Commentary Magazine


Topic: Campbell Brown

Education Reform Gains an Organizational Ally

Campbell Brown was once an anchor at CNN and NBC; she is now one of the leading education reformers in America. She’s just announced the creation of The Seventy Four, a non-profit, non-partisan online newsroom aimed at driving the conversation on education. Taking its name from the 74 million school-age children and scheduled to launch in mid-July, The Seventy Four will consist of experienced journalists who will conduct investigations, provide analysis, and develop multi-media content. Its mission is to “lead an honest, fact-based conversation” about education.

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Campbell Brown was once an anchor at CNN and NBC; she is now one of the leading education reformers in America. She’s just announced the creation of The Seventy Four, a non-profit, non-partisan online newsroom aimed at driving the conversation on education. Taking its name from the 74 million school-age children and scheduled to launch in mid-July, The Seventy Four will consist of experienced journalists who will conduct investigations, provide analysis, and develop multi-media content. Its mission is to “lead an honest, fact-based conversation” about education.

“Our public education system is in crisis,” the website reads. “In the United States, less than half of our students can read or do math at grade-level, yet the education debate is dominated by misinformation and political spin.”

“There are a lot of entrenched interests that are standing in the way of some the best possibilities for innovation” in education, Brown said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. “We want to challenge and scrutinize the powers that be.” She added that she hoped her site would help make education a prominent issue in the coming campaign. “This presidential election campaign is shaping up to be one with a lot of room for debate on education and that will be very ripe for us,” Brown said.

This strikes me as a propitious moment for this effort. For one thing, the education reform movement needs a shot in the arm, and The Seventy Four will help provide it. For another, it’s important that advocates of education reform assemble the best data, arguments and human stories, and tell those stories. When I was a speechwriter for William Bennett when he was President Reagan’s Secretary of Education, we produced a series called “What Works,” which profiled successful school, principals, and educators, including those focused on disadvantaged children. It was based on the belief that you can prove the possible by the actual, and there are plenty of actual success stories in American education. The problem is bringing what works to scale; to take episodic success stories and make them normative.

It’s puzzling that education isn’t a higher priority in American politics since it’s a central issue when it comes to everything from social mobility, to economic growth, to our civic and social order. Education is part of what the scholar Ron Haskins calls the “success sequence” in life, by which he means finishing schooling, getting a job, getting married, and then having babies. According to Haskins

Census data show that if all Americans finished high school, worked full time at whatever job they then qualified for with their education, and married at the same rate as Americans had married in 1970, the poverty rate would be cut by around 70% — without additional government spending. No welfare program, however amply funded, could ever hope for anything approaching such success.

And here’s the thing: unlike strengthening families, which is something government really doesn’t know how to do very well, education is something on which government policies can make an enormous difference.

Beyond all of that, I’m enough of a traditionalist to believe that schools are crucial to the formation of character. Education’s best claim, according to William James, is that it teaches a person to value what deserves to be valued. Today we are betraying far too many children by failing to provide them with good schools, good teachers, and a good education. There is a moral imperative to change that. To her great credit, Campbell Brown understands that and is, with her colleagues at The Seventy Four, doing something about it.

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