If anyone needed additional evidence that Arne Duncan and Barack Obama are as clueless about education as they are contemptuous of teachers, an article in yesterday’s New York Times provides plenty.
( Inexperienced Companies Chase U.S. School Funds/ http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/education/10schools.html?th&emc=th)
The article was as noteworthy and revealing for what it did not say as much as what it did. What it said was this: as part of their ever expanding education reform package, the Obama administration has increased federal funding for “school turnarounds” to $3.8 billion dollars, an astounding 28 times more than it was a mere three years ago. What it did not say was that the administration had no idea of how to do what they claim they want to do.
In the not so distant past, news of such massive funding would have been happily received by teachers in cash starved schools. Of course, such teachers were still, in the main, respected figures and had yet to be somehow transformed into the scapegoats for a desperate, infantilized, fragmented and delusional nation increasingly characterized by magical thinking. (Yes, Virgina there is a Santa Claus, Alan Greenspan is a genius, Barack Obama is a progressive, cancer can be cured by positive thinking, standardized test scores are an accurate measure of student achievement, and businessmen are the brightest bulbs in the history of sunshine! )
At this point, after a decade of reckless and irresponsible experimentation on children and teachers by businessmen and politician “reformers” that has led to no improvement whatsoever in education but immense dislocation across the land — and immense government contracts to a handful of corporations– any one who knows or cares anything about the subject at all would have to be extremely naïve to greet such news with anything other than extreme caution.
Place it in the wrong hands and you can ruin a whole lot of lives with a war chest of $3.8 billion dollars and the backing of the federal government.
The phrase “school turnaround ” is edu-babble for the incredibly difficult and long term process of turning a lousy school into a good one.
It’s Duncan’s idea to dish out the $3.5 billion dollars to those persons or companies who win contracts to do just that.
Seen from afar this might idea might be seen as something to applaud.
After all, even if the idea does go directly against the unspoken, elitist message of Duncan’s Race to the Top, every child in this nation does deserves to go to a decent school and there are too many schools that are lousy.
Indeed, no sensible or decent person would argue against the notion of turning lousy schools into good ones. At the same time, no knowledgeable and responsible person would even begin to undertake such an extraordinarily layered and complex issue without a plan or plans — or at the very least some sort of criteria. Such plans would include but not be limited to consultation with community leaders and elected officials, demographics studies (including levels of poverty, immigration, homelessness, etc ) and all the elusive elements that make up a school.
Above all, such a plan would at the very least include consultation with the people who know and deal with the problems of said school on a daily basis: parents and teachers. Anyone who has ever actually worked in a school knows that the problems of a particular school are as unique as the students who are served by it. They know, that is, that a school is as much an organism as it is an institution.
But alas, alas, there is an extremely serious problem with Duncan’s scenario. No one, least of all our non-educator Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has any idea of how it is you turn lousy schools into good schools — and the last people in the world such a man is going to consult are parents and teachers. As for a criteria …who knows ? Let’s call it a work in progress.
Other than summarily firing the entire staff and turning lousy school into a charter school ( which may well turn into a lousy charter school of which there are legion ) Duncan simply has no plan and no idea how to do what he is demanding be done.
But then again why should he ? Like so many of the fine folk who have busied themselves transforming our education system into a muti-billiondollar -data collecting,- test taking-ignorance machine, Arne Duncan is not and has never been not an educator. He is therefore, quite logically, clueless. (Sadly, cluelessness is not only not an anecdote for arrogance; it seems, in fact, to enlarge it.)
So, faced with such a conundrum what’s a crusading non-educator-Secretary of Education to do? Why turn to the free market, of course, and let Adam Smith’s invisible hand find the solution! Judging from Duncan’s track record, especially the grotesque Race to the Top, I cannot help but think he’s hoping for an invisible hand swinging an invisible sledgehammer, the better to smash the visible teacher unions to smithereens – just as long, that is, as the invisible fingerprints on the invisible sledge hammer cannot too easily be traced back to the White House.
In the past year and half, Duncan and the Obama administration was able to get away with implementing the unbelievably Ronald Reaganesque policy of demanding teachers be stripped of all manner of hard earned rights for their schools to be even eligible for the billions of dollars of federal “grants” their revenue starved school systems need to survive. Indeed, this IMF style neo-extortion tactic forms the basis of the Obama administration’s wildly successful, union busting Race to the Top campaign. Tragically, it doesn’t seem to concern many Americans that the very same economic strategies the World Bank and the IMF use to bring Third World nations to their knees — bend to our will or we will starve you to death — are now used to undermine labor unions in their own country.
The promise of Duncan’s “turnaround” billions has produced something equally grotesque if, as yet, harmless.
Out of the woodwork comes company after company of “turnaround experts” hungry to get their share of the federal greenbacks. Rest assured, given half a chance, these folk will be bursting with “strategy” after ‘strategy” that they cannot wait to impose upon teacher after teacher and student after student. Rest assured these edu-alchemists will be armed with foolproof metrics and technological wizardry assuring total teacher “accountability” and student compliance. Rest assured that all this will add to the insidious and incremental degradation of teachers that began with No Child Left Behind and has been growing ever since.
Some things are all but certain: the $3.8 billion has been earmarked and that money — and the federal authority that goes with — will be given to whoever or whatever convinces federal or state authorities that, outside of transforming or transplanting entire communities, they know how to achieve what no one knows how to achieve: they know how to take a lousy school and make it a good one.
This kind of magical thinking will be rewarded by the granting of extraordinary powers over teachers and students. There will no end of happy talk and/ or tough guy talk. Test scores will magically rise or teachers will be magically removed. Everyone will be held accountable excepting the jackasses who authorized the foolishness.
But, much sooner than later, the silly ideation that leads to seeking simple, fast, one-size-fits-all solutions to enormously complex, deeply human problems of the sort that create the tragedy of lousy schools will crack under the weight of its own arrogance and lies. When that happens the project will be quietly abandoned and the teachers and students whose lives were cheapened or worse by the exercise in pure hubris will be forgotten as soon as humanly possible.
And you can rest assured, if the current climate of contempt continues, the blame for such failure will be laid completely on the teachers.
I’m bracing for the worst.