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Reflections on the Edushyster-Cunningham “Conversation” at NPE

April 20, 2016

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.

 

conversation 2

___________________________________________________________

Coming June 2016 from TC Press:

 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Stay tuned.

 

***

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of the ed reform whistle blower, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education.

She also has a second book, Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

15 Comments
  1. How do we do in this debate with Ed Post about TFA? http://youtu.be/X-JHJWdU3lM

  2. Christine Langhoff permalink

    Exactly this, Mercedes. I commented on Peter Greene’s Curmudgucation:

    Cunningham is an actor playing a role. He gets paid $12 million of Eli’s money to portray himself this way. He doesn’t have to believe in what he says; he’s just doing his job – his fulltime job.

    The last gentleman to speak from the audience, a parent from Seattle, called out the reformistas, saying quite sincerely – “You have hurt a lot of people”. For the rest of us, those of us who are collateral damage, this is really real.

  3. Perhaps too many public school teachers also live inside a bubble.

    • It’s true, JB, but that bubble tends to be more directly inclusive of students and their communities.

  4. I cannot see the wisdom is engaging with Ed Post or Cunningham.

    It serves to validate his billionaire bosses’ claim that the debate over “ed reform” (never call it corporate privatization) is fractious but can be civilized by a professional pr guy like Cunningham.

    The ED Post is their way to get the reformer community to simmer down, to stop stirring up parents, to confuse issues through slick manipulation of cherry-picked facts, to gain his site some desperately needed eyeballs, and to provide some tiny bit of sham validity to the Ed Post site’s claim to support all views in this hot debate.

    The billionaires are patient but not stupid. You are being played. He can’t succeed without your cooperation. Why give it to him? You get nothing out of it. Nothing at all.

    • Christine Langhoff permalink

      Jennifer has exposed Peter Cunningham for what he is. Seems like T.S.Eliot made Peter’s acquaintance somewhere, sometime.

      (Excerpt)
      I

      We are the hollow men
      We are the stuffed men
      Leaning together
      Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
      Our dried voices, when
      We whisper together
      Are quiet and meaningless
      As wind in dry grass
      Or rats’ feet over broken glass
      In our dry cellar

      Shape without form, shade without colour,
      Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

      Those who have crossed
      With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
      Remember us-if at all-not as lost
      Violent souls, but only
      As the hollow men
      The stuffed men.

  5. A major funder of Ed Post is the widow of Steve Jobs, I have heard from an excellent source.

  6. Progressive educators and parents should ask teachers unions and do crowdsourcing for a site like Ed Post that pulls together the bright minds and excellent research coming out of this group.
    You don’t join, you provide the clear alternative.

  7. Christine Langhoff permalink

    By crowdfunding, you must mean the $12 million you raised from the teachers’ unions? Oh, wait…

  8. Michael Fiorillo permalink

    In my experience, their are three general types of so-called reformers: the Naifs, the Opportunists and the Monsters.

    The Naifs can sometimes be reached, as long as their sense of personal privilege and entitlement are not too heavily armored, though rarely through facts and reason alone. They usually need to take some hard knocks from life before they realize they’ve been taken by fraud. Getting abused, and watching children get abused, in a Skinner Box, no excuses charter school will sometimes do the trick.

    The Opportunists, which is what Cunningham appears to be, go where the money and power are, and will gravitate to their next money-making opportunity as the political winds change. Nevertheless, these people have no integrity, and it’s a waste of time speaking with them, as their minds and values are rented by those who pay their ample salaries.

    The Monsters – Rhee, Broad, Gates, among many others – need exposure to sunlight, stakes driven through their hearts, crucifixes placed over their chests, and garlic and wolfsbane placed in their mouths.

  9. Frustrated mom permalink

    I think it is of paramount importance to understand that the sole purpose of EdPost is to monitor any and all content dispensed surrounding the education reform conversation and methodically re-shape it into the pro-reform framework.
    (“Right the ship” as Eli Broad says)
    This is why Cunningham keeps a keen eye on those who are vocally anti-reform. This is why he engages with them. This is why he attends NPE. It is his job to hear the message- and then inoculate and re-frame it.
    It is NOT his job to hear the message and reflect on its merit.
    I am a television writer. I know how to do this.
    And it’s surprisingly easy, So easy, in fact, I don’t even need to be deeply educated on the subject matter to recognize the tactic in play,
    The writing methods used in the site’s blog posts are transparent to anyone with a background in persuasive writing.
    One trick: The sympathetic
    parent (personal stakeholder) who acknowledges woefully that, yes, there is a lot of testing, maybe even too much!- but…to be an informed parent, I need information. And our children need to learn not every day is not a play day… And computers are important .. And … On and on, whatever TRUE statements, however out of context, will grab the reader and force a visceral “yes! That’s true”. Once you get the visceral “yes.. That’s true… even though one part stinks” – Mission Accomplished.
    (Acknowlege the argument, knock it down while remaining sympathetic to the pain)
    A second transparent example:
    Personal, anecdotal stories that tell a (likely true) heart-tugging tale … “no one thought this 8th grader would make it until her charter school said ‘I believe in you'”
    Who can be against that story? No one.
    There are about 5 basic tricks to this kind of writing. It’s not rocket science. But it’s highly effective.

    • Laura H. Chapman permalink

      There are also the master narratives…children being left behind, and trapped in failing schools.

  10. rbeckley permalink

    How can we turn the EdPost strategy on its head and use it as our own? We need 1-5 minute ads featuring heartfelt parent testimonials about what they do and don’t want for their children’s education. Their sentiments need to be obvious and universal.

    I bought the award-winning “Go Public” film at the NPE conference, though I’ve yet to preview it. The film comprises 50 5-minute shorts about a single school day. This might fill the bill.

    Now we just have to get organized and start using visual and emotional messages at PTA, school board and advocacy meetings. TV spots would be ideal too.

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  1. Mercedes Schneider on Peter Cunningham vs. EduShyster | Diane Ravitch's blog

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