified ken-and-barbie dolls who ran roughshod over parents and teachers to the lasting damage of a generation of American school children.

    (3) “I have all this money.”
    Yes, you do. Yet the majority fighting the disastrous reform movement have little-to-no money. They fight for kids, out of passion and belief. They fight for justice and ideals.
    Dude, people are giving you money because they stand to lose a TON of money, influence, and power if they debate on equal footing in this free marketplace of ideals! When the side WITHOUT money – the side begging for scraps of funding to fight for equity and diversity and genuine access to quality ed. for all are winning, then you can be pretty sure that the side throwing all the money out there and PAYING PEOPLE to MAKE THEIR ARGUMENTS FOR THEM are flat out wrong.

    (4) Edushyster: “Do you have a metric for measuring *better-ness*?”
    Do you, Mr. Cunningham? Because your leaders grant credence only to what can be quantified. They are uninterested in the ineffable beauty of inspiration and compassion and the teaching of values and independent thought – things their testing cannot measure and the things that parents, teachers, and my former students most highly value. So where, indeed is your metric to assess the tenor and quality of the education debate? If you had the eyes to see and ears to hear, you perceive that you’ve already lost, even though your losing ideas will take years to overcome and the damage they have called will take years to repair – because of the money and unsubstantiated claims that swayed you and so many like you.

    I ask again: Do you even hear yourself?

  20. Wow…throw more $ around to convince parents. All they need to see are the walls of shame, lies about graduation and college rates.
    Does he know how arrogant he sounds?

  21. Cunningham is a bottomless wine box of whine. He tried hard to paint virtue over his evil deeds with BS. His defense of Kevin Huffman shows how tone deaf he & his good friend Arne are with regard to their education dogma.
    It didn’t take long to figure out what Huffman was up to in TN. Since Cunningham is an neoapostle for admitting mistakes were made, what would he say about the following?

    https://www.facebook.com/RemoveKevinHuffman
    “The Haslam administration called for the demolition of Tennessee public schools this weekend.

    Chris Barbic, the top lieutenant to Kevin Huffman charged with replacing neighborhood schools with charter schools, this weekend stated Haslam’s position that our public schools, under the direction of democratically elected officials, should be replaced by a system of charter schools accountable only to Kevin Huffman’s Department of Education.

    “There is no fix. Current system is broken. Have to create new public ed system.” That was Barbic’s response to a question on how how to fix issues with our schools.
    https://www.facebook.com/RemoveKevinHuffman

    “The Haslam administration called for the demolition of Tennessee public schools this weekend.

    Chris Barbic, the top lieutenant to Kevin Huffman charged with replacing neighborhood schools with charter schools, this weekend stated Haslam’s position that our public schools, under the direction of democratically elected officials, should be replaced by a system of charter schools accountable only to Kevin Huffman’s Department of Education.

    “There is no fix. Current system is broken. Have to create new public ed system.” That was Barbic’s response to a question on how how to fix issues with our schools.

    That ties it all together, doesn’t it? The administration’s actions that we’ve been screaming will damage public education make a lot more sense when you understand that the elimination of our public schools is exactly what they want.”

  22. Well, he did get one thing right. Kevin Huffman being attacked on social media… yes there were many of us, and I’ll certainly wear that one as a badge of honor along with the many others as well.

    I know I certainly had fun with my song about K-Huff “Our Commissioner is a Phallus.” (http://joenashville.jimdo.com/) And the folks who did the anti Huffman FaceBook pages… I salute them.

    We can only hope the likes of Huffman, Rhee, and others are never allowed to live down the things they have done to destroy education.

  23. This guy is hilarious. He feels “piled on”. Anytime there is an article in our local paper that is the least bit critical of the reform movement, charter schools, etc., there are immediately two to three response to it by charter school associations, think tanks, and the like.

  24. I applaud the idea of bringing back civility to debates on educational policy. I just find it disingenuous when they say they want better conversations but only pay for bloggers representing one particular point of view.

    Maybe the tagline should be Better Conversations, one-sided.

    The DFER and the right-wingers of the world have millions to spend on very talented writers. They publish white papers (instead of submitting research to peer review), have paid contributors, and full time staff.

    All of the funding comes from the same circles. All of the writers come from the same circles.

    If the goal is truly to have better conversation then the site should pay for a more diverse staff.

  25. […] references EduShyster’s (Jennifer Berkshire, another education blogger) recent conversation with Peter Cunningham, creator of Education Post. Education Post was created so that we could supposedly have a better conversation about education. […]

Comments are closed.