Monday, May 09, 2011

The authoritarian journalism of education reform

Deformed: Authoritarian undercurrents in education, part VIII

Traditional media have failed in their coverage of education reform, acting as cheerleaders for privatization and bashing teachers rather than shedding light on what is actually happening to our schools. In Michael Moore's famous words “We live in a fictitious time,” and nothing could better exemplify that than traditional media education discourse. Instead of looking into the ultimate goals of the deformers, their motivations, or the effects of their actions, traditional media locks onto each new meme the deformers produce. It's been that way for decades.

Today plutocrats set the education agenda then pass the message on down the line. By the time information gets to the traditional media the deformers have controlled discussion to the point that repeating their claims amounts to mouthing a manufactured conventional wisdom, which newspaper reporters and TV talking heads are only to willing to do. Rather than challenge that conventionality media merely adds its owns melodrama and approval to the narrative. Journalism used to be a profession that lived by the saying “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Today there is more of the kind of authoritarian journalism that one used to see in Eastern Bloc countries.

The deformers have created a discourse that today is outwardly concerned with decreasing gaps in educational achievement between children of the poor and minorities on one hand and middle class whites on the other. Their narrative has conspicuously ignored the influence of poverty on student achievement or the harmful effects created by using a market-based paradigm for education reform. Given that the largest share of educational outcomes are determined by student and home life, you might think public policy would be focused on that rich vein for improvement.

Instead nearly all the solutions being proposed today revolve around teachers, who control only 10 to 15 percent of outcomes. Of course, no one is saying that teachers don't matter, it's just that there is not much fertile ground for educational improvement by focusing on such a small input.

Attacks on teachers only make sense as a way to shrink the unionized work force and defund the political party that supports them, the Democrats. The ludicrous notion that de-professionalizing teaching would somehow help education demonstrates the level of cognitive dissonance and stupidity the deformers have so successfully fostered and nurtured.

As a result the teaching profession is under pressure as never before. All over the country teachers are being laid off and replaced by poorly trained Teach For America recruits. Schools are being closed as a

result of NCLB's relentless testing regimen, along with competition from charters. Teachers are threatened with decreased salaries, the loss of tenure, and collective bargaining rights.

In the classroom, teacher's salaries are now being partly determined by their student's scores. Complex formulas are devised to evaluate teachers as if students were a cog in an industrial process and the amount of knowledge conveyed to them could be reduced to a number.

Charter schools have proven to be a failed experiment, yet the public holds them in high regard as a savior for primary and secondary education. New laws are being passed by legislatures all over the country to open more charter schools and to weaken teaching standards.

The Gates Foundation alone spent $2 billion between 2000 and 2008 to set up 2,602 schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia. The idea was that children might have higher educational achievement in smaller schools. Gates didn't have any evidence for his theories; if he had looked he would have seen that there is a body of research on this question. For high schools it seems the optimal number of students is between 500 and 700. Fewer than that and there isn't enough mass to justify myriad types of curriculum enriching experience. In high schools of more than 700 students start to get alienated and lose individual attention.

Gates spent more than $100 million in New York City alone to open dozens of new, small high schools. In Denver the foundation sponsored a project that took one large high school and split it into three separate schools, each operating on a separate floor of the original school. The result in Denver was a disaster. In New York City the new charters didn't improve test scores, but they did result in destruction of dozens of local high schools, and the funneling of children into schools that didn't have the benefits of their former larger schools, and probably were not in their neighborhoods. The small school project was a bust, an outcome Gates should have known from the outset.

After the “small schools” failure Gates refused to acknowledge his role, instead refocusing his philanthropy's energy and money on school teachers. The Gates foundation proceeded to allocate tens of millions of dollars in an effort to root out “bad teachers.” The new project is intent on figuring out, using business-type metrics, which teachers are “under performing” so they can be fired. Of course school districts already had methods for ferreting out poorly performing teachers. But that wasn't good enough for Gates – he wanted metrics. So he and his philanthropy set out to create just such a system where teachers could be reduced to numbers, like so many inputs to a computer program.

To kick off his teacher bashing campaign Gates invited leading education deform activists to his house in 2008 for a meeting. It wasn't long after that traditional media opened its attacks on school teachers. A number of new memes appeared, including the notion that there are many bad teachers who are responsible for poorly performing students, and that if only the “lowest performing” 10 percent of teachers could be replaced every student in the country would emerge with a “world class” education.

Other projects aimed to shrink the teaching profession by claiming it was hard to fire teachers, that tenure protected “bad” teachers, that advanced degrees didn't make someone a better teacher, and that school district policies controlling teacher layoffs needed to be changed to allow the firing of more experienced teachers when districts faced budget deficits. Some of the ways these ideas designed to create a “free market” in school teachers are turned into traditional media reports would be comical if they weren't so harmful to education.

Nevertheless, these are the overwhelmingly predominant narratives of education discourse today, and as a result teachers are becoming increasingly demoralized, demonized and marginalized. It is depressing to think about how a small an amount of action perpetrated by a handful of billionaires can radically alter the nation's education discourse and practice.

Tomorrow: Authoritarianism on the march 

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
Part IV: Education deformers' achieve political success through a culture of lying, repetition, and compliance, not logic, reason and evidence
Part V: Deformed schools: Reduced diversity, authoritarian education styles, narrowed curriculum, and harming of critical thinking skills
Part VI: Collapse of authority breeds authoritarianism
Part VII: Replacing democracy with authoritarianism

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