Speaking of the education ‘reform’ hustle [see below], my esteemed progenitors, both high school teachers, often scoffed when they were alive at the latest fads sweeping through the schoolroom and touted to be The Answer to the poor performance, sullen contempt and mental torpor rampant among the pupils in their charge. These periodic miracle cures were always cooked up by administrators and consultants and anointed by the district or state to be carried out by the beasts of burden in the classroom, no questions asked. Ha ha, they said, it’ll last one year and then be forgotten.
The latest education Kool-Aid being drunk nationwide, however, is more dangerous than the usual not-so-bright ideas tried out on puzzled youngsters. We’ve all heard the sudden consensus: schools are failing ‘our kids’; success or failure can be measured with test scores; the answer is charter schools led by charismatic innovators/entrepreneurs; old-fashioned public school teachers individually and collectively stand in the way of reasonable measures. And my personal favorite: we need to keep the ‘best’ teachers and get rid of the rest.
The best-known promoters of this line of thinking are our own Mayor Bloomberg; the witch of Washington, former schools superintendent Michelle Rhee; Bill Gates, his Foundation and several other philanthropies; and President Barack Obama via his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. Those last two names are the most lamentable because it gives what is essentially a right-wing program cover and confuses people who should be more wary about what’s on sale.
This fascinating account in Dissent outlines the vast influence the insanely rich Gates Foundation wields in this arena and demonstrates how easy it is for unelected billionaires to dictate policy in the name of ‘charity’. That is a most interesting digression, but for now we should take note of how Africans have chafed at being re-colonized through the overwhelming weight of ‘foreign aid’. We will soon know what they were talking about.
Diane Ravitch, who once bought the charter school solution and worked for Bush I to implement it, took apart the phony stats and ideological fervor behind the movement in a recent New York Review of Books article, which I recommend for anyone not already in the cult. Her conclusion is that overall they don’t work any better than public schools and their managers are not in fact channeling the ghost of John Dewey. I have no doubt the standardized testing craze will also collapse eventually under the weight of evidence of its shortcomings. But by that time, much damage will already have been done because teachers and the teaching profession will have been beaten into submission.
Historically, a teaching career was the path toward upward mobility, not just in the United States but pretty much everywhere, and it makes sense that it should be. A clever family member with academic aptitude often would head for a teachers college, usually the cheapest option, and patiently work toward a teaching certificate. In my rarely humble opinion, it is not an accident that this particular line of work is now under the gun from the combined forces of obscene wealth and organized, reactionary selfishness. A ruling elite in charge of an economy that relies on steadily stripping away our New Deal protections and that no longer generates opportunities for social mobility will benefit from turning the once respectable lower rung of the ladder into a booby prize.
Even better, the new stratified system within the teaching profession will fit smoothly with the neo-Reaganite competitive spirit encapsulated in the ‘Race to the Top’ philosophy. Youthful teachers fresh from college will be funneled into a horse race based on test scores, the cleverest will get juicy rewards and everyone else will sink back into the dung-heap where they are believed to belong. No unions will guarantee your pension or seniority rights, but the top scorers will get big rewards and probably graduate to a desk job after a few years anyway where they will wield the whip over low-test-score teachers in the manner of a Chinese sneaker factory manager. When the starting gun sounds, the race will be on for everyone, not just the tender pupils.
Not that things are marvelous in the public school realm by any means, and I don’t pretend to know what to do about it. But I do know that these technocratic models imported from the corporate world are doomed to failure. They run on imposed dicta from above, serial abuse of parents and teachers, and the usufruct of public goods for private gain.
In the long run, though, failure to achieve the supposed outcomes may be less important than clearing the path of any resistance from one of the last unionized workforces in the country.