I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Saturday, March 19, 2011

What Corporate Reform Is Really About

As I've been writing about the corporate reform movement over the past year, I've been thinking a lot about the reasons why a group of plutocrats would push this clearly insane agenda on to our schools.

I've come to realize I've focused most of my writing on two reasons:

1) It distracts from the real reasons for the "achievement gap" and for our current fiscal mess. Income inequity and a tax policy that favors the wealthy are far more responsible for the state of our nation than teacher tenure or pensions; the right-wing needs to find any excuse to distract us from these truths.

2) The education system is the next frontier for privatizers to conquer, and corporate interests are "smelling the money" to be made in the conversion of our schools from civic institutions to Halliburton Highs.

There is, however, a third reason. Like many people, I've been reluctant to write about it because just addressing the issue can make you look like a paranoid loon. But it's probably the most important reason for the corporate reform movement, and those of us pushing against this impending disaster has better start speaking about it in clear and unambiguous terms.

The third reason for corporate reform is control.

From Jonathan Kozol's great book, Shame of the Nation:
In some districts, even the most pleasant and old-fashioned class activities of elementary schools have now been overtaken by these ordering requirements. 
A student teacher at an urban school in California, for example, wanted to bring a pumpkin to her class on Halloween but knew it had no ascertainable connection to the California standards. 

Only Exam Stuff 

She therefore had developed what she called the 'Multimodal Pumpkin Unit" to teach science (seeds), arithmetic (the size and shape of pumpkins, I believe— this detail wasn't clear), and certain items she adapted out of language arts, in order to position "pumpkins" in a frame of state proficiencies. Even with her multimodal pumpkin, as her faculty advisor told me, she was still afraid she would be criticized because she knew the pumpkin would not really help her children to achieve expected goals on state exams. 
Why, I asked a group of educators at a seminar in Sacramento, was a teacher being placed in a position where she'd need to do preposterous curricular gymnastics to enjoy a bit of seasonal amusement with her class on Halloween? How much injury to state-determined "purpose" would it do to let a group of children have a pumpkin party once a year for no other reason than because it's something fun that other children get to do on autumn days in public schools across most of America? 
"Forcing an absurdity on teachers does teach something," said an African American professor, "it teaches acquiescence. It breaks down the will to thumb your nose at pointless protocols— to call absurdity 'absurd.'" 
Writing out the standards with the proper numbers on the chalkboard, even though these numbers have no possible meaning to the children, has a similar effect, he said. [emphasis mine]
In graduate school, we often talked about divergent versus convergent questions. A convergent question has a limited range of acceptable answers; a divergent question has a broad range of acceptable answers, and thus requires higher order thinking skills.

Standardized testing is all about convergent answers. I know that the big corporate test makers will tell you otherwise, but they're full of crap. As Todd Farley explains, even essays are graded on convergent answers; it makes it easier for the under-paid, over-worked test graders to slog through their huge piles of papers.

This over-emphasis on standardized learned comes at the expense of fostering critical thinking. And a population capable of critical thinking is a necessary prerequisite for democracy - especially a democracy where the agenda of the powerful can be questioned.

We need our populace to question the plutocrats now more than ever. Income inequity is at an all time high, and tax collections have hit historic lows. The US has refused to provide its citizens with basic health care and human services like every other developed nation in the world. We've allowed corporate interests to take over large segments of our health care, defense, financial, and energy infrastructures, and it's costing us a fortune. Our planet is being raped. Our media misinforms us. Our politics are awash in money and corruption.

The only chance we have to right these wrongs is a populace that can see through the massive waves of propaganda hurled at us, designed to lull us into accepting the status quo. But critical thinking is antithetical to those who would maintain this status quo. It is the last thing the owners of this country want.

And so the plutocrats push for standardized testing. They push to reward teachers based on who gets their kids to think inside the box. They push for charter schools: schools that preach uniformity in thought as much as uniformity in dress:

As Kozol points out,  curricular "reform" in urban schools is often nothing more than Pavlovian conditioning. When George W. Bush was reading with children on 9/11 as Al Qaeda struck, people didn't think much about the lesson that was being taught. Take a look at it 10 years later:

The horror of that day is hard to get past, but really watch what the teacher is doing: it's nothing more than drill and kill. "Get ready to read this the fast way!" Do these look like students who are being prepared to think critically about the world around them? Are these students who will grow up to question why they are consigned to live in a nation that allows crooked titans of Wall Street to amass obscene amounts of money while 21% of their fellow children live in poverty?

Until now, this type of instruction indoctrination has been pretty much limited to the cities. But don't worry, suburbs: your time is coming. As the middle class continues to erode, the brainwashing will need to expand. And it will all start in the brave new world of the "accountable" school.

Again: the corporate reform movement is about control. The Broads and the Zuckerbergs and the Murdochs and the Bloombergs and the Gates and the Kochs have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. If they succeed in implementing their education plans, they will flush away the last remnants of critical thought from our schools, and create a world where students are judged on how quickly they spit out the predetermined "correct" answer. These students will become obedient workers, willing consumers, and passive non-participants in our "democracy."

Educators, consequently, will be judged by how well they train these drones. So it's no coincidence that all of these corporatist owners are so very interested in teacher evaluation.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of hacks ready to push these ill-conceived plans into place. They have no qualms about using demagoguery and obfuscation and even outright lying to do their masters' biddings. The rewards are quite extensive: fame, power, and plenty of money, as they take their taste of tax dollars that used to be used to support civic institutions but now flow directly to contractors. So we will have a nearly endless parade of Rhees and Christies and Walkers and Scotts and Cerfs and Bookers and Kleins in our present and future. 

They will bristle at the notion that they have anything but the noblest intentions while they slime the people who are actually in the trenches every day doing the hard work of teaching our children. But their indignation should be mocked and dismissed. They are pawns who have traded their integrity for a few pieces of silver.

They have no right to question teachers or their elected representatives in the unions. And we should speak about them in the terms they so richly deserve...

Yeah, I know - I'm going too far. What I'm saying is ridiculous. I'm being shrill. No one wants to hear it. We're going to be fine. Everything's going to be just fine.

Right, George?

They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying -- lobbying to get what they want. Well, we know what they want -- they want MORE for themselves and less for everybody else. But I'll tell you what they don't want. They DON'T want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that, that doesn't help them. That's against their interests. That's right. They don't want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they're getting ****** by system that threw them overboard 30 ******' years ago. They don't want that. You know what they want? They want OBEDIENT WORKERS. OBEDIENT WORKERS. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly ******** jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits, the end of overtime, and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it. 


CommutingTeacher said...

Just know that you are not alone in your assessment of the agenda. As far as I'm concerned, this has become crystal clear this past year.

Teacher Mom said...

George was always one of my biggest heroes. I miss him more everyday, and wish he were here today. I would love to hear is comments on what is going on now. It feels strange to think in these terms. They make me feel like a conspiracy theorist, but the facts are getting harder to deny.

calugg said...

I actually concur with your assessment. If much of military operations has been outsourced, it's going to be duck soup to go after public schools....if states don't object. The kicker is, historically, the federal role has been limited. But if you have a series of presidential administrations and governors hell-bent on blowing up the institution, well, then privatization looks like a good deal...at least to the plutocrats.

Stay tuned.

roofjake said...

Duke- Well written!!! I believe the 2 things hurting us as a society is the lack of critical thinking and not having a sense of history.
Calugg- very good point about the private security forces in our military.
Teachers mom- I miss George immensely! Another great who we have lost is Howard Zinn. Youtube him & if you have never read his history book "A Peoples History of the U.S." I recommend it.

Duke said...

TeacherMom, George was on of the all-time greats. Didn't agree with everything he said, but he was fearless, frank, and had integrity - we need more of that.

calugg, the military is our cue as to what comes next. We should all be disgusted by what's happened there - especially conservatives. I think the focus on DADT is a deliberate attempt to keep us from seeing the REAL issues with the transformation of the military into a privatization money funnel.

roofjake - good point about history. Not part of the standardized tests; care to guess why?

Thanks for commenting, everyone.

calugg said...


DADT is a sop to gay rights folks, but doesn't help much on the labor needs of the regular military. It also makes the US military more like the contractors (since the contractors have no queer bans).

The correct term for "contractors" is "mercenaries." And if mercenaries are good enough for the US military, I fully expect something like this for our public school systems.