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Money Can't Buy Me Love

A recent consulting contract took me to Lake George, New York, to lead a group of educators in refining a graduate course on teachers as leaders. I've been wading around in teacher leadership -a concept that means decidedly different things to different people--for a couple of decades now, reviewing the literature, poking at theoretical models and trying to figure out how seminal ideas shape the field.

I have a large collection of favorite resources on teacher leadership--books, websites, articles, cartoons, blogs, even an iTunes playlist. This summer, I had to add a new artifact to view: the StudentsFirst.org website. An example of what hundreds of millions will buy you in media presence and influence, a place where compelling messages about teaching and learning go to be politically compromised, twisted to a kind of educational Newspeak.

The veteran teacher leaders who visited the website were shocked. "Saving good teachers" has a whole different meaning to them--probably because they've spent years mentoring promising-but-mistake-prone novice teachers, and appreciate the time it takes to build a truly effective practice.

They saw the splash screen asking newcomers to "join" StudentsFirst (collecting the all-important contact information) and were good at identifying and decoding the rhetorical obfuscation: "When the best get fired, students suffer most," for example. The "pledge," the "membership" button and the smiling face of "Ask Michelle"--plus the ubiquitous Donate button--are accompanied by anti-union blogs, diversity-on-parade videos and phrases like "bloated bureaucracies," and "efficiency should not be sacrificed on the altar of equity."

Of course, there's a whole lot of education-related whitewash and baloney out there, packaged as glossy, interactive web-based media. The StudentsFirst site has a lot of what blogger Kathleen Kosobud calls "kittens and puppies" appeal. If you didn't know better--if you weren't carefully following education policy or reforms--you would swear that StudentsFirst was a progressive venture, aligned with full teacher professionalism, empowering ignored parents and advocating for great public schools for all kids.

If it's true that Rupert Murdoch gave Michelle Rhee $50 million toward the billion she was seeking to impose her vision of school reform on a weary nation, perhaps he also gave her some valuable tips on clever use of distorting media to steer public opinion. While working on the Save Our Schools campaign, I got a call from an enraged supporter who signed a Save Our Schools-endorsed petition at Change.Org and was immediately taken to the StudentsFirst site. Please tell me, she said through clenched teeth, that Save Our Schools is not affiliated in any way with Michelle Rhee.

So I spoke with Change.Org. It turns out that you can have a free petition at Change.Org. Or you can pay Change.Org to help build your initiative's client base by letting them serve as connection point for "related" causes. I asked why Change.Org thought StudentsFirst was a progressive cause--the kind of initiative that pushed real democracy forward. There was a pause. Then the nice young man I was speaking to said, "Well, there was actually a lot of talk around the office about that." Discreet.

In the end, StudentsFirst becomes a revenue stream for Change.Org--$1.75 for every signature-cum-email they snag, according to Nice Young Man. So the 7000 SF "members" who live in Georgia and were willing to click on an e-mailed petition to the Georgia legislature back in April cost Michelle $12,250. Chump change out of Rupert's generous donation.

Kosobud (who is very savvy about education policy and technology) got conned, however--bamboozled into signing a StudentsFirst petition, much to her chagrin. It can happen to anybody. Beware.

The line on social-media political action is that free and earned media are more open and democratic. But if it's easy to buy "support" with a few handy phrases ("fighting to keep effective teachers in the classroom!"), soft-focus video clips and paying to lure well-meaning people to misinformation, we're all in trouble.

Media literacy has become a new skill for teacher leaders.

[Editorial note: Education Week Teacher is not affiliated with the Save Our Schools event; the views expressed in this opinion blog do not reflect the endorsement of Education Week or Editorial Projects in Education, which take no editorial positions]

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