Kenneth Cole Runs Billboard Ad Slamming Teachers

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Designer Kenneth Cole is passionate about liberal causes.

But he occasionally goes about advocating for his causes in ways that could best be described as...ham-handed. Back in 2005, Cole thought it would be a good idea to take the stigma of HIV+/AIDS status away by producing t-shirts that read "We All Have AIDS" to the unsurprising consternation of many. Gosh, why didn't that take off?

He also ended up apologizing when he tried to ride the coattails of the Egyptian Uprising and tie it to his new fashion line.

So maybe it shouldn't come as a surprise that Kenneth Cole has come up with the wrong end of the stick on the education battle. The brother-in-law of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, Cole ran a billboard in NYC tying his fashions to the false dichotomy of serving teacher's unions or the interests of children.

A billboard advertising Kenneth Cole — the clothing company owned by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s brother-in-law — puns to southbound commuters, ”Shouldn’t Everyone Be Well Red?” In smaller lettering, the billboard says, “Teachers’ Rights Vs. Students’ Rights …”

The second line evokes a tension drawn out repeatedly by some critics of teachers unions, including Cuomo, who say that unions’ support for teachers’ job protections can stand in the way of students’ education.

The billboard also invites viewers to visit, a website maintained by the city-based company, to weigh in on “Issue in the News.” This spring, one of the issues is “Should underperforming teachers be protected?”

That question attracted the company’s attention this winter, as media attention turned to efforts underway across the country to toughen teacher evaluations. Locally, a breakdown in negotiations over evaluations late last year and the controversial public release of reports on teacher performance in February were both accompanied by criticism of teachers unions, including from Cuomo.

This is one of those things that has me shaking my head at the progressive communities. We want teachers to teach our children, to expand their minds and get excited about a lifetime of learning and yet we think they can do it as we demonize them at every turn and take every measure of control away from them. Why do we continue to buy into these Republican/ALEC-fueled tropes? We 'wait for Superman' and wonder why our schools are failing.

If Cole was legitimately interested in bettering education, perhaps he might look into the example of Finland, which is now ranked #1 in education worldwide:

"Most visitors to Finland discover elegant school buildings filled with calm children and highly educated teachers. They also recognize the large autonomy that schools enjoy, little interference by the central education administration in schools’ everyday lives, systematic methods to address problems in the lives of students, and targeted professional help for those in need." (Sahlbert, 2009, p. 7)

Leaders in Finland attribute the gains to their intensive investments in teacher education—all teachers receive three years of high-quality graduate level preparation completely at state expense—plus a major overhaul of the curriculum and assessment system designed to ensure access to a “thinking curriculum” for all students. A recent analysis of the Finnish system summarized its core principles as follows:

  • Resources for those who need them most.
  • High standards and supports for special needs.
  • Qualified teachers.
  • Evaluation of education.
  • Balancing decentralization and centralization. (Laukkanen, 2008, p. 319)

The process of change has been almost the reverse of policies in the United States. Over the past 40 years, Finland has shifted from a highly centralized system emphasizing external testing to a more localized system in which highly trained teachers design curriculum around the very lean national standards. This new system is implemented through equitable funding and extensive preparation for all teachers. The logic of the system is that investments in the capacity of local teachers and schools to meet the needs of all students, coupled with thoughtful guidance about goals, can unleash the benefits of local creativity in the cause of common, equitable outcomes. Meanwhile, the United States has been imposing more external testing—often exacerbating differential access to curriculum—while creating more inequitable conditions in local schools. Resources for children and schools, in the form of both overall funding and the presence of trained, experienced teachers, have become more disparate in many states, thus undermining the capacity of schools to meet the outcomes that are ostensibly sought.

This is a moral issue and the ultimate in infrastructure investment: the education of future generations. And yet we treat it as a profit center and a subject of cheap puns for an overpriced fashion line.

Nice priorities.

UPDATE: Sabrina Stevens, a teacher turned activist, who called my attention to the billboard originally--has been tweeting Kenneth Cole to complain about the sign and the message it contains. At 11:00 am Pacific, Kenneth Cole acknowledged to Stevens that the issue was "too complex" for a sign and said that the billboard would come down.


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