WNET’s Celebration of Teaching and Learning needed more embrace of conflict

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.

David Kirp
UC-Berkeley's David Kirp spoke at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning, and his presentation crystallized much for John Merrow.

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.

12 thoughts on “WNET’s Celebration of Teaching and Learning needed more embrace of conflict

  1. John,

    With your emphasis on Brockton, you divert attention from the main point made by the McFadden panel. All of the panelists, including Linda Darling-Hammond and Gene Wilhoit as well as Joanne Weiss (Arne Duncan’s chief of staff) described how some of the other countries participating in last week’s Summit have created teacher selection, preparation, induction, support, and assessment systems that are much more comprehensive, integrated, and effective than ours. As a result, teachers in countries such as Singapore and Finland feel respected, supported, empowered, and effective–because they are systematically, continuously HELPED to become effective.

    It is naive to expect that Brockton, however successful, could be sufficient as a “model” to guide and support long-term, systemic improvements. We can learn much more from the substance of the panel’s main comments. Please report more fully on their observations.

    Best Regards,


    • That’s a fair point, Eric, but I would suggest that a panel set up with differing points of view would have created more energy behind your insight. Someone might have challenged the Administration’s position (a straddle?), for one thing.
      I think not digging deeper into the Brockton story was a missed opportunity. If my own resources weren’t so strapped, perhaps we could do just that. I will do my best.


    • John’s observations are right on…Conflict-free leads to no positive change,but we have run out usefulness of organizational changes…The school in MA is the way ,and can be replicated
      If you do not change the tone and organization structure of teaching at the point of service, student achievment will be flat-lined..Oh that is right, it is; look at all measure of student achievement while we were reorganizing education from the top down, and you will see no one can claim any significant change. Queens and Secretaries of Education and especially not Mayors and and charted supermen without a union cannot put Humpty Dumpty of Education back together again so ask a teacher, especially a Career and Teschnical Education professional and teacher of applied learning and integrative skills.


  2. John, what’s the difference between questioning what some teachers and teacher unions do, and “teacher bashing”? You wrote, “given the teacher bashing that’s all the rage these days among politicians and right-leaning commentators and bloggers.”

    As a 40 year educator, (inner city public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, advocate) I wonder if you and others who use this term view all criticism as “bashing.”

    Also, when educators talk about how difficult it is to teach some (or many) students, is that student bashing?


    • I do not view all criticism as bashing, but it seems to me that teachers and unions are now, to borrow a term from Wendy Kopp, “silver scapegoats.” There is a lot of bashing going on, and, as David Kirp observed, a lot of whining too.
      Like you, Joe, I think we ought to identify mediocrity wherever it lies and do our best to see that it’s not rewarded.


  3. I was at the Celebration as well, and I thought it was an inspiring event. I particularly enjoyed the discussion between Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Brian Williams – though I agree that there could have been some more difficult questions asked even there. [As an aside, I did love Booker’s slight misquote of Twain with “Never confuse education with schooling” in a room full of educators].

    I also enjoyed Diane Ravitch’s session – and she was not at all what I would consider celebratory. I believed she opened with something like, “There isn’t much to celebrate these days.”

    Regarding your post, I do want to agree with Eric in that by focusing on Brockton, you divert attention away from both the main issue of that panel and another area where tough questions could have been asked. The Department of Education is at odds with both teachers unions (which Van Roekel and Weingarten represented), much of the education research community (which Darling-Hammond represented) and even on some issues with the Chiefs (which Wilhoit represented). There was NO challenge on that panel to DOE and administration policy proposals, despite Weiss’ presence representing the administration. That is the opportunity I would have liked to see taken advantage of.

    Of course, I would also have liked to see a discussion between Sec. Duncan and Diane Ravitch, which was suggested during the Q&A following her session…


    • As I said in the post, the event was/is designed as a celebration, and that’s fine. For me, it was too much celebration and not enough rigorous questioning, but it wasn’t my event. There aren’t many people who could bring so many people under the same tent as Ron Thorpe does, year after year, and he deserves great praise for that.


      • John, when is questioning and challenging legitimate, and when is it “teacher bashing.” I ask because the term “teacher bashing” is used constantly.

        What I also see a lot of is criticism of parents for doing a bad job, and students for being apathetic, disinterested, difficult to teach, rowdy and on and on. But I don’t see anyone using the words “parent bashing” or “students bashing.” Why not?

        Seems to me that many educators regard any questioning or challenging as “teacher bashing.” The term is used constantly. A quick google search found more than 1.6 million references.


  4. I agree that when the event is labeled as a celebration, one is not likely to see / hear much controversy. AND SADLY I THINK THAT’S THE PROBLEM WITH TRYING TO IMPROVE EFFECTIVE LEARNING TODAY! Rather than following the excellent advice to stop whining and roll up the sleeves and get to work, the unions as well as too many teachers (and their supporters) choose to point fingers and cry out about the teacher-bashing.

    I have heard no one try yo say the current educational approaches are perfect; EVERYONE has to admit that there are some problems – as a matter of fact, ANY EFFORT can always be improved. Back to education, given for example that everyone knows of a situation in which a teacher was to be avoided because of poor outcomes (and typically administration tacitly agrees by meeting parental requests to avoid them), it only adds to public concerns when nothing is done – indeed nothing is even discussed.

    Contrary to Bill Gates, there is no magic bullet out there to be discovered and used by everyone to improve effective learning (which is what I believe “education” is all about). However, there are many examples of teachers, administrators, schools, and communities doing a great job facilitating effective learning! I would suggest this happens because those involved cared enough to discuss the present hurdles to be overcome AND FOUND WAYS TO OVERCOME THEM – but it doesn’t matter what I think.

    What must happen is that what I’ve been calling an EDUCATIONAL COMMUNITY must get to work. The teachers, students, administrators, parents / families, local interested experts, and interested citizens must come together to discuss, learn about, analyze relevant materials, brainstorm, plan, develop, implement, continuously assess, and continually revise efforts to solve THE LOCAL AND INDIVIDUAL ISSUES. Oh, there is one proviso beyond willingness to get involved: ALL parties must accept the reality that there is a BETTER alternative to be developed than any of the ones being championed before this process begins.

    This would seem to be somewhat like what must have happened in Brockton. I can’t imagine only teacher efforts could accomplish what has been accomplished without the active involvement of the rest of the community – and it’s hard to imagine active involvement without participation in the various stages outlined above.


  5. I see the education establishment, here and abroad, beating a near-dead horse. We’ve built an institution on a fundamentally flawed conception of knowledge — an assumption that adequate sense can be made of reality by taking it apart and carefully examining the pieces.

    We’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of that approach. But we’ve also — as a thoughtful reading of any randomly selected day’s news will show — gotten a lot of pain.

    I first tried to call attention to problems stemming from failure to grasp the systemically integrated nature of reality, and suggest a simple way around them, in an article in the KAPPAN in 1966. In the near half-century since then, in dozens of Knight-Ridder/Tribune columns, in myriad journal articles and op-eds, and in books by respected presses, I’ve elaborated, always inviting dialog, criticism, challenge, argument.

    I’m still waiting for my invitations to be accepted

    I re-read Thomas Kuhn once in a while to explain the problem, but it’s nevertheless extremely frustrating.

    The invitation is still out there. I’ve a new book on the matter (WHAT’S WORTH LEARNING, Information Age Publishing, 2011) but it isn’t necessary to buy it to find out where I’m coming from and accept my invitation. Here’s my argument in a few screens:

    Click to access AnAny-CenturyCurriculum.pdf

    Marion Brady


  6. Yes, some topics that are “hot” and politically correct in the current US education policy milieu – firing teachers, paying them based on student performance – were not featured at the Celebration. However, those same topics were barely mentioned by our visitors from other countries in the 20-nation International Summit on the Teaching Profession that was convened by the US the preceding two days at the NY Hilton. These topics were not mentioned because virtually none of the other countries (represented by their Education Ministers) expressed interest in these strategies for reform. In fact, almost every other Minister, from China and Singapore to Finland and the Netherlands, articulated strategies and policies dramatically different from those being advanced in the US. Of course, all present agreed with the importance of improved student learning, and with the crucial importance of recruiting the very best people to enter teaching. However, Ministers from other countries repeatedly emphasized that they “invested” in teachers and were “proud” of them. Over and over they used words like “trust”, “cooperate”, “develop”, “collaborate” – all to describe their governmental policies about teachers. Notably they did not talk about how to fire “low performing” teachers, and how to pay them based on student achievement tests. They were all committed to programs for serious professional development of teachers. They advised governmental leaders to be careful in how they refer to teachers in the media, and urged that teachers not be “demonized”. During the two days of discussions, Secretary Duncan made few if any substantive comments about the discrepancy between US policies and the views expressed by leaders from the other countries.

    James Kelly
    Founding President
    National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
    Senior Advisor to the Dean, School of Education
    University of Michigan


  7. Not having been at the events, I appreciate the summary, reflections and comments. It sounds as if even the few conflicts and/or debates were constrained by the terms and language of how educators and policy makers talk and think. I like the “imagine” comment…”Imagine if we had learned that no other schools were trying to duplicate what Brockton High has done?” because it at least hints at going outside the frame. If you are serious at imagining, read thee five pages by All Stars Project founders Fred Newman and Lenora Fulani, that begins: “Here is an idea for solving the education crisis in America. What if all the kids currently failing in school pretended to be good learners? What if all the adults – teachers, principals, administrators, parents – played along and pretended that the kids were school achievers, heading for college? What if this national “ensemble” pretended this was the case day after day, classroom after classroom, school district after school district?” http://www.allstars.org/content/lets-pretend


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