I’m not seeing them as underdogs, but it’s entirely possible I lost my place in the test booklet

I’m temperamentally inclined to resist sales pitches that are based on fear. Every time I hear one I think of those home alarm commercials where the frantic women sees the masked intruder crashing through the sliding door. They’re not selling the alarm system. They’re selling fear. They lose me when they choose that approach. The longer I read on the school reform industry-marketing end the more I believe they’re not selling “reform” substantively, to the public, anyway. They’re selling fear that they hope will drive their version of “reform.” Because I have been alive and had a pulse the last 20 years I’m particularly wary of fear-based political appeals that spring from a “bipartisan consensus” because all that really means is a bipartisan group of politicians, think tank, elite non-profits and opinion media people have reached consensus, and what that means to me is there are very few dissenters in the top ranks.

Whether it’s system-wide in Atlanta or DC or Chicago or all the way down to the individual level, where certain anxious fourth graders are taking a high stakes test where they didn’t review the material and they aren’t given enough time to complete the test, fear seems to permeate the whole reform approach. Here’s some political schemers of various stripes and motives who are hoping for low scores on a test that is essentially rigged to produce low scores so they can sell reform in the suburbs. Do they sound like people who are confident in the value of the product? Why would they need to create failed and failing public schools full of failures to sell market-based reform to people in the suburbs? Why not just sell their “sector agnostic” approach to public education– where a public school is the same as a publicly funded for-profit or private school-directly?

While kids are taking their standardized tests some very well compensated reformers are back out on the road, selling reform, or something. This is the message of a reformer who is a particular favorite of Arne Duncan:

Educators make excuses for failing schools, Rhee said. But, she added, “The bottom line is: The system did not become the way that it is by accident. It operates exactly the way it was designed to operate, which is in a wholly unaccountable, dysfunctional manner.
“So when you seek to change that dynamic” – including going after “low-performing” teachers – “you’re gonna have a whole lot of unhappy people on your hands. When you stop that gravy train, somebody is going to be unhappy.”

What is that? What are these awesome, mighty forces that are opposing her? It seems to me she has nearly every powerful political actor and billionaire behind her, including the person who did or did not invent Facebook. How much cheering affirmation does she need? Isn’t South Carolina a Right To Work For Less state, anyway? South Carolina isn’t known for worker protections, reformers. Maybe she didn’t know where she had landed that day, because there’s also this:

Former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee had trouble recalling the names of South Carolina’s “key players” after a quick visit to the State House on Wednesday. But state lawmakers may want to take note of hers.
Rhee’s education advocacy group, StudentsFirst, is lobbying in 18 states, including South Carolina.

Eighteen states! No wonder she can’t keep the “key players” straight. That’s all right. She’ll get it when she writes them a campaign check. The Committee To Elect Reform Rubberstamper probably won’t cut it. Why would the US Department of Education back this stuff, to the extent where Duncan personally intervened to try to save this particular reformer’s job in DC?

I’m the parent of a public school student and I don’t believe our local public school employees are “riding a gravy train.” I know what public school teachers are doing here right now, in fact. They’re prepping for Duncan’s standardized tests. I thought 2011 was the year for the ritual denunciation of public employees, and now we’re back to thanking teachers and firefighters “for their service” after Newtown and then Boston, whatever that means. I hope it doesn’t mean they have to be unpaid volunteers or they’re self-interested and not credible. Why doesn’t that rule apply to lobbyists? I’m not a teacher, but it seems to me they’ve set this up so there’s no way for those teachers who don’t agree with them to question what reformers are doing in our schools without their being labeled wholly self-interested slackers. I’m not a teacher so it also won’t bother me or shut me up (obviously) but why all the threats and grim fear-mongering? There’s nothing new or “transformational” about that. It’s an old, old idea.

23 replies
  1. 1
    Linnaeus says:

    Isn’t South Carolina a Right To Work For Less state, anyway?

    It is, but teachers in South Carolina can’t collectively bargain at all, even with right to work in place. So South Carolina’s educational woes can’t be laid at the feet of teachers’ unions.

  2. 2
    Morzer says:

    When I hear the words ‘bipartisan consensus” I immediately wonder what poor bastard or group of poor bastards got screwed by the rich bastards this time around.

  3. 3
    Tone in DC says:

    Kay, thanks for this. Every so often people like Rhee (and Duncan) ooze out of the woodwork, and this kind of sunlight helps shrivel them up.

  4. 4
    Mnemosyne says:

    I would love to see some actual evidence that the punitive approaches favored by the “reformers” actually, you know, work. I know they never worked on me personally when it came to school — threats of bad grades and bad midterm reports didn’t help me overcome my problems with math.

    From everything I’ve seen, “carrot and carrot” approaches work much better than “carrot and stick” approaches with kids, particularly when we’re not talking about kids who are consciously committing crimes. But apparently we’re not even allowed to talk about rewarding schools and improving their physical state until they “deserve” it.

  5. 5
    c u n d gulag says:

    People should have been suspicious when Rhee, while cutting teaching budgets, was signing-off on administrators eraser budgets, which went through the roof!

  6. 6
    Kay says:

    @Tone in DC:

    Duncan is coming to OH Friday. A friend sent me notice.
    I can’t go because I have continuing legal education class and I paid ahead of time, for the bargain rate :)

  7. 7
    Pooh says:

    The whole thing is based on the bizarre premise that everyone already knew how to improve educational outcomes, just that nobody bothered to do it and merely by realigning the incentives (Carrots! BIG FUCKING STICKS!) the problem is solved. It’s almost like education is hard or something.

  8. 8

    Kay, may have missed it but have you covered the El Paso test score manipulation? http://www.npr.org/2013/04/10/.....untability

  9. 9
    Eric in nny says:

    New grassroots movement by parents opposing standardized testing.

    http://www.northcountrypublicr.....tate-tests

    Could have ramifications for the school districts if this movement grows, but some are starting to take notice.

  10. 10
    Eric in nny says:

    New grassroots movement by parents opposing standardized testing.

    http://www.northcountrypublicr.....tate-tests

    Could have ramifications for the school districts if this movement grows, but some are starting to take notice.

  11. 11
    Kay says:

    @ranchandsyrup:

    I read it, but no, I haven’t written about it.

    The worst part is the aftermath, because everyone’s fighting. So much bad blood and mistrust.

  12. 12

    @Kay: Agreed. That was a pretty bold plan the administrator tried to pull off. High risk, high reward. He raked in some $$ and a heap of prestige before it unraveled.

  13. 13
    kerFuFFler says:

    OT but I just read that someone sent ricin to the President so it is likely that whoever sent it to that republican senator is probably an irate gun wackaloon.

    Meanwhile, thank you Kay for posting such consistently interesting and well thought out posts! Although a little standardized testing can be useful when thoughtfully applied, this pig headed reliance on only one measure does a lot of harm. Sometimes I think it would be better if a modest portion of each day (starting in 3rd grade when kids can read well enough to do independent work) was spent working with programmed educational materials. That way kids would be able to work at a pace that suited them on mastering basic skills and routine, ongoing assessment inherent in such materials could replace the high stakes testing model. Progress of a student through a series of lessons would be harder to fake than a test given once a year.

  14. 14
    Omnes Omnibus says:

    @Kay: Get someone to sign you in at the CLE. ;)

  15. 15
    Kay says:

    @kerFuFFler:

    I worked for the postal service during the anthrax scare. They sent us medication to offer to the rural carriers, which I thought was completely bizarre.
    In any event. I hope someone sane is looking out for them this time, because it got a little nutty.

  16. 16
    Debbie(aussie) says:

    Kay, I would just like to thank you & BJ for your great articles on ed reform. We are likely to have a change of govt come September, to liberal/nationals, our conservatives. And they are busting at the gut to bring in all sorts of reforms from over there. One is privatising our not perfect but pretty good health care, jackass here we go Arghhhhh!!!!!
    You have given me ammunition to fight if needed for education, no children involved but soon to have grandkids(I hope. Again, thank you all. Debs

  17. 17
    Kay says:

    @Debbie(aussie):

    You’re welcome!

    I read they’re striking over this in Mexico, but I haven’t followed it.

    Great, right? WORLDWIDE consensus around market-based reform.

    And they’re supposedly the underdogs. My ass.

  18. 18

    @Linnaeus:

    So South Carolina’s educational woes can’t be laid at the feet of teachers’ unions.

    You don’t honestly expect the School Reform movement to let a little thing like facts get in the way, do you? There’s no evidence that they have before, so you’d be a fool to expect it now.

  19. 19
    rikyrah says:

    Rhee is a grifter.

    straight up.

    Cannot stand her.

    Period.

    Fuck that mofo.

  20. 20
    rikyrah says:

    And Kay?

    Like others, I never ever tire of you publishing the truth about these creeps. We need as many examples that you can gather. Keeping all of this in the arsenal for when I come upon folks trying to sell that school reform shyt.

  21. 21

    @Mnemosyne:

    But apparently we’re not even allowed to talk about rewarding schools and improving their physical state until they “deserve” it.

    It’s the basic tenet of Conservatism all over. The rich and powerful can only be motivated by rewards, and the poor and downtrodden can only be motivated by punishments. Anything else is unpossible.

  22. 22
    Linnaeus says:

    @Roger Moore:

    You don’t honestly expect the School Reform movement to let a little thing like facts get in the way, do you? There’s no evidence that they have before, so you’d be a fool to expect it now.

    No, I certainly don’t expect it from the folks at the head of the movement, like Rhee, or from some of the more conservative supporters of her brand of school reform. It’s just that the rhetoric of Rhee-style school reform has found some traction among otherwise liberal/progressive people (for understandable reasons) and so I point these facts out for their benefit.

  23. 23
    Tokyokie says:

    I obtained a teaching certificate a few years ago, and the classroom observation portion (along with the lousy pay and tenuous job security) pretty much convinced me not to pursue that career path. To do a good job as a teacher, what with grading papers and devising lesson plans and consulting with parents, one needs to spend at least 20 hours a week, probably more, working away from the classroom, in addition to the 40 hours a week spent at school. Those who do a crummy job tend to get paid more or less the same as those who do exemplary work, which means those who are doing a proper job are earning about 50% less, if you figure pay on an hourly bases. (And then they’ll supplement their meager classroom supplies from their own resources.) Yeah, I know there are some niggardly bonuses available for the very best teachers, but until our society decides to put a whole bunch more money into the system than is currently the case, it won’t be enough to make a substantial difference. Americans say they want good schools, but when push comes to shove, we’re not willing to pay the sufficiently higher taxes needed to get them.

    And that’s the opening the “school-reform” movement is exploiting. Better schools at no additional cost. Something for nothing. Some charter schools, by pushing off costs on the public sector — special-education students, kids from impoverished households, teacher support services — may manage to skew the results to appear as though they represent an improved use of resources, but it’s illusory. You want better schools? Spend more money on them. And stop thinking you can drive home a Benz for the same price as a Yugo.

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