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

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Corporate Education Reform Gets a Stranglehold On the Media

Fortune magazine has a big, new article about the Common Core State Standards out this week. I first got wind of it from Julie Borst, who was as stunned as I was at the hubris of this quote from Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson:
I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer,” said Tillerson during the panel discussion. “What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation. 
The Exxon CEO didn’t hesitate to extend his analogy. “Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?” American schools, Tillerson declared, “have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.” [emphasis mine]
You read that right, folks: Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson thinks students are "products" that he gets to "consume." Any idea that the American education system might have a purpose other than producing human "products" for corporations is not even worth considering.

This is the sort of thinking that leads corporations like Exxon to have such regressive records on things like LGBT rights and workplace safety and climate change and environmental protections. It's the sort of thinking that justifies insanely low taxes on those same corporations. It's the sort of thinking that rationalizes salaries for their CEOs that are so large they become disconnected from the reality of the American middle class. It's the sort of thinking that normalizes the wholesale buying of our political system.

But it's also the sort of thinking that has seeped into mainstream media reporting on education. Schools, you see, aren't the bedrocks of democracy, which requires a well-educated, well-informed electorate capable of critical thinking. Schools aren't civic institutions around which out society organizes itself. Schools aren't even places where individuals go to realize their potential.

No, schools produce a product: workers. And if the product isn't "good" enough -- or, just as important, cheap enough -- "consumers" of workers like Rex Tillerson feel they have every right to demand that schools start making the "products" with the "quality" they and their shareholders crave.

It's a bizarre way of looking at children, particularly for those of us who spend our days teaching them. But if you can get past your nausea, Tillerson's quote is actually quite instructive: this really is how the corporate world thinks about education.

Which means that when a reporter like Peter Elkind -- whose article doesn't include even one quote from an actual educator or pedagogy researcher -- focuses solely on how education policy is viewed through the lens of corporate leaders, it's not a surprise that he is encumbered by a framework that doesn't even address some of the core issues in contemporary education policy.

Instead, he writes paragraphs like this:
For decades, CEOs have bemoaned the state of U.S. education—with justification. American 15-year-olds ranked 27th out of 34 industrialized countries in math, and 17th in reading in the most recent international tests. Colleges complain that significant percentages of their entering freshmen require a remedial course. Businesses say they can’t find enough skilled U.S. workers.
Had Elkind broadened his sources, he would have learned that each of these assertions is open to substantial challenge:

- Even if we set aside the serious concerns about the PISA test's validity and selective sampling, it is arguably an indicator more of societal inequity than educational effectiveness.

- The college remediation rate is not solely affected by the effectiveness of the K-12 system. Further, the system for targeting students for remediation is wide open to critique.

- Even the vaunted STEM graduates are having a hard time finding jobs. The problem for business may well be that they don't want to dip into their huge profits and start spreading them around to their workers.

Now, you may agree with the above; maybe you don't. But if you read Elkind's article, you won't even get an idea that there is a debate over any of this; that's because his guiding thesis -- that American education serves American business -- doesn't allow for any counter-narratives that challenge the premises of corporate-style education reform.

This is why Elkind sees the battle over the Common Core as a fight between the corporate right and the libertarian/social conservative right. Those with well-informed, substantive criticisms of the Common Core aren't actually included in his piece, because their objections are not germane to a worldview that sees education as nothing more than a tool used in the service of capitalism.

Again, you may or may not agree with these critiques of the Common Core, but the argument over the educational value of the standards isn't the issue for Tillerson and his fellow CEOs. They need their workers, they need them cheap, they need them competent, and they need them now. That's the framework Elkind operates from -- a framework that has no need for an exploration of why there has been such a pushback against the sort of education "reforms" that have been funded by Tillerson and Bill Gates.

Let me be clear: without question, there has been a loud, sustained outcry against the Common Core from the Tea Partyin' right. Largely, this protest has been ill-informed; I'd be the last person to defend anything Glenn Beck or Gayle Ruzicka had to say about, well, anything.

But when Elkind conflates their objections to the Gates/Tillerson style of "reform" with those of Glenda Ritz -- the state superintendent of schools in Indiana who defeated reformy poster boy Tony Bennett -- he does his readers a real disservice. The fact that Elkind can't even mention Ritz by name, let alone describe her rather complicated views of the Common Core, shows how little interest he has in telling his story with even a small amount of nuance.

That lack of curiosity leads Elkind to pen passages like this:
Every president since Reagan has flailed at this issue. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton convened special education panels and launched commissions in unsuccessful attempts to establish voluntary national standards. Finally, the Clinton administration was able to pass a watered-down initiative that required states to adopt standards and tests—but left them entirely up to individual states. 
Most established tragically low expectations. President George W. Bush’s 2002 education reform, “No Child Left Behind,” only worsened this problem. It set the impossible requirement that 100% of students be “proficient” in reading and math by 2014, and punished schools that weren’t making adequate progress. 
To bring themselves closer to 100%, many states simply lowered the score needed to pass their tests. The result: In 2007, Mississippi judged 90% of its fourth graders “proficient” on the state’s reading test, yet only 19% measured up on a standardized national exam given every two years. In Georgia, 82% of eighth-graders met the state’s minimums in math, while just 25% passed the national test. A yawning “honesty gap,” as it came to be known, prevailed in most states. 
Finally, in April 2009, organizations representing state governors and education chiefs agreed to develop a single set of rigorous standards: the Common Core State Standards Initiative. The ambition was to make all children “college- and career-ready,” with the same expectations in Mississippi as in Massachusetts. The standards would spell out what students should learn at each grade level, without dictating curriculum or how it would be taught. They would be accompanied by tough new standardized tests to measure progress in meeting the benchmarks. The tests were the hammer to drive improvement and provide accountability. The goal was universal acceptance. This would allow comparisons among states, help the children who move annually to a new state stay on track, and permit sharing of education ideas, textbooks, and teaching materials. [emphasis mine]
In Elkind's world -- the world informed by Gates and Tillerson -- the primary difference between Massachusetts and Mississippi is in their standards. If we just force Mississippi to set its sights as high as Massachusetts', everything will fall into place.

Except, as I've shown before, the notion that standards by themselves can induce better performance from students on tests is simply not supported by the facts. Yes, there's little doubt some states set their standards low. But this wasn't done arbitrarily: many of these states set low standards to cover up the fact that their states weren't willing to pony up the money necessary to equalize education funding between affluent and impoverished communities (even Arne Duncan has started to figure this out).

At the risk of oversimplifying: Mississippi is much worse at distributing resources for education than Massachusetts. In addition, Mississippi has a much higher child poverty rate than Massachusetts. The effect of poverty on school outcomes is not subject to debate; why, then, doesn't Elkind address it in his article? Go ahead: search his post for the word "poverty." See what comes up.

While you're at it, see if you find any mention of the fact that the majority of America's states are providing less funding to public schools than they were before the last recession. How, exactly, are schools supposed to achieve the allegedly higher standards of the Common Core without even the funding they got under their old standards?

Maybe you think our schools are wasting money and have all they need to be awesome, in spite of the fact that many aren't even funding their own laws when it comes to school funding. OK -- I think you're totally misguided and the facts are completely in my favor, but fine, we can debate. But not if you're in Peter Elkind's world -- the issue doesn't even come up.

I know I'm going to piss off some people by saying this yet again -- and that includes some people I genuinely respect. But the debate about the Common Core is largely superfluous. Yes, we need well-written, rigorous standards that are developmentally appropriate. I have my doubts as to whether the Common Core standards are the ones we want (pi introduced in Grade 7? Seems late to me...), but, as I've said before, I'm not the guy to lead that discussion (I wish others shared my humility).

But there is no point in implementing any standards if we're not willing to:

1) Pay for schools that can implement them.

2) Reconfigure our society so all children arrive at those schools with full bellies, good health care, and adequate community infrastructure so they are ready to learn.

Rex Tillerson is willing to spend money to run commercials during the Masters tournament to promote the Common Core. Is he willing to change US law so Exxon can be taxed at rates that provide enough funds to address America's 22 percent child poverty rate?

According to Elkind, Tillerson was willing to threaten state legislatures with the withdrawal of his company if they didn't get in line with the Common Core. Is he willing to write letters threatening to pull Exxon out of states that don't follow their own laws when it comes to ensuring adequate and equitable school funding?

If journalists like Peter Elkind were willing to open up their contact lists to people other than CEOs and right-wing think tanky types, perhaps they'd think to ask folks like Tillerson these rather basic questions.

Rex says: "Hey, Pete -- GREAT article!'

ADDING: Corporations exist solely through the grace of the American electorate. I think it's more than fair to say that Tillerson has it backwards: we allow Exxon-Mobil to exist to serve us. And if they are producing a defective product, we have the right to demand that they stop.

ADDIGN MORE: Here's America's Principal™, Carol Burris:
Dear Mr. Tillerson,
Please leave our children alone. We do not need you to develop them as products. They are neither kerogen nor shale.
Your Dickensian thinking has been “outed” and this holiday season, you are as welcome as the ghost of Christmas past. The common-folk for whom the Core you adore was designed, do not like it—only 24 percent of public school parents want it used in their school. And they certainly do not like to hear their children referred to as “defective products.” Mr. Tillerson, you have made the mommies and daddies mad.
I understand their reaction must confound you. In a world in which your corporation has been declared a person, one might mistake human children for products to consume. When we humanize the inanimate, it is easy for the humanity of the animate to slip away.
But let me make this clear — our children are not products for your purchase. You, and the captains of industry (or whatever you call yourselves this century), are not “the customers.” School is not a training camp to work on oilrigs, to pump gas or design lubricants. There is just enough democracy left to make students know they have choices, and more than enough parental commonsense left to know that community control of schools is slipping away.
We are so sorry to disappoint.


Ajay Srikanth said...

I punched my computer screen after reading that quote from Rex Tillerson. Peter Cappelli of Wharton does a good job of addressing the "Skills Gap" myth:



Also, Krugman addressed this a year ago:


Also, the idea that we should fear India or China outcompeting the United States is laughable and in the Thomas Friedman level of stupid

NY Teacher said...

Is stupidity a requirement for being a CEO? Tillerson wants workers that are hard working, dependable, reliable, cooperative (willing to learn), and clean (drug and alcohol free). The Common Core testing agenda does nothing to ready students for a "career" at Exxon. In fact, it is the ritual demands of school life - from academics, to sports, to the arts, that go much further toward this goal. Why he thinks testing will produce good workers is beyond mystifying.

jc grim said...

"Is stupidity a requirement for being a CEO?" Yes plus -vapid, shallow & bullheaded.
And yet Elkind never digs more than an inch deep into the actual positions of the opposition (except for the rightwing crazies)…especially opposition by people who don’t think corporations should be doing this without serious input from educators.

jc grim said...

"Is stupidity a requirement for being a CEO?" Yes, plus an unearned arrogance that assumes their opinions on education & curriculum are indisputable.
And yet, Elkind never digs more than an inch deep into the actual positions of the opposition (except for the rightwing crazies)
…especially opposition by people who don’t think corporations should be doing this without serious input from educators.

jc grim said...

"Is stupidity a requirement for being a CEO?" Yes, plus an unearned arrogance that assumes their opinions on education & curriculum are indisputable.
And yet, Elkind never digs more than an inch deep into the actual positions of the opposition (except for the rightwing crazies)
…especially opposition by people who don’t think corporations should be doing this without serious input from educators.

rebel said...

Well done Jersey. My reply to the man whose name better fits a German Shepherd

Steve Magruder said...

If schools across the board (public, private, etc.) all produced the most top-notch "product", Exxcon would have nobody to hire, because all of these "products" would have acquired the highest standards of ethics from the well-rounded education all children deserve.

laMissy said...

Excellent post, Jazzman!
Elkin and those he hobnobs with have no clue about life in a classroom, nor do they care to find out.