‘ROUNDING THE GLOBE’-19: Critical analysis of Boston Globe education coverage
Getting personal with Larry Harmon
Last week, the Globe finally printed two good letters on ed reform and yesterday Vaznis wrote news article on impending dismissals at Boston’s underperforming schools that actually included more teacher perspectives than I’ve seen during the entire 17-year reform era. (Of course, they were threatened with being fired). Just when I thought it might be safe to go outside again, Larry Harmon popped up on the Globe op ed page again wearing his op ed hat. (Protecting his right flank was column calling for the abolition of all municipal unions. A typically well-balanced page. Oh, if only the Globe could run the world!)
When I am having my morning coffee and struggling my way toward consciousness, reading another Harmon education piece is always jarring. I know it means a rough ride for that day. Any chance the Globe could start publishing as an afternoon paper? I would do much better.
Anyway, I’ve decided to get personal and use this space to write Larry Harmon a letter. Nothing else has worked. Not too long ago, he told a teacher who contacted him that he was surprised to receive so little pushback from teachers. Actually, I have emailed him several times over the years and received no reply. Maybe a letter will work. I will also email him a copy. If he does respond, I will give him the space in my BMG diary that he won’t give me (or others of my ilk) on his op ed page:
Dear Larry Harmon,
It was said of the 19th Century novelist Horatio Alger that he wrote the same rag-to-riches novel 100 times. That’s the way I am beginning to feel about your education editorials and columns. Alger was no a literary giant, so it is easier to understand his sticking closely to a successful formula. You are an editorial writer who I experience as having been captured by a rigid perspective that no facts or nuances can penetrate. I don’t expect masterpieces from Alger, but I do expect that professional newspaper columnists will be thoughtful, even when I don’t agree with them. To take another example: I know exactly what to expect from Jeff Jacoby, but Joan Vennoci will surprise me and get me thinking. Ditto for David Brooks of the NY Times. I am just looking for some independence of mind and awareness of complexity.
Your previous column on Ravitch as well as this morning’s piece on Bill Gates (“Bill Gates’ risky adventure”) share a disturbing practice: in both instances, you summarize dissenting views without really engaging them. You seemingly use them to create an appearance of fairness, while reducing Ravitch and others to mere polemical sound bites. Strawmen are created, strawmen are knocked down.
I have some concerns that I would like you to engage. But first, let’s talk foundations. You clearly agree with Gates that foundations are not “dictating” education policy. I have to think you have to know that in Massachusetts there is a powerful coalition of business groups, foundations, think tanks and newspapers that are pushing a certain education agenda-an agenda you approve of. Moreover, every effort is made to marginalize other views, particularly by the Globe, which has worked hard to frame the reform issue. I feel you must know this because your newspaper is involved in that coalition. Each of these groups has every right to push for its educational vision, but let’s have some transparency and, yes, let’s examine how private money is used to shape public policy. We shouldn’t have to depend on personal emails that occasionally surface. How our public policies and institutions get “leveraged” and re-directed by organized money and media is an important and complicated issue.
OK, here are my questions/statements. Consider them a form of pushback. Your responses are sincerely invited.
Gates speaks of charters as doing a better job. Ravitch claims that studies show that approximately 40% of charters do no better than public schools in comparable environments and that 20% do worse. What say you? Please engage.
With respect to charter funding issues, wouldn’t you admit that those folks in Gloucester have a legitimate beef?
Ravitch and other claim that the tests that you champion are not sufficiently valid to make high stakes decisions about students, teachers, or schools. She states that even the testing companies make no claim that they are designed to do that. Your response?
Well, let’s assume the tests are valid and leave aside issues of whether merit pay would undermine teacher collaboration, how would you make such a system fair? After all, teachers work in such disparate environments and are assigned kids with such different ability levels even in the same school. And what about kids’ teachers before and after a particular year of testing? How are their contributions to be measured and rewarded?
Will you acknowledge at long last that we have many terrific public schools, staffed by unions teachers, working under contracts that protect the interests of both staff and students? When you attack “teacher unions” in such a generalized way, I become unsure that you realize there is no standard union contract. MTA locals have different contracts. I mean, you do know that, right? Please make it clear that you do.
To extend that thought, can you go so far as to say that our best public schools could serve as models for other schools, including charters, given the depth of education and range of opportunities they routinely provide in their “business-as-usual” way? If you do believe this, let’s read about it in your columns.
Please satisfy my personal curiosity about the experiences that establish your expertise in education derives? I was a teacher for a long time. Have you taught? More important, have you visited many schools in our state? Just curious.
You pooh-poohed Ravitch’s contention that a business model might destroy public education. You then invited us to agree that well-intentioned Bill Gates isn’t “laying waste” to anything. But isn’t Ravitch referring to issues of charter funding and selective enrollment, as well as the desiccating effect of test prep on the very meaning of education?
Finally, do you agree that the institutionalized inequalities in our society-of which Mr. Gates is an eye-popping symbol-create a deeply-entrenched pattern of unequal educational opportunities? If so, why don’t you target the public policies that reinforce this pattern at least as much as you too glibly go after nefarious “teacher unions. Where is the analysis that explains why some of our kids get a great public education and other not so great? Wouldn’t such an analysis, perforce, take us into the blighted neighborhoods and struggling homes beyond the schoolhouse gate?
Thank you. If you choose to reply, consider my space yours.
PS: If you are wondering about my own concessions to complexity, here they are:
-Standardized tests as one form of assessment among many;
Charters, as long as they don’t drain funds from public schools and recruit a crosssection of districts kids;
Rigorous inclassroom evaluations of teachers and administrators trained to provide
them. Incompetent teachers must be removed from classrooms, when evaluations
show them to be unfit. Please set the bar high;
-Union contracts that apply seniority consideration only where the more senior teacher is as good or better than less senior tenured faculty, as indicated by through evaluation record.