Northwest Teachers for Social Justice, Oct. 1, 2011
by Stan Karp
About a year ago I was invited to Portland to give a talk about who was bashing teachers and public schools in the wake of the release of the pro-charter propaganda film Waiting for Stupidman. Since then, it's been a year from hell for many teachers; at times it seems the people making education policy have completely lost their minds, and the attacks on public schools and those who work in them or rely on them have morphed in ugly and sometimes dangerous ways.
But it's also been a year of pushback, heroic resistance, and movement building. There are cracks in the corporate reform movement, recently reflected in the collapse of the coalition that supported NCLB, and there are signs of resistance everywhere (e.g. recent Tacoma strike).
So today I want to take a closer look at the corporate school reform movement because I think it can help expose where that movement is vulnerable to the most hopeful development of the past year, and that's the steady growth of a deep, broad and at times quite militant pushback against corporate reform.
There's been some discussion about whether the phrase "corporate school reform" is the right label for a set of proposals coming from private foundations like Gates, Broad, and Walton and their well-funded partners in elite corporate, media, and political circles. Some call it "market reform" or "neo-liberal reform." Some call it "de-form" instead of "re-form." Some call it "Rhee-form" with an R-h-e-e for Michelle Rhee, one of its most high profile representatives. I think my own favorite term is "reforminess," a label borrowed from comedian Stephen Colbert's rightwing TV persona whose beliefs and ideas are strongly held but have only a tenuous connection to reality, a quality he calls "truthiness." [BTW, even though I'm a big Colbert fan, you may have noticed his show has a steady stream of "reformy" heroes as guests: Kopp/Canada/Rhee/Guggenheim. It's because one of Colbert's chief producers is the wife of the self-appointed education pundit and corporate reform cheerleader Jonathan Alter.]
The corporate reformers like to call themselves just the "reformers" and counterpose themselves to the "status quo." And there's no doubt that the corporate/foundation crowd has successfully captured the media label as "education reformers." If you support testing, charters, merit pay, the elimination of tenure and seniority, and control of school policy by corporate managers you're a "reformer." If you support increased school funding, collective bargaining, and control of school policy by educators, you're a "defender of the status quo."
This bears no resemblance to reality or to the substance of the issues under debate. As Seattle's own parent activist Sue Peters put it so well in a blog post a few months ago, "The current crowd of education reformers like to dismiss any of us who disagree with their agenda as 'defenders of the status quo.' Nothing could be further from the truth. I am not a defender of the status quo in public education because the status quo is currently a beleaguered, underfunded system [that] has been ravaged by damaging policies...pushed by those who want to privatize our public schools."
Now I've also spent a large part of my adult life criticizing the flawed institutions and policies of public education—as a teacher, an education activist, and a policy advocate. Rethinking Schools has been pressing for radical reform of public education since it was started 25 years ago. But with debate about education policy now sharply politicized and polarized, it's important to be specific about the policies we oppose and why, and the alternatives we need to address the very real problems our schools face.
So I'm going to use "corporate reform" to describe a specific set of specific policy proposals and political forces driving current education policy at the state and federal level. This corporate reform movement advocates the following:
These proposals are currently being promoted by reams of foundation reports, well-funded think tanks, a proliferation of Astroturf political groups and canned legislation from the rightwing American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC).
Together these strategies use the testing regime that is the main engine of corporate reform to extend the narrow standardization of curricula and scripted classroom practice that we've seen under NCLB, and to drill down even further into the fabric of schooling to transform the teaching profession and create a less experienced, less secure, less stable, and less expensive professional staff. Where NCLB used test scores to impose sanctions on schools and sometimes students (e.g., grade retention, diploma denial), increasingly test-based sanctions are targeted at teachers.
Alongside these efforts to change the way schools and classrooms function, a larger social/political goal is reflected in the attacks on collective bargaining rights, union rights, and the permanent crisis of school funding across the country. These policies undermine public education and seek to replace it with a market-based system that will do for schooling what the market has done for health care, housing, and the labor market, produce fabulous profits and give opportunities for a few and unequal outcomes and access for the many.
It's been stunning to see this play out in my home state of New Jersey where I was a high school teacher for 30 years before going to work for New Jersey's Education Law Center, one of the nation's most successful legal advocacy projects for funding equity. Since I left the classroom five years ago, I've worked at ELC on reform issues growing out of a landmark funding equity case called Abbott.
For those not familiar with Abbott, it's worth noting briefly that for ten years, roughly between 1998 and 2008, New Jersey's Abbott decisions produced the highest funding levels in the country for poor urban districts. Some 30 districts with about 350,000 schoolchildren received per-pupil parity with the richest districts in a state that ranked at or near the top in school spending. They also received extra funding for supplemental programs including full-day, high-quality pre-school for 3 and 4-year olds, reduced class size, extended school days and years, concentrated early literacy programs, a multi-billion program of school construction, and an unprecedented set of health and social service supports. The Abbott districts were the only place I know where the kind of wraparound supports now universally praised in Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children Zone, which gets two-thirds of its funding from private sources, were mandated for all high-needs students and sustained, at least for a while, with public dollars.
This funding helped lay the basis for progress that was described by Linda Darling Hammond in a chapter in her most recent book, The Flat World and Education. She described New Jersey's public education system as one that:
Yet almost none of this was any defense against a fierce corporate reform attack on teachers and public education over the past two years. Fueled by NCLB's test and punish accountability system, the mainstream conversation has been all about public school failure and the need to reduce the power of educators over school policy while increasing the power of corporate managers and political bureaucracies. The attack has been led by Governor Chris Christie, a Republican protégé of Karl Rove—who is to education reform what MTV's Jersey Shore is to culture—and more recently by Chris Cerf—former CEO of the private education management firm Edison Schools and deputy chancellor under Joel Klein in NYC—who is now Christie's Education Commissioner.
The corporate reform campaign in New Jersey at times has reached bizarre media circus levels. It has involved everyone from Oprah to Mark Zuckerberg to Newark Mayor Cory Booker and the entire cast of WfS. The campaign covers the whole range of bad ideas from privatized charters to vouchers to test-based merit pay to attacks on union bargaining rights to massive intervention by unaccountable private foundations in the design and implementation of public education policy.
Two things have been painfully clear throughout this sustained attack on public education in New Jersey:
Like a lot of us here today, I suspect, I supported Obama in 2008 out of a desperate desire to see an end to the era of war, hate, lies, and greed that flourished under George Bush and Republican rule. And the fact that Obama's administration has a bigger achievement gap between its policies and its rhetoric than any public school you've ever seen has no doubt been a contributing factor to the political funk progressive forces have been in for the past few years. The only thing more demoralizing than losing is thinking you've won only to find out you haven't.
But anyone who has followed the development of NCLB and corporate education reform knows it has always been a bipartisan project. And the support that the Obama Administration has given to corporate reform has been a major factor in its ascendency. It has also greatly facilitated the attempt of the hedgehogs, private foundations and billionaires who are driving the corporate education reform movement to attach their agenda of union busting, privatization, and test-based accountability to the needs of poor communities who have been poorly served by the current system.
This fall, instead of WfS, we have Steven Brill's book Class Warfare, which pretty much is to reporting on education policy what WfS was to documentary film making: a well-crafted but deeply ideological and completely inaccurate framing of the problems facing public education. Like Guggenheim's film, Brill's book is more valuable for what it tells us about the aims and mythology of the corporate reform movement than what it has to say about our schools or our teachers. But it's a good barometer of where that movement currently is and where it may be headed.
The book includes a starry-eyed look at how a tight circle of wealthy, well-connected, self-styled education reformers, most of whom never attended a public school or taught in a classroom, staged a virtual coup, seized control of federal education policy and drove it off the rails.
Brill makes it clear that Barack Obama was in partnership with this effort early on. One of the key vehicles for advancing the corporate reform agenda has been the Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER, a political lobby initiated and funded by hedge fund superstar Whitney Tilson. According to Brill, then-Senator Obama was present at the founding meeting of DFER in 2005, which was sponsored by a group of financial and charter school entrepreneurs, some of whom would later become key figures in the coming financial meltdown. DFER was formed explicitly to drive a wedge between Democrats and the two large teacher unions, the NEA and AFT, and to cultivate political support and develop strategies to bring market reform to public education. The fact that Obama won the Democratic nomination by defeating Hillary Clinton, who initially had the backing of both national teachers unions, only strengthened Obama's ties to the hedge fund/DFER crowd. After Obama won, DFER produced a strategy paper memorably entitled "Bursting the Dam," in which it described Obama's election as creating "unprecedented political conditions" for "fundamental reform of public education."
Brill describes how former Clinton staffers who helped construct the test and punish regime that eventually produced NCLB, were hired to lead DFER and how they used insider beltway politicking and lobbying to advance what had previously been a mostly Republican agenda of school choice, charters, testing and union attacks inside the new administration. Some of you will remember the campaign to replace Linda Darling Hammond as Obama's spokesperson on education issues and potentially his Secretary of Education with his Chicago crony and schools CEO Arne Duncan. This was not only one of DFER's first major successes; it was also just a small part of a strategy to staff every key education position in the Department of Education and the White House with people from the corporate, foundation, and think tank worlds committed to the corporate reform agenda.
One of the more ironic quotes in Brill's book comes from hedge fund billionaire Whitney Tilson who wrote "The whole idea behind Democrats for Education Reform [is] it has to be an inside job."
Now, the irony isn't only in dressing up a straight up anti-union, pro-privatization Republican agenda as a Democratic plan for education reform. But some of you will no doubt recognize the the phrase "inside job" as the title of the documentary film about the fiscal crisis which mercifully beat out WfS as best documentary last year. Even if you haven't seen either film, it's worth considering the parallels they suggest between corporate prescriptions for school reform and the economy.
One of the common themes used by corporate reformers is their persistent calls for "accountability." Brill complains that teaching has become "an occupation where performance just doesn't count... There really isn't any other workplace in the United States where how well you do, how energetic you are, how much you care, how professional you are doesn't count."
Now this is a fantasy that discounts the 24/7 pressure most teachers I know feel every day to prepare for their students while coping with the bureaucratic screws tightening from above. But it's a good indication of the bubble these self-proclaimed education policy experts live in.
According to Brill and the corporate reformers, the key to imposing the kind of accountability schools need is test-based evaluation of teachers. Brill goes so far as to describe what he calls "the discovery" that "good teaching matters" and that it can be measured by standardized test scores as "the beginning of a flood of scholarly work," much of it "financed by a data-obsessed wonk named Bill Gates" that would "reframe the education debate" and provide "ammunition" for a "growing network of reformers."
Now the corporate reformers misrepresent almost every aspect of this topic from the reliability of test-based evaluation formulas, to the research on merit pay, to the comparative academic performance of US students, to the impact of poverty, to straw man arguments about supposed reluctance of teachers to consider student progress in evaluating schools and teachers. But before looking at some of these specifics, it's worth reminding ourselves that this is a society that generally does not do accountability well.
For example, the movie Inside Job—again not to be confused with Whitney Tilson's Trojan horse education reform lobby—reminded us that "the financial crisis of 2008 costs tens of millions of people their savings, their jobs, and their homes." Yet "the men who destroyed their own companies and plunged the world into crisis walked away from the wreckage with their fortunes intact." Architects of the crisis like Summers and Geitner remained in high policy-making positions. Nobody from Goldman Sachs went to jail. Corporate profits and executive bonuses are at the highest levels in the history of the country. Where's the accountability?
Some of these same members of the financial wrecking crew are now righteous education reformers. NYC union activist Leo Casey recently noted that of the 10 names on Forbes' list of the richest Americans, only one "is not engaged in active political warfare against public school teachers and teacher unions." The rest are investing their fabulous wealth in campaigns for vouchers, charter expansion, Astroturf political groups like Michelle Rhee's self-promoting Students First, and efforts to end seniority and tenure rights for teachers.
And much as Inside Job documented how the academic economists who designed and promoted the theories that deregulated the financial markets and allowed the looting of the private and public wealth to proceed profited directly from these policies, today virtually the entire official world of education research and policy analysis is on the payroll of the Gates Foundation.
My own favorite example of this crowd is David Tepper, who lives in New Jersey, a few towns over from me. Tepper manages something called the Appaloosa Hedge fund. In 2009, partly because of the massive taxpayer bailout of the financial sector, Tepper made $4 billion dollars as a hedge fund manager. This was equal to the salaries of 60% of the state's teachers who educate 850,000 students. But for two years in a row, Governor Christie vetoed a millionaire's tax and cut $1 billion out of the state school budget, so people like David Tepper would have lower taxes. So this past year, flush with more money than God, Tepper followed the example of your own local billionaire Bill Gates, and created an education reform group called Better Education for Kids. He hired the states' chief lobbyist for school vouchers to be his executive director and began pouring millions of dollars which should be going to the public treasury into slick campaigns to promote vouchers, expanded charters, eliminate tenure and seniority and attack the state teacher's union. This is how the creation of public policy is being privatized in state after state.
And the economy is far from the only area of social policy where accountability is virtually non-existent. George Bush systematically lied a nation into a war that killed hundreds of thousands of U.S. and foreign citizens. No accountability. Former VP Dick Cheney, who should be facing a war crimes tribunal for authorizing torture and other violations of the US Constitution, is instead on the book tour circuit. Where's BP's accountability for the Gulf oil spill? Who's being held responsible for the march to global climate change disaster?
This absence of accountability for major social crimes teaches some very different lessons about how our society deals with responsibility for various social outcomes. And frankly, it makes a mockery of most discussions of accountability in education.
The same people and politicians who accept no accountability for having created the most unequal distribution of wealth in the history of the planet, an economy that threatens the health and well being of hundreds of millions, want to hold you accountable for your students' test scores. And they even want to use similar instruments to do it.
Standardized tests have been disguising class and race privilege as merit for decades. Today they've become the credit default swaps of the education world. Few people understand how either really works. Both encourage a focus on short-term gains over long-term goals. And both drive bad behavior on the part of those in charge. Yet these deeply flawed standardized tests have become the primary policy instruments used to shrink public space, impose sanctions on teachers, and close or punish schools. And if the corporate reformers have their way, their schemes to evaluate teachers and the schools of education they came from on the basis of yet another new generation of standardized tests, it will make the testing plague unleashed by NCLB pale by comparison. Right now, New Jersey is getting ready to implement a so-called "growth model" developed in Colorado, where they are now giving first graders multiple choice questions about Picasso paintings and using the results to decide the compensation level and job security of teachers.
Or take the issue of poverty. Again, I have no doubt that the majority of us agree that poverty is no excuse for school failure or year after year of lousy school outcomes; and much of the work of the people in this room is about proving that the potential of our students and communities can be fulfilled when their needs are met and the reality of their lives is reflected in our schools and classrooms.
But the contradictions of trying to promote positive change amidst intolerable conditions are becoming sharper. And in the current education reform debates, saying poverty isn't an excuse has become an excuse for ignoring poverty.
The corporate reform plans now being put forward do nothing to reduce or disperse the concentrations of 70/80/90% poverty that remain the central problem in urban education. Instead what we're getting is disruptive reform that is increasing instability, especially in our more vulnerable communities, and creating new forms of collateral damage for students, teachers, schools, and families.
Let's look for a minute at what the corporate reform has actually accomplished:
First the corporate reformers over-reached and chose the wrong target. They didn't go after funding inequity or poverty, they didn't go after reform faddism or consultant profiteering or massive teacher turnover or politicized bureaucratic management or the overuse and misuse of testing.
Instead, they went after collective bargaining, teacher tenure, and seniority. And they went after the universal public and democratic character of public education.
Look again at the issues the corporate reformers have made prominent features of school reform efforts in every state: rapid expansion of charters, closing low performing schools, more testing, elimination of tenure and seniority for teachers, and test-based teacher evaluation. If every one of these policies was fully implemented in every state tomorrow, it would do absolutely nothing to close academic achievement gaps, increase high school graduation rates, or expand access to college. There is no evidence tying any of these proposals to better outcomes for large numbers of kids over time. The greatest gains in reducing gaps in achievement and opportunity have been made during those periods where concentrated poverty has been dispersed through efforts at integration or economic growth for the black middle class and other communities, or where significant new investments in school funding have been made.
Yet the recent financial meltdown reduced the median household wealth of Hispanics by two-thirds and by 50% for African Americans and Asians. Today, over 46 million people live in poverty, the highest total since they started keeping figures in 1959. Child poverty rate is a shameful 22%, twice that in many poor communities, by far the highest rate in the developed world. In the past three years, 300,000 teachers have been laid off. In New York City, supposedly one of the national models of corporate reform under Mayor Bloomberg and former Chancellor Joel Klein, (who's now a digital educational entrepreneur for Rupert Murdoch), class sizes are the largest they have been in a decade. Over 7000 classes are larger than contractual limits. Nationally, two-thirds of the districts who responded to one survey said they are raising class sizes this year. And both Secretary. Duncan and his friend Bill Gates are traveling the country recommending that districts save money by increasing class sizes and expanding virtual classrooms while they're shutting down real ones.
The only thing corporate education reform policies are doing successfully is bringing the anti-labor politics of class warfare to the public sector and to public schools in particular. In fact, by over-reaching, demonizing teachers and unions, and sharply polarizing the education debate, corporate reform is undermining serious efforts to improve schools. They've narrowed the common ground by eroding the broad public support a universal system of public education needs to survive.
For example, there's actually a lot of common ground on the need to improve teacher support and evaluation. There's widespread agreement among educators, parents, and even administrators on the following:
But the over-reaching by corporate reformers has actually undermined efforts to promote teacher quality. They have detached the issue of teacher quality from the conditions that shape it. Their proposals are staffing our most challenging schools with novices or Teach for America temps on their way to other careers after a couple of years of resume-building. They are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into data systems and tests designed to replace collaborative professional culture and experienced instructional leadership with a kind of psychometric astrology. These data-driven formulas lack both statistical credibility and a basic understanding of the human motivations and relationships that make good schooling possible. These attacks on the profession are driving experienced teachers into despair, retirement, or rage. Corporate reform isn't elevating the profession, it's dismantling it.
One of the most dishonest framings, that has become a favorite of the corporate crowd, is to counter-pose the interests of "adults" vs. the "children." Their rhetoric righteously pits the interests of teachers and their unions against those of children, and there are certainly times when those interests diverge and when our unions have not adequately defended the interests of the families and communities we serve. But this same rhetoric never questions the adult motives of the hedge fund privateers, consultants, the private foundations, pundits, or politicians who are suddenly the champions of the poor. Only in the US could a campaign of billionaires to privatize and dismantle what's probably the most inclusive democratic institution we have left be dressed up as a selfless campaign for civil rights.
The "disruptive reform," that corporate reformers claim is necessary to shake up the status quo is increasing pressure on 5000 schools serving the poorest communities at a time of unprecedented economic crisis and budget cutting. The latest waiver bailout for NCLB, announced last week by Secretary Duncan, may actually ratchet up that pressure. While it rolls back NCLB's absurd adequate yearly progress system just as it was about to self-destruct, the new guidelines require states that apply for waivers to identify up to 15% of their schools with the lowest scores for unproven "turnaround" interventions, "charterization" or closing. These policies are already wreaking havoc in areas with high concentrations of poverty, high-need student populations, and clusters of struggling schools.
Teachers and schools, who in many cases are day to day the strongest advocates and most stable support system struggling youth have, are instead being scapegoated for a society that is failing our children. As Linda Darling-Hammond put it at the SOS march last summer, "Our leaders seek to solve the problems of the poor by blaming the teachers and schools that seek to serve them." At the same time, they are giving parents triggers to blow up the schools they have, but no say and no guarantees about what will replace them.
So where's the hope; where's the way forward? If corporate reform is leading us in a Race Over the Cliff, how do we turn back and go a different way? Let me try to give you some possibilities.
First, it's important to remember that corporate reform rests on fundamentally false premises. The corporate reformers do not represent the interests of poor communities of color, or for that matter, working or middle class communities. And test-based reform, which is now the status quo in public education and has been for sometime, has been a colossal failure on its own test-score terms.
And because reality still counts—despite the bizarre Wizard of Oz-like character of our media and political systems—corporate reform rests on a very weak foundation of false claims and failed policies. For all its deep pockets and political influence, it's a movement that has absolutely no way to deliver on its promises of better education for all, and particularly for our poorest and most vulnerable schools and communities.
Even though the people making policy are drawing the wrong conclusions, the collapse of the NCLB coalition is still a victory for ten years of grassroots opposition and organizing that exposed its test-and-punish approach as a predictable failure. Recent reports have fully exposed the myth of "reformy" progress in key cities like Duncan's Chicago and Bloomberg/Klein's New York City. Twenty years of corporate reform have failed to narrow achievement gaps or succeed even on its own narrow test score terms. In the past few months, merit pay has met the cheating scandals, an intersection of bureaucratic pressure, corruption, and bad policy that is likely to be a growing obstacle to claims of future miracles while producing more scandals and lawsuits.
The corporate reformers have successfully used deeply rooted inequalities in our society to construct a misleading narrative of failure and introduce market reform into public education. But because they've overreached and promised results and choices they cannot deliver, we need to turn their accountability rhetoric back upon them. We need to demand evidence that their market reform policies produce better outcomes for the majority of kids, and when they can't, we need to use the absence of that evidence to press for the limitation or reversal of the "disruptive reforms" they seek. And when their policies fail in one place, we need to share those results in their next target.
There was a good example of that last spring when Newark was searching for a new Superintendent and Seattle's former Superintendent Goodloe-Johnson surfaced as a candidate. The great work Parents Across America had done exposing the role of the Broad Foundation in spreading the corporate reform agenda laid a foundation of connections that allowed activists in Seattle and New Jersey to share history and information that helped quickly derail her candidacy. I know she's probably surfaced somewhere else already. Fighting Broad and Gates is like whack-a-mole. Their network is stronger than ours at this point, but our own efforts are building and resonating.
Some of that work includes defending the very idea of public education as a common good against free market, everyone-for-themselves mythology. One of the hopeful developments of the past year has been the emergence of a strong counter-narrative to the dominant corporate line on reform. Led by Diane Ravitch's emergence as a prominent critic of the corporate reform agenda, there's been an explosion of progressive policy blogs, analysis, and social media pushback to the corporate crowd. Well-read teacher bloggers like Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, and teacherken Bernstein produce a steady stream of accessible refutations of "reformy" nonsense, rooted in the experience of real teachers and schools. A recent listing of the most influential education tweeters was headed by Ravitch and included progressives like Alfie Kohn, Mike Klonsky, and Leonie Haimson in the top 12.
It's especially satisfying to see how effectively the social media activists can be in disrupting the official line. Last May, when Secretary Duncan wrote a condescending letter of support for US teachers, he was inundated with responses and counter-commentaries highlighting the contradictions between his lofty sentiments and his destructive policies.
A few months ago, in a moment of clueless arrogance, director Davis Guggenheim posted an invitation on the Huffington Post to "Teachers, to tell me what you think" (along with a discount offer to see his teacher-bashing film during Teacher Appreciation Week). In return, he received pages upon pages of scathing comments from educators and parents. Perhaps the best response came from a veteran early childhood teacher who said: "I felt personally offended by your film. Its oversimplified and antagonistic message has stirred me into becoming a whole education activist."
And of course, that's the key. Because democratic ideas are only as strong as the ability of people to organize movements to implement them. So let me end by offering a quick survey of some of the hopeful, tangible signs of organizing resistance and alternatives to the corporate reform agenda and then open it up for discussion about how corporate reform is affecting your schools and classrooms and how we might build the movement against it over the coming year.
In no particular order, let me mention 10 hopeful signs that the tide is turning against corporate reform: