You’ve gotta love April Fools’ Day.
This morning I got an e-mail reacting to a post I wrote — except I didn’t write the post. The reaction, though, turns out to be real. Let me back up a minute …
Some background: I recently published a post about how a call for congressional hearings about over-testing of students by education historian and activist Diane Ravitch was supported by, of all people, Peter Cunningham, the former director of communications for Education Secretary Arne Duncan and still an unofficial Duncan adviser who has been a fierce Ravitch critic. In a Huffington Post column last year he started by saying:
During the Obama administration’s first term, I served as Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education, where one of my jobs was to monitor criticism of our policies and develop our responses. One of the people I monitored pretty closely was Diane Ravitch.
It went downhill from there.
In early March, Cunningham was on a panel I moderated at SXSWedu in Austin about accountability systems, and he went on record as supporting a call by Ravitch — and the nonprofit Network for Public Education that she co-founded — for congressional hearings about the misuse and abuse of standardized tests used for high-stakes purposes. It was surprising.
I received an e-mail today from Cunningham that included a forwarded message from an unknown party that looked like this, under a Post logo:
By: Valerie Strauss
Why a longtime confidant to the Education Secretary is planning a speaking tour with a well-known reform critic.
Ex-Ed. Department Official to Tell “Other Side” of Reform
April 1 at 6:48 am
A saying attributed to Socrates holds that “the greatest mind is that which has the courage to admit its own error.”
Perhaps Peter Cunningham, the longtime communications guru and confidant to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, has been thinking about that wisdom lately.
Cunningham was long among the most strident and uncompromising advocates of Duncan’s testing-driven, teacher-denigrating “reforms” of public education. So I was surprised – stunned, actually – when Cunningham endorsed Congressional hearings on excessive testing at a panel I moderated at the South by Southwest festival. In fact, I couldn’t tell who looked more surprised to find Cunningham in agreement with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten – Weingarten or Cunningham himself.
Well, color me surprised again. Cunningham acknowledged to me, in a phone conversation last night, the accuracy of a rumor floating around since shortly after the Austin event: a joint speaking tour he is planning with anti-reform advocate Diane Ravitch.
“You gotta get beyond the choir,” Cunningham said. “If people aren’t listening, change the message. Something new. A different truth.”
In an admission sure to enliven reform debates, Cunningham acknowledged a “change of heart” on some of the hardest-fought education reform issues. “We thought testing was great. It’s not that great,” he said. “Figured people want to know how their kids are doing. How teachers are teaching. Turns out they don’t.”
“Real world,” he continued, “they care about Kardashians. Beer. Selfies. Get over it.”
Ravitch, an education historian and herself a former Education Department official, said the conversation developed naturally following Cunningham’s unexpected remarks on the panel.
“As is I suppose fairly well-known, I understand on a personal level the courage it takes to rethink views you’ve not only held for a long time, but about which you have taken a quite public stance,” said Ravitch, who chronicled her own repudiation of testing and the No Child Left Behind law in a series of books and articles. “So Peter’s call was admirable, if not entirely unexpected.”
In their lecture tour, which they will announce today, Ravitch and Cunningham will make an odd pair – Cunningham, the iconoclastic, leather-jacket-clad, guitar-wielding “Springsteen of speechwriters,” and the professorial, septuagenarian grandmother Ravitch, who favors turtlenecks. Yet, Cunningham said, “A few drinks deep and it turned out we had a lot in common.”
“We are both willing to take a stand to do what’s best for children,” Cunningham said. “And we both like Bailey’s Irish Cream.”
In their tour, Ravitch and Cunningham will take on what they have called “areas of unexpected agreement,” including “Getting teacher tenure right” and “Testing: Ten minutes is plenty.”
Named for the date of its announcement, the speaking series will be called the April 1 Tour.
Cunningham says he didn’t write it. Massie Ritsch, Duncan’s current communications chief, says he didn’t write it but suggested that perhaps Matt Damon, a vocal critic of Duncan’s school reforms, did. I’m wondering if Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote it during down time on those long flights while on a recent work trip to New Zealand and Hawaii.
In any case, Cunningham said this about the phantom post, and he was serious: “If she’s game, I’m game.”
Ravitch isn’t game.
She said she has repeatedly asked Duncan or Bill Gates, who has become an unofficial education policymaker by plowing billions of dollars into his pet reform efforts, to debate her but they have declined. Her offer stands, and that’s no joke.