Thursday, December 30, 2010

Education deform movement ubiquitous, yet invisible

Just below the surface of every aspect of education discourse lies the education deform movement. Yet paradoxically the existence of the movement itself is almost never mentioned - as if the discourse was ahistorical and  self-generating. Despite the movement's invisibility it shapes nearly every education report in traditional media. When the power behind the movement does surface it is either for fawning coverage from elite media or self-serving opinions that don't mention what's really going on.

Stories that are obviously generated from the underlying narrative rarely even mention that there is a narrative, let alone bother to explain where it might have come from. It is doubtful even if most traditional media education writers are even aware of the last 30 years history of teacher and public school bashing initially led by conservatives.

It's not like the creation of the school choice movement by conservative philanthropies in the 1980s is any secret. People For The American Way (Norman Lear's outfit) had reported extensively on the movement in its 1995 report Buying A Movement (full pdf):
The Bradley Foundation’s involvement in the issue of school vouchers is a useful illustration of a single foundation’s comprehensive funding strategy around the development of a single political issue. As noted earlier, the Bradley Foundation maintains a keen interest in pushing voucher programs around the nation, and particularly in its home state of Wisconsin. Over the past six years, Bradley money has funded groups that have laid the intellectual foundation for school vouchers, provided vouchers to parents, and litigated to defend them from challenge.
In fact many of the current topics of educational discourse didn't even exist until they were made up by the Bradley Foundation and its funded people and entities. Neither was there any scholarship to support the notion that the proposed market-based  reforms would improve educational achievement. There is none today. Belief in the efficacy of privatization and commercialization of public education back then was literally an act of faith. Today it is an exercise in denial. The methods and justifications of the deformers may change, but, despite their obvious and repeated failures, not the ultimate goals.

Until eventually proven wrong by social science researchers, the deformers originally claimed 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.

Charter schools originally were the idea of teachers and their unions. The concept was to create small laboratory schools to try new ideas to help the very children the deformers pretend to care for today. The visionaries of charter schools specifically did NOT want charters to compete for students with regular public schools.

When the deform movement  adopted charter schools in force in the early 1990s as competition for regular public schools original supporters such as Albert Shanker of the American  Federation of Teachers denounced the shift and recanted his support. Deformers adopted charters because their voucher movement had run into serious problems regarding their constitutionality, educational efficacy, and rejection by voters. Since charters would essentially be publicly funded schools run by private corporations they obviated those impediments to the expansion of school choice.

To understand the breadth of the deformers' triumph, consider that in the early 1990s the Republican Center of the American Experiment was recommending in its Minnesota Policy Blueprint that all schools in Minnesota should be given the opportunity to change themselves into charter schools.

That ludicrous proposition went nowhere in Minnesota for almost two decades until President Obama last year made removal of all state caps on numbers of charter schools a condition of winning federal Race To The Top funding. In less than two decades market-based ideas about education reform went from being proposed by crackpot right wing think tanks to the established policies of the Democratic President of the United States.

In the 90s the Walton Family Foundation - created with money from the Walmart chain - jumped into the education deform movement in a big way. By 2009 it was giving $134 million a year to fund "Systemic K-12 Education reform," $42 million alone to "shaping public policy." It also spent $2.5 million on "research and evaluation." In that one year the Walton Family Foundation gave more than $8 million to Teach for America.

In the aughts two other billionaires, Bill Gates and Eli Broad, began funding the education deform movement at a level that made the Waltons look like pikers. Between 2000 and 2008 Gates had spent close to $2 billion on education reform; he spent $100 million alone to create new "small schools" in New York City.

An Education Week report in 2006 by Erik Robelen showed how the Gates Foundation had financed a way to "broaden and deepen its reach," as Diane Ravitch reported in her book:
"Robelen noted that almost everyone he interviewed was getting Gates money, including the publication he works for."
Robelen enumerated a bewildering array of education deform advocates financed by Gates, including the misleadingly named Progressive Policy Institute. By 2008 Gates' foray into "small schools" had failed - there were high profile disasters funded by the philanthropy in Denver and in Gates' own backyard.

It turned out that shifting to "small schools" had significant unacknowledged downsides. Studies by then had shown that the new "choice" schools in New York City had not, in fact, produced higher test scores, but they had been successful in decimating historical neighborhood schools and placing many students in schools that didn't have the advantages of larger schools, such as athletics and advanced placement classes. By 2009 one-third of New York City high schools didn't have one art teacher. On the other hand, there is a new charter school that specializes in sports management.

Since philanthropists aren't elected by anyone they never have to acknowledge responsibility for their failures, even when those failures involve significant sums of public money. Thus after 2008 Gates and his plutocratic buddies merely shifted the blame for their failures to a constituency more or less unable to defend themselves: the teachers. According to Gates, his experiment in small schools didn't fail because it was a bad idea; no, the reason it failed was those infernal teachers and their unions. Writes Ravitch:
[In 2008] Bill and Melinda Gates invited the nation's leading educators to their home in Seattle and told them that they planned to invest millions in performance-based teacher pay programs; creating data systems; supporting advocacy work; promoting national standards and tests;  and finding ways for school districts to measure teacher effectiveness and to fire ineffective teachers.
In other words, in 2008, after Gate's ridiculous experiment in small schools failed, and without actually admitting his own failure, Gates initiated targeted attacks on teachers and their unions with his billions of dollars. Teachers would be held "accountable" for things they did not control, in this new paradigm, but those who pulled the actual strings of educational policy would not.

So when we hear that the largest Minnesota philanthropies are gearing up for an attack on school teachers, and planning a political attack which will focus on "flexibility", "accountability" and "choice" they are not aiming to improve education, nor are they planning "reforms" that will help students. The planned "reforms" never had a scholarly basis, and have in reality already spectacularly failed in other places around the country. The philanthropies are merely jumping on a bandwagon already formed by even larger philanthropies funded by billionaires.

The planned changes make no sense, even on their own. For example, two foci of the proposed "reforms" are mutually exclusive. How can teachers be held accountable for the academic advancement of their pupils when "alternative licensure" proposals aim to place more Teach for America instructors in classrooms, when most of them only stay in the teaching field for two years? Even the New York Times admits that schemes for "accountability" and "value-added" measures are not reliable even with data on years of teaching experience.

So that is the back-story on education discourse: Decades of reform derived from market-based ideas from plutocrats that have failed repeatedly are pushed onto the public with ever more vigor, yet the source of the advocacy is almost never revealed. The deformers have captured education discourse by investing billions of dollars in advocacy, "research" and funding of alternatives to regular public schools. The reformers have nothing to show for their efforts except a bifurcation of our education system, destruction of community schools, and a societal-wide attitude that slanders and devalues those who give the most for education: the teachers themselves. Remember that when you hear in the coming months about efforts to install "teacher accountability," "alternative licensure," and judging teachers by so-called "value-added" measures.

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