What’s behind the assault on public education?

Sam Smith

More and more the Bush-Obama public education deform is looking like a covert effort to make major cities more appealing predominantly to white parents and to ease poorer blacks and latinos out to the suburbs, which for reasons of lack of public transportation, ecological concerns, and weak construction, could easily become the slums of the future as they are elsewhere around the world.

When whites fled cities like Washington, DC, they left behind convenience, excellent public facilities ranging from parks to museums, easy transportation and a better built housing stock. Over past decades, I have periodically wondered when they would figure this out. Now, it looks like they have.


Sam Smith

The planned release by the Los Angles Times of the test score standings of individual teachers in your system is one of the worst acts of journalism I’ve run across in a half century in the trade. It’s unfair, cheap and disgusting.

It is a sort of yuppie version of the anti-gay, anti-Muslim or anti-latino movements, but instead of going after someone because of their gender, religion or ethnicity, you pick on some of the weakest people in the economic system and blame them for your troubles.

It’s mean, ignorant and selfish.

Here are a few suggestions for dealing with the problem:

Journalists like to think of themselves as highly ethical. To prove this, how about asking LA Times reporters Jason Felch, Jason Song and Doug Smith to publish all personnel reviews they have received over the past seven years, any notes from mental therapy, and the results of all their physical exams. That way we will know how much to believe them.

Even more productive would be a law suit demanding the release of similar information from all other city workers, including the mayor and the police, fire and sanitation departments. The successful arrest records of all police officers and all public complaints against city officials would be included.

I realize that since local judges might object to being assessed in the manner the LA Times has chosen for teachers, you could have a hard time with such a case, but pursuing it, even if it fails, might remind people, even editors of the LA Times, where decency resides.

Is the Gates Foundation involved in bribery?

Sam Smith

An online legal dictionary defines bribery this way:

“The offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing the action of an official in the discharge of his or her public or legal duties.”

When we think of bribery we usually envision a check or cash being passed on the sly to public officials. But what if it is right out in the open, concealed only by the fact that the briber is a foundation created by Bill Gates rather than some back street shyster?

Here is how a news story describes it: “Now the foundation is taking unprecedented steps to influence education policy, spending millions to influence how the federal government distributes $5 billion in grants to overhaul public schools. The federal dollars are unprecedented, too. President Barack Obama persuaded Congress to give him the money as part of the economic stimulus so he could try new ideas to fix an education system that most agree is failing. The foundation is offering $250,000 apiece to help states apply, so long as they agree with the foundation’s approach.”

If you or I did something like this, even at an infinitesimally smaller scale, we could likely be headed for prison. It is a criminal act to use money to influence official positions in such a manner.

And it gets worse, as the story related: “Duncan’s inner circle includes two former Gates employees. His chief of staff is Margot Rogers, who was special assistant to Gates’ education director. James Shelton, assistant deputy secretary, was a program director for Gates’ education division. . .The administration has waived ethics rules to allow Rogers and Shelton to deal more freely with the foundation, but Rogers said she talks infrequently with her former colleagues.”

This is even before one considers broadly understood restrictions on political lobbying by non-profits. But then who needs to bother with lobbying if you can just deliver the cash and get your way?

A particularly gross example of this upscale, and so far legal, bribery was revealed by Bill Turgue, in the Washington Post in April:

“The private foundations pledging to help finance raises and bonuses for D.C. teachers have placed themselves in the middle of the city’s mayoral race with one of the conditions for their largesse: If Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee leaves, so could the money.

“The private donors have told the District that they reserve the right to reconsider their $64.5 million pledge if leadership of the school system changes. . .

“Should the foundations pull their funding after the agreement is finalized, the District could be liable for at least $21 million — the amount of private money earmarked to pay teacher salaries. . .

The leadership condition [is] set out in letters to District officials from the Walton Family Foundation, the Robertson Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Broad Foundation.”

On a national scale, we have the unprecedented and increasing control of national education by a foundation created by a single billionaire. The thing driving these standards is not wisdom or public choice but the money:

“I think the reality of it is the Gates Foundation has been the major funder of the national standards and the three major reports on which the Massachusetts recommendation is based are funded by Gates. It’s a little like being judge and jury,” said Jamie Gass, director of the Center for Education Reform at the Pioneer Institute.

Wrote Matt Murphy in the Lowell Sun:

|||| The Gates Foundation since January 2008 has awarded more than $35 million to the Council of Chief School Officers and the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, the two main organizations charged with drafting and promoting common standards.

In the run-up to his recommendation, Chester told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that he would base his decision on analysis being done by his staff, as well as independent reports prepared by three state and national education research firms — Achieve, Inc., The Fordham Institute, and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education.

Achieve, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based education-reform organization, received $12.6 million from the Gates Foundation in February 2008, according to data provided to the Washington Post by the foundation.

The Fordham Institute has accepted more than $1.4 million from the Gates Foundation, including nearly $960,000 to conduct Common Core reviews.||||

If an individual were to influence governmental decisions with this sort of money, it would be clearly a criminal offense. Why should it be any different for a foundation?

Gates has opened the door to an manifestly corrupt approach to government where a handful of well funded groups and individuals override the democratic legislative process by the prospect of funding or the threat of losing it. If you can’t go to jail now for doing this, there should be laws that make it clear that you do from here on out.



IN READING some education gobbledygook, I came across abbreviations with which I was not familiar – LEA and PLC – that the writers presumed any intelligent person would know.

In pre-Duncan, pre-No Child America, it was generally thought that one should spell out a phrase before you used its initials. Then there came the legalistic technique of including both the phrase and the initials – as if the reader couldn’t decipher which were the first letters of the relevant words – as in United States of America (USA).

Now we’re just meant to know that LEA and PLC are. This, I suspect, is more than a minor metaphor for what has happened to public education: it’s become a bureaucratic insiders’ game and rest home instead of a gift to all humanity.

I first became aware of this when I began seeing school buses with the letters SAD on them. What I initially thought was a slander against the young occupants was only an unexplained abbreviation for School Administrative District.

I figured out LEA with a little googling. In this case it was apparently not a law enforcement administration or the Lutheran Educational Association but a “local education authority.”

PLC turned out to be a “professional learning community.” What in God’s name was this? An attempt to include charter schools and public schools under the same moniker? A place you went to become a lawyer or an accountant? An effort to distinguish such places from the growing number of insidious amateur learning communities?

I turned to that guru of the blackboard and other school-like matters, Susan Ohanian, who explained it this way:

“It’s educationese for professional learning community. A school proves it’s ‘in the know’ by having teachers form these small groups that plan together – 6 to 8 teachers working together. Or a whole school can declare itself a PLC, meaning they claim to take responsibility for student learning: “Members work together to clarify exactly what each student must learn, monitor each student’s learning on a timely basis, provide systematic interventions that ensure students receive additional time and support for learning when they struggle, and extend and enrich learning when students have already mastered the intended outcomes.”

And here I thought the word ‘school’ covered that pretty well. Oh well, WTF.

When test tyrants enter the firehouse

San Smith 2009 – The real problem in the Ricci v. DeStefano case* is neither the white nor the black firefighters but the law and its technocratic application. For the past six years – as the lawyers have had their fun – no one of either ethnicity has been promoted in the New Haven fire department.

This is not a good way to run a fire department or improve ethnic relations. Yet because we have become so accustomed to depending upon legal and technocratic solutions to our problems, because so many assume that verbal skills equal pragmatic competence, few even bother to ask whether there might be a better approach to such situations, such as mediation and arbitration or subduing our obsession with tests.

I was never a firefighter but I was the operations officer on a Coast Guard cutter that handled aids to navigation and heavy weather search & rescue. Among the men on our ship were a number who hadn’t even completed high school. I knew this not because they were any less competent but only because they were studying for the GED and had asked me for help. And at the top of the list of qualified officers on our ship was not this Ivy League educated product of crash officer candidate training (including 40 tests in 13 weeks) but two warrant officers – enlisted men who had fleeted up to officer status through their experience and performance far more than their test taking skill.

If these officers had been trying to get promoted in the New Haven Fire Department, their experience and performance would have been submerged in examinations designed by large corporations profiteering on government and business assessment addiction. It is, after all, so much easier to read a test score than to judge the true nature of someone’s performance.

Which is why we are giving up educating our kids in favor of just preparing them for tests. And which why our public vocational training is so poor. We assume everyone is going to be a law clerk or other desk bound manipulator of words and data.

But running a ship or being a firefighter is quite a different matter than being school superintendent, politician or lawyer.

As Joseph Conrad noted, “Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses.” Firefighters similarly deal daily with unforgiving reality. Yet these days they also face exams that, in the case of the New Haven firefighters, cost some of them upwards of a $1,000 for study materials, tutoring and similar preparation. As the white firefighters put it, “We gave up three months of our lives to intense study and preparation during the three-month study period preceding the exams. We studied many hours a day and rarely saw or spent little time with our families and friends during this period. Some of us took leave from second jobs, or our wives did so to assume childcare responsibilities while we studied, so the economic loss was even greater than the out-of-pocket costs of the exams.”

The black applicants struggled, too. Said Donald Day, former regional director of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters, “Historically, as African-Americans, we don’t do as well on strictly written exams.” Reported the New Haven Independent, “Oral exams are fairer, he argued, but they’re also more expensive to administer. He said that written exams can’t really determine who will make a good leader. ‘Some of the worst officers you/ve ever had were book smart officers.'”

To get some idea of what these guys were up against, I checked out one of the cram programs firefighters use. Bearing in mind that you are looking to hire someone who can get you out of a smoked filled, fifth floor bedroom, consider the following test taking advice:

|||| When evaluating answer choices, the words to be on the lookout for are the little words that tend to either “harden” or “soften” statements. Words which “harden” statements, and make them difficult to defend, are strong words like: all, every, always, will, must, certainly, invariably, surely, no one, ever, any, no matter, nothing, etc. Words which “soften” statements, and make them easy to defend, are words like: some, many, sometimes, may, possibly, generally, probably, usually, often, can, could, might, occasionally, etc. . .

When answering test questions, you must base your answer solely on the information contained in the test question. The test for a Firefighter requires no previous knowledge of the job. The test questions do not have to reflect the way the job is really done or the actual procedures of the Fire Department. . .

Problems arise when a person who is familiar with procedures of the fire department encounters a test question based on something that contradicts actual practices. It is in this kind of situation that you must ignore actual practices and answer on the basis of what the test question says. For example, you might know that kitchen stove fires are usually extinguished with a portable fire extinguisher; but a test question might describe a stove fire being put out with a fire hose attached to a hydrant. In this kind of test situation, never mind the actual practice; go by the information in the question. . .

A skillful test maker tries to make two or three of the answer choices look very good. All the answer choices may contain some truth, which make them tempting. Or all may look wrong. But the test maker has to have put some detail into the “fact pattern” of the question to justify the claim that one of these answers is better than the others. If reviewing the answer choices themselves has not helped, the clue to which answer is correct is likely to be in the question stem or “fact pattern” rather than in the answer choices. So go back to the question stem and the fact pattern the look for the deciding factor. ||||

This is not advice for someone seeking to clerk for a judge or win some cable quiz show but for someone who is expected to stop fires and save lives. Yet, “the test questions do not have to reflect the way the job is really done or the actual procedures of the Fire Department.” And: “Problems arise when a person who is familiar with procedures of the fire department encounters a test question based on something that contradicts actual practices. It is in this kind of situation that you must ignore actual practices and answer on the basis of what the test question says.”

Somehow I feel a lot less safe.

The New Haven case is a mess caused by infatuation with the law, mistaking verbal dexterity for practical skill, and an obsession with examinations. It has protected neither people’s safety nor their civil liberties.

It would, for example, be interesting to know how much has been paid lawyers (especially white ones) in this case, because I suspect it might have supported increasing the number of job openings so that black firefighters could have been hired along with the higher scoring whites. As older white officers retired, the bubble could deflate again. Black mayor Walter Washington used this approach to integrate the whole DC government during the 1970s and no one got mad. Mediation might have worked out a deal where most of the whites got promoted along with some of the blacks, with the remaining whites with passing scores being placed at the top for the list for the next promotion.

Such approaches could have gotten New Haven through its immediate crisis, which it could avoid repeating by developing a much fairer way of choosing officers for its fire department.

A successful multiethnic community is one that works well for everyone. It is not one in which government puts members of one of the most honorable trades at each other’s throats.


*Wikipedia –   Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557 (2009), was a decision by the United States Supreme Court concerning employment practices by New Haven, Connecticut’s fire department.[1] Eighteen city firefighters, seventeen of which were white and one was Hispanic, brought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after they had passed the test for promotions to management positions and the city declined to promote them. New Haven officials invalidated the test results because none of the black firefighters scored high enough to be considered for the positions. City officials stated that they feared a lawsuit over the test’s disproportionate exclusion of certain racial groups from promotion under the controversial “disparate impact” theory of liability.[2][3]

The Supreme Court heard the case on April 22, 2009, and issued its decision on June 29, 2009. The Court held 5–4 that New Haven’s decision to ignore the test results violated Title VII because the city did not have a “strong basis in evidence” that it would have subjected itself to disparate-impact liability if it had promoted the white and Hispanic firefighters instead of the black firefighters. Because the plaintiffs won under their Title VII claim, the Court did not consider the plaintiffs’ argument that New Haven violated the constitutional right to equal protection



Sam Smith

If you’re serious about teaching, the No Child Left Behind Law is the educational equivalent of creationism: faith parading as facts and blocking changes that recognition of the facts would require.

It’s not surprising given that the idea was shoved down the country’s throat by George Bush because, like the perp’s other policies, it represents a happy mixture of fantasy combined with lucrative payoffs to political buddies – in this case including book and curricula publishers.

If you don’t believe me, listen to Business Week which reported a couple of years go:

||||| Across the country, some teachers complain that President George W. Bush’s makeover of public education promotes “teaching to the test.” The President’s younger brother Neil takes a different tack: He’s selling to the test. The No Child Left Behind Act compels schools to prove students’ mastery of certain facts by means of standardized exams. Pressure to perform has energized the $1.9 billion-a-year instructional software industry.

Now, after five years of development and backing by investors like Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal and onetime junk-bond king Michael R. Milken, Neil Bush aims to roll his high-tech teacher’s helpers into classrooms nationwide. He calls them “curriculum on wheels,” or COWs. The $3,800 purple plug-and-play computer/projectors display lively videos and cartoons: the XYZ Affair of the late 1790s as operetta, the 1828 Tariff of Abominations as horror flick. The device plays songs that are supposed to aid the memorization of the 22 rivers of Texas or other facts that might crop up in state tests of “essential knowledge.”

Bush’s Ignite! Inc. has sold 1,700 COWs since 2005, mainly in Texas, where Bush lives and his brother was once governor. In August, Houston‘s school board authorized expenditures of up to $200,000 for COWs. The company expects 2006 revenue of $5 million. Says Bush about the impact of his name: “I’m not saying it hasn’t opened any doors. It may have helped with some sales.” . . .

The stars haven’t always aligned for Bush, but at times financial support has. A foundation linked to the controversial Reverend Sun Myung Moon has donated $1 million for a COWs research project in Washington (D.C.)-area schools. In 2004 a Shanghai chip company agreed to give Bush stock then valued at $2 million for showing up at board meetings. (Bush says he received one-fifth of the shares.) In 1988 a Colorado savings and loan failed while he served on its board, making him a prominent symbol of the S&L scandal. Neil calls himself “the most politically damaged of the [Bush] brothers.” ||||

And how has it all worked out in the classroom? Here’s a taste from the New York Times earlier this year:

|||| President Bush’s $1 billion a year initiative to teach reading to low-income children has not helped improve their reading comprehension, according to a Department of Education report.

The program, known as Reading First, drew on some of Mr. Bush’s educational experiences as Texas governor, and at his insistence Congress included it in the federal No Child Left Behind legislation that passed by bipartisan majorities in 2001. . .

“Reading First did not improve students’ reading comprehension,” concluded the report, which was mandated by Congress and carried out by the Department of Education’s research arm, the Institute of Education Sciences. “The program did not increase the percentages of students in grades one, two or three whose reading comprehension scores were at or above grade level.”. . .

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the education committee, and who has long criticized the program, said, “The Bush administration has put cronyism first and the reading skills of our children last, and this report shows the disturbing consequences.”

In 2006, John Higgins, the department’s inspector general, reported that federal officials and private contractors with ties to publishers had advised educators in several states to buy reading materials for the Reading First program from those publishers. The Reading First director, Chris Doherty, resigned in 2006, days before the release of Mr. Higgins’s report, which disclosed a number of e-mail messages in which Mr. Doherty referred to contractors or educators who favored alternative curriculums seen as competitors to the Reading First approach as “dirtbags” who he said were “trying to crash our party.” |||||

But what is truly amazing about the No Child Left scandal is that hardly anyone in power or the press considers it a scandal. Not even liberals.

Admittedly, the Democrats did cut funding – although didn’t eliminate – Reading First after it became so embarrassing, and Barack Obama wants some vague changes in the No Child Law but basically liberals are going along with one of the worst domestic programs passed in recent years.

And it’s not getting any better. The Century Foundation – on the board of which sits major Obama advisor John Podesta – has just published a book edited by senior fellow Richard D. Kahlenberg, that examines what the foundation calls “three central defects of the act: the under-funding of NCLB; the flawed implementation of the standards, testing, and accountability provisions; and major difficulties with the provisions that are designed to allow students to transfer out of failing public schools.”

Central to the argument, though, is the funding issue. If you want to increase funding for a bad law you’re making a bad law more powerful. But, says, the Century Foundation, “To date, most of the debate over the funding of No Child Left Behind has centered on the gap between authorized levels of funding and appropriations. But this discussion avoids the fundamental question: What is the true cost of NCLB’s goal of making all students academically proficient by 2014? According to new research in the book. . . federal funding would have to multiply many times over to help districts succeed in meeting even the intermediate goals of the legislation.”

What is most disturbing is the gold-plated list of liberal “partners and collaborators” provided by the Century Foundation, including the American Prospect, Campaign for America’s Future, Carnegie Corporation, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, The Center for American Progress, The Columbia Journalism Review, The Council on Foreign Relations, Drum Major Institute ,The Economic Policy Institute, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Nation, The Open Society Institute, Common Cause, People for the American Way Leadership and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In other words, the very people who should be guiding us out of this mess are trying to save No Child for the indefinite future.

No Child is the first piece of legislation to make the teaching of Asperger’s syndrome a national policy. The manifestations of this form of autism has been described as including “poor communication skills, obsessive or repetitive routines, and physical clumsiness,” which is also some of the predictable payoff when students are locked behind desks, answering specific questions with little chance to learn judgment, imagination or wisdom; no time to experiment or relate learned facts to real life, and – of course – no time left for the playground. The typical higher functioning autistic is bright but unable to relate factual knowledge to a social environment. It is how No Child is training our kids.

At a session with about a hundred DC high schoolers a few years ago, I was struck by how hard it was for them to ask questions, even ones having to deal with issues that directly concerned them such as violence and drugs. I mentioned this to a teacher friend who responded quickly that according to the system, “they’re not meant to ask questions: they’re just meant to answer them.”

And that pretty well sums up the problem. With the help of No Child we are teaching a generation of kids how to answer questions but not how to ask them, how to collect facts but not how to use them; to add and subtract numbers, but how to measure the impact of conflicting human choices,and how relate to data but not with other people.


Disappointing Results
Failing Schools
Lack of Quality Teachers
Lowering of Standards
Narrowing of Curriculum
Ignoring of Children
Fear, Shame and Threats
Bad Tests
Fake Results
Educational Triage
Factory Style Learning
Loss of Best Teachers
Loss of Future Teachers
Loss of Morale
Drop Outs and Push Outs
Reduction in Time for Learning