Newsweek journalist Daniel Lyons posed a series of questions recently to Bill Gates, a leading and powerful voice in the new school reform movement, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers—highlighting not what we need to address in our public schools but proving further that the media, celebrity/billionaire experts, and bureaucrats are themselves incompetent and should not be leading a discussion about education.

Alfie Kohn recently began to unmask the new reformer movement dominating public discourse about education and education reform:

“For a shrewd policy maker, then, the ideal formula would seem to be to let people enjoy the invigorating experience of demanding reform without having to give up whatever they’re used to. And that’s precisely what both liberals and conservatives manage to do: Advertise as a daring departure from the status quo what is actually just a slightly new twist on it.”

Lyons, Gates, and Weingarten—like Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former DC chancellor Michelle Rhee—are personifying Kohn’s “ideal formula”:

“But conservatives have gone a step further. They’ve figured out how to take policies that actually represent an intensification of the status quo and dress them up as something that’s long overdue. In many cases the values and practices they endorse have already been accepted, but they try to convince us they’ve lost so they can win even more.”

The Newsweek piece, perpetuated in the Education section of The Huffington Post, is flawed from the start, with each question framing the potential answers within misinformation and distortion. As well, we cannot discount that the entire discussion is also framed among the elites themselves—authorities who have benefitted well from the current system, leaving us to wonder why they would want to change anything.

If we can’t change the questions posed by Lyons, we can at least imagine what the answers should have been.

First Question:

“Our schools are lagging behind the rest of the world. Why is that? How did we fall so far behind?”

The Answer We Need:

International comparisons are being distorted—and are a stale mantra of public school detractors reaching back into the 1950s. Consider the relentless bashing of public schools in the mid-twentieth century by Admiral Rickover (comparing the US to the Swiss and British) and the charges that public school students couldn’t read from Rudolph Flesch.

Test scores in each nation have NEVER been shown to be directly or positively correlated with that country’s economy; and, international test comparisons gloss over populations being compared—first, the US has around 21% childhood poverty compared to Finland’s 3-4%, thus the populations are different, not the quality of the schools since about 80-90% of achievement is tied to out-of-school factors.

When we consider poverty in an analysis of PISA scores from 2009 (the source of much hang wringing), the comparisons expose the social inequities tolerated by the US—not the failure of the schools.

And if we find ourselves enamored with Finland because of their high test scores, we must be prepared to accept the full picture of that envy since Finland rejects most of the exact reforms the new reformers are proposing. As well, Finland offers government support for teachers’ advanced degrees, a teacher force that is virtually 100% unionized.

So the short answer is that the US is lagging the world in addressing childhood and overall poverty, and that reality is reflected in our schools—not caused by them.

Second Question:

“Bill, you mentioned that the top quarter of our teachers are very good. But that’s probably the case in Finland, too. It can’t be the case that every teacher in Finland is some amazing teacher.” And, “You say ‘counsel people out of the profession.’ Is that something you can’t do now?”

The Answer We Need:

Teacher quality is only a small percent of achievement, and there is little evidence that teacher quality is the most or even one of the main problems with student achievement in public schools. But the provable problem with teacher quality is teacher assignment. Peske and Haycock (2006) show that students in poverty, students of color, and ELL students are in classrooms with the least experienced teachers who are often un- or under-qualified/certified.

Teacher quality does matter in terms of what happens once students are within the walls of schools, but we seem blind to the long standing tradition of assigning the most experienced and best qualified teachers to the elite students, who are already experiencing advantages in their full lives outside of school.

Third Question:

“Randi, you’ve talked about moving from the industrial age into a knowledge economy. But aren’t unions just relics of the industrial era? Does the concept of a union itself make sense in a knowledge economy?”

The Answer We Need:

Finland’s teachers are essentially 100% unionized. In the US, states with the strongest teachers unions correlate positively with the highest test scores (although a shift in what test scores are examined can achieve a different conclusion). That union bashers ignore this data is telling.

Simply put, “‘Sweeping statements one way or the other on this should be viewed with suspicion,’ Rotherham said,” in a review of claims about the connection between unions and school quality:

“Weingarten’s claim that states that have lots of teachers in teacher unions tend to be the states that have done the best in terms of academic success is perhaps technically correct—at least by some measures. But the empirical scientific research on this subject is—in the words of Burroughs—’limited, ambiguous and incomplete.’ Further, there is even less evidence to support the implication that strong unionization is the cause for one state performing better than another.”

Union bashing, like union advocacy, tends to fail because of oversimplification and conflating correlation simplistically with causation.

Fourth Question:

“Should we have a national curriculum in the United States?”

The Answer We Need:

The short answer is “No.” The pursuit of standards, testing, and accountability has failed since A Nation at Risk in 1983 spurred the current era. More of the same, except centralized nationally, is highly unlikely to do anything except waste precious time and money on the misguided goal of “standard” at the expense of addressing childhood poverty and in-school equity for student/teacher assignments.

The call for national standards is the exact wolf in sheep’s clothing that Kohn has warned us about—masking the status quo in reform discourse.

Fifth Question:

“What about this notion of giving tenure to teachers? That seems ridiculous.” And, “Bill, when you talk I can hear the frustration in your voice. Does this stuff drive you crazy?” And, “To me, Bill’s graph seems to demonstrate the effect of organized labor on any industry. You could say the same thing happened in Detroit.”

The Answer We Need:

Tenure is about due process and academic freedom. Let’s start that discussion with accurate information. The tenure mantra is similar to the union mantra from the new reformers. Since they consistently misrepresent their claims—and fail to show evidence to substantiate their claims—we can rest assured that their motives are as specious as their arguments.

Is tenure a concept worth debating? Of course, if we genuinely feel due process and academic freedom are irrelevant to the profession of teaching.

Is there any credible evidence that the tenure debate is essential for addressing the most pressing issues facing our schools? I see no evidence for this so for now I believe the tenure debate is a false debate intended to distract us from the real issues facing our schools—the failure of political and corporate leaders to fulfill the promise of a free and equitable US.

Also, Bill’s graph is likely highly oversimplified and distorting for a reason—to promote his agenda; try Bracey’s Reading Education Research for insight into the inherent distortions found in most data-based graphs and charts.

Lyons’s questions set the stage for yet another major media outlet to perpetuate the corporate and bureaucratic agendas of America’s elite—at the expense of both the debate about education and our schools themselves.

US citizens are falling victim to what scientists are discovering about human nature—we allow our beliefs to drive our commitments even in the face of facts contradicting those beliefs. And the result is discouraging:

“In an ideal world, citizens would be able to maintain constant vigilance, monitoring both the information they receive and the way their brains are processing it. But keeping atop the news takes time and effort. And relentless self-questioning, as centuries of philosophers have shown, can be exhausting. Our brains are designed to create cognitive shortcuts — inference, intuition, and so forth — to avoid precisely that sort of discomfort while coping with the rush of information we receive on a daily basis. Without those shortcuts, few things would ever get done. Unfortunately, with them, we’re easily suckered by political falsehoods.”

And there is where we stand, suckered—suckered by billionaires, suckered by celebrities, suckered by the media (who appear to be simply passing on misinformation because of their own gullibility). And ironically, education is the exact remedy needed to stop this vicious cycle.

I suspect that is why the leading elites in this country are offering the status quo in reform discourse, hoping to keep us uninformed and themselves in charge.