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Living in Dialogue: Time For a New Conversation Indeed: PUBLIC Education Nation is Here


In 2014, most of the communications media is carrying messages sponsored or controlled by the wealthy. When speech is redefined by the Supreme Court to include the spending of money, then those with unlimited money have a nearly unlimited ability to speak via the airwaves. This week I described how that money, often funneled through “philanthropies,” has been used to create recent narratives of failure and success in education.

NBC’s Education Nation has been a prime vehicle for this propaganda over the past several years. Sponsored by the Gates Foundation, it arrived with the release of “Waiting For Superman,” and promoted Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates as the nation’s leading experts on what needed to happen with our schools. But this year NBC appears to have abandoned the broadcast, and the billionaires are investing elsewhere in efforts to “reset” the conversation. Some of us have been organizing an event that will do just that, though perhaps not in the way that Gates, Bloomberg and the Waltons have in mind.

I first got involved in advocating for better education policies after I received my National Board certification. There was an idea then that policymakers were missing the voices of educators, and if we could bring that to the discussion, get a “seat at the table” where policies were being crafted, we could prevent some of the atrocities that were raining down on our schools. So we created organizations and projects to offer this expertise, and even organized a demonstration of thousands to demand it in 2011.

But there was little official interest in the expertise of educators.The plans had been decided upon by people like Bill and Melinda Gates, who wrote in 2011 that “the field of education doesn’t know very much at all about effective teaching.” Those with money had crafted their agenda, based on their diagnosis that education was not run like the businesses that had made them wealthy. What was needed was a combination of competition, measurement, and technology. And that is what our schools have been force-fed for the past decade, with the active support of the Department of Education, and the willing participation of the mainstream media, who allow the Gates Foundation to provide the very “facts” that guide the discussion of the issues.

There are reporters who will pick up the phone or send an email to get the occasional critical perspective. But far too often, our viewpoints are left out, or included as marginal “some critics say” footnotes to stories that otherwise celebrate the “successes” that have become what sponsored media is being paid to produce.

Documenting this treatment is worthwhile, but of limited value. Relying on the conscience and integrity of members of the media will only get us so far. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Since we cannot exercise much influence over the mainstream corporate media, we must create our own. We need to build avenues for the distribution of news, viewpoints, and analyses that do not depend on someone on Bill Gates’ payroll to hit the “publish” button.

Fortunately, the internet and social media have made this a bit more affordable, and many of us have access to networks that reach thousands of people. But there is a great deal of work to be done. To be far-reaching, our media must be well-produced, and reflect high standards of accuracy and visual appeal.

There are a number of projects that have taken this challenge on in various ways. Rethinking Schools has been a pioneer, as a publication that features thoughtful work from educators across the nation. There are literally hundreds of individual education bloggers who are daily producing provocative and insightful work, often breaking stories the rest of the media does not want to touch. Diane Ravitch’s blog stands out because it has become a touchstone for so many of us. Her tenacious posts have made her blog a gathering place for thousands. There are also a host of people creating documentary film projects taking on the big issues. Los Angeles educator Vincent Precht has become a phenomenal source of live and archived video, and has created SchoolhouseLive to showcase his work – regularly featured here at Living in Dialogue.

Various individuals and organizations also have used Facebook as an active platform for sharing news and connecting with people. The Badass Teachers Association has grown to more than 50,000 members, and has lively discussions and actions. The Network for Public Education is connecting people to build the movement and support candidates willing to support our schools. United Optout shares news of the growing movement to boycott standardized tests.

And the Network for Public Education is also hosting a special event in October that will take this work to a new level.We are gathering a group of the nation’s leading education experts on a stage at a public school in Brooklyn for PUBLIC Education Nation, a series of panels taking on the big issues in education. Bill and Melinda will not be there, nor will their proxies. We will have real educators like Xian Barrett, Yohuru Williams, Carol Burris, and Takeima Bunche-Smith. A student from the Newark Student Union will share what impact school closings have had there. Parent activists like Karran Harper Royal will share what has happened in New Orleans related to charter schools. The event will close with a conversation between Diane Ravitch and Chicago community activist Jitu Brown.

A huge amount of money is being spent right now on efforts to “change the conversation” around education. The biggest change would be to actually honor and listen to the voices of educators, parents and students, rather than billionaires, or those who echo their talking points.

We all have a role to play.The trouble with grassroots media is that there are no big budgets to buy access to airwaves. No $12 million grants to pay for “quick response teams.” We have to be our own quick response team. We have to rely on one another to spread the word. Even social media networks like Facebook are now charging money to share word of events. So please help share this one far and wide. Here is the main event registration – and you can attend online, or in person. You can also sign up on the Facebook event page. Send out the event announcement to your friends on Facebook and your followers on Twitter. We have virtually no money to spend, so any publicity you see is by virtue of the passion of those who believe in the message being shared.

We all know that corporations are not people and money is not speech. But in the field of communications, money talks and billionaires are shouting. It will take a lot of us, raising our voices together, to begin to break through into the public discourse. Creating our own media, organizing events like PUBLIC Education Nation, is the first step. Making that media ripple and resonate across the country, like a pebble tossed in a pond, will take lots of us working together to make waves. Let’s get rocking!

What do you think? What do you see your own role as being in the push to take control of our schools?

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he no...