Two Town Halls, and a peek into the future

As always, remember that John’s book The Influence of Teachers is for sale at Amazon.

For the first time in my life, I am channeling Sarah Palin — specifically, her complaints about what she calls ‘the lamestream media.’ I feel like a victim, even though I was merely in the audience for an old fashioned “Town Hall” that was reported on by The Washington Post. By contrast, a few days later I was the interviewer in a two-person “Town Hall” on Twitter (the interviewee was Secretary of Education Arne Duncan), an event that went directly to its audience without interpretation by the media. It pains me to confront the frailties of my profession, but that’s what’s on my mind.

The old-fashioned event — about education and race — was a slam-dunk winner from Day One. It had everything going for it: (1) It was organized by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates and his capable team at the DuBois Institute at Harvard; (2) The moderator was the incomparable Charlayne Hunter-Gault; and (3) It had cast of heavyweights: Dr. James Comer, Diane Ravitch, Michelle Rhee and Professor Angel Harris of Princeton. Even the title of the event was reassuring: “The Education Gap” — not “The Achievement Gap” — a choice revealed that the organizers understood the complexity of the issue. This was certain to be substantive.

Substantive yes, but limited in its reach. About 400 people filled the historic Whaling Church in Edgartown (on Martha’s Vineyard) on August 18th, and, while it’s possible that a few people tweeted about the conversation as it was going on, it was a closed loop. One of these days the entire session will be posted on the DuBois Institute website, but you’ll have to wade through the full two hours; it apparently won’t be searchable or divided into segments.

Wonderfully substantive for those in attendance, close to inaccessible for the rest of the world.

Here’s just part of what we learned: A child born in poverty (black or white) has a 10% chance of getting to college, and our poverty rate eclipses that of other industrialized nations. By graduation day, there’s a 4-year skills gap between black and white graduates — and that does not factor in those who drop out. We also lock up more of our citizens than other countries, and the black/white incarceration ratio is 8:1. Angel Harris of Princeton spoke persuasively about the depth of the ‘Education Gap’ and the public’s failure to grasp that. Because we don’t get it, he asserted, we grasp at ‘silver bullets’ and ‘magical cures’ instead of hunkering down and committing to long term solutions.

He provided a great example: the ‘silver bullet’ of parental involvement. Be careful what you wish for, he said, because there are different forms of involvement. When black parents get involved, they are more likely to be negative and punitive, and that doesn’t help the teacher get through to the child. In addition, Harris says that parental engagement only explains very small percentage of the education gap, while parent education and income explain 25% of the gap.

Dr. James Comer, the Yale physician whose ‘Comer Schools’ are beacons of hope, brought the crowd to life with his eloquent explanation of why and how so many schools for poor children fail. It is, he asserted, largely because teachers and administrators do not understand child development and the needs of children. Time was, Comer told the audience, when most families were able to meet their children’s developmental needs, but today, with about 35% of children living in poverty, the schools and teachers are overwhelmed. And, to make matters worse, schools of education do not prepare teachers to understand, let alone meet, developmental needs, Comer said.

Diane Ravitch sounded some familiar themes: Poverty is the key here. Small classes make a difference. She bemoaned that, because of No Child Left Behind and its testing requirements, schools are eliminating art, music, PE and “all the stuff that keeps kids coming to school.” And she suggested that we take some of the billions we spend on testing and spend it on early childhood education instead.

John Merrow and Arne Duncan at the Twitter Town Hall on August 24, 2011.

Michelle Rhee, who was directly or indirectly criticized as a proponent of ‘accountability,’ agreed that schools cannot ‘cure’ poverty. However, she said, teachers do make a difference. Society needs a sense of urgency and cannot afford to give demonstrably poor teachers years to improve.

Rhee and Ravitch agreed that society must be ‘aspirational.’ The attitude “I’ve got mine, so who cares about anyone else?” will bring the nation down.

In short, the two hours was filled with light, with occasional heat. Unfortunately, for these messages to get beyond the 400 or so who were in the audience, it fell to the media to report what happened.

And that’s my problem because a Washington Post reporter filed a piece that made the afternoon sound like a polite disagreement between Rhee and Ravitch, who are well-known for their antagonism. Not a word about Comer, Harris or Hunter-Gault or about the substance of the session.

My hunch is that the reporter arrived expecting fireworks between Rhee and Ravitch, well-known as antagonists — and when no food fight took place, the reporter made that the story: they were polite.

Criticizing the Post reporter is not my central point. I am wondering now just how often we journalists fail to get beyond our preconceptions about people and events. I write about this in my book, The Influence of Teachers, specifically about the irrelevant ‘war’ going on now about teachers and teaching. The latest example of reporters getting it wrong, in my opinion, is Steven Brill, who devotes 400+ pages to the ‘war’ without ever questioning his own premises.

Is there a better way to reach the public? Are ‘social media’ operations, such as Twitter, the answer? Can substance — like the Edgartown meeting — be conveyed in ‘tweets’ of 140 characters or less?

That brings me to my second “Town Meeting,” which took place on Twitter on August 24. And it’s probably wrong to use the past tense, because it’s all still up there for anyone who’s interested. Here’s how it worked: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and I (the interviewer) sat in his conference room. He responded to my questions, while, off to one side, two aides translated everything into ‘tweets.’. The video was live and is now archived in case anyone wants to check the accuracy of the tweets against what was actually said.

Here’s the transcript.

Just over 1, 200 people ‘tuned in’ to watch the live feed, but the 68,000 followers of the Department’s Twitter feed (@usedgov) ‘followed’ the Town Meeting on Twitter. Many thousands more follow @askarne and other Twitter feeds, and so the audience must have been well over 100,000. Hundreds of followers added their own tweets, commenting on the Secretary’s answers or my questions, or just venting about the administration. Some tweets were subsequently re-tweeted, keeping the conversation going.

The run-up to the Twitter Town Hall is also noteworthy, because the Department and I both solicited questions. About 100 came to me directly, generally thoughtful and well-written. The Department received many more, which it passed along to me. I chose the questions without any prior review by the Department.

Was Arne Duncan’s Twitter Town Hall substantive, by which I mean ‘did it have the potential to change viewpoints and expand perspectives?’ By itself, no, but the re-tweets and the comments and its archived presence taken together feel ‘substantial’ — to me anyway.

What about the Town Hall on Race and Education? Could its substance have been captured and conveyed on Twitter? I doubt it, but I feel strongly that those who are committed to the old-fashioned approach must adapt so millions, not just a fortunate few, can benefit. Sessions like that can be fed live on the web and then later segmented and indexed so that visitors can pick and choose from a menu, rather than having to watch it all. (And they can tweet their favorites to their Twitter followers.)

I am not trying to talk myself or any other journalist out of a job. For openers, I wouldn’t trust a “Town Hall” with a politician if the interviewer were anyone other than a qualified reporter. However, I think a healthy skepticism about most reporting is warranted, unless and until you develop a trust in the reporter and his/her outlet.

But social media is the future. And, while there’s now a clear a trade-off between substance and immediacy, the challenge is to embrace Twitter and other social media to increase their depth. That’s the future.

9 thoughts on “Two Town Halls, and a peek into the future

  1. The winning combination that I see is a twitter conversation happening with a livestream of the conversation. Rather than posting the video after the fact, why wasn’t it streamed live, with a #hashtag and someone on site in charge of managing the tweets, incorporating them where it made sense and responding.

    If the goal is to really tackle the Education Gap, I think we also need to tackle the communication gap that exists within the education reform community as well. Greater transparency and interaction with events like the Education Gap would expand the conversation to live in so many more places.

    Twitter isn’t *the* answer, but it is one way to both extend and amplify the conversation and we need more of that in the education reform conversation.


    • The video was streamed live.
      On our drawing board is a monthly LIVE television program with the working title “The Hot Seat,” in which a leading educator/policy maker will respond to questions. We will use the weeks running up to the session to solicit questions. In all likelihood we will also call out to some questioners (the way ‘Car Talk” and “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” do).
      Secretary Duncan has agreed to be the first guest. Now Learning Matters needs a channel to carry the program (and the rest of the financing).
      But I think this could be a big step in addressing what you wisely identify as the communication gap. We need more conversation, less polarization. Right now the education world strikes me as resembling the crowd at Cheers, that bar you go to ‘because everyone knows your name.’ A lot of cozy ranting that cements positions, making matters worse in the long run…


  2. Mr. Merrow, I agree wholeheartedly that unfortunately the media too often skims over or misses completely much that is substantive in discussions of the policies and systems of public education — and that all too often all that is portrayed in public discourse is largely irrelevant to the children sitting right now in classrooms and their teachers.

    I think you point to a potential solution in your post when you note the example of the reporter of the Post who excluded noting anything but the personal politics of Rhee and Ravitch. The media — and its consumers — are infatuated with iconic figures such as the two aforementioned. But the people who are really talking substantively about public education are usually not all that well known. We need to recognize and elevate the discussion by focusing more on the content of what people in the field are saying, as opposed to the name that is attached to it.

    Also, Ravitch should not be the de facto representative of the voice of public educators. Get some active teachers on these panels who are interested and involved in policy.


  3. More talking heads. That is not a solution, even with good journalism – which has ALWAYS been rare on education. Much too much is polarized, is ideological, is binary (this OR that) rather than reflect the paradoxical reality of most students, classrooms, and schools where many things are “right” at once. Your best reporting is from classrooms, is showing “what works” for various kids and teachers and schools. At worst, get Arne Duncan in a classroom and let him show us what he’s talking about. Rather than talk more, let’s have some action. Television is not for passive debates but for involving documentaries. Even more so with twitter and Facebook and YouTube. Do it, and stop talking about it.

    And while there, why do journalists continue to let people invent without assessing or evaluating what they invented? Where are the comparative evaluations of different tests and test makers? What is the Return on Investment of particular assessment systems? Which – now that we’ve had nearly a decade of NCLB – tests produced the most improvement, on what scales, in which settings, for which demographics? Why is it that we only evaluate kids without EVER evaluating our systems of evaluation? We know there are plenty of adaptive tests, tests online vs. on paper, tests that give immediate vs. 3 month or 6 month feedback. Why are there no stories about the cost-benefit of each of these? Why are children the only topic of evaluation when, in fact – particularly, at the level of national news or policy – it ought to be the evaluations themselves? If the point of assessment is feedback, which states give the fastest, most accurate feedback? Why there not everywhere? And does DOE – Duncan – have a plan to make that feedback more useful? More “efficient”?

    The way to critique a system is to … ofter constructive criticism, the way we would a to a 10 year old. Now that NCLB is approaching a decade, why do we forget that? It is NEVER an either/or set of options: schools always and inevitably generate more options. So ought the media and their targets. The “testing debate” is futile. We need better measures, and nobody is even asking which measures measure what, or measure better.


  4. I agree that the conversation that was held in Martha’s Vineyard was extraordinary. While we need to bring these discussions to a wider audience, I am curious as to the composition of the audience at the event. Who were the 200 or so participants? Where they influencers or passive recipients? While I agree that the public needs to be exposed to this important conversation, we need people who can make a difference participating in the dialogue.

    This blog is a good beginning…. the idea of a monthly live feed is great… I hope that you will include post-secondary education, specifically community colleges, in the discussion. If only 10% of children born in poverty graduate and if only 25% (at best) of community college students graduate…..and if we have an 8:1 incarceration ratio for minorities…. what does that tell you about the Education Gap?


  5. Thank you for your thoughtful questions and discussion in the twitter town hall with Secretary of Education Duncan. I notice that you mentioned twittering answers to some questions after the video feed ended. The transcript does not include these additional questions and I was wondering if there is a record of those somewhere. I sent in questions about the need to fully fund IDEA now, not in the next 10 years as we’ve waited 30 years now for “full funding up to 40% of the costs”. Our children with disabilities cannot wait another 10 years. They need help now. I’m also concerned that here in LAUSD, the charters have infiltrated administration. Six of our seven school board members were elected with charter foundation funding.

    Recently, Supt. Deasy “accepted a gift” of funding that would pay for three administrative positions – created and filled by charter orgs. Our Parent Community Services Branch Director was let go and replaced by a person from a charter org. Her first duty was to disband the DAC (District Advisory Committee), claiming they were illegal. In fact the DAC had refused to sign “compliance paperwork” for the last three years because LAUSD has not been compliant regarding Title I parent engagement practices. Our long-time parent volunteers are being railroaded, set aside, disbanded and replaced by “astroturf” parent organizations with parent “volunteers” who are paid by charter foundations to preside and spout their party line.

    Charters have discriminated against students with moderate to severe disabilities and English Language Learners since the charter law’s inception. I’ve collected data for years regarding enrollment by disability and type of services provided by charters in LAUSD. They take public funds, but to not take ALL children. Their charters should be revoked.

    No one is discussing the insidious money grab by charter foundations of our public funds. By “cherry-picking” students to enhance test scores, they leave behind the moderate to severely disabled and ELL students who bring down the scores of the regular schools who take ALL children. These schools are then threatened with closure and charter take-over due to the NCLB program improvement guidelines. Our children with special needs will then, what? be warehoused after the takeover? Charters were supposed to be “learning labs” for “best practices” that they would then share with public schools. The only “best practice” we’ve observed in LAUSD is “discrimination and exclusivity in enrollment”. It’s a sham and a shame.


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