Duncan, Rhee, Bobb and Weingarten Debate How to Do the Right Thing

Last week’s Meet the Press featured an all-star education panel, featuring Secretary Arne Duncan, Chancellor Michelle Rhee, President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten, and Emergency Financial Manager of Detroit Public Schools Robert Bobb.  Host David Gregory brought these leaders to the table to discuss what’s next in education reform, in light of the newly released film Waiting for Superman.  I enjoyed seeing such contentious characters at the same table and hearing their various approaches to reform articulated in context of each other. But something also seemed to be missing.  Something bothered me about the conversation. Maybe it was the absolutism of the language offered, as if no middle ground exists between choosing to fire or help bad teachers get better. Or maybe it was the inherent contradictions, including the Secretary’s support of local reform, but his inability to actively support those reforms on the local level. Maybe I was uncomfortable because true reform is extraordinarily sticky and complicated and it’s difficult to boil down to talking points on a morning talk show.

This week I’ve been going back and forth on what bothered me – and today I finally realized what was missing from that conversation – the students themselves. Every person at the table said it’s “all about the students,” as we’ve heard so often in recent years. They emphasized their dedication to serving students better, and to “doing right by our children.”  And yet on this panel, and the entire show, we never heard from students – on what they think, on what they need, on how they think schools need to improve. As we continue to debate these reforms in the press, and people go back and forth on whether recent reforms are effective, unfair, or even racist, we have yet to hear from the students.  At YPT we give students a platform to speak, to express their hopes and dreams for the future, and share their views with the world – and they never disappoint.  They often reveal something deeply unexpected and illuminating, that expert adults would never be able to uncover.

So I applaud NBC’s efforts to focus on the education debate with their week of “Education Nation.” But I challenge all of us to start asking the hard questions of education reform to the students themselves.  What do they need? How do they think reforms are going and how do they think they’re doing? And what do they think makes a great, effective teacher?  At the end of the day, our students have the most to gain or lose in these reforms. Their lives are the ones that will be most greatly affected. And they know most what happens in schools and what doesn’t – and why.  I bet if we started asking them how to fix schools, they’d tell us loud and clear. And then we’d need to do it.

Producing Artistic Director and CEO

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