March 26, 2014

Truthiness and Lies

JebBushTo err is human, the saying goes. We all make mistakes. When honest people make a mistake, they own up to it and make the needed corrections.

So far, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for ‘Excellence’ in Education (FEE) has done the exact opposite.

To recap: Last week, FEE launched an ad campaign promoting high-stakes testing, as part of a campaign to promote the Common Core. The campaign rests largely on flimsy (and previously debunked) claims about Jeb Bush’s brand of education policy.

But even in an ad that is full of the poll-tested truthiness reformy organizations are known for, one frame stands out as particularly egregious: the one that says “Florida is a Top 10 state,” accompanied by a citation that attributes that claim to “Sources: US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2013 Report Card [sic]”.

As we noted last week, NCES doesn’t use the NAEP to rank states like that. When NPR’s StateImpact Florida questioned where the “Top 10” claim came from, a spokeswoman for FEE responded that it was pulled from EdWeek’s 2013 Quality Counts report card. (It’s worth noting that the state got its highest scores for standards and testing, as well as early childhood education and work preparation, while their lowest grades were for school spending and performancethe very thing they’re trying to prove by making this claim in the first place. In other words, Florida’s most significant achievements were either about the practice of testing itself, or have nothing to do with the testing promoted in the ads. We agree that it’s important to recognize students’ and teachers’ achievements. But where they’ve succeeded, it has been despite the test-driven policies front groups like FEE promote, not because of them.)

Now at this point, if that citation had truly been a mistake, an honest group of people would have re-edited the clip and let people know that it had been updated. That’s a couple of hours at most for editing, an hour or so to update on the different websites and YouTube, and a few seconds to tweet an “Oops! We made a mistake—correction coming soon” message.

Yet upwards of six days later, they’ve done nothing of the sort. Well after speaking to NPR, someone on FEE’s testing campaign actually made and shared a stand-alone graphic of just that frame—complete with the false citation—so they could continue using the prestige of the US Department of Education’s research organization to bolster their misleading argument. And today, they’ve posted a blog that makes multiple contortions to try to defend it, instead of just fixing the ad. I have no doubt at this point that they intend to mislead uninformed viewers for as long as they can get away with it.

Of course, this campaign is hardly the first time Bush’s organization or their allies have engaged in astroturfing, influence peddling and deception to push their agenda on unwilling school communities. They’ve deployed dubious parent groups in their attempts to pass legislation to let parents give public schools away to private companies. They’ve sponsored expensive junkets for state lawmakers, and drafted and spread virtual charter school bills and other laws that enrich their funders at students’ and taxpayers’ expense. They’ve promoted their “Florida Formula” around the country, without disclosing the unproven nature of some of their favored policies or the documented harms of others. (And all of that is nothing compared to the much larger offense Bush and several generations of public officials are guilty of: enacting and perpetuating the unjust economic policies at the root of so many our educational and social issues.)

There are a lot of complexities in the ed reform conversation. Much of the meaning that we make of the data that’s out there depends on our specific values and our vision for our kids and our future. There are plenty of situations where our opinions regarding whether some policy or another “works” rest on our varying assumptions about and goals for education. Sometimes, there are differences of opinion we must either work through or agree to disagree upon.

But sometimes, people are just straight up, flat out, plain old lying. And we will never be able to have a civil, productive conversation about education or any other important policy issues until we stop letting them get away with that.