A Holiday Letter to Peter Cunningham and Education Post

Written by: Mitchell Robinson

Primary Source : Keep Talking, December 26, 2015

 

I had an interesting “discussion” on Twitter recently with Peter Cunningham, the Executive Director of Education Post–the investment banker, hedge fund manager-bankrolled communications mouthpiece of the corporate education reform industry. Nearly 2 years ago, Peter received $12 million in seed money to provide a “voice” for the poor billionaires who weren’t getting a fair shake from the “Main Stream Media” in the public debate around education issues…even though it’s the same Main Stream Media that has helped promote the corporate reform agenda, through NBC’s “Education Nation” events, and countless puff pieces masquerading as “journalism,” such as the treacly attempt at “advocacy journalism” from failed TV news reader, Campbell Brown, over at The Seventy Four. But Peter doesn’t quite see it that way.

Here are a few excerpts from our exchange on Twitter, which started when I responded to a series of tweets he was engaged in with other posters…

 

  1. @teachin1100 @xianb8 Please don’t misunderstand me. You deserve your pension and your pay. Talking about union politicians, not teachers.

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This exchange is a great example of how Mr. Cunnningham sets up straw men (all those “union politicians” pulling down the big bucks) as a way to provide cover for his relentless and well-funded attacks on teachers unions–attacks that have done a tremendous amount of damage to teachers’ working conditions, and by extension, have damaged student learning in many schools across the country.

Mr. Cunningham’s response…

@mrobmsu @teachin1100 @xianb8 Not interested in destroying unions. Just want them to be partners for kids, which will strengthen them.

12:58 PM – 26 Dec 2015
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  1. @PCunningham57 @teachin1100 @xianb8 What do unions do now that’s bad for kids, Pete? Straw man much?

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Again, Mr. Cunningham conjures up a string of really awful sounding things that unions have done…except that he’s just making stuff up. “Restrictive work rules” are things like weekends, which didn’t exist for most workers until unions demanded them. And if teachers are undermining accountability they must be doing a pretty poor job of it–we live in a time of unbelievable obsession with standardized testing, and teacher evaluation systems based on test scores of subjects that most teachers don’t even teach–and from students they don’t even know. As for raising the specter of teachers striking…with teacher salaries up only 3% since 1990, and ever more restrictive labor regulations limiting teachers’ rights to negotiate, what’s surprising is how few teacher strikes we’ve been seeing. But that doesn’t stop Mr. Cunningham from playing the scare tactic here.

 

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    1. @PCunningham57 @teachin1100 @xianb8 Accountability based on test scores should be challenged.

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@PCunningham57 @teachin1100 @xianb8 $12 million and a team of college grads toiling away, and this the best EdPost can do? Yikes.

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Because the limitations of Twitter present some barriers to a truly substantive discussion, I’m attaching the rest of my reply to Mr. Cunningham below, in the form of a holiday letter…

 

Dear Peter,

 

Thanks for the lively exchange of tweets earlier today. I wanted to respond a in a little more fulsome way, and invite you to let me know what you think via email or in the comments below. I really am interested in how a former undersecretary of education has come to the point that he is so determined to attack teacher tenure, teacher unions and “restrictive work rules” for teachers–especially during a time when public schools have been systematically defunded, forced to jump through hoops (Race to the Top) in order to get what remains of federal funding for education, like some kind of bizarre Hunger Games ritual for kids and teachers, and as curriculums have been narrowed to the point where only middle class and wealthier communities have schools that offer subjects like music, art, and physical education–much less recess time, school nurses or psychologists, or guidance counselors.

 

From my vantage point, it seems like folks that are truly interested in children, teachers, schools and education should be working hard to make sure that all kids had access to these things, regardless of their family’s socio economic status or the community in which they reside–but I see now from your tweets that my concern about these things has been misplaced.

 

Naively, I thought that someone who had worked in the federal Department of Education would be working to make sure schools and children had the necessary resources to be “successful.” I now understand that what we really need are more tests, no unions, and fewer job protections. I’m still not sure how those things will help kids learn, but I guess I just need to be more trusting.

 

Speaking of kids, I was also thankful to be set straight by you about what is really good for kids (i.e., “Just want them [unions] to be partners for kids, which will strengthen them.”). Since I’ve only been teaching since 1980, and only hold bachelor’s, masters and doctoral degrees in education, I–naively–thought that I was dedicated to the welfare of students. I had no idea that unions were so interested in “partnering with kids,” but I probably was too busy teaching to notice all that kid-partnering being done behind the scenes. Thanks for the heads up!

 

On a related note, I also had no idea that unions were supposed to be focused on kids. I thought that since unions were designed to protect and advocate for workers’ rights, they were supposed to be about being attentive to teachers’ needs–but I now see the light. I do wonder why the auto workers’ unions haven’t been so keen on partnering up with drivers, but I’m sure there’s a perfectly good reason. Right?

 

However, I do have one tiny, nagging question for you…when did the folks at the Broad Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Walton (Walmart) Family Foundation (and an “anonymous donor”! ooh, that sounds downright mysterious!), and your colleagues in the corporate reform arena like Michelle Rhee, Wendy Kopp, and Campbell Brown become so selflessly dedicated to the education of children? Again, perhaps I’ve been naive, but I’ve always trusted teachers–persons that have dedicated their lives to educating, nurturing and encouraging children–more than big business foundations and fast-track route to teaching programs like Teach for America to have the concerns of children at heart, but it looks like I’m wrong again…

Finally, thanks for alerting me to all those teachers who are working 5-6 hour days! Truth be told, I’m married to a teacher, and she’s NEVER home after only 5 or 6 hours, so I guess I better start looking a bit more carefully into how she’s spending all of that “discretionary time”! (My guess is she’s getting her nails done, sipping mai tai’s in a Tiki bar somewhere, and watching movies until she gets home 8-9 hours after she leaves the house in the morning. I have to admit, her little ruse of pretending to write lesson plans every single night until it’s time to go to bed has thrown up a pretty convincing smokescreen. But thanks to you, Mr. C., the jig is up!)

 

I have to admit that I’m still a tad stymied by all of those public school teachers attending professional development sessions on Saturdays and Sundays, or going to graduate school at night and during the summers to get their masters degrees, or spending their own money on tissues, markers and other classroom supplies. Why are they seemingly so committed to their students, schools and jobs that they spend copies amounts of their own time and money improving their teaching skills and knowledge, when they and their unions are simultaneously working so hard to shorten work days and get rid of workplace rules, as you claim? It’s almost as though teachers were dedicated professionals, committed to continuously improving their craft, and not greedy, lazy thugs who, in an ideal world, would be replaced by eager, young college grads with no teaching degrees or experience. As if!

So, Mr. Cunningham, thanks again for all that you and Education Post do to “honor teachers for the work they do every day as professionals”, and shining the bright reformer spotlight on the serious problems in public education today–by attacking unions, working to eliminate teacher tenure and job protections, and supporting the proliferation of for-profit charter schools (under the guise of “school choice”) that under-perform and siphon money away from public schools. I’m still not sure how this agenda is going to improve schooling and education, but if we can’t trust the Broad and Walton Foundations to do what’s in the best interests of teachers and kids, who can we trust?

Happy Holidays!
Mitch

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Mitchell Robinson
Mitchell Robinson is associate professor and chair of music education, and coordinator of the music student teaching program at Michigan State University. Robinson has held previous appointments as assistant professor and coordinator of the music education area at the University of Connecticut; assistant professor of school and community music education at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.; and director of wind activities and wind ensemble conductor at the University of Rochester. Robinson’s public school teaching experience includes 10 years as an instrumental music teacher, music department facilitator and high school assistant principal in Fulton, N.Y.