The Blame Game, Iowa and Hollywood Style

We may not be all that adept at determining solutions for improving our nation’s public schools, but we certainly know how to assign blame.  Case in point this week, conservatives in the GOP presidential debates and liberals on the TV show “Boston Legal.”

If you missed it, earlier this week the Republican candidates for president had yet another debate.  At this one, multiple presidential hopefuls attacked the NEA as the primary obstacle to education reform.  Tagging the teachers unions as the defenders of a broken school system, these Republicans (yes, I’m talking about you Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson) seem to think that if the NEA would just step back and allow school choice, all would be made right in our K-12 schools.

On the flip side, Boston Legal ran a plotline of a high-achieving high school student stealing her school’s standardized tests to spotlight the inadequacies of high-stakes testing.  Lines like standardized tests are producing a school of “idiots” and this is all the fault of the “No Child Left Behind nazis” certainly makes for good television.  Throw in a sobbing staffer from National Geographic bemoaning student mapping abilities, a principal believing NCLB is denying him the ability to teach what students need, and a student believing she is being denied a quality education at a predominantly white high school in Boston, and we see how NCLB can become must-see prime time TV viewing.

What does it all mean?  We still aren’t taking education seriously as a topic for discussion, debate, and thought.  Instead of the GOP discussing the merits of school choice and the impact it has had on disadvantaged youth or those from low-performing schools, we seek to tar the NEA.  Then we use NCLB as a punchline, sandwiched between suing the National Guard for failing to stop a flood and a former teen madame.  We’ve resorted to using education reform as an applause line or a punchline, take your pick.  (Don’t believe me, look at a recent Family Guy cartoon, that also focused on NCLB and AYP.)

We’re continuing to blame others for our educational problems, rather than offer solutions where we take responsibility.  As Mitt Romney is attacking the NEA, can’t he also be blamed for the fictitious school failures in Boston Legal.  After all, these were his schools 11 months ago.  Where are the Romney and Thompson’s K-12 education plans?  What will they do to fix the problems?  How are they going to expand school choice?  How will they get effective teachers in the classroom, and ineffective teachers out?  And what are they going to do to get Candice Bergen’s sure to be Wellesley College-bound grand-daughter to stop destroying the tests and ensure that her high school is accurately measured?  (Interestingly, Romney was actually mentioned on the program, while Massachusetts’ current education governor, Deval Patrick, was not.)

The only positive out of all this, I suppose, is that NCLB is known well enough as a brand that it can stand as a story line on a top prime-time television program, without needing explanation or set-up.  As silly as blaming NCLB for our high school woes may be, those TV producers assume that their viewers know NCLB, know the issues around AYP and high-stakes testing, and will buy into the concerns over teaching to the test and preparing students for the challenges of the future.  Maybe the NCLB brand name is better recognized than Eduflack has assumed.

As we close out the pop reference portion of today’s program, it all comes back to our of Eduflack’s favorite movies of recent years, Thank You For Smoking.  In the movie, the lead character — a tobacco industry lobbyist — explains the lobbying game to his son.  It isn’t about proving you are right, he opines, it is about proving your opponent is wrong.  If your opponent is wrong, the electorate has not choice but to assume you must then be right.

Clearly, this is what we are seeing these days in education reform.  Few are stepping up to show us how they are right and what they will do to approve it.  Instead, we’re giftwrapping blame and defending bad behavior by attacking.

I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to change the channel.  I’ll read the blogs and the websites and the newspapers for my news and education reform information.  I want mindless bubblegum entertainment on my TV programs.  Let’s leave the social commentary to the Sunday morning talk shows and the news channels I never seem to reach, up past ESPN and Noggin on my cable box.

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