The two-day event run by New York City’s public television station (WNET) isn’t called “A Celebration of Teaching and Learning” for nothing.
I spent most of last Friday and Saturday sampling the smorgasbord of education offerings and came away impressed by the event’s focus on that operative word: celebration. More than 2,000 people — most of them teachers — came to the Hilton to be buoyed up by dozens of speakers. The stated goal was to “share insights and perspectives on what it takes to provide the absolute best in educational opportunities for our students.”
Among those sharing insights were Dr. Mehmet Oz, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Oliver Sacks, NBC’s Brian Williams, and ABC’s Cynthia McFadden.
There were also stirring presentations by Andrew Bethell of the Teacher Channel, Gary Knell (and Elmo) of Sesame Workshop, and Leymah Roberta Ghowee, the founder of Women, Peace and Security Network Africa, featured in the acclaimed documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell.
Ron Thorpe, WNET’s Director of Education, is the driving force behind the Celebration, which began six years ago and has become a vehicle of size and importance that even he did not envision. Once held in Chelsea Piers, it has now outgrown the New York Hilton’s capacity, as Ron told me — and as anyone trying to attend some sessions can testify.
Last year’s meeting featured two queens — Queen Noor of Jordan and Queen Latifah of Hollywood — and two US Secretaries of Education. While this year’s Celebration couldn’t match that star power, the true measure of its importance was the international meeting that preceded this year’s event, a first-ever gathering of education ministers, teacher union leaders and accomplished teachers from 16 countries. For two days, these leaders discussed international benchmarks, national standards, 21st century learning and such (it was closed to the press).
Conventions like these are occasions for networking, of course, and the halls were alive with the sound of schmoozing between sessions. But sessions were jammed, to listen and learn. (Teachers get in-service credit for attending the Celebration, and Friday was a professional development day — no school.)
Whether the two-day event was excessively celebratory is perhaps an unfair question, given the teacher bashing that’s all the rage these days among politicians and right-leaning commentators and bloggers.
But it’s the question that’s on my mind, because without exception the sessions I sampled were conflict-free. I heard complaints about too much testing and teacher bashing, but no debates about charter schools, teacher evaluation, pay for performance or Teach for America, just to mention a few hot button issues.
There were plenty of opportunities. At one point in a plenary session moderated by ABC’s Cynthia McFadden, the AFTs Randi Weingarten asserted that in the future teachers would be evaluated — in part — based on how their students performed. On the panel with her was the NEA’s President, Dennis van Roekel, who has staunchly opposed using student performance to evaluate teachers, including on the NewsHour. He did not beg to differ, nor was he asked if he agreed.
At another point, the moderator brought up the remarkable high school turnaround in Brocton (MA).
Ten years ago Brockton High was one of the state’s worst schools, where 75 percent of students failed the state exams and 33 percent dropped out. Today, the school, with 4,000 students, is one of the state’s top-performing institutions. What happened, the moderator asked? The panelists praised the school but agreed that it wasn’t replicable. Too dependent upon super-human effort, they all nodded sagely. I found myself wondering why the panel was stacked with Johnny-one-notes and why the moderator wasn’t challenging the assertion.
Then Ms. McFadden threw a wonderful curve ball: she invited Brockton’s principal, Susan Szachowicz, to the stage — and, of course, asked her to react.
“It is replicable,” the principal asserted. A team of teachers worked to change the school (she was one at the time) by focusing relentlessly on reading, writing and speaking. It was hard work and it took time, but it can be done elsewhere, she said.
Great theatre, but, sad to say, another missed opportunity, because Ms. McFadden did not ask if other schools were making the effort.
Imagine if we had learned that no other schools were trying to duplicate what Brockton High has done? Think about that as a line of inquiry for a moment. That would speak to what seems to me to be one explanation for America’s disappointing academic performance — the system doesn’t have enough incentives to propel people to get better, or enough sanctions for not trying harder.
On the other hand, if many others are trying, how are they doing? How can we get more schools to join the parade?
Nor did she ask the panel why they had so blithely asserted that what Brockton had done was one of a kind, surely the question that a lot of us would have loved to hear answered.
In one session I attended, the presenter sailed against the prevailing winds and created conflict. David Kirp of UC Berkeley was talking about his new book, Kids First, and in the Q&A session two teachers, one from New Jersey and one from New York City, complained about Governor Chris Christie and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “Stop whining,” Professor Kirp said. “Whining doesn’t win hearts and minds, and it’s unseemly,” even though you have lots to complain about, he added.
Teachers need a positive campaign, he said. You have to stand for something far larger than yourselves and even your schools and classrooms. In keeping with the vision he presents in his book, he suggested that teachers join forces with other progressives and mobilize around child poverty because, to our shame, the United States has by far the greatest percentage of children living in poverty of all industrialized nations.
“Find politicians who believe that’s an outrage,” he said, and work for their election or re-election. “And fight to defeat those who won’t support measures to alleviate or eliminate child hunger and poverty.
In a way, that session crystallized my issues with the Celebration. Why spend two days in a conflict-free zone, when the situation is dire? Disagreements often produce new ideas and insights, new alliances, and new determination to move forward.
I question whether Celebrations move us down those roads.