Friday, April 15, 2011


"There is something fundamentally anti-democratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society's wealthiest people. When the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions. ..The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one. If their plans fail, no sanctions are levied against them. They are bastions of unaccountability." — Diane Ravitch (The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education)

On the face of it, arguments that call for more accountability, greater efficiency and better outcomes make good sense. When those arguments were first offered to support Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program, they won a lot of support from both sides of the political divide. Once in practice though, it became clear that the overseeing power was being used not to serve students or teachers, but rather to help those who wielded the power to gain more and more control over the public education agenda. They did this by legislating a classroom agenda that was singularly focused on test-results which were then directly correlated to teacher evaluations. The intervening years have not delivered greater accountabilities, efficiencies or outcomes, but in spite of that, Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative builds on the failures of NCLB and applies them even more broadly and forcefully.

Instead of standing up for the integrity of the profession, and calling upon parents, communities, businesses and governments to work together to address the difficulties at the local level, the Obama administration has decided that performance must continue to be tied to testing, and that if the test results are low, the the schools and the teachers will shoulder the blame. Forget the enormous differences that exist between English and ESL students, between upper and lower economic class students, and between engaged, disengaged and entirely absent parents. Judgment will be passed from on high via one-size-fits-all testing procedures. And should the class fail to do well, then the heat really comes down, with forced interventions and even forced firings. And in all this, where does class size figure in, or proportion of children with special needs, or even how many of these students are malnourished? As a nation, we clearly have a problem here, but these kinds of punitive measures that can only bring more pressure on already stressed teachers and students, are NOT the solution.

Could the unstated agenda here be any clearer? Recent conservative efforts to break public sector unions are bad enough, but teachers are a unique constituency in that an attack on them also constitutes an attack on children, as well as on the working and underemployed communities for which those teachers and schools serve as fragile anchors of hope in a sea of despair.

It may be that our public schools have always been less than they could or should be. They have always been more about rubber-stamping and indoctrination than we want to admit. But at the same time, they remain the only route out of poverty and hopelessness for millions of American children. Reduce opportunities, increase regulations, limit the curriculum, wipe out arts and science education - and what happens to that upward staircase? Is the goal of education efficiency or excellence? And what does efficiency mean in this context? These are humans we are talking about, not chickens or pigs. It is quality of mind and purpose that bestows self-esteem, and it is self-esteem which is the single most accurate measure of an education. On this score, where are the respected (and non-partisan) educators who see any possible good coming out of these “teach-the-test” initiatives? Rather, knowledgeable on-the-ground voices seem to be speaking as one in calling this plan, like NCLB before it, an unfolding disaster, one whose true cost will not be measured in lost dollars, but rather in lost lives – the lives of our own children.

The root causes of our problems in education lie as much in our disintegrating socio-economic fabric as they do in our schools. Talk to a public school teacher, as I have. Ask them how their days have been altered by "No Child Left Behind." Listen to what they say and to the frustration in their voices. They are the ones who understand the complex nature of the relationship between students and teachers. They are the ones we should be listening to, not to a bunch of bought and sold politicians who even if they had working class roots, gave them up long ago in their pursuit of power. Instead of helping teachers by giving them more support and more resources so that they might better do their jobs, we demonize them, threaten them and put all kinds of constraints on them - all at a time when lower and middle-class families are experiencing unprecedented levels of psychological and economic hardship.

Amidst all the posturing and pontificating that attends to this debate, there is little sense of what is really going on in individual classrooms (or in kitchens) across this country. Nowhere in the mainstream media are we seeing the depth of people’s suffering being accurately represented, or the reasons for it accurately explained. In place of compassion and clarity, all we are fed is another advertiser and media-driven battle for ideological supremacy. The truth is not an ideology. The truth is a reality. It is an experience that moves within us and that expresses itself across the full range of human feeling and possibility. If the "official" story is the only one that gets airtime, if the debate for the future is restricted to the tweedle-dum and tweedle-dumber offerings of our major political parties, or to ginned-up corporate-funded propaganda pieces like the film, "Waiting for Superman" - then how in the world are we to find our way home again, and back to some sense of truth?

The sad fact of course, is that to do so requires confronting suffering and despair, which unfortunately, makes for very poor ratings, and in our time, that is the cardinal sin. That is what keeps truth from being heard above the clamor, because if it were heard, we
might have to do something about it. We just might be forced to once again throw the money-changers ("market"-based moralists) out of the temple (common good institutions,) and turn a good deal more our collective attention from those least in need to those most in need. And who could be more in need of our help than the young people of this country? To express our compassion does not mean that we must give up any of our freedoms, our comforts or our opportunities, but rather that we give up stupid and false dichotomies and work instead to restore balance to a situation (and even to a world) sliding quickly to the brink of dark chaos.

There are undoubtedly some problems in this world that are too far gone to be rescued. It may be too late to stop the ice caps from melting or the world’s oil reserves from drying up. It may even be too late to prevent millions from dying of starvation. But if you are alive, then it is NEVER too late to give some child a sense of purpose and hope. This among all the battles we face, is one that we can actually WIN! If we start right now, if we can muster the love, ONE generation can make ALL the difference. Where is the will to be found to make this future a reality? Obviously, we must stop listening to those people who really don’t give a damn about your children or mine, and start listening to those who do.

So it is, I have been compelled of late to do some research on these issues, and I wanted to share some of what I have found. I am no expert on the subject - far from it. I went to public school though, and my daughter went to public school as well. I also believe that when love meets suffering, there compassion is born; and how we express that compassion is in many ways, the truest test of our humanity.

• First, a 3.20.11 article in Newsweek by historian and former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch (@dianeravitch), entitled “Obama’s War on Schools “The No Child Left Behind Act has been deadly to public education. So why has the president embraced it?” Dr. Ravitch has a deep knowledge of the issues at work, and she knows that the reasons behind the current reforms are strictly political and financial. At 72, and with nothing more to be gained for herself, either personally or professionally, she has nevertheless taken up this battle as the single most notable opponent of corporate privatization and de-professionalism of our public schools.

Here is Dr. Ravitch being interviewed by Jon Stewart on the 3.11.11 Daily Show. (See below for other excellent video links with Dr. Ravitch.) And here is Dr. Ravitch again, this time being interviewed by Terry Gross on the 4.28.11 Fresh Air Radio Show.

• A second article, "Taking On Teachers by another historian, Lawrence Davidson, looks more specifically at the various assumptions that underlie these governmental “reform” efforts. These he lists as..

1. The American public school system is performing poorly.
2. This is the fault of bad teachers.
3. Getting rid of the tenure system will get rid of bad teachers.
4. Using standardized tests will allow you to measure necessary levels of learning for specific ages.
5. Having instituted such tests, the attainment of adequate scores means that both the student has successfully learned and the teacher has successfully taught.

Davidson then proceeds to expose the ineffectiveness of addressing these assumptions in the way that these initiatives propose to do.

Of course, teachers differ in their commitment and effectiveness, just as they do in ANY profession. No doubt there are outdated rules left over from when teacher's unions still had clout, that are in fact deserving of reform and modernization. The debate around bettering education should never go silent. But to use legislative means to hack away all protections, to pit teachers against each other, to put administrators on the backs of teachers and to basically scapegoat the whole profession for the failures of a system that is SO much a reflection of our grossly imbalanced cultural and economic priorities, is an unspeakable assault on reason. The indictment itself is bizarre enough, but THEN to use such unsupported arguments to justify imposing draconian and across-the-board curriculum standards, (even on 5 year olds!) is an affront to all that a decent human society might want to give to its children.

It seems to me that what’s REALLY happening here is yet another policy directive enacted at financial and corporate boardroom levels to cripple public education along the way to ultimately privatizing it in much the same way that the army and the prison system are being privatized. (We're not talking just billions here for the testing, textbook and management companies.. we're talking serious money.) How can the real intent here NOT be the continued unraveling of our social safety net, and the further cutting loose of our underclasses to fend for themselves. And how can that NOT result in more and more people becoming entrapped in the criminal justice system? The big difference in this particular power play, is that while the target may be teachers, the real victims are future generations of innocent children.. OUR children - and that is a moral outrage. Follow the money to see who wins by these so-called reforms. Corporations of course, because they'll make their money either way.. school or prison or the military - it will make little difference to them. Who loses? Working people whose taxes go to paying for a public education (and other public services) that are being dismantled right before their very eyes. And with that dismantling, so goes a large part of America's hope and promise for the future.

For those of you who are moved to learn more about these and related issues, I offer these other links.

Jon Stewart and company again in another related segment from the 3.3.11 Daily Show more focused on Wisconsin’s attacks on teachers.

• Here’s Diane Ravitch again in a video of great summary speech to the United Teachers of Los Angeles. And g
oing even deeper, with a keynote address to the American Association of School Administrators annual meeting on 2.18.11 [Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3] And most comprehensively, an hour long video on an academic interview show from 6.11.10 [Part 1 - Part 2] In addition to her own website, here is Ravitch's Blog for Education Week.

And onto some of the many other voices.

• Chris Hedges: "Why the United State is Destroying her Education System." (Always a champion of the disenfranchised; in some ways our noblest champion (writing his column weekly @

• From The Rachel Maddow Show of 4.22.11, Why a Michigan School is Ground Zero for US Politics - a truly tragic tale of a highly effective and legendary Detroit "public" school for pregnant girls that is being closed by an emergency manager who has "seized" control of Detroit's public school system. This elimination of the people's control over public education (and other services) being discussed here is not some looming ghost of what might be. It is already here TODAY! When the girls protest vacating their school, they are herded into police cars while sirens wail to drown out their cries. A
n educator and blogger named Gary Stager (@garystager) picks up the story here.

A stirring defense of the inherently "subversive" role that teachers have historically had to play, particularly when confronted (as they are today) by scientific "efficiency" managers. This was delivered on May 18th by Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond on the occasion of receiving the Columbia University Teachers College medal for distinguished service, and printed here in the Nation Magazine.

• From the 5.01.11 New York Times, Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari take up the issue of teacher pay in The High Cost of Low Teacher Pay.

• From Truthout (4.28.11) a more bare-knuckled article called, "Pedagogism": Prejudice and Hatred Directed at Teacher.

• From The Nation magazine, a good article from 4.21.11,
Teachers Aren't the Enemy which looks at some counter-efforts being taken at more local levels.

• From the New York TImes of 4.23.11, Evaluating New York Teachers, Perhaps the Numbers Do Lie,
about how the nasty process plays out in real life using one clearly excellent teacher as an example.

• When education becomes a commodity, those formerly known as students now become consumers of educational products. U of Texas journalism Professor Robert Jensen frames the contest well in this 5.3.11 piece.

• Alternet's Jim Hightower offers an update on what's happening in six states in this 5.12.11 piece succinctly titled, "6 State Battlegrounds in the Right-Wing War Against Teachers, Firefighters, Caregivers and the Entire Middle Class."

• "New York City Middle School Teacher shares her own classroom experience about the need for social studies. (4.29.11)

• From 3.14.11, teacher-generated media, Two LA Teachers Rap About Getting Unjustly Fired (VIDEO)

As anybody who has gone through public schools knows, there have always been suspect motives and dysfunctional aspects to our educational system. Some critics of the system from an earlier time, considered that disconnect in clear and still-timely ways.

• A contemporary of Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Wright Edelman founded the Children's Defense Fund in 1973. Listen to this morally courageous woman on this Smiley and West radio segment.

• A wonderful article from 1991 entitled "The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher" by the great educator, John Taylor Gatto.

• For those of you on the hunt for the roots of the education dilemma, might I suggest a book that greatly influenced me in college.. Growing Up Absurd, by the sadly too forgotten, Paul Goodman.

Jonathan Kozol was another great advocate for children beginning in the late 60's, whose work you might find enlightening.

And beyond the immediate challenge of public education reform, there is a related issue - the new and present danger of the ever-expanding bubble of student loan debt, which outpaced credit card debt for the first time last year and is likely to top a trillion dollars this year.

• From The New York Times of April 12, 2011, "Burdens of College Loans on Graduates Grows"

• This great infographic "The Student Loan Scheme" explains and spills a LOT of ugly beans about the mechanics and inequities of the student loan “crisis” - and believe me, it IS a crisis.

• There has been a 900% increase in tuition costs at U.S. colleges since 1978. This and much more in this excellent article, Bad Education in an NPlusOne Magazine from 4.25.11

• On a slightly tangential note, here is an interesting article about venture capitalist Peter Thiel, and his views on the growing bubble in Higher Education.. from the guy who funded Facebook, and who correctly predicted the first tech-bubble meltdown. His solution is perhaps not surprising for someone of his class and wealth, but his predictions for a coming debt collapse are insightful.

• From the Economist, a 4.13.11 article that picks up on the Thiel thread and also includes some good external links.

• On a more inspiring note, here is Kevin Spacey recently delivering the Nancy Hanks Lecture at the Kennedy Center on the need for the arts in education.

• A funny and poetic defense by a teacher named Taylor Mali.. "What Teachers Make."

• And lastly, the great educator himself, George Carlin, on the American Dream and why we shouldn't expect education to get any better.