What a Comcast technician taught me about Common Core

Sam Smith – For four days beginning last Friday, my Internet and TV system was a mess. Furthermore, I couldn’t connect my new Tivo device to my television. I had approximately four hours of discussions with Comcast people on the phone. What struck me as time went on was that a number of these folks were dealing with me just as I suspect many subjected to the Common Core approach to education will deal with life in the future. Their comments and answers seemed robotic and often non-responsive to the specific matters I had raised. By the third day, I realized – albeit with a few pleasant exceptions – that these agents of Comcast considered me a multiple choice test to be answered. Their responses were not good and often didn’t apply but they were – as our children are being taught in Common Cored schools – what the system considered correct. And on at least four occasions, they even interrupted the discourse to try to sell me additional new service, not the best idea when a customer’s current system is broken.

Then on Monday, the technician finally showed up and my Comcast experience totally changed. Within two hours he had corrected every problem, found a couple I didn’t know about, and got my Tivo going (although he has to share credit for that with me who had figured out the problem was in the remote card). He also has me scheduled for a new wire coming into the house once spring finally arrives.

This was actually the second time this had happened to me: endless useless talk on the phone eventually resolved by a pragmatically thinking guy on the scene.

The conflict was, in part, one between deductive and inductive reasoning. Like MBAs and philosophers and Common Core taught students, the Comcast phone people applied presumed overriding principles to specific cases with little attention to the anarchy of details. The technician, on the other hand – like detectives and good reporters – accumulated evidence which created the probability of a solution.

As far back as college, my bias was with the technicians rather than the PhDs, which didn’t help me much on campus but since as been highly useful as a journalist. I look first at the facts rather than what Marx, Freud or Henry Kissinger said about them.

It even helps in getting my Tivo working.

The war on education moves to the college campus

Sam Smith

Barack Obama – the guy who gave us a hopelessly muddled health plan incomprehensibly comprised of the good, bad and indefinable and who has asserted more control over our public schools for no known good than any president in history – is now proposing to interfere significantly with college education. As the New York Times reported:

President Obama announced a set of ambitious proposals on Thursday aimed at making colleges more accountable and affordable by rating them and ultimately linking those ratings to financial aid.

A draft of the proposal, obtained by The New York Times and likely to cause some consternation among colleges, shows a plan to rate colleges before the 2015 school year based on measures like tuition, graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students who attend. The ratings would compare colleges against their peer institutions. If the plan can win Congressional approval, the idea is to base federal financial aid to students attending the colleges partly on those rankings.

 “There are all kinds of issues, like deciding how far down the road you are looking, and which institutions are comparable,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a group representing colleges and universities. “Ultimately, the concern is that the Department of Education will develop a formula and impose it without adequate consultation, and that’s what drives campus administrators nuts.”

Obama described it this way:

    “I think we should rate colleges based on opportunity — are they helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed … and on outcomes, on their value to students and parents. So that means metrics like how much debt does the average student leave with? How easy is it to pay off? How many students graduate on time? How well do those graduates do in the workforce? Because the answers will help parents and stdents figure out how much value a college truly offers.”

Senator Lamar Alexander sees it somewhat differently:

Washington needs to be careful about taking a good idea for one state and forcing all 6,000 institutions of higher education to do the exact same thing, turning Washington into a sort of national school board for our colleges and universities

And so does Adam Falk, president of Williams College:

At Williams College, we’ve analyzed which educational inputs best predict progress in these deeper aspects of student learning. The answer is unambiguous: By far, the factor that correlates most highly with gains in these skills is the amount of personal contact a student has with professors. Not virtual contact, but interaction with real, live human beings, whether in the classroom, or in faculty offices, or in the dining halls. Nothing else—not the details of the curriculum, not the choice of major, not the student’s GPA—predicts self-reported gains in these critical capacities nearly as well as how much time a student spent with professors.

As classes resume on our nation’s campuses, amid anxiety about high tuition, student debt and other concerns, it’s worth examining what we value in college education. The question warrants consideration, in particular, following a recent recommendation by distinguished economists, appointed by the National Academy of Sciences, proposing to define the “output” of higher education as a combination of credit hours awarded and degrees earned.

That reduces the work of colleges to counting how many students they push through the system—a bit like defining a movie studio’s output as the number of feet of raw footage shot, with no consideration of whether the resulting movies are any good.

Most of us in higher education take the long view about the value of what we do. Sure, students graduate with plenty of facts in their heads. But the transmission of information is merely the starting point, a critical tool through which we engage the higher faculties of the mind.

What really matters is the set of deeper abilities—to write effectively, argue persuasively, solve problems creatively, adapt and learn independently—that students develop while in college and use for the rest of their lives…

Equally misguided is the common practice of judging a school’s success by measuring the net worth of its alumni. Is a Williams graduate who is teaching elementary school less successful, less influential, less transformed than she would be if she had become a banker? There’s no reason to think so, and anyone assessing colleges or setting public policy on that assumption is being mischievous.

The arrogance of Obama’s interference in public school education was bad enough and was accomplished with the aid of a truly unqualified education secretary. As we described it a few years back:

Between 2003 and 2007 – when Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, was running the Chicago schools – fourth grade math scores in that city rose 6 points, or less than three tenths of a percent. The scores in Chicago rose only 2 more points than in the state of Illinois at large. Eighth grade math scores rose 5 points in Chicago and 7 points nationwide between 2003 and 2007.

The Chicago Tribune reported in October 2008, shortly before Duncan was appointed, that “The percentage of Chicago public high school students who met or exceeded state standards on a test tied to the ACT college-entrance exam dropped for the third consecutive year, according to scores released Friday.”…

Duncan – like DC’s school chancellor Michelle Rhee – has fostered a dysfunctional rightwing, corporatized system of education that not only isn’t working, it is damaging our children as it trains them to be obedient worker-drones incapable of analyzing or understanding what is really going on about them. The dangers of this system include:

– Teaching our children only to give the right answers and not to ask the right questions.

– Grossly limiting education to fact accumulation and basic manipulation of data, leaving little time for analysis, creativity, judgment, philosophy social intelligence, as well as learning about, and participating in, the non-mechanical aspects of life such as art, theater and music. This system deliberately teaches our children not to think.

One of the reasons technocrats like test scores so much is that it saves them the trouble of dealing with the complexities of real education. They parade seemingly objective numbers (and hide them when they’re not favorable) and strut around with a overblown media status driven by public relations rather than experience and fact.

The damage being done to our students in the public schools amounts to nationalized child abuse. Now Obama wants to wield unconstitutional powers over our colleges and universities as well.

It is important, however, to bear in mind that this has little to do with traditional politics. In fact, the destruction of public education has been a remarkably bipartisan affair, in part because both major parties are getting money from the school wreckers.

This is a case study in the takeover of politics by class and culture. Obama and Duncan reflect a massive change in the character of Washington – from a political culture to one controlled by a gradocracy of  lawers, MBAs, economists, data drones, process perverts and raving regulators. They are stunningly weak in wisdom, judgment, imagination, social skills, mediation, and comprehension of the ecology of human existence. As long as they have the numbers and the rules, everything will be fine.

There are, for example, some 43,000 lawyers in the Washington area, a 65% increase in just 15 years. There are few in the capital today who would appreciate De Tocqueville’s assessment that lawyers are a “counterpoise” to democratic government: “They constantly endeavor to turn it away from its real direction by means that are foreign to its nature.”

Meanwhile the number of MBAs in the country has increased 310% since the 1970s, And to what end?

Jermie D. Cullip  describes a simpler time:

“From 1950 to 1959, the total number of females employed increased by 18%. The standard of living during the fifties also steadily rose. Most people expected to own a car and a house, and believed that life for their children would be even better. . . The number of college students doubled. Getting a college education was no longer for the rich or elite

“The decade of the fifties was a decade of major breakthroughs in technology. James Watson and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize for decoding the molecular structure of DNA. Tuberculosis had all but disappeared, and Jonas Salk’s vaccine was wiping out polio in the United States. . .

“Over the decade the housing supply increased 27 percent . . . Growth in the economy also led to increasing popularity of other financial intermediaries. Life insurance companies flourished for the first half of the decade and a large number of new private firms entered the market to absorb the excesses of personal savings. Savings and Loan Association holdings of mortgage loans during the decade clearly demonstrate the boom in construction at this time. In 1950 $13.6 billion was held rising to $60.1 billion in 1960. Another important growth in the 1950s capital markets was in pension funds. This industry grew from $11 billion in 1950 to $44 billion in 1960.

All in all not a bad decade to be in if you were running a business. So much so, in fact, that some began griping about it all in books like The Organization Man and plays like Death of a Salesman.

But here is the truly amazing part – given what we have been taught in recent years: America did it all as its universities turned out less than 5,000 MBAs a year.

Now, the number is over 100,000 new MBAs a year during the worst economic crisis since the great depression.

Which is how we come to have a highly educated yet frequently unwise president proposing a rating system for our colleges and universities based on things such as the salaries of those who graduate from them.

It is hard to imagine a less intelligent way to rate a university. Do we really need more high paid and ineffectual MBAs and lawyers?  What about lower salaried teachers, social workers, small business creators, mediators, and, of yes, decent politicians? How much will a college suffer for daring to provide us with such graduates?

And, like Obama’s other proposals of complexity replacing common sense, there are issues that are hardly mentioned. For example, buried in a Washington Post story:

Now, the federal government measures how many students graduate within four years or six years of starting college. But it only measures that for students who are first-timers, who are enrolled full-time and who don’t transfer from one institution to another, omitting a huge share of the college population. Millions of students are part-timers. Community colleges with excellent records of getting students into prestigious four-year schools are not rewarded for their efforts if those students fail to pick up an associate’s degree before they transfer. Nor are four-year colleges that give transfer students or former dropouts a second chance and help them get a bachelor’s degree.

Our country is on the down slope and one of the major reasons is that we put too much faith in number bangers, regulation wigglers and picayune processors.

We have limited education to fact accumulation and basic manipulation of data, leaving little time for analysis, creativity, judgment, philosophy, social intelligence, as well as learning about, and participating in, the non-mechanical aspects of life such as art, theater and music. This system deliberately teaches our children not to think.

Barack Obama: Our first Common Core president

Sam Smith

As I was reading about Common Core standards I suddenly realized why Barack Obama likes this weird stuff so much: he is a Common Core exemplar, our first Common Core president.

To play the Common Corista’s game you need to handle facts, evaluate texts, achieve increased levels of complexity, have a progressive development of reading comprehension, dissect challenging informative discourse, acquire new knowledge, insights, and consider varying perspectives as you read.

And your writing should be logical arguments based on claims, solid reasoning, and relevant evidence.

Bored yet?

If so, it may have something to do with the lack of mention of imagination, metaphor, anecdotes, critical judgment, wisdom, enthusiasm, conscience, story telling, humor, or history. And it certainly doesn’t include such earlier exemplar standards such as “if you can’t be funny, be interesting” (New Yorker editor Harold Ross) or “write drunk, edit sober.” (Ernest Hemingway).

The idea behind Common Core standards is to produce students who are are robots giving the appearance of skill without straying from whatever the current cliches of proper thought demand. New ideas, creativity, morality, appeals to the heart and soul rather than to approved norm are not welcomed. The Common Coristas don’t even want their students wasting much time on fiction, history, civics, or social studies.

It’s like learning music by memorizing all the chords, tunes, riffs and runs. It still don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

Obama is ideally suited for this since he is our first robotic president, smart, analytical and properly spoken, but, as Gertrude Stein put it, “There’s no there there.”

The closest thing to a creative political act he has come up with is a 2,000 page healthcare plan randomly comprised of the good, the bad and the indecipherable.

It would get high grades on a Common Core exam but since it is meant to function in real life rather than just in a classroom it leaves much to be desired.

A real politician would have come up with something more like Social Security or Medicare, something that you don’t need an economist or lawyer to explain to the average citizen, something that inspires enthusiasm, and which brings in votes rather than endless questions.

Real politicians also come up with metaphors for what they’re doing, tell stories that illustrate it, make friends across the aisle to get it passed, and don’t stand behind a lectern talking to the American people like we were all in Political Science 101.

And real politicians have a lot of personal friends, something that Obama seems to be strikingly short on.

Those who think that data, process, and analysis are all you need for a good idea, a good policy or a good few years in office are increasingly amongst us.

As for the rest of us, we face a future that is not only rife with pretentious, well-spoken and well argued incompetence, carefully documented and carelessly executed, but also one that is sadly dull, soulless and cruel.

Our only recourse is to flunk the Common Core standards and return to being human.

Life without a predicate

Sam Smith

I awoke this morning wondering what a predicate was. It was at first an embarrassing thought and then, when I remembered that I had lived my whole life as a writer never knowing what a predicate was (except briefly after I occasionally looked it up), I felt better. Maybe it really didn’t matter.

Certainly my three high school English teachers didn’t seem to think so. I can’t remember any of them explaining it. They were too busy with other stuff, like getting us excited about interesting books or having us write about new things in an imaginative and readable way.

For them it seemed to have worked. One became a publisher. Another taught future English teachers at Yale. And the third went on to coach other teachers for decades. Time Magazine once decribed David Mallery as having “become the nation’s most skilled conveyor of one teacher’s technique to another.”

I went on to be a journalist, and at one point – despite not knowing what a predicate was – I was able to write nine radio newscasts a day, including three between five pm and six thirty.

Years later, I was president of the parents’ association of the John Eaton public school in DC where the principal Pat Greer didn’t worry about predicates either. I wrote once:

The curriculum at the school was colored by two impressive biases. One was a prejudice towards writing. The kids were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches, advertisements. The school clearly understood the shortest route to good writing: do it.

The other emphasis was the arts, particularly drama and music. With excellent teachers and adequate time, the kids threw themselves into their projects as though Broadway rather than high school was the next step.

I became conscious of how serious the dramatic side of Eaton was one day as I was taking a group of 4th graders home from an event. One kid stepped carelessly into the street and a companion called her back, saying, “Be careful, you could ruin your whole life that way.’ Another added, “yeah, or even your career.” Once safely in the car, there commenced the sort of surreal debate that only the young can withstand. The topic (clearly involving the stage rather than the lesser trades) was: what is more important – your life or your career?

As I read about the corporate takeover of public education – aka Race to the Top and Common Core – promoted by the likes of Arnie Duncan and Bill Gates, I become angry not just for political or intellectual reasons. I become angry because of all the children being denied the fun and usefulness of learning about writing and reading not as a test to pass but as a wonderful part of a life to experience. Reducing life to data, business school cliches and rules is not just stupid, it’s a cruel punishment.

I don’t know what filled the time when Arnie Duncan and Bill Gates think I should have been learning what a predicate was, but I’m delighted they weren’t around to ruin it. Or the rest of my education.

Bush, Obama & Dr. George

 Sam Smith
One of the greatest assaults on the Tenth Amendment was the federal takeover of local public education by the Bush Administration under the phony name of  No Child Left Behind. Now Barack Obama and Arne Duncan plan to alter NCLB with their own unconstitutional policy.
There weren’t even any public schools when the Constitution was written so to pretend that their regulation is a proper federal function is just a whopping  lie, but one that Washington has long figured out how to get away through the simple expedient of greenmail, i.e. we’ll give you lots of money provided you do just what we say.  (And if that doesn’t work, we’ll just argue it falls under the Commerce Clause, the only part of the Constitution the disingenuous capital really cares about).
The war on public education is one of the least reported and most rotten attacks on the Constitution because its victims will be a generation or more of children who were promised “a race to the top” but given some of the worst prospects of social and economic improvement in American history.
I also take this somewhat personally since my great, great grandfather, Dr George Smith, got public education going in Pennsylvania just 175 years ago this year. Here is a description of that time from the Upper Darby Historical Society:
“In 1831, George was elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate representing both Delaware and Chester Counties. When his term began in 1832, George was appointed to the committee that would first make him a well-known figure in Pennsylvania politics-the Education Committee. As a committee member, George dealt with the problem of the Pauper Act of 1809. The Pauper Act provided a free education to the poorest members of Pennsylvania society. Because of the stigma attached to attending the pauper schools, the Pauper Act was not very successful.
“The Education Committee then came up with the Act of April 1, 1834 law, which guaranteed all children in those districts in Pennsylvania that did not opt out, a free education paid for by tax dollars. While the law passed easily in the legislature, powerful opponents, including the wealthy land owners, who paid most of the real estate taxes that would fund the public schools, and religious schools that felt threatened by the competition, insured that most school districts across the Commonwealth opted out of the new system.
“When George rose to the position of chair of the committee later in 1834, he was able to craft the Act of 1836, which amended the Act of April 1, 1834. The new act overcame most of the opposition to the 1834 act, thus paving the way for universal public education in the state. Recognizing his role in saving the concept of public education, Delaware County appointed George as the first superintendent of the Common Schools, and Upper Darby appointed him president of its School Board, a position he held for 25 years.”
How stunningly familiar is the reference to the role of the wealthy and religious institutions in opting out of the system. They just hadn’t come upon the term “charter school” yet.
In a very real sense, what George Bush and Barack Obama have done is to manipulate the public school system so as to repeal the Pennsylvania Act of  1836 and laws like it across the country and  to direct public education back to its former role as a system of pauper schools.
The Bush-Obama approach to public education is the domestic version of  their wars in the Middle East, massive funding of mindless endeavors of no clear purpose – ones that benefit only the wealth and leave hordes of victims in their wake.
And I imagine that Dr. George would be pretty pissed about it.

Eternal fundamentals of leadership (Rev. 8/14/11)

Sam Smith

I have been trying to understand the new eternal fundamentals of leadership according to the likes of Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan and others who see government and non-profits as badly in need of corporate principles. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. Please copy it promptly as I may be laid off later today with this post removed.

Fire, don’t inspire

Test, don’t teach

Statistics are just another form of adjective. Use them at will

Treat everyone – including citizens, patients, students, teachers, and volunteers – as corporate employees.

With enough public relations, personal relations aren’t necessary.

Internal organization is far more important than external programs

Statistical margins of error don’t apply when numbers improve. Acceptable progress need only be a decimal point away.

Dismantle, don’t build

Civility reflects inability

Reserve all creativity for budgets and annual reports.

School “reform” is about class, not classrooms


Unanswered in all the noise about “education reform” is why, over the past decade, America’s establishment has become so obsessed with controlling public education, a complete reversal of two centuries of American faith in locally controlled schools.

There are answers that the op-eds will give you, such as the need to compete in the global marketplace, but this is pretty weak stuff and not the raw material for major presidential policy under two administrations.

There are answers that can be found in the general shift in government towards data as a worthy substitute, or delaying tactic, for action. As long as you’re assessing something you don’t actually have to do anything about it.

Then there’s the milking of the cash cow of testing. For example, the Washington Post now gets the bulk of its profits from the Kaplan education division, profits bolstered by the paper’s constant editorial boosting of the test tyrants. And Neil Bush started a company designed to help students pass the tests of his brother’s No Child Left Behind policy.

Certainly there is precedent for this, such as the efforts to privatize Social Security and subsidize health insurance companies, all part of a three decades rip-off of public programs by private industry.

But how, for example, does one explain that this effort has been carried out with such an extraordinary absence of knowledgeable educators or skilled teachers? What has happened is as if we had tried to reach the moon with space vehicles designed by economists, lawyers and corporate buddies of the president.

It has, in the end, a hopeless mush of sleaze, stupidity and statistical static, all having remarkably little to do with real education.

There is, however, an even more disreputable matter lurking in the background that has not been exposed, debated or confronted – namely growing evidence that the assault on public education is part of an urban socio-economic cleansing that has long been underway as the upper classes attempt retrieve the cities they surrendered to the poor many decades ago.

For several decades, I followed this phenomenon as a journalist in my hometown of Washington, DC. It was a topic seldom mentioned in the corporate media and not polite to mention at all in the better parts of town.

In 2006 I wrote, “Part of the socio-economic cleansing of the capital city – still underway – included draconian measures to discourage the minority poor from staying in DC. Some of these were fiscal — such as a tax break for predominately white first-time homeowners but no breaks for the lower income blacks pushed out by them. But they also included a variety of punitive measures including new restrictions on jury trials, increased lock-ups such as for trivial traffic offenses, stiffer sentencing, soaring marijuana arrests, a halving of the number of court-appointed defense attorneys, increased penalties for pot possession, and the shipping of inmates to distant prisons

And in 2007: “This is a 60% black city undergoing socio-economic cleansing. One suburban county has so many black former DC residents that it is known here as Ward 9. But it’s no joke. Here are just a few of things that have happened: Huge budget cuts of which 60% of the burden fell on the poor; closing of four of the city’s ten health clinics; slashing the number of public health workers; cutting the budget for libraries, city funded day care centers, welfare benefits, and homeless shelters; creation of a tax-subsidized private “charter” school system; dismantling the city’s public university including a massive cut in faculty, destruction of the athletic program and elimination of normal university services; selling the city’s public radio station to C-SPAN; transferring prisoners to private gulags hundreds of miles away; a dramatic increase in the number of lock-ups including for traffic stops; and the subjugating of the elected school board to an appointed board of trustee.”

There were other signs: the destruction of public housing units, the removal of a homeless shelter from the center city, and even a blockade of a crime- hit black neighborhood – with entry permitted only for approved cause – not unlike apartheid South Africa or the Israelis in the West Bank – about which the liberal gentry class said nothing.

In other words, it was absolutely clear and absolutely unmentionable that the upper classes – both white and black, incidentally – wanted the city back again and were using a plethora of tactics to achieve this goal, especially after our energy consciousness increased and it became apparent that the suburbs were no longer the favored haven, but the ghettos of the future.

Furthermore, it was clear that satisfying this goal was behind most of the major new city programs, ranging from the subway to the baseball stadium – only please always call it economic development rather than getting rid of the poor.

Public education “reform” fit the plan in some ways. For example, although it was widely claimed that charter schools did not discriminate in their selection of students it was obvious that parents – a central factor in any child’s ability to learn – differed drastically between those with enough ambition to apply for a charter school seat and those either indifferent or with too much else on their mind. The charter schools were in this way a subtle part of socio-economic cleansing as they helped to reduce the old public facilities to what were once called “pauper schools.”

Then there was the carefully crafted schemes for closing “failing” public schools. But there is far more to schools than aggregate test scores. They help define a community, anchor its loose pieces to common ground, and provide a place for children to meet and play in a decent and clean environment.

Describing DC’s plans to close eleven schools (mostly in order to build condos), DC Statehood Party activist Chris Otten argued a few years ago, “There are lots of ways we can use our publicly owned properties — homeless services and shelters, child care, before- and after-school care, services for children with special needs, transitional housing and permanent affordable housing, health care, literacy programs, training for jobs and workforce readiness, senior services, gardening and green spaces, recreation. It’s outrageous that Mayor Fenty would rather transfer them to his friends and other well-connected and powerful real estate and development interests.”

But Fenty and other mayors were not only willing to get rid of such schools, they were wiling to damage community in the process and force young residents to travel far away from their community and its values. It was not only bad educationally cruel it was mean to the communities as a whole.

But these schools were located on suddenly valuable ground and so the government stole from the children and their parents and gave to the developers.

But there was something more at work.

It took the recent DC mayoral election to make me realize that I had been putting too much emphasis on educational considerations in examining what was happening. What I had missed was that the war on schools was not designed to bring the upper classes into the education system but primarily as a a marketing tool to bring the upper classes and corporations back to the cities. The message was, as with crime sweeps, baseball stadiums and the subway. It was now safe, folks, to live here.

In DC, the battle peaked between incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty, who with his school chancellor Michelle Rhee was strongly committed to the Bush-Obama school model, and his opponent and strong critic, Vincent Gray.

Eddie Elfanbeen did a precinct by precinct analysis of the contest. Some 31 precincts gave Fenty 75% or more of the vote while 53 gave him 25% or less. All of the top Fenty precincts were heavily white while all the top Gray precincts were heavily black. But more significant perhaps was that the former were all upscale precincts while the latter were at the lower end of the income scale. .

This year Fenty got 80% of upscale white Ward 3 and 16% of far poorer and black Ward 8.

Rhee and the school system was obviously a factor. As Natalie Henerson pointed out in the Atlantic, “Among white Democrats, 68 percent said Rhee is a reason to support Fenty. Fifty-four percent of black Democrats cite her as a reason to vote against the mayor, according to a Washington Post poll. In an earlier August poll by Clarus Research, Rhee got her most unfavorable ratings from black women, only 15 percent of whom viewed her favorably.”

Now, here’s the hooker. Only five percent of the public school system consists of white students. So why did it matter so much? For example, why did heavily gay precincts – with a constituency least likely to ever use the school system – give over 70% of their vote to Fenty?

It seems that it mattered because school test scores represent a symbol that the city is getting the poor under control or out of the way. It was not about educating the city’s young but about marketing to the city’s newcomers. Another poll, for example, found that Fenty won overwhelmingly the vote of those who had lived in DC less than ten years and Gray those who had lived there longer.

Thus, it was not unlike the crime war phenomena. Back in the nineties I noted that “Between 1985 and 1988, in the wake of the revived drug war, murders in Washington, DC soared from 145 a year to 369. During this period, the city’s office of criminal justice planning did an unusually detailed analysis of homicides. The report illustrates [that] it was virtually impossible to be killed in Washington if you were a young white girl living in upscale Georgetown on an early Thursday morning in July. If, on the other hand, you were a young black 20-year-old male living in low-income Anacostia, dealing drugs on a Saturday night in June, your chances of being killed were far greater than the overall statistics would suggest. And if you were not buying or selling drugs at all, your chances of being killed in DC were about the same as in Copenhagen.”

But being safe and feeling safe are two different things. And, as with crime, it was important for effective marketing to be seen as keeping the problem population under control.

To be sure, whatever appeal school “reform” had, it was not matched by the facts. For example, here are DC’s scores according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress broken down by income class (based on food stamp eligibility)

Several things to note here. The overall improvement was minimal – but half as much for the poor as the better off. Furthermore, the gap between the scores of the better off and the poor actually widened by far more than the overall improvement percentage. So, as 8th grade reading improved 2% for the better off between 2002 and 2009, the gap between these two groups increase by 19%. Obviously, we are not talking about better education here.

And DC was far from alone. Just recently it was reported that in Massachusetts, 57 percent of public schools had fallen short of the yearly progress standard.

Diane Ravitch has noted other flaws in the school reform con:

“A study released days ago by Sean Corcoran of New York University showed that a teacher who was ranked at the 43rd percentile, using student test scores, might actually be at the 15th percentile or the 71st percentile because the margin of error in this methodology is so large.”

“Privately managed charter schools do not get better results on average than regular public schools. Some are excellent, some are awful, but most are no better than their public counterparts. Even the Superman movie admitted that only one in five (actually, only 17%) of charters get great test scores. Twice as many charters (37%) are even worse than the neighborhood public school.”

“One group of teachers in Nashville was offered bonuses up to $15,000 if they raised students’ math scores; another, the control group, was offered nothing. The average teacher pay is about $50,000, so this was a significant incentive to get higher scores. Over the three years of the study, both groups produced the same results.”

Of DC, Leigh Dingerson wrote recently:

“There’s nothing remarkably visionary going on in Washington. The model of school reform that’s being implemented here is popping up around the country, heavily promoted by the same network of conservative think tanks and philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton Family Foundation that has been driving the school reform debate for the past decade. It is reform based on the corporate practices of Wall Street, not on education research or theory. Indications so far are that, on top of the upheaval and distress Rhee leaves in her wake, the persistent racial gaps that plague D.C. student outcomes are only increasing. . .

“Despite glowing reports from the adoring media, D.C.’s education miracle is a chimera at best. . . ”

But that, it turns out, was probably the point: to create a political illusion that would support the city’s myth, sell real estate, and attract new residents and businesses. Just as it didn’t matter that Washington’s Metro was designed in a way that actually increased rather than reduced street traffic, it didn’t matter that school reform didn’t improve things. It only had to seem to change things.

Meanwhile the real city remained.

In 2008, one in five DC residents was poor, a higher rate than in any year since 1997-98. Since the late 1990s, some 27,000 more DC residents fell into poverty. Thirty-two percent of the District of Columbia’s children live in poverty, nearly twice the national average. And in 2008 there were over 52,000 families on the waiting list for affordable housing.
But perhaps most important for the educational system, and discussion about it, is something hardly ever discussed: in the first decade of this century, employment among residents with a high school diploma fell to the lowest level in nearly 30 years. Just 51 percent of DC residents at this education level were working.

Every one in the system – parents, teachers, students – knew this reality and reacted accordingly. This, more than any other factor, defined public education in DC. But few wanted to face it.

After all, the poor don’t balance your budget. Cutting their services and shoving them out into new suburban ghettos can. And they certainly don’t attract tax paying residents and businesses. So you talk the talk of education reform but walk the walk of socio-economic cleansing.