Planet Joe

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I sat directly behind Daily Planet editor Mary Turck at Saturday’s media forum conference, watching as she multitasked, responding to Joe Nathan’s criticism of the Daily Planet’s coverage of education.

Call it muddled chivalry or a Howard Beale Mad as Hell moment. I just have to offer some background.

The Free Speech Zone offers a space for contributions from readers, without editing by the TC Daily Planet. This is an open forum for articles that otherwise might not find a place for publication, including news articles, opinion columns, announcements and even a few press releases.

I think I have some cred to speak to Joe Nathan’s work. I have been watching it since the early 1970s. In those days, I occasionally dropped by the education-oriented commune in which he lived briefly. As editor of a short-lived education publicaton called EEC (for Education Exploration Center) Journal, I think in 1972 I may have been responsible for publishing him for the first time with a couple articles building on his experience as a rookie teacher at St. Paul Open School. At his soliciting, I wrote an article on his first book, Free to Teach, for City Pages back in 1982. I’ve watched with a combination of amazement and amusement as he ingratiated himself with foundations such as Blandin and Cargill to ply his brand of school reform. As editor/publisher of a newspaper on Montessori education, I watched appreciatively as he helped funnel Gates money to a start-up charter Montessori high school in St. Paul, which has been a fine success story. As a member of the Minneapolis School board in 2003, I watched him ply his skills in community organizing, using the board as his target.

Joe is arguably the hardest-working guy in education. That sometimes seems like an extension of his experiences as a teen-ager working in the South for civil rights. Sometimes it seems more on the model of What Makes Sammy Run. No one denies he is a relentless self-promoter.

This is fine. We would be a less vital place if Joe did not rise above disdain from many educators and former colleagues to insert himself into education issues.

The problem is ours, not his. We don’t have a system that is adequate for the strategies and tactics that have become standard practice nationally but not easily managed in Minnesota.

Nationally, much education policy research has become little more than market-based politics. It is Karl Rove applied to our schools. For those of us who watch it, we need only look at the name of the author to know the findings and recommendations. Each researcher—many of whom have substantial funding from right-wing, anti-union foundations—will make a case as forcefully as possible, normal standards of experimental design and honesty be damned. The assumption is that the marketplace of competing ideologies will sift between the competing passions.

A right-wing foundation like Fordham or the Manhattan Institute, issues a bizarre political screed that education writers, bombarded by public relations machines with allegations of left-wing bias, report as educational research. The political left is less organized or well-funded, but places like Teachers’ College at Columbia and a center at Arizona State University (and McCain boogeyman William Ayers) have served as lefty competitors in that free market of ideas. Education policy becomes a market struggle waged through public relations and intimidation of reporters.

Joe has been a minor player on the national stage but, in adeptly applying this approach locally, has left us in a difficult position.

He has been a case study in playing the game well—publishing consistently self-serving reports and insinuating himself to editorial writers and public radio hosts as a neutral commentator. As a local community, we don’t have the institutions to create a real marketplace of ideas. Teachers unions or other educational groups are immediately discredited as self-interested. Joe has been able to define himself as a neutral observer rather than a skilled, passionate partisan whose ethics are limited only by free-market competition.

Many of the ideas he offers, at first blush, seem eminently reasonably. Who would not want to give families and child a wide range of choices? Who opposes giving teachers the latitude to teach in ways they know work? Who would not want to do a program that increases test scores in a school or engages parents in saving a program they love? But there is no one to examine those ideas or the quality of research more deeply—and argue competitively.

Joe is not seeking accuracy—if he were, he would be doing a lot of things differently, including opening his operation to investigation by independent researchers. He wants advantage. Hey, that’s the game.

So, Joe deserves a salute. He plays his hardball game pretty well.

In trying to bully the Daily Planet into publishing his press release as if it were independent reporting, or demanding that it pay him to tell his tale, he demonstrates remarkable chutzpah. That kind of presumption is not beyond the pale at a national level. Those folk play hardball.

Unfortunately, in Minnesota, we don’t have a good marketplace to allow for competition of ideas. At a local level, we lack the structures to launch, analyze and publicize the research that counters Joe’s one-sided story. His tactics mean that the rest of us live in a dumber policy environment.