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All the News That’s Fit to Invent

I recently met a guy from another country who found himself a little surprised by what he’d seen in America. People here, he said, spent almost all their time working. In their few free hours Americans watched TV and seemed to believe everything they saw.  In his country, he said, we would go to a cafe and talk about what was on. We would question whether or not we could believe the commentators — then we’d make up our own minds.

Our conversation started because I’d mentioned the frenzy to create more charter schools. President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, created a program called Race to the Top, in which states compete for cash. What states needed to do, apparently, was subscribe to as many unproven educational programs as possible, and the more shots in the dark they took, the more chance they had to win the money.

The jewel on the crown of New York’s monumental struggle to kowtow to the feds was the raising of the charter cap. This was very important to Duncan, even though charters, with fewer English as a Second Language and special education students than those attending neighborhood schools, have still not managed to outperform public schools.

This amazes me because I strongly believe proactive parents to be the number one predictor of academic success, or lack thereof. When I call parents, which I do with great frequency, the ones who react the most vehemently tend to be the ones who effect the quickest changes. That parents could take the time and trouble to research and enroll their kids in any alternate setting is a sure sign they care about their kids. With 100 percent proactive parents, any school ought instantly to rack up better stats than its counterparts.

In any case, the new law says charter schools will have to serve the same population as public schools. After reading false accounts in the New York Times claiming they already do, I’ll believe that when I see it.

Lies are readily accepted here, said my foreign-born friend. Look at the Iraq War, and the complicity of the New York Times’ Judith Miller (now working for Fox News). Look at Jayson Blair. Here, no one questions talking heads, let alone New York Times writers. Americans, he said, don’t do their homework because they incorrectly assume the media has done theirs.

But who will get America to do homework when the TV keeps telling America not to listen to teachers? The faux-grassroots commercial, urging people not to listen to the teacher unions, has received massive airplay. Was it a bunch of regular folks who funded this expensive ad campaign? Actually, this particular “grassroots” movement seems to have roots in hedge fund managers and billionaires, the very same ones now pulling the strings of gubernatorial hopeful Andrew Cuomo (if the Times isn’t making that up too). Hardly the “just plain folks” you see in the glitzy ad.

These days, hedge fund managers have a big say in how public education should function. After all, hedge fund guys have contributed so much to this country lately, why not have them extend their expertise to education? If their ideas don’t work, we can simply have taxpayers subsidize yet another bailout.

The second important change Duncan’s gotten in New York is the new rating system for teachers, which is partially based on the new “value added” method of teacher evaluation. This method promises to find out which teachers are better and which are worse, and the fact that as a method its validity is highly questionable doesn’t bother Duncan in the least. Nor does the problem that test scores may establish little or nothing. Nor does the fact that the $700 million, should we actually get it, cannot be used to fill budget holes.

In 1984, I spent some time in East Berlin. An English teacher I met there showed me textbooks full of propaganda. We laughed about it, but it was disturbing. Now, of course, that Texas gets to decide what history Americans can and cannot learn, it’s getting a little tougher to laugh at those wacky education practices they had behind the Iron Curtain.

Another thing the East German teacher told me was that they sold propaganda-filled Pravda on every corner, but that no one actually bought it. A frightening difference here, though, is that people seem to be lapping up propaganda en masse. On any given day, the New York Times could be no more reliable than Fox News, or even the gossip in the local pool hall. (So why doesn’t everyone read GothamSchools instead?)

Despite charter proponents frequently touting “choice,” we aren’t getting a whole lot of it these days. Maybe a few parents will get to send their kids to a charter school. But none of us gets a choice about keeping charters out of schools our kids already attend. We get no choice about targeting more resources to support or improve our existing schools, thereby improving our neighborhoods and adding value to our homes. In fact, as the Panel for Educational Policy has demonstrated, New York neighborhoods don’t even get a voice in whether or not their existing schools continue to exist.

Worst of all, we get no choice in whether or not we get the whole picture from the overwhelming majority of mainstream media, and people who rely on the papers or TV to inform them may lack the remotest notion of what’s really happening, or why.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.