In Darkness Visible: The Corporate and Oligarchic War on Public Education and Public Life

September 24, 2011

 

 

Given the unprecedented concentration of financial and political power bent on “reforming” the American public school system, it is well within the realm of possibility that within the next few years, the system that has educated the vast majority of Americans for almost two centuries and helped propel this country from an agricultural backwater to, for better or worse, the greatest power in human history,  will cease to exist in any recognizable form if, indeed,  it exists at all.

That same system, according to self declared “reformers,” is now so utterly hopeless it must be completely altered or eradicated altogether. Now.  Before it is too late. There is not a moment to lose.  Not if,  in the bizarre words of   Barack Obama, “we are  to win the future.”   If the “reformers” get their way, the crown jewel of American public life will become merely the latest and the greatest of our public institutions to be devoured by the ever-grasping hands of what is called the free market.  If this comes to pass, the system’s destruction or utter transformation will come, not as the result of an election, an uprising of the people, a revolt of parents (who, like educators have been completely ignored) or anything resembling a democratic process or mandate. It will come, rather, as did the Iraq war: entirely as the result of the machinations of a handful of extraordinarily powerful men who,  aided and abetted by corporations who stand to reap billions in profits, waged a brilliant and relentless public relations campaign based on gross distortions and out -right lies to manufacture a false sense of crisis wholly out of proportion to the reality of the situation.

With the indispensable assistance of a completely subservient  media,  that  false crisis was used to impose their will upon a largely unwitting nation, come what may. Their will, as we now know, was war and profit, resulting in mountains of corpses and rivers of innocent blood.

Like the architects of the Iraq war, the “education reformers” are also waging a war, albeit one without bullets and bombs, and many,  if not all of the “reformers”, are also seeking an empire: publishing tests for an entire nation or charter schools chains or  cyber classrooms or who knows what federally approved and funded education booty.

Highlighting our nation’s rapid descent  into undisguised oligarchy, unlike the architects of the Iraq war, most of whom were at least government officials and theoretically accountable to the American people, the architects of  the education war – and a war it is — are private citizens accountable to no one and possessing no official authority whatsoever.   This fact is that much more incredible when these very figures make “accountability” the touchstone of their relentless hydra -headed multi million dollar campaign. These citizens are led by Microsoft co- founder Bill Gates, real estate and insurance tycoon, Eli Broad, the Walton family, heirs of the Wal-Mart fortune, and the De Vos family, heirs of the Amway fortune, to name just a few.

These folk have been joined in New York by various hedge fund managers led by Whitney Tilson who have formed a powerful political action committee called Democrats For Education Reform  ( DFER ) who are credited with successfully   lobbying President-Elect Obama to name Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education despite Duncan’s  miserable  record as Chicago CEO of schools.

Despite the fact that not one of them has spent even 30 seconds teaching in a classroom or have any educational experience of any kind anywhere, all of the above fancy themselves “education reformers. ”

No matter.

They know better.   And, using their expanding body of foundations, they have spent a good part of the last decade “reforming” education and essentially making public policy.   More,  they know how to get their way and how to do so before  the public  knows what’s happening or, with the exception of Gates, even knows their names.

This has been done largely through non-profit organizations such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edyith Broad Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation that have enormous reach and influence in the highest offices in the land. Indeed, the Gates Foundation is credited with literally writing much if not all of  the Obama administrations signature education initiative Race To The Top ( RTTP)  – easily the greatest legislative attack on teachers in US history at the same time its undemocratic agenda undermines the entire purpose of public  education.

Races have winner and losers. Public education should not.

Last year, amidst great fanfare, it was announced on the Oprah Winfry Show that multi-billionaire Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg would be   joining the pool of fabulously rich amateur education reformers. Live on TV Zuckerberg announced that would  donate $100 million to the Newark public schools but failed to add the provision that, he,  Zuckerberg, would play a big role in determining Newark school policy.

Despite their complete ignorance of the field, the self- proclaimed “education reformers” believe that their spectacular wealth gives them the right to dictate to or experiment with public educational policy affecting millions of other people’s children, the livelihoods of millions  of teachers, and the intellectual health of our nation for decades to come.  Such staggering hubris is difficult to comprehend but even more  so is  the fact that these private citizens have, in fact, been given license by our elected officials to   re-make   education in America   in their own image.  No less an authority than former Assistant Secretary of Education author Diane Ravich has called Gates, “  the nation’s superintendent of schools.” Ravich was issuing a warning:  we have drifted neck deep into oligarchy while  few are  even remotely aware of it.

To my knowledge, such a usurpation of public authority by private citizens allowed by our  government is unprecedented. But then again, many of the circumstances surrounding the corporate education “reform” campaign are unprecedented. Never before in American history have there  been hundreds of billionaires.  Never before has there been this level of the disparity between wealth  and poverty. Never before has the media been so concentrated in so few hands, so omnipresent and so nakedly ideological. Never before have the influence and the rights (!)  of  corporations been so great and our elected  officials  so spinelessly beholden to them.

The education  the “reformers” wish to  implement  bear only superficial  resemblance to what most of us have  experienced. In place of the public school system may be a privately managed but publicly funded system administered by non-educators and run along the lines of a corporate business. This is the charter school model, a favorite among hedge fund managers because of their potential  profit  margin, and also of the Obama administration.     Charter chains  are already spreading across the country. On average, most fare no better than traditional public schools and many are abysmal — facts you’d never discern from their corporate cheerleaders.

Or the new system may be one based on “distance learning” in which hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands of students will sit in virtual classrooms, (meaning their homes,) receiving instruction from a virtual teacher (or perhaps teacher holograms) on a computer screen only to take an on-line test on the subject to assess their learning.  None other than Rupert Murdoch, yet another towering education figure, is attempting to spearhead this campaign internationally added  and abetted  by none other than former NYC Chancellor  Joel Klein.

This latter example contains two of the more subtle and horrifying  motifs  of the reformer narrative. The first is that technology is  always  superior to humanity and always progressive.  The   second is that the teacher/ student relationship  that  has existed since the time of Socrates is of  little import and can  easily be negated.

The common denominator of both the war in Iraq and the war of education is mountains of money. The federal budget for education is some $360 billion per annum.  Education may well be the last untapped market in America.   Employing the same  strategy  the Bush administration used to terrify Americans into invading Iraq,  the “reformers” and their allies in Washington and state capitals across  the land, have also taken a problem — abysmal student achievement in poor urban areas, or alternatively their fear of America’s future ability to compete with other nations in the increasingly cannibalistic global economy — and out of it also manufactured a sense of crisis wholly out of proportion to reality.

The issues in urban schools are real, depressing and persistent.  As real and depressing and persistent  as homelessness, fractured families, and every kind of poverty imaginable.  No teacher who has ever labored in such schools would ever deny that they are in need of urgent, radical and true reform and more than reform.  They need help.  I am one such teacher. We would begin by emphasize the two factors that study after study has concluded are essential to learning and which are contemptuously ignored by the “reformers”:  smaller class size and proper nutrition and move on from there to a real and rich curriculum.

Although you would never know it from the “reformer’s” relentless smear campaigns  which have cleverly posited the absolute worst public schools in America as the norm, many urban public schools  ones are excellent. I know.  My daughter attends one — the Neighborhood School, on the Lower East Side. Moreover, I, for one, do not need stratospheric test scores to know that the school is excellent or that my daughter is learning.  Indeed, I am deeply insulted by the conceit that my child’s learning or any child’s learning can somehow be judged by a test.

And I am not alone.

I am that much the more insulted by the notion that her performance on that test is somehow an indicator of the quality of her teacher who can lose his or her job because of the result of such a superficial experiment.  And these experiments, mind you,   have no proven educational merit whatsoever, yet form the center of the “reform” campaign from coast to coast.

Wherever you find “reform” you find standardized tests.  More and more and more standardized tests.  Indeed, perhaps the greatest measure of the striking success of the “reformers” to this point is the almost unquestioned centrality of the standardized test as criteria for measuring everything to do with education  and educators in America today.  It appears that the test has been thoroughly institutionalized, an astounding victory for the “reformers” and one on which their entire campaign rests.  That  such tests have no proven validity as   educational assessment tools is perhaps the greatest example of the sheer recklessness, ignorance and hubris of the “reformers ” – but also of their  success.   But  it should be noted that reformers never subject their children to such degrading examinations for they do  not exist in the schools their children attend.

The turning point for the “reform” campaign  as we know it today was the passing of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, which absurdly mandated that literally every child in America must reach “proficiency” in reading and math by the year 2014.   Schools that failed to reach  such an impossible goal – now estimated at more than 80% of American schools —  would face hard sanctions including the firing of staff, removal  of   administration or closure and replacement by charter schools. The criteria for “proficiency “, of course, is the standardized tests which, with the stroke of a pen, overnight became a billion dollar industry that has been expanding exponentially ever since.

NCLB is easily the most ill conceived education law ever passed by the Federal government or perhaps anyone state agency in the history of the United States. It is  American Exceptionalism applied to the schoolhouse; American  students will do what has never been done in human history because they are American. Period.

It is a testament to the idiocy or mendacity of our political leaders that such a preposterous idea could even be taken seriously never mind encoded in law.    Nearly a decade into being, the goals demanded by NCLB have recently been called “utopian ” even by figures such as Arne Duncan, Obama’s ultra “reformer” Secretary of Education. It is more accurate, I believe, to call them insane.  Nonetheless, after a decade of pointless, destructive upheaval and waste, sullied by cheating scandals in Baltimore, Washington,   Atlanta and elsewhere, the law stands, respected by no one, loathed by educators across the land, slowly but surely undermining parental confidence in the public school system and demoralizing teachers from sea to shining sea.  In the context of all that has gone down in the  “reformer” campaign, that may, indeed, have been the point.

It is difficult to calculate the damage this ridiculous, irresponsible law has done and continues to do to the American school system and hence American children.  NCLB is singularly responsible for the shrinking down of public education to the skill sets needed to pass bubble tests in math and reading.   After nearly ten years of parents and educators lamenting and protesting the pathetic diet that has been foisted on their children and students and children – a diet that would never be found in any of the private schools attended by the children of NCLB’s authors – the Obama administration has answered by offering even more tests in more subject areas.

Somehow, with the passing of NCLB  all prior assessment methods – writing samples, the quality of a students questions, essays, homework, quizzes, book reports and so on — become “subjective”, suspect, and invalid.  There is another tacit message of the law: teachers are not to be trusted.  With little if any discussion or input from educators or parents, at least a century of pedagogical wisdom and practice was simply tossed out the window by a handful of politicians and their billionaire  backers.    Out that same window went teacher  autonomy and with that goes the still born imaginations of millions and millions of  American kids  who are learning that to repeat is to think.

I find such tests infinitely more than a scam. I find them an insult to human dignity.   I do not need an external mass-produced mechanism to know if my daughter is learning or if her teacher is teaching.  Like any thoughtful and observant parent I can walk the halls of her school, looking and listening, and learn more than any bubble test could ever reveal about her   school.  Most importantly, I can talk with my daughter. Or she can read to me.

Knowing nothing about education, “the reformers,” naturally, have an almost pathetic reliance on tests and tests scores, (or “data” as they often call such giving it a pseudo scientific sheen) always proceeding as if such things are actually objective and reliable indicators of anything other than the ability to take a test. Even worse, by their obsession with standardized tests, these bold advocates of the brave new world are aggrandizing rote learning and simple memorization, useless skills made all the more useless by a computerized world in which information of any kind can be called up in seconds.

Meanwhile, mandated by the federal government and pushed further  still by Obama’s RTTT   (“ called NCLB on steroids” ) the testing empire has expanded beyond all reason, much to the delight of the test making corporations which have made billions and look to make billions more every year as tests are written for every school in every town in every nook and cranny in America.

While the motivations and strategies of the various  “reformers” may differ widely, all  share common ground.

Above all all seek the destruction of teacher’s unions, which remain the only obstacle to their complete takeover of public education.  Contrary to all evidence, they blame unions for “failing schools”  and for protecting “bad teachers” with “ jobs for life”, the latter  which is their code for due process.

“  It is very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time, “ stated Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter incoherently in Waiting for Superman:  “Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teacher unions, are,  generally speaking,  a menace and an impediment to reform.”

Alter is right about unions being an impediment to free market reform which is why so much time and money is being spent to undermine them. What Alter fails to mentions is that Finland, the highest performing nation in the world in education, as well as the highest performing state in the USA, Massachusetts are both totally unionized whereas  the lowest , Texas and  Mississippi. are “right to work”  states.

All are advocates of the contemptuously superficial method of   standardized testing to measure not only student learning but also “teacher effectiveness,” neither of which  is  backed by research of any kind.

All completely remove responsibility for student achievement from students and place it exclusively on teachers, regardless of student motivation, aptitude or  family support.

All display an astounding arrogance in discounting  factors such as poverty, broken homes and cultural impoverishment on student learning.  These horrific realities are merely  “excuses” that can be overcome by an “effective” teacher.

All are strict practitioners of a little known radical new form of philanthropy called “philanthrocapitalism” or “venture philanthropy” which, differing from traditional philanthropy   is based on the practices  of venture capital finance in which money is given only if the giver can dictate exactly how it is used.

All have given millions in venture philanthropy schemes in which, essentially, they purchase a license to make public policy.

All have backed and financed ideas that have dominated American public education policy for a decade now – merit pay, mayoral control, and charter schools to name a few,  all of which have produced no demonstrable improvements whatsoever in education but have succeeded in turning teachers against teachers and  thus weakening  their unions.

All posit an almost Manichean universe of angelic children with virtually limitless possibilities thwarted by lazy, union protected teachers or, alternatively saved by messianic charter school teachers.

All grossly magnify both the power of the teacher’s unions, all of whom on the defensive, and the failings of public schools (conflating the worst of urban schools with the rest  of America ) while grossly exaggerating the success of charter schools which, on average perform no better than district schools and often much worse.  (For the most skillful rendering of this line, see the shameless Davis Guggenheim weepy propaganda film, Waiting for Superman.

Other full length ‘reformer” films include, The Lottery, and The Cartel.

All are absolutely brilliant at deflecting attention away from the true nature and causes of the decline of America—such as jobs disappearing either  through globalization or technology  or a constant stream of  wealth upwards —     and somehow thrusting   it  on teachers, implying  that all would be  well  with the universe if only we could fire “bad teachers.”

Men like Gates like to point out that American students are falling behind other nations in international test scores, but, again, as Diane Ravich has recently pointed out, this is simply untrue.   When the first international test was given in 1964, the United States scored 12th out of 12 and has actually gotten better since.  But so what?    Anyone who is implying, as Gates and company often seem to be, that America has been outsourcing jobs to third world nations because US citizens have low test scores and not because they can pay people subsistence wages elsewhere is either delusional or a liar.

Indeed, for all their futuristic/technopolist talk, much of the “reformer’s” rationales are strangely reminiscent of   attacks on public schools in the wake of Sputnik.  Then as now critics also delivered apocalyptic warnings of a nation void of competent mathematicians, scientists and engineers as if, presently at least in the case of the latter, our bridges and infrastructure are  crumbling beneath our feet   not because of disastrous public policy but because “bad teachers” failed to produce enough engineers to fix them.

On May 21, 2011, The New York Times revealed another aspect of the reformers, in this case The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation but one shared by many of them,  that was oddly reminiscent of a phenomenon not seen since the Cold War:  the secret massive funding of what were once called “Fifth Columns. ”  Defined by Merriam-Webster as  “a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders, “the Times detailed countless examples of Gates funded reformer versions of the same: secretly funded phony “grass roots” organizations led by teachers or parents ( some unwitting ) created either to undermine already existing authentic organizations or insidiously push the “reformers” agenda through newly formed groups that claimed to have formed spontaneously.  The groups  did all they could to hide any connection with their patron.

According to the Times, the Gates foundation spent $78 million dollars on countless such “grass roots organizations “ from coast to coast in 2009 alone, the last year its tax returns are available. Sometime in the fall of 2010, precisely such a group surfaced in New York and was immediately granted excessive media attention, all of it fawning, all of it preposterously out of proportion to its message and its miniscule membership which amounts to less than 1% of NYC teachers.  Calling themselves Educators 4 Excellence and formed by two 25-year-old untenured teachers, the organization perfectly parrots every demand of Mike Bloomberg, Bill Gates, Eli Broad and company in terms of seniority, teacher evaluations, due process and so on.

Like them, they also claim  to be doing so to” put children first.” The Times reported that the Gates Foundation had given the group $160,000, allowing the two founding members to work one day a week as F status teachers to give them ample time to tell actual teachers how best to do their job, run their lives and, above all,  “put children first. “  More recently, a teacher blogger looked up their tax records to discover that Educators 4 Excellence expect to raise  almost $ 2,000,000 in their first two  years of existence. You can bet that not one penny of that blood money is coming from   teachers.

Like their counterparts in the criminal invasion of  Iraq, the “reformers”   have also enjoyed the benefits of a completely compliant and uncritical corporate media that has proved itself  more than happy to disseminate their lies, half truths and distortions through out the land.   This time around they speak not to a nation fearful of a sudden attack but to an increasingly impoverished, frightened and anxious citizenry eager for something or someone to blame for their slow but palpable descent into a life of ceaseless debt and insecurity.  How did this happen in America?   Someone must be to blame for ruining the country.

The “reformers”  and their allies in the press  — David Brooks, Thomas Freidman, Jonathan Alter, and Steven Brill stand out for any number of imbecilic statements – are only too happy to supply such a scapegoat.

And so they have.

It is not the predatory corporate consumer culture designed to attack our children at the birth of consciousness and wed their still unformed identities with products that is the problem. It is not the ravages of globalization that have  shipped our manufacturing base and industrial jobs to any country with de facto slave labor and no environmental laws. It is not the predatory nature of   deregulated capitalism that has sent rents and housing prices soaring through   insane speculation following  the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act.  It is not even the lying  politicians who orchestrated the invasions of two countries at the cost of a trillion dollars  at the same time they gave corporations and the investor class  immense tax cuts, effectively  bankrupting America for  generations laying the groundwork of  a “dept crisis” that would be used to gut every school and public program in the land at the same time it made public life more and more public life dependent of the  whims of  billionaires who would use the moment to impose their will.

None of these are  the problem.  The problem is  teachers.     Not all teachers mind you, but “bad teachers.”  Particularly “bad teachers” protected by the all-powerful teacher’s union.  So goes the narrative. I have observed   its success in many parts of the country.  The appeal, of  course, is  psychological  rather than rational, but it is powerful none the less and it is the logical result of  a ceaseless and highly skilled public relations campaign.

I have witnessed the results of politically motivated public relations campaigns before concerning individuals — most notably the subtle transformation of Ronald Reagan from the dolt who left office with abysmal approval ratings amidst the stink of the Iran-Contra scandal to the all knowing political deity we are now all meant to love.   Still, never in my life have I seen or even read of an attack on a profession –previously honored profession – in anyway resembling the relentless, subtle, and underhanded campaign that has in the past three years been waged against teachers and is meant to transform them in the public mind from noble, hardworking  public servants deserving of more money and more respect to rapacious pigs at the public trough ruining the nation’s youth while bankrupting its coffers to boot.

Who knew ?

The greatest argument for the need for comprehensive education reform  — true, deep, meaningful reform  — allowing this country to produce students capable not merely of finding gainful employment and parroting facts but of critical thinking, of cultural and historical awareness, of making the informed decision without which democracy withers and dies –– is that corporate businessmen have been allowed to not only   dominate the discussion for the last decade, but to ram into existence completely unproven and superficial schema like standardized tests.  Only in a nation so poorly educated as to be   philosophically barren could such a sad and pathetic notion be entertained never mind encoded in law and implemented.

If the   self-proclaimed “reformers” triumph, what they will force into being will be wholly unrecognizable from what any of us experienced as education and it will not be an improvement.  But it will also be much, much more.   It will, in one fell swoop, drastically further the corporatization  of American life at the same time it will deliver a massive blow against remaining public institutions, creating the precedence for vital institutions like  as Social   Security and Medicare to be privatized and hostage to the vagaries of an increasingly insatiable  Wall St.  Moreover, as the teachers unions remain the largest unions standing in America, it will deal a deathblow to unionism not seen since   the Homestead strike of 1890 which rendered unions none  existent for  decades.  The destruction of the teachers unions would be the culmination of the corporate war on labor which  began in earnest with Reagan’s firing of the air traffic  controllers in 1980 and has been accelerating ever since.

In short, it is vital to understand that the “education reform” campaign is not merely or even primarily  about “reforming “ schools but about “reforming” American sensibility itself.  It is about  ridding us of any quaint notions of fraternity, community,  public life, worker rights and everything and anything that may interfere with the ever increasing demands of an increasingly authoritarian globalized  economy especially of any notions that we are, at least nominally, a   democracy.  Ultimately, “education reform” is about a radical rearrangement of American values, a radical re-education – read diminution — of what it means to be a citizen and in the end, a human being. ( Nor is this onslaught limited to these shores.  To get an idea of how deeply interconnected education reform is with the creation of a permanent global underclass read Lois Weiner’s and Mary Compton’s excellent and terrifying collection,  The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and their Unions: Stories for Resistance )

The assault is about the same process of shrinking consciousness one encounters in all aspects of the reformers beloved standardized test.  In it, a corporate employee asks a question and provides four answers for a student to pick. A  correct pick signifies intelligence and learning. The incorrect pick  signifies a bad teacher.    Such is education in the corporate universe.

Education reform  is about inculcating  the corporate values of efficiency, consumption and ceaseless competition in each and every one of us;  it is about incubating our young to such a debased creed before they can comprehend what is even happening to them.

It is about the cynical starvation of public life and the asphyxiation of democracy. It is about a massive and insidious assault on human dignity and human decency:  none-things is a universe where everything that is  anything can be quantified and everything that is  quantified  is a commodity —  including our children.

In the beginning of his 17th c. opus Paradise  Lost, the poet John Milton described hell  as a place of

No light; but rather darkness visible.

Such darkness is now all around us and increasingly within us. We see it and are blind to it at the same time. We make ourselves blind to it because it is terrifying.   Giving the current state of America, how could it not be otherwise? Still, Americans must come to understand the centrality  of that darkness in the the war on public education.  More, American must come to understand  that this is  a war on democracy itself waged, in guerilla fashion, by an unprecedented coalition of the richest, most ruthless and most politically powerful people in the country whose rapacity and contempt for the likes of us and law itself are boundless.

It seems to me that our choices are few.  Doing nothing is not an option and waiting for Superman is an infantile fantasy.  We must act with intelligence and courage and build coalitions of the like that have never before been imagined.  We have no choice.    If we fail to act and act now the current day America, where 1% of the people somehow own 40% of the nation’s wealth, where the poverty level is exploding and the middle class going the way of the dinosaur, where more and more people are hanging on by the skin of their teeth,  will someday soon seem like days of wine and roses.

———————————————————————————————–

Addendum: an excerpt from this essay will appear in the October – September issue of The Catholic  Worker newspaper.  I will be speaking on another aspect of corporate  education reform on September 30, 2011 as part of the Friday Night Meeting series of  The Catholic Worker.  My talk is titled The Intellectual and Spiritual Price of Corporate Education Reform.

Friday Night Meetings are held at Maryhouse located at 55East Third Street between First and Second Ave very close to the 2nd Ave F subway stop or the Broadway/Lafayette   stop on the  4, 5, or 6  trains.  Their number is  212 777 9617. The talk will begin at 7:45 and will be followed by a question and answer period in which all are encouraged to participate.


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2 Responses to “In Darkness Visible: The Corporate and Oligarchic War on Public Education and Public Life”

  1. Trilby Busch Says:

    This blog entry really resonates with me–especially since you borrowed your title from Milton, as I have done in my soon-to-be-released historical novel, “Darkness Visible: A Novel of the 1892 Homestead Strike.” You’re right–union busting is alive and well, with corporations driving the dismantling of the New Deal. Sad, and scary.

    • patrickwalsh Says:

      Hi Trilby,
      and thanks for your kind words. yes, things are very, very dark. But we must fight the bastards. I will look for your novel.
      all the best,

      Patrick


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