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

Monday, February 24, 2014

Education "Reform": The Endgame

"What, in your opinion, is the endgame with all this?"

A veteran educator with years of experience teaching children in New Jersey's urban areas asked me this Saturday during my talk at the Abbott Leadership Institute. I had just gone through an explanation of the analysis I did with Bruce Baker of the One Newark plan, State Superintendent Anderson's controversial scheme to close, restructure, and give away schools to private charter management organizations (CMOs).

I've summarized our analysis before, but the main points are this:
  • Black children are more likely to see their schools undergo radical transformation under One Newark.
  • Black children are more likely to see their schools given away to CMOs under One Newark.
  • The data does not support any of these plans: specifically, there's no reason to believe CMOs will do better with the children in NPS schools, because the charters are not currently educating the same types of kids.
I also presented some new information that we will release soon about the staff consequences of One Newark; in my opinion, it's disturbing. And I talked about the racial bias in local control, the bizarre implementation of NPS's vaunted merit pay plan, and how data is regularly abused by both NJDOE and NPS to justify their policies.

All well and good -- but ultimately we can't understand what's happening in Newark, in New Jersey, and in the rest of the country without asking where this is all going. What are these radical superintendents and state leaders -- trained by Eli Broad, Teach For America, and New Leaders for New Schools, among others -- trying to accomplish? What is the goal for the reformy, self-appointed, corporate foundation-supported education policy mavens? What do the big money donors to the reformy cause -- Gates, the Waltons, Broad, Zuckerberg, Arnold, Tepper & Fournier, Rock, the Koch brothers -- want? What is the endgame?

It's a difficult and complex question, and the data doesn't really give us an answer. The best we can do is speculate, but there's a problem with that: in my opinion, these people are highly self-conflicted when it comes to their goals. I don't believe that Bill Gates really thinks it's OK to see good teachers inadvertently fired because of an innumerate, illogical evaluation system that uses Value-Added Modeling. I don't think Michelle Rhee really wants children and parents wasting time on test prep. I don't think Arne Duncan really believes that children in poverty aren't at a disadvantage when gauging their academic outcomes.


They all still keeping advocating for reformy policies that not only are premised on these beliefs: they also have little if any evidence to back them up. They engage in some of the most twisted logic imaginable to avoid dealing with their own cognitive dissonance. They cherry-pick research to support their ideology -- for example, using outliers to "prove" poverty doesn't matter -- while ignoring copious evidence for policies that don't fit their agenda -- for example, the effects of class-size reduction on student learning.

The only reason they would do this is that there has to be something in it for them. There has to be a reason they continue to believe what they believe, in spite of the piles of evidence, research, data, and analysis that do not comport with their world view. They must have something to gain from all of this.

And they do. I break it down into a hierarchy -- from the most obvious to the most subtle:

1) There's good money to be made in being reformy. It's been a while since I updated this:

The fine, reformy folks who love to claim that they don't have any skin in the game -- the ones who either implicitly or explicitly call out unions and teachers for acting out of self-interest -- seem to do awfully well for themselves. Why, there's Eva Moskowitz, brave crusader against the terrible teachers unions (according to the bible of the ruling class, the Wall Street Journal), pulling down nearly half-a-mil a year even as she decries the "bullying" UFT. There's Chris Cerf, off to greener pastures at Rupert Murdoch's Amplify after sending NJ's schools down the reformy path. And there's Joe Bruno, pulling down more than $400K for arranging financing for charter school construction.

All of these people are making salaries that principals and public school superintendents can only dream of, let alone teachers. You can live a very comfortable life if you're willing and able to toe the reformy line. But, good as it is, the big money's another level up...

2) There's big money to be made behind the reformy scenes. Down in South Florida, the Zulueta brothers, according to the Miami Herald, control a $115 million real estate empire, financed with public monies, and tax-free because it houses charter schools. Andrew Tisch's K12 Inc. is looking to expand into Newark, managing virtual charters for profit in a market they hope to see expand enormously. Investors are gathering big piles of money to invest in charter school expansion, using new markets tax credits to practically guarantee a return. Charter operators have essentially bought themselves state-level politicians and rewritten the laws to rake in piles of cash for their schools as public districts wither and die. Even the "noble" CMOs have back-channel real estate deals brewing.

I could spend all day providing links to stories like these. Anyone who denies that the "reform" movement isn't abetting a wholesale transfer of public monies and property to private concerns is either corrupt or willingly obtuse.

3) Reform =  Union-Busting. The erosion of teacher workplace protections runs parallel with the erosion of union power. Bob Braun's latest report about the betrayal of Newark's teachers is simply the latest assault on the collective bargaining rights of educators.

In North Carolina, the destruction of teaching as a profession continues apace. The war in Chicago between the plutocratic backers of the insufferably smug Jonah Edelman and the Chicago Teachers Union continues to rage. The kangaroo court Vergera trial in Los Angeles, funded by wealthy tech barons, is an outright assault on workplace protections for teachers. 

The Waltons, of course, have a huge vested interest in destroying unionism in all its forms. But all aristocrats benefit from a wage market that favors the capital holders over labor. Breaking down the teachers unions is simply good business.

So we've got three concrete reasons for "reforminess." But there's one more: far more subtle, but, in the end, far more pernicious.

4) The owners of this country do not want a population of citizens capable of critical thought.

Our current economic system -- which has become a parody of capitalism -- can't survive unless it has workers who have been trained to think it's the natural course of events that a tiny few keep all the money for themselves while everyone else scuffles. Our bread-and-circuses media is tasked with keeping us fixated on peripheral nonsense like "social issues" and meaningless scandals, all while the wholesale transfer of wealth in this country from the working poor and middle-class to the rich takes place with barely a peep of dissent.

Our education system is continually being aligned with the economic priorities of the ruling classes: preparing students for a society where they should be "college or career ready," as opposed to "citizenship ready." Training them to think convergently instead of divergently. Evaluating them on whether they get the same answer as everyone else, not on whether they can see more deeply and find the hidden patterns that make our country tick. Ranking them with standardized assessments that consign them to both economic and social castes.

Bill Moyers hosted an essay this week from Mike Lofgren, a former Congressional staffer, about the "deep state": a shadow government hidden by a phony partisan debate where corporate interests have essentially commandeered our public institutions for their own ends. Lofgren's theory is solid, but incomplete, because he doesn't really offer an explanation for why the public allows this state of affairs to continue.

Again, the media plays a part -- a big part. But so does a public education system that increasingly makes common cause with wealthy corporate interests. That system, more and more, has inculcated a value system in its students and parents that places consumerist choice over democratic values like self-rule. It ranks and sorts students at the earliest ages into various socio-economic classes, then pretends that it offers class mobility. It devalues creativity and critical thinking in favor of lower-order thinking skills.

And it is a system the ruling class does not allow their own children to participate in: they either send their kids to private schools, or suburban public schools so segregated and well-resourced that the accountability measures imposed on the districts of the working poor and middle classes are little more than an annoyance.

That is the real status quo: a socioeconomically stratified society, largely (but not entirely) divided along racial lines, that is first and foremost interested in its own reproduction. And public education, as dictated by the reformy plutocrats, is a primary means of maintaining that status quo.

That is the "end game." 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. 


Giuseppe said...

There's no doubt that George Carlin had a genius for encapsulating what ails our country, our society. He explained things with precision and humor; we need more George Carlins and fewer Jim Cramers. Another big problem is our corporate controlled media in which dissident voices are ignored and marginalized to the point of almost absolute exclusion. Talk radio nation-wide is about 99% rabid right wing, NJ101.5 being but one example. It is accepted "wisdom" in this country that union people are pampered, protected lazy thugs. The average American has no concept of the importance and necessity for having a strong union movement. Just look at what happened to the union vote at the VW plant in Tennessee. There's no war on unions in Germany as there is in the US.

Unknown said...

It's brilliant to call the regime we live under a "parody of capitalism," but I don't think it's correct: we're living under the logical conclusion of capitalism, a stage of degeneracy that is an inevitable product of the system itself.

It's not a parody, it's a case study.

alm said...

The salary question cuts both ways - if you want to go down that road, you could put Randi Weingarten's salary, with some scare quotes title like Education "Equity" Advocate. Google it. It's a nice green arrow. Or Ravitch's speaking fees etc.

All Newark charter operators are not-for-profit. NJ law doesn't allow for-profit operators to run schools. Facility arrangements are matters of public record; if there's abuse, the state will revoke their charters and people will go to jail.

Re: the Carlin stuff, if you buy that, let me tell you about this great bridge for sale... The Newark Public Schools were doing such a bang-up job of teaching critical thought that the evil capitalist interests had to intervene? Right. Totally.

Establishment interests spend a lot more time fretting about the skills of the workforce - for instance, these CFR reports.

Union-busting is more of a strange bedfellows question than a motivation question - it's an odd coalition, to be sure. But the idea that 'reformers' secretly just want to see the NTU gone? I don't think they particularly care one way or the other - they just want good schools for kids.

Giuseppe said...

Randi Weingarten and Diane Ravitch don't take public tax dollars, they are not paid with public money. By the way, once the teachers get paid, that is their private money, it is private money. So the union dues are supported with private money while Cami Anderson is paid with public tax dollars, the heads of the charter schools get public tax dollars. Of course the right wing libertarian reformers are rabidly anti union. You know, the Waltons, the Koch brothers and all those libertarian SO CALLED think tanks that take the think out of think tanks.

Teacher Mom said...

alm, keep telling yourself that if it makes you feel better. As Jazzman points out, there is a severe cognitive dissonance among deformers. You say "All we want are good schools." The reality is that according to all research, these "reforms" push us ever closer to what George is talking about. If you've been in the classroom long enough, you've seen it first hand, the stupidification of 'Murica.

Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene said...

What Michael Fiorillo said.

alm said...

If you want to have a conversation about where labor protections fit into a system that first and foremost educates students well, let's have that conversation. Curious to hear what Jazzman's take is.

Personally, I don't see how tenure protections advance student achievement - I see how they might prevent abuse or termination by unfair bosses, but in a more decentralized system (see Neerav's post on relinquishment) that doesn't seem like as pressing a concern - it creates a market for teacher talent, and if you have an 'unfair' principal, there are half a dozen others ready to hire you.

If you read Bruce Baker's posts on labor/salaries in Newark, you'll see that charters have some of the highest salaries in the city. Why? Because they are talent hungry, and pay talented teachers a lot. Good teachers seem to do pretty well in that system - so I don't see much cause for concern if the old-school management/labor relationship with one big district and one big union changes. In fact, I can see that system being a lot better for teachers - if they can find a school that matches their talents/vision/values (an environmental school... a STEM school... etc) everyone is happier.

I want a system that improves student achievement and provides fulfilling, meaningful jobs to teachers. One district, one union might have done a decent job for labor protections, but hasn't done wonders for student achievement.

The world is changing. Try this as a thought experiment - assume that the reform community (charters, TFA, etc) believes exactly what they say they believe in their mission statements. I know I do. Make your case - how do we get a system that dramatically improves achievement while offering teachers a fair shake?

Or I suppose you can keep calling people names and impugning their motivations...

Giuseppe said...

Personally, I don't see how tenure protections hurt, harm, degrade or erode student achievement. Tenure just means that you get a fair hearing, that you get due process, that you are innocent until proven guilty. Tenure has been around for about 100 years in NJ. Smaller class size would improve achievement, more wrap around services for the kids in poorer and less advantaged school districts would also help.

Mrs. King's music students said...

I have to take exception to your comment that tenure protections prevent abuse or termination by unfair bosses. They do no such thing. My challenge for you is to identify a half dozen urban principals in all of NJ that are worth beans. You can include the one you have now. So 5 more...