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11th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 11, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

There is a program now being produced for public television, a national primetime PBS documentary, “Schools That Work.” It will be reported by Hedrick Smith, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. I am distressed by this, just as I am upset by a continuing series of programs produced by Channel 13 on the Department of Education’s Leadership Academy.
Why? Because these are not the works of journalism that the unsuspecting public thinks they are. Rather, these two television shows are a breed of infomercial, masquerading as real, objective news. The programs are paid for, in significant part, by foundations that fund and promote the educational ideas being advanced.

The fact that a program appears on public television gives the impression that what is being aired is accurate and unbiased.While many of us have become skeptical about bias in public broadcasting, the public retains its confidence in the integrity of what they see on PBS.
The Hedrick Smith program is a case in point.The “documentary” will, according to the Eli Broad Foundation, “highlight school districts and models of reform that have demonstrated success at improving student achievement and narrowing achievement gaps, including Houston, San Diego and the former District 2 in New York City.”
The Broad Foundation is not just a leading funding source for the program, but it is also the moving force behind much of the pedagogy and programs used in those districts.The Broad Foundation, via the “public” television system and using the public airwaves, will try to justify its own ideas, even in the face of reams of contradictory evidence.
The educational initiatives of the Broad Foundation are not just controversial. They have already been demonstrated to have failed in the very districts being highlighted. But the spin always belongs to those with the bucks.
The outrage over this “documentary” is palpable in San Diego, where angry parents, teachers, and taxpayers, have finally forced the resignation of Superintendent Alan Bersin, a Broad favorite, just before he would assuredly have been fired. Unlike New York, San Diego voters actually elect their school board. They have evaluated the results of the much-touted “Blueprint for Success” — the test results that are relatively flat and often lag behind those in the rest of the state, and the astronomical costs.
One would think that if a program is successful, it would be self-evident and result in automatic public affirmation. Certainly that was the case in 1997 here in New York. Mayor Giuliani was overwhelmingly re-elected due to his remarkable accomplishments in reducing crime and welfare expenditures.
But the San Diego blueprint was not a success.The pro-Bersin forces were propped up for years by campaign contributions emanating from the Broad Foundation and related interests. But even this interference was not enough to put Humpty back together again. First, budget woes led to the dismissal of Mr. Bersin’s deputy, the very familiar Anthony Alvarado, who had increased expenditures for “professional development” to $55 million a year from $1 million a year.
Last year, voters rejected the Broad Foundation-subsidized, pro-Bersin school board candidates, and the former prosecutor decided to resign before his contract expired. A model for success?
What goes on in San Diego is of great interest to us here in New York. The mayor’s Children First initiative, and restructuring is an almost exact duplicate of the failed San Diego “Blueprint.” So a television “documentary” that continues to hype the failed program as worthy of emulating, influences the public discourse here in Gotham. And we should not forget that Chancellor Klein turned to the Broad Foundation to fund his Children First agenda.
The use of Houston in Mr. Smith’s program is similarly troublesome. Enormous gains there have been called into question by serious charges of manipulation of test scores and dropout rates. These allegations forced the resignation of the superintendent there, and may have contributed to the replacement of former Houston superintendent Rod Paige as secretary of education in the president’s Cabinet.
I have often written of the mythology surrounding Manhattan’s District 2, led for so many years by the aforementioned Mr.Alvarado. The gains made there during the 1990s have been used as justification for the curriculum now imposed across the city. But earlier attempts to replicate the District 2 “success” in districts with large numbers of minority and economically deprived students, most notably in District 10 in the Bronx, were dismal failures.
The Hedrick Smith “documentary,” financed by the Broad Foundation, is unlikely to reflect the reality of this failure. Will Mr. Smith highlight the one great success in the New York schools, the now-dismantled Chancellor’s District? Fat chance. The back-to-basics approach that worked so well in these schools, the lowest performing in the city, runs counter to the Broad Foundation’s progressive education philosophy. Make no mistake about it.This is nothing more than an infomercial for the Broad Foundation.
And it is not the only one.“New YorkVoices,” produced locally by Channel 13, has been running a series of programs focusing on the Department of Education’s privately-funded Leadership Academy, to train new principals. The leading funder of the Leadership Academy is the Wallace-Readers Digest Foundation.
So why was I not surprised to see that the television show so enthusiastically touting this controversial new program was underwritten by — the Wallace Readers Digest Foundation? Public television needs to be fair and balanced. But it should also be unbought. Underwriters of programs that purport to be news should not have a vested interest in the subject of the show.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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