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Extra! Magazine (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)

First, Bash the Teachers

Media find a scapegoat for educational failure

Writing on the Wall Street Journal editorial page (10/1/09) under the headline “How Teachers Unions Lost the Media,” two education writers praised the press for turning on teachers, showing a “new attitude” that is in sync with today’s politics:

Editorial pages of major papers nationwide have begun to demand accountability for schools, despite objections from vested interests. Since the Obama administration took an unexpectedly tough line on school reform, the elite media response has been overwhelmingly positive.

But it’s hard to imagine that many people who follow the media would consider this much of a surprise. In fact, one of the first prerequisites for being deemed an education “reformer” by corporate media has long been an eagerness to bash teachers’ unions—and it cuts across the usual liberal/ conservative lines.
NewsWeek cover about the failure of American schools
When someone like Fox News host Bill O’Reilly (7/13/10) declares that liberals oppose school vouchers “because they are protecting the teachers’ unions,” the only surprise might be his uncharacteristic restraint. Nominally liberal pundits like Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter, who wrote (2/12/07) that Democrats are “wrong to kiss up to teachers unions,” are hard to distinguish from O’Reilly on this issue.

Anti-union bias is not just found among opinion journalists. Newsweek’s cover story (3/15/10) on the failures of American teachers assembled a catalog of downbeat statistics about the state of American education and the failures of American teachers—and then observed, “At the same time, the teachers’ unions have become more and more powerful.” Newsweek writers Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert noted that teachers’ unions “are major players in the Democratic Party at the national and local levels,” and explained that “it is extremely significant—a sign of the changing times—that the Obama administration has taken them on” by promoting policies that would “weaken the grip of the teachers’ unions.” The implication, of course, is that this is a welcome development.

New Orleans schools, Newsweek told readers, were the beneficiaries of the upside to Hurricane Katrina:

It is difficult to dislodge the educational establishment. In New Orleans, a hurricane was required: Since Katrina, New Orleans has made more educational progress than any other city, largely because the public-school system was wiped out. Using nonunion charter schools, New Orleans has been able to measure teacher performance in ways that the teachers’ unions have long and bitterly resisted.…Measuring teacher performance based in part on the test scores of their pupils would seem to be a no-brainer. New Orleans uses student scores to measure teacher effectiveness.

The idea that the New Orleans system, freed of union constraints and brimming with charter schools, is obviously more effective than its pre-Katrina era is taken as a given (FAIR Blog, 2/5/10). Research from the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Race & Poverty (5/15/10), though, suggests that New Orleans’ charter schools do not generally outperform traditional public schools, and are contributing to problems of segregation and the “skimming” of high-performing students.

When the same edition of Newsweek contrasted union president Randi Wein-garten and anti-union D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee (see page 13), the feature was headlined on Newsweek’s online homepage as “The Union Boss vs. the School Reformer.” It’s not hard to figure out which option is supposed to be more attractive (unless you’re the pro-boss, anti-reform type). But this kind of slant seems built into the corporate media template for discussing education policy: There are sensible “reform” ideas, and the unions oppose them.

On November 15, 2009, NBC’s Meet the Press assembled a panel featuring Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Republican leader Newt Gingrich and community activist Al Sharpton—all of whom are more or less on the same side of corporate-friendly school “reform.” An opposing view could be found in a taped soundbite from the American Federation of Teachers’ Weingarten—which was then countered with a soundbite from Rhee. All of which served as a setup for NBC host David Gregory to pose this question to Duncan: “Why should anybody believe that a Democratic president, who relies on interests like the unions who are out there organizing and who vote, why should somebody believe that he’s really going to take them on, that you are really going to take them on to force accountability?”

No evidence required

What goes mostly if not entirely unexplained amid these anti-teacher assaults is any coherent explanation of what it is that teachers unions have done or failed to do to promote excellence in schools. A survey by Robert M. Carini of Indiana University (School Reform Proposals: The Research Evidence, 2002) of the available research comparing achievement in unionized versus non-unionized schools found that “teacher unionism favorably influences achievement for most students.” Such findings are not the final word, of course. But given corporate media’s relentless message that unions are the enemy of “reform,” it is worth noting that this is based largely on the media’s elevation to scientific truths of a set of mostly unproven strategies for improving schools—from charters to “merit pay”—and their suggestion that the implementation of said truths is made impossible by teachers unions.

Take “merit pay,” which would mostly use test score data to identify effective teachers and pay them more for their success—a “no-brainer,” according to Newsweek (3/15/10). As Diane Ravitch recounts in her recent book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, much research suggests that teachers judged excellent or effective one year often fall out of the category the next, and vice versa. Either the teachers themselves are practicing wildly different methods from year to year, or the attempts to link test scores to teacher performance are not actually a “no-brainer” at all, no matter what the media might think.

And as journalist Barbara Miner pointed out in Rethinking Schools (Fall/09), the idea that unions are opposed to differential pay as a matter of principle is simply wrong: “Although the media promotes the view that teacher unions are inflexibly opposed to modifying the traditional pay structure, both the AFT and NEA [unions] have been involved in local initiatives that differentiate teacher pay.” Miner noted that surveys of teachers find some openness to different pay structures, but that merit-pay schemes in some places saw most of the benefits flowing to teachers in upper-income schools.

The superiority of charter schools, touted by many of the media’s most prominent education “reformers” as an obvious and necessary element of their schools agenda, is likewise more based in faith than in empirical research. One of the most exhaustive studies of charter performance, from Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, found 37 percent of charter schools “deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their students would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.” About half produced similar outcomes to public schools, with just 17 percent outperforming public schools (Extra!, 8/09).

Charters should be controversial for other reasons as well. A report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project (2/4/10) found that they are more racially segregated than traditional public schools. Another long-standing criticism of charters is that they tend to educate lower numbers of English language learners. The UCLA study noted that gaps in data collection make it difficult to offer any definitive national assessments—which is a problem in itself. The data available for California, though, showed the number of English learners attending charter schools was minuscule.

Base bashing

Unions of any sort are going to provoke ire from conservative pundits. But some of the most vocal opposition to teachers unions comes from center-left pundits. Part of the explanation might be that corporate media coverage of American politics invariably counsels the Democrats to move to the right (Extra!, 8/06), and an easy way to demonstrate lack of allegiance to the left is to attack teachers, who are an important part of the Democrats’ progressive electoral base.
Time’s Joe Klein has made this pitch for years, arguing (3/27/05) that “Dems’ knee-jerk support for the unions is a perennial portrait in cowardice.” Today he sings the same tune, writing (1/28/10) that “unions, and their minions in the Democratic Party, have been a reactionary force in education reform for too long.”

Likewise, Newsweek’s Howard Fineman (10/14/91) praised candidate Bill Clinton because “has already shown some willingness to take on vested interests, such as the all-powerful teachers unions.” And Jonathan Alter has been one of the most vociferous union-bashers in the media. On June 28, 2002, he asserted that “the union agenda is not the reform agenda,” arguing that union opposition to charter schools means that “Democrats need to fight their longstanding allies on this, or lose any credibility on school reform.”

Six years later (7/21/08), Alter had removed the gloves, pounding the “Paleolithic teachers unions” and predicting that middle-of-the-road voters would rally behind “a Democratic candidate willing to show he can slip the ideological stranglehold of a retrograde liberal interest group.” As if the point weren’t clear enough, Alter advised then-candidate Barack Obama to lay out his demands to teachers and tell them “they must change their focus from job security and the protection of ineffective teachers to higher pay and true accountability for performance—or face extinction.”

Their man in Washington

After the election of Obama, who was seen as potentially aligned with the corporate-friendly “reform” movement, the generic form of teacher-bashing got more specific, as talking heads expressed their hope that Obama would live up to their expectations. Conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times (2/19/08) wondered: “Does The Changemaker have the guts to take on the special interests in his own party—the trial lawyers, the teachers’ unions, the AARP?”

After a March 1, 2010, speech that called for the firing of “failing” teachers, Brooks (3/12/10) cheered: “Obama has taken on a Democratic constituency, the teachers’ unions, with a courage not seen since George W. Bush took on the anti-immigration forces in his own party.”
Elsewhere on the Times op-ed page, Nicholas Kristof (10/15/09) argued:

Cowed by teachers’ unions, Democrats have too often resisted reform and stood by as generations of disadvantaged children have been cemented into an underclass by third-rate schools. President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, are trying to change that—and one test for the Democrats will be whether they embrace administration reforms that teachers’ unions are already sniping at.

The pundits’ embrace of dumping veteran teachers for an untested, for-profit charter system is meant to be seen as a sign of their abiding concern for “disadvantaged children”—a concern not actually much in evidence from right-wing commentators, with their longstanding commitment to tax cuts for the wealthy, or from most liberal pundits, either, who tend to address actual support for poor children as an afterthought, if at all.

A 2009 New York Times editorial (7/6/09) was illustrative: hundreds of words of celebration of Duncan’s “bold policies,” with a tossed-off note at the end that “efforts at especially difficult schools will need to include social service and community outreach programs”—a complicating stipulation absent from subsequent discussion.

Still, the corporate media consensus is clear on one thing: Unions are the problem.

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Peter Hart

Peter Hart is the Communications Director at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Previously at the media watchdog group FAIR, Hart is also the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly. (Seven Stories Press, 2003).

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