Reflections on the Edushyster-Cunningham “Conversation” at NPE
On Sunday, April 17, 2016, at the Third Annual Network for Public Education (NPE) Conference, my friend and colleague, Jennifer Berkshire (“Edushyster”), hosted a session with Education Post executive director, Peter Cunningham. I was ambivalent about attending the session but did so because it was Berkshire’s session.
Cunningham is a public relations guy. He has Chicago roots that extend as far back as writing speeches for former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and working for Arne Duncan, both when Duncan was Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO and when Duncan was US secretary of education (Cunningham was an assistant secretary in charge of PR during Obama’s first term).
So, as Cunningham told Berkshire in this May 2015 interview when billionaire Eli Broad was looking for someone to spearhead an organization to serve as an education reformer rest-and-rescue stop, he approached Cunningham. And why not? Cunningham is a PR man seasoned in the ways of Chicago-styled corporate reform still directly connected to the White House.
According to Cunningham:
When I was asked to create this organization [Education Post]—it wasn’t my idea; I was initially approached by Broad—it was specifically because a lot of reform leaders felt like they were being piled on and that no one would come to their defense. They said somebody just needs to help right the ship here. There was a broad feeling that the anti-reform community was very effective at piling on and that no one was organizing that on our side. There was unequivocally a call to create a community of voices that would rise to the defense of people pushing reform who felt like they were isolated and alone.
That “community of voices” began in September 2014 with a boost to the tune of $12 million in funding from Broad, Walton, Bloomberg, and a “mystery” contributor.
And indeed, Education Post, described on its website as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan communications organization,” is a haven for all things corporate reform, including standardized testing, charter expansion, Teach for America, and Common Core. That $12 million couldn’t have bought a “better conversation.” The site lists 355 network members, many of whom are notable names in market-driven, test-score-centered reform.
Most of the writing is a hooray-fest for corporate reform. If I did not have 16 full time years in the public school classroom, and if I were able to shed my research background and any exposure to mainstream media, and if I had not written three research-based books on corporate ed reform, and if I had no firsthand experience with the state-of-the-art lying and manipulation of Louisiana state superintendent John White (who happens to be one of those 355 Ed Post network members), then I should like it very much at Ed Post.
Sure, there are some pieces that acknowledge problems in the reform agenda, but such pieces are few, and none that I have read comes close to throwing any of those millionaire-bought-community members into corporate-reform, critical-appraisal shock.
Indeed, Ed Post does “rise to the defense of people pushing reform.” Cunningham is doing what he was hired to do.
But I did learn a little from attending the Berkshire-Cunningham “conversation” at NPE. First of all, Cunningham stated that parents believe that they or their children are the biggest factors on learning. Still, he is fine with focusing attention on teachers because “teachers are all we have to address problems.” His statement reminded me of a statement from economist Eric Hanushek’s 1968 doctoral thesis (which I discuss in my book, Chronicle of Echoes, on page 81):
Family backgrounds and attitudes exhibit a significant relationship with achievement. However, their role is generally deemphasized in the analysis since they are not very useful for policy applications.
Teachers are under the thumb of policymakers; thus, they should be “emphasized,” so to speak, and the weight of outcomes (chiefly test scores, of course) is on us.
Cunningham is fine with this.
A second issue that caught my attention was Cunningham’s statement to an audience member that “lots of people on your side are getting paid.” That’s funny to me, and funnier still is that Cunningham brought up the unions. But it doesn’t work that way. I am a union member, and I pay the union to belong to it. The union does not pay me (though I was once accused of collecting from the union by a woman who herself is funded by the Waltons).
Cunningham added that people with money can buy votes. This was not news to me. It is how his Ed Post network member John White became Louisiana state superintendent, and over the past several years, I have seen this in action as an indispensable component of advancing the corporate reform agenda.
One final lesson that I learned from the “conversation” took me a few days to process. It seemed to me that Cunningham operates in a bubble that stops short of any genuine critical appraisal of the reforms he espouses. He was given millions to “rise to the defense of those pushing reforms,” and he seems to readily deliver on that task.
Even so, I also know that he tries to have behind-the-scenes “conversations” with those opposed to the corporate takeover of traditional public education. He tried to have coffee with me when he was in New Orleans in June 2015. I said no because I sensed nothing genuine in him. In other words, a behind-the-scenes, non-corporate-reform conversation with Peter Cunningham would remain there– behind the scenes.
He has his funders to think about, and they would not want their PR guy to publicize my perspective and experiences (or the perspectives and experiences of other supporters of traditional public education with which he “converses”) on their blog.
A few days after NPE, I understood the Cunningham bubble. It all made sense:
Cunningham is a PR guy. It’s what he does. It’s what he has done for decades in the defense of corporate reform. End of story.
As such, Cunningham will likely never conduct any serious investigation into the problems of the agenda he is being paid to advance. He and his blogger network might skirt the issues, but that skirting will be inconsequential as it is washed in the wide sea of the majority of Ed Post writings that gently stroke the ego of corporate reform.
And if anything threatens that ego– say, Berkshire’s taking up Cunningham’s offer to post her decidedly non-corporate-reform writings on Ed Post– then, as Berkshire noted in her session with Cunningham, she had better be ready to “be pursued by Cunningham’s people for her adverse views”– and as she stated, she is not.*
I like being outside of the billionaire-approved thought bubble myself. Perhaps one day, Cunningham will join me.
Then we might be able to have a real conversation.
But not until then.
*UPDATE 04-21-16, from Jennifer Berkshire:
Just to clarify, while Peter Cunningham and I did have conversations about my writing something for EdPost, we never talked about my getting paid to contribute. Last year I approached Cunningham about funding an idea I had to record a series of podcasts in which I would chat with various reform advocates. The other funders included both teacher unions and another reform group. While I liked this idea in the abstract, the insanity of it became obvious last summer. For one thing, EdPost insisted on being very “hands-on” about their role in the project, including assigning me a minder who would help select guests for the podcast and ensure that they understood what they were getting themselves into by agreeing to talk to me (!) Then in August, my piece about New Orleans, and the resistance to the reform experiment among native New Orleanians, appeared in Salon. Since EdPost is one of the loudest boosters of the success of the New Orleans model, the “swarm,” as Peter Cunningham described them in the interview I did with him, EdPost’s angry hive of paid reform defenders, came after me. I told Cunningham “thanks but no thanks,” and ended up crowdfunding most of the money for the podcast instead.
Coming June 2016 from TC Press: