Thursday, May 05, 2011

Education deformers achieve political success through a culture of lying, repetition, and compliance, not logic, reason and evidence

Deformed: authoritarian undercurrents in education, Part IV

Authoritarian leaders do not favor open and fair debate, followed by democratic action. Social dominators prefer to shape a narrative and then construct political arguments around the desired outcome. It doesn't matter if arguments used are logical or even true. What matters is if they can be useful in achieving the desired ends. In such a confused environment it can be difficult for real social scientists to sort out the facts, let alone convince a corrupted traditional media of what the real world looks like.

In this sense corporate education reformers have shown themselves to act in the manner of social dominators, attempting to force their vision of the structure of education through campaigns filled with distortions and outright lies. When caught, the deformers have merely shifted their justifications to new lies or distortions, or merely shouted them louder. Reformers distinctly do NOT use logic and reason to make their case. Instead they instill fear by citing misleading statistics then attributing the failures of our society to be the responsibility of teachers and schools.

The lies began with the Reagan administration's flawed and misleading Nation At Risk (NAR) report, in the early 1980s. Nation At Risk had turned statistics on their heads. For example, NAR stated that SAT scores had been dropping. But it failed to note they were dropping because more students - from lower echelons of high school attainment - were now taking the test, and bringing the mean down. If researchers controlled for high school attainment the drop in scores disappeared, yet echos of the NAR conclusions still ring in today's media.

The dishonest discourse continued with the censoring of a 1991 report from Sandia National Lab, which found that the US education system was performing quite admirably, both in terms of increasing attainment by students and by workforce preparedness. It was withheld by the Bush I administration, possibly because it presciently warned that continuing attacks on teachers and schools were a real threat to the education success pointed to in the Sandia report. When the report was finally published in an obscure educational journal it was ignored by traditional media, landing it number three on Project Censored's list of the most censored stories for 1993.

Until eventually proven wrong by social science researchers, the deformers originally claimed, without any proof, that poor and minority students would do better academically in private voucher schools, and that the competition would cause students in nearby regular public schools to also score higher on standardized tests.

The failure of the Milwaukee school voucher experiment, still in existence to this day, put a stake in the heart of those two lies.  Deformers still claim, despite proof to the contrary, that students do better academically in choice schools, i.e. charter schools, but they no longer make the claim that nearby regular public schools will magically improve from the competition.

Even today there is a tremendous amount of denial involved in the education deformers' position. They talk about “high performing” charter schools, as if all charters could be exceptional, when the reality is that a student is twice as likely to be do academically worse at a charter school than at a regular public school. Incredibly there is denial that de-facto segregated schools are antithetical to democracy.

That denial is dwarfed by the illogical thinking that places the blame for low poor and minority test scores on teachers, relentlessly seeks their accountability, yet aims to replace them with less-qualified temporaries like those from Teach For America (TFA). Advocacy campaigns to ease teacher training rules call for “new paths for great teachers,” when in reality TFA teachers have much less training than their professionally schooled peers.

Peer-reviewed research shows unequivocally that no matter a teacher's talent, his or her first two years will be the least effective of their careers. Ironically 50 percent of TFA teachers leave the profession after two years, and 80 percent are gone by the end of their third years. We are literally getting the worst career years of their lives.

Authoritarians are the kind of people who can strongly believe in two completely opposing ideas, as Altemeyer writes (emphasis added):
...research reveals that authoritarian followers drive through life under the influence of impaired thinking a lot more than most people do, exhibiting sloppy reasoning, highly compartmentalized beliefs, double standards, hypocrisy, self-blindness, a profound ethnocentrism, and -- to top it all off -- a ferocious dogmatism that makes it unlikely anyone could ever change their minds with evidence or logic.
The lies and distortions of the corporate education reformers do not rest merely in the past. The most recent affront to honest education discourse was the propagandistic, misleading and outright dishonest movie Waiting for Superman, which received widespread praise from politicians and leading media lights, including President Obama and Oprah Winfrey. From mis-interpretation of the results of academic achievement tests to giving false impressions about the efficacy of charter schools Waiting for Superman paints a libelous and distorted picture of American education.

As but one example the film blames teachers and their unions for problems in American primary and secondary education, while admiring the educational achievement of Finland, without mentioning that the Nordic country has an almost completely unionized workforce, does very little standardized testing, and has a population with a poverty rate one-seventh of that in the U.S. While the film endlessly lauds charter schools, it never mentions that the largest meta-study ever done of charter schools in the U.S. found that twice as many students do worse in charter schools than in regular public schools.

One new group, called 50Can, is a great example of the dishonest tactics and discourse practiced by the education deform movement. 50Can is a low-cost, high-impact political aggregator and agitator, funded and controlled by plutocrats, that presents itself as a common-sense grass roots education advocate. 50Can grew out of a Connecticut corporate deform group call ConnCan. It hopes to be a service organization to "Can" type organizations in all 50 states. Besides Connecticut it already has operations in Minnesota, Rhode Island and Maryland.

The Can's technique includes approval for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status while having a stated goal of organizing political campaigns aimed at three terrible ideas: loosening teacher standards, creating more charter schools, and evaluating teachers by their students' test scores. Normally creating a tax-exempt organization with explicit political aims would be considered cheating, but in American non-profit tax law it is apparently acceptable behavior even though non-profits are not supposed to be involved in political activity.

The prospectus for the group's Minnesota offshoot called MinnCan, for example, declared its goals of creating the "political will" and "the right political climate" to "reform education by changing state policy" "through both legislative and administrative action."

One look at ConnCan's board of directors and advisers show's who's really calling the shots here, and what the true agenda is. The board of directors is comprised of 12 people, all of them are from the financial and investment industries. Not one of the board members comes from any sector relevant to public education. These are the people who, on deep background, we're supposed to let "redefine" education in America.  Given the corruption and incompetence shown by the finance industry over the past decade, one can only hope they are better at education than investing, although there is no evidence to suggest they might be.

Likewise MinnCan is quick to distort facts and tell outright lies in its prospectus. For example, it states that "Minnesota's African-American and Hispanic children...have made zero progress over the past 10 years." This is clearly false as demonstrated by the most respected national tests, the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

In math Black children in Minnesota in grade four scores have increased from 193 in 1992 to 222 in 2007.  In 2000 the scores averaged 208.  By grade eight Black scores increased from 236 in 1990 to 260 in 2007, showing steady gains over the period. While it's true there has been little gain in Black reading scores from 1992 to 2007, where scores increased from 189 to 198, there was a similar stagnation in white scores which grew to 231 from 223 for the period.  Black reading scores show more gains at grade eight - growing from 231 in 1998 to 245 in 2007.  That same period showed only a four point gain for white students.

So while Black reading scores showed only small gains in the NAEP tests, they matched white gains for the period. And in math tests Blacks made healthy, steady gains over the studied period, a reality far different than the MinnCan claims of "zero progress over the past 10 years."

Such is the corruption of traditional media that when the head of MinnCan wrote an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune telling a litany of lies, repeated by two other op-eds, not one letter writer, op-ed columnist or editorialist spoke up for the truth.

Without the deformers' denial and illogic education discourse would not be focused on eradicating teacher unions, replacing local control of schools with corporate control, increasing high-stakes testing, and creating ever more failed charter schools. Corporate-style reformers know that if enough people from enough different authorities make it merely “conventional” to believe in their vision of education reform, authoritarians will follow them to the ends of the earth, regardless of facts and reason.

It is ironic and sad that public discourse on such an important issue as education would veer so far from the tools of knowledge including evidence and reason, and that top political and media leaders would openly embrace such sophistry and misdirection. As the nation's foremost educational historian Diane Ravitch told public radio's Terry Gross, without exaggeration, "We are destroying our education system, blowing it up by these stupid policies."

Tomorrow: Deformed schools: Reduced diversity, authoritarian education styles, narrowed curriculum, and harming of critical thinking skills 

Part I:  Deformed: Authoritarian undercurrents in education
Part II: The danger to education and democracy posed by authoritarianism
Part II:  School choice birthed in authoritarian racial animus and market fundamentalism

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