I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Friday, August 31, 2012

More Chris Matthews Foolishness On Education

Last night,  Chris "Tweety" Matthews (it's what his staff calls him) made a series of riduculous statements about education during MSNBC's coverage of the Republican convention. Here's the video (it's not embeddable, so I can show it here). I urge you to watch the entire thing, because - despite Matthews's embarrassing performance - I actually find it highly encouraging.

But before I say why, let me finish debunking Matthews. I've already dealt with his cluelessness about our educational standing in the world and its relationship to poverty. Bashing America's schools and students - and, yes, that's exactly what this is - is a favored trope of ignorant pundits; however, what they really love is beating down on unions:
How we deal with the teachers union is a problem - especially a problem for the Democratic party. I live in Washington, D.C., I have to say: Randi Weingarten has not done a good job for our city. We have got a mayor who is got [?] a good mayor, we lost the best superintendent we ever had of education, and I think the school teachers have to explain that.
How does one man pack so much illogic and ignorance into such a short statement?

Michelle Rhee was, of course, the superintendent Matthews was talking about. As Matt DiCarlo points out, Rhee's claims that her performance bonuses helped raise student achievement are contradicted by the fact that test score gains following the implementation of the bonuses were mostly flat.

Rhee has claimed many times that it is important to close the "achievement gap," but it actually widened during her tenure in Washington. And any gains in test scores are highly suspect anyway, as the district has been embroiled in a cheating scandal that hasn't been properly investigated.

None of that matters to pundits like Matthews. Rhee may be a phony and her group, StudentFirst, may be an astroturfering front for the corporate takeover of education. But that doesn't matter: she's a celebrity - like Chris!

It's how these people view the world; it's how they judge credibility. Screw actual performance; all you need is to do is get yourself on the cover of the right magazine, and you can count on Chris Matthews believing any fool thing that comes out of your yap.

Now, why would I be encouraged by all this? It's because of what happened next: Ed Schultz, Al Sharpton, and Chris Hayes managed to rebut Matthews with a series of arguments that come directly from the education blogosphere. Someone is listening to us.

Schultz is right that Scott Walker's attack on teachers in Wisconsin is typical of the Republican party. Matthews attempted to give back the tired answer that everyone loves teachers and wants to see them make more. Schultz, correctly, called that rhetoric; none of the Republican governors who were elected in 2010 have any plan to raise teacher pay.

I'd only add that this isn't just a Republican malady: Arne Duncan, current Secretary of Education, likes to make lots of noise about paying teachers more but has never proposed a serious plan to make it happen. Schultz is dead on when he says this professed love of teachers is nothing more than rhetoric.

Next, Sharpton made a statement I have to correct: he said that Randi Weingarten negotiated the tenure reform bill with Chris Christie. Look, I am a big supporter of AFT, both nationally and in New Jersey. But AFT's presence here is limited to Newark and a few other distrcits; the fact is that NJEA led the tenure reform debate over the last year. The final law is closer to NJEA's initial proposal than any other plan that was out there.

That's not to say AFT wasn't closely involved - they were. AFTNJ is a good group: they've been the only adults in the room during the Perth Amboy mess. But Christie's war has always been with NJEA first, and teachers unions in general second. The fact that NJEA got most of what they want in the tenure law shows that they still wield considerable power. And yet NJ is the #2 state in the nation for student achievement; gosh, could it be that maybe unions aren't the problem with education today?

Where Sharpton gets it right is to point out that the real agenda of the reformy movement is the privatization of public education and union busting. When Matthews pushed back with the next tired reformy point - that we have to give parents options so they can "save" their children - Sharpton made a great point:
Why do we have to select some children and leave others? Why don't we build a system that all children... government's job is not for some children to get out; it's to lift everybody up.
At this point, the evidence is clear: the charter/voucher movement cannot and will not serve all children. Diane Ravitch made a challenge point blank to the darlings of charterism, KIPP, to take on an entire district; they refused, and admitted they can't do it. If that's the case, people like Matthews have an obligation to be honest in their cheerleading for "choice" - it's only a choice for some students.

But, for me, the best moment in all this was Chris Hayes, who does as good a job succinctly encapsulating the education reform debate as I've heard:
What striking to me is this equality of opportunity rhetoric is what we hear about this, right? America offers equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. As equality of outcome expands massively - in America, right, inequality is growing - we put more and more pressure... we say the only institution in American life that is supposed to fix the inequality is the education system. And the inequality grows and grows and grows and we say to the education system: "Do more and more and more to fix it."  
If you are committed to equality of opportunity as Jeb Bush and the Republican party say they are, then how does cutting SCHIP, cutting Medicaid, cutting food stamps for kids, cutting the entire universe of redistributive services for those kids provide equality of opportunity?
It's a great point, brilliantly made - but it did not grow in a vacuum. Schultz and Sharpton and Hayes are making a case that has been built up on blogs and internet radio shows and even tweets for years.

Let me speak to my fellow education bloggers for a second. Folks, I know you, like me, often feel like you are out in the wildness, howling at the wind. It's easy to believe that we are simply talking to each other, and we're not breaking through to the larger discussion.

We must understand that this is a long, slow grind. Conservatives took years to build up a right-wing echo chamber that now serves to put the kookiest, craziest nonsense into the mainstream.  That echo chamber is perhaps the most potent force in American politics, and it's all based on conservatives talking to each other. When an idea gains resonance in the chamber, it can't help but spring out and dominate the conversation.

We have begun to build our own anti-reformy echo chamber. It is starting to project ideas out into the ears of Schultz and Sharpton and Hayes and others ready to listen. This is a good thing; this segment is proof that we are making some headway.

This will not be an easy slog, but we have one advantage over the reformy right: the truth. Charters are not replicable. Unions are not antithetical to student success. Teachers are important, but only one part of a much larger picture. Evidence for vouchers is weak. Test-based teacher evaluation is a train wreck. There are many who openly admit they want to make lots of money off of public education.

These are truths. We need to keep stating them over and over and over again. If we do, it will break through; we will be heard.

All hands on deck.

ADDING: There's only one cure for Matthews's cluelessness: Diane Ravitch needs to go on Hardball. Anyone up for a campaign?

ADDING MORE: I don't want to be misconstrued, so I'll say this again: yes, AFT was a player in the tenure law negotiations. But it was really NJEA's proposal that wound up becoming the final bill; I think that's critically important to understand now that Christie is running around the country claiming he was the one who drove the negotiations. He wasn't; the bill happened in spite of him, not because of him.

I'm an NJEA member, but AFTNJ is, again, a very good organization; I don't want anything I say to be misconstrued here as being critical of their role or of Randi Weingarten's in the tenure bill negotiations. I may not agree with everything AFT does (or the NJEA, for that matter), but I am a pro-union teacher, no matter which union we're talking about.


Tim Slekar said...


Everything you say about the "truth" being on our side is right on. However until the media is willing to admit that this train wreck is a bipartisan creation I think it is premature to start assuming we're being listened to seriously. Shultz, Sharpton, and Hayes made (as you point out) some great comments. However, I'm just not convinced it is a sign of things to come. I hope I'm wrong.

czarejs said...

It was the first time I've ever heard any media person stand up for the the unions and teachers. Baby steps.

jba82 said...

I can't tell you enough how thankful I am that you continue to slog away at this. It would be easy to give up. But I think you're right; the tide is turning a little here in NJ where more parents are seeing that there are good schools and the overload of testing is hurting their children.
Keep making your points, which you do more with more data (I've come to hate that word!) than I could ever find and make sense about as eloquently. Proud to be another NJEA member and music teacher!

giuseppe said...

I would also like to thank Jersey Jazzman for fighting the good fight, keeping civil, doing all the grunt work and research and keeping rational while the other side foams at the mouth and is lobbing rhetorical hand grenades and small nuclear devices against public schools, their teachers and their unions.

Mark Collins said...

Have you sent emails or letters to Chris challenging his ignorance? On the other hand, also on MSNBC Ed Schultz was on fire last night re: teachers and union bashing.(His mom was a teacher in Virginia) I'm hoping that segment will be posted.