In 2010, a stark image was broadcast around the nation. It showed a child seated at a school desk surrounded by absolute devastation and ruin. That image was used promote the movie, “Waiting For Superman.” The movie was boosted with a $2 million advertising grant from the Gates Foundation, and was further promoted on Oprah and NBC’s Education Nation – also underwritten by the Gates Foundation. The clarion call was “public schools are broken and bad teachers cannot be fired.”
But that is not what we hear now, for some reason. Now, we have stories of success popping up in the media – strangely sponsored by some of the same people who were shouting warnings of calamity just a few years ago.
How and why has the prevailing story advanced by sponsors of education reform shifted over the past four years from one of failure and doom to one of success? And how is our media cooperating with the crafting of these dominant narratives?
In February of 2013, Tom Paulson wrote of an interesting conclave in Seattle called “Strategic Media Partnerships.” Hosted by the Gates Foundation, this event was by invitation only, and discussions were strictly off the record.
According to Paulson,
Those attending included representatives from the New York Times, NPR, the Guardian, NBC, Seattle Times and a number of other news organizations, non-profit groups and foundations. Not all were grant recipients, or partners. Some just came to consult.
And what was the message from the Gates Foundation to its “strategic partners” in the media?
One of the Gates Foundation’s working assumptions is that the aid narrative is a bummer, mostly bad news, and what we need is more ‘success stories.’
Paulson quotes Tom Scott, Gates Foundation’s director of global brand and innovation:
Our research has shown that people see, or at least remember, the stories that highlight waste and ineffectiveness in foreign aid more than they do the positive stories. It’s harder to break through with the stories of success so that’s our emphasis.
Presumably, the Education Lab at Seattle Times reflects this desire. The Gates Foundation grant that funded the project was announced in July of 2013, a few months following the Seattle gathering. The $700,000 grant states as its purpose:
to test solutions-oriented education journalism that leads to problem-solving and positive outcomes with the Seattle Times.
This is not the only organization to appear spreading the good word of reform. Mercedes Schneider recently pointed out the willingness on the part of the National Public Radio to pull punches in its coverage of the New Orleans charter school mess.
We have some brand new players entering the field. Peter Cunningham, former PR agent for Arne Duncan at the Department of Education, has convinced billionaires Bloomberg and Walton to give his new Education Post $12 million to “shift the conversation” about education reform, away from the polarized place it has been.
In an early post on the Education Post, Cunningham wrote,
With the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, we are launching a new organization called Education Post to provide a strong voice for those who believe the current education system needs to get better.
We will spread the word that in communities around the country progress is being made. All across America, there are countless success stories where states and districts had the courage and determination to put aside politics and work together to improve education.
And coming soon, with funding from the Gates Foundation and others, Edreports.org,
a new, independent nonprofit designed to improve K-12 education in the United States, will launch in winter 2014. EdReports.org will provide free, web-based reviews of instructional materials series focusing on alignment to the Common Core and other indicators of high quality as recommended by educators, including usability, teacher support and differentiation. These Consumer Reports-style reviews will highlight those instructional materials that are aligned to the higher standards states have adopted so that teachers, principals and district and state officials charged with purchasing materials can make more informed choices.
How does this represent bias?
This week, some in the media have begun to take notice of the effect money attached to an agenda can have. A report in Current describes what has become the elephant in the editorial room, especially in what is now inaccurately called “public” media:
The [Gates] foundation has supported public radio and TV journalism for years, backing coverage of global health, another priority for its philanthropy, as well as education. Within the past year, it has extended that commitment with $1.8 million in support to NPR for expanded education reporting. It also gave $639,000 to American Public Media for multiplatform coverage of education technology, to be featured on Marketplace’s broadcasts and website. In previous years, the Gates Foundation has also supported Frontline, PBS NewsHour and Teaching Channel, a nonprofit producer of public TV programming.
However, there is clearly a desire to focus on the positive – the successes of reform, and of technology in education.
And the airwaves are filled with sponsored viewpoints. Sometimes, as when Amplify CEO Joel Klein appears on CBS to promote the purchase of technology products as an “equity” issue, the bias is pretty obvious. Other times, the bias is hidden – as when Bill Bennett pens a defense for the Common Core for the Wall St. Journal, it is not disclosed that in fact, he has been paid to provide this perspective.
In 2011, NBC news anchor Brian Williams stated during an Education Nation broadcast,
Gates Foundation, one of the sponsors of this event, and the largest single funder of education anywhere in the world. It’s their facts that we’re going to be referring to often to help along our conversation.
So money buys you the very facts that guide the public discourse!
It was often repeated and became widely accepted as a result of their campaign that “public education is broken.” This was the narrative that has allowed for wholesale experimentation in the deconstruction of public education. Now, the story is shifting, and the new narrative is “Reform is Working!”
Where do we go for facts? We go to journalists. We go to academics who are doing research. We go to “experts.”
When journalists and academics are challenged about the insidious effect this one-sided funding plays in the public arena, rarely is the problem acknowledged. The most common defense to this practice is “we have not changed what we believe or write because of the funding.” And this may, in large part, be true. But what happens when a whole sector of journalism becomes part of telling whatever story the sponsor wishes told?
And what happens when, out of a thousand articulate and passionate participants in a discussion about education, the fifty who are most closely aligned with the agenda of the Gates and Walton foundations find themselves showered with grant opportunities, enabling them to mount rapid response teams, conduct “research,” pose as unbiased “consumer reports” style reviewers of educational products, issue ratings of schools of education, and so forth. As I wrote in 2012, you get groupthink on a massive scale.
Meanwhile, those who are interested in a different story get no support. No coverage. No $12 million grants to hire PR firms. No budget to pay former government officials to write friendly editorials endorsing your agenda.
This week students in Newark led major demonstrations protesting the ravages of corporate reform in their city. I call that a success story – successful organizing and bold leadership from intelligent and idealistic student leaders. Few journalists told the story of the success of Tucson’s ethnic studies program, before it was outlawed. Somehow, these did not fit the mold of success being defined by the managers of brand and innovation at the Gates Foundation. I doubt we will read stories of successful campaigns to opt out of standardized tests, or reject Teach For America in their districts. “Success” is likely to be defined as successful implementation of the Common Core, successful use of educational technologies, and programs resulting in rising test scores.
And there are absolute failures that are not being described or covered in depth. The two thirds of the students who failed to rate “proficient” on Common Core tests in New York and Kentucky, and the widening racial gaps in achievement. The collapsing pass rates on new Pearson Common Core-aligned GED tests. The rise in racial and economic segregation, promoted by the expansion of vouchers and charter schools. The decline in the number of teachers of color in major cities where reform has held sway. The failure of charter schools to raise student achievement in major centers of reform like Chicago. These stories are not likely to be emphasized in any of the “sponsored” journalism, because they do not fit the desired narrative.
So why the sudden interest in success? Could it be that a dozen years into NCLB and five years into a reform-pushing Obama administration, the Gates Foundation realizes it now has a large ownership of the reforms like Common Core it has promoted so vigorously, and must shift from broad condemnations of public schools to finding places where their reforms can be shown to be working?
The story, whether it is success or failure, is changed depending on the tune the billionaires call. And whether they wish to acknowledge it or not, the journalists who accept money to play whatever tune is being called by these funders are helping create a biased media landscape. Those who accept funding for research aligned with this agenda are likewise contributing to the groupthink we have at work. Who benefits? And who is paying the price? The students in Newark can tell you.
What do you think? Are sponsored stories of success truly independent journalism? Or is the media landscape being subtly shifted to favor the agenda of those willing to spread around some dough?