TIME Magazine, Corporate Superstars, and Teacher Hate

I’m infuriated.  I want to declare my allegiance to heros who have dedicated their lives to  America’s public schools.  My list includes Mrs. Zablocki, my 1st grade teacher in St. Petersburg, Florida; Mrs. Gerstner, my 3rd grade teacher in Ledyard, Connecticut; Mrs. Broadmoor, my 4th grade teacher in Staten Island, New York; and Mrs. Hill, my 7th grade English teacher in Savannah, Georgia.  You see, my father was in the Coast Guard and we moved around quite a bit — so I experienced public school education in a number of states.  My list also includes those on the front lines of efforts to reclaim the democratic institution of public schools like Diane Ravitch, Susan Ohanian, Mercedes Schneider, Peter Green, Anthony Cody, and so many others.  My list also includes the millions of moms and dads who have supported their public schools over the years, the children served by public schools across our country, the teachers who are in the business of transforming the lives of their students, and the administrators and school board members who work diligently to meet the needs of the communities they serve.

 

TIME Magazine’s cover story, “Rotten Apples: It’s Nearly Impossible to Fire a Bad Teacher.  Some Tech Millionaires May Have Found a Way to Change That,” obviously panders to the One Percenters who position themselves as being the standard bearers of the free market that has rewarded them so richly and has allowed hedge fund managers to set the economic agenda for the rest of the country.  This, however, is not a new phenomenon.  Corporate superstars have been inserting themselves in federal education policy for decades.  And leading the charge has been those involved in the tech industry.  David Kearns, credited with saving Xerox in the 1980s, brought his corporate reform ideas to the education arena and the federal Department of Education during the H. W. Bush administration.  Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, likewise became a powerful voice in education reform in the 1990s, hosting the 1996 Palisades Summit at the IBM headquarters, a meeting that brought governors (who he referred to as the CEOs of their states) together with prominent corporate CEOs to decide the fate of public schools in the U.S.  This was the meeting that birthed Achieve, a free market reform agenda, and the CCSS.  It was at this meeting that President Bill Clinton introduced the education policy world to Bill Gates, then embroiled in investigations into his dubious, monopolistic practices at Microsoft.

 

Teacher hate and a disdain for public schools is not new to the tech millionaires.  In 1995, speaking at the National Governors Association, Lou Gerstner ironically began his speech by stating, “I’m here because of Willie Sutton.  Willie robbed banks, the story goes, because he realized that’s where the money is.  I’m here because this is where the power is — the power to reform — no, to revolutionize — the U.S. public school system.”*  Almost two decades later, I think it’s safe to say that Gerstner’s first assertion has turned out to be more accurate.  The corporate world was there at the table of education reform policy because, indeed, that’s where the money is.  In 2008, Gerstner would reveal the corporate agenda for education reform, calling for “The abolishment of all local school districts except for 70 — one for each of the 50 states and one for each of the major cities and the establishment of a set of national standards for a core curriculum.”

 

There has been no secret conspiracy to privatize the American public school system.  Corporate reformers have been quite bold in establishing their agenda.  As I write in my upcoming book, The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy, “The steady drumbeat of corporate encroachment into the education arena was there the entire time. However, its cadence was so steady and natural that, like cicadas at sunset, the noise went almost unnoticed by too many Americans.  The idea that the nation’s public school system was a failure had become an unquestioned zeitgeist by a burgeoning number of critics who jumped on board the anti-public school bandwagon.  Those on the political right and the political left seized every opportunity to point to the need to systemically reform public education.”*

 

“There is a price on the head of every child in America.  As the free market theories of Milton Friedman became the driving force behind public policy in the United States, beginning with the Reagan administration, public schools would inevitably become ensnared in the dragnet of entrepreneurs who envisioned public education as a burgeoning market.”*

 

The issue of teacher tenure is just the latest focus of corporate reformers intent on destroying public schools in America.  Is teacher tenure protection really the problem?  I began my education career as a public school teacher in Mississippi.  There is no tenure protection in Mississippi and no real union presence to advocate for teachers.  Mississippi, therefore, should be the exemplar for the power of eliminating tenure protection and allowing teachers to be fired more easily as a way to improve education and student achievement.  The reality is, however, that Mississippi students have and continue to rank much lower on measures of student achievement than other students across the country.  Apparently, teacher tenure laws are not the largest barrier to student achievement.  Research has demonstrated time and again that poverty and other social factors contribute greatly to student achievement.  So, it is no wonder that Mississippi, with some of the highest rates of poverty in the country, lags behind the rest of the country in rankings of student achievement.

 

Clearly when it comes to corporate led education reform, “America’s public school system has once again become a scapegoat for all that ails American society, while heralding all the ramifications of free market systemic education reform as the means of saving the United States from its supposed enemy –  the public school system writ large.”*  However, as the last short paragraph of my book proclaims, “For American citizens, if there is one thing to remember about public schools it is this: Public schools are not government schools, nor are they corporate free market schools.  Public schools belong to the public.  Public schools are citizen schools, and it is now up to citizens to reclaim what is theirs!”*

 

* Quoted texts are excerpted from my upcoming book The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy (Palgrave Macmillan, January, 2015).

Respectfully,


Deb Owens

Stop the War Metaphors when Talking About Education Policy: Have You no Shame?

In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”  And thus began an era in which a culture of shame was attributed to America’s public education system.  I don’t know about my fellow public school supporters, but I am quite frankly tired of the use of war metaphors by critics of public schools.  We are talking about children after all.

Lee Fang’s article, “Venture Capitalists Are Poised to ‘Disrupt’ Everything About the Education Market,” published by The Nation on September 25, 2014, illustrates how pervasive this use of violent war metaphors has become (http://www.thenation.com/article/181762/venture-capitalists-are-poised-disrupt-everything-about-education-market#).  Fang cites Michael Moe and a document produced by his investment firm, GSV Capital, entitled “American Revolution 2.0” which serves the dual purposes of providing a manifesto for education reform and a blueprint for how venture capitalists can make a lot of money in the educational sector.  According to Fang:

“The revolution GSV goes on to describe is a battle to control the fate of America’s K-12 education system. Noting that this money is still controlled by public entities, or what’s referred in the document as “the old model,” the GSV paper calls for reformers to join the “education battlefield.” (A colorful diagram depicts “unions” and “status quo” forces equipped with muskets across businesses and other “change agents” equipped with a fighter jet and a howitzer.) The GSV manifesto declares, “we believe the opportunity to build numerous multi-billion dollar education enterprises is finally real.”

Further examination of GSV’s 300+ page document (http://gsvadvisors.com/wordpress/wp-content/themes/gsvadvisors/American%20Revolution%202.0.pdf) is alarming.  Children are not referred to merely as students — they are “knowledge troops.”  GSV provides a “budget battle” detailing the expected market growth and profit through 2018 for every aspect of the education marketplace from pre-k education to charter schools and e-learning to test prep and counseling.  Other sections in GSV’s manifesto bear war inspired titles such as “Shock and Awe,” “Modern Weaponry,” “Time to Fight,” and “Weapons of Mass Education – Investment Themes.”

As Fang adeptly points out in the subtitle of his article, “Venture capitalists and for-profit firms are salivating over the exploding $788.7 billion market in K-12 education.”  And apparently, they have no shame when declaring a war on public education.  In their “Strategic Battle Plan,” they openly call for the elimination of local school boards and employ all the rhetoric of free market advocates.

And what about those “knowledge troops” — or children as I prefer to call them?  What is their role in this supposed war/revolution?  Should kindergarteners be issued combat fatigues on their day of school to complete the war metaphor?  Or, as is increasingly evident, are they collateral damage, suffering from battle fatigue and post traumatic stress disorder as the result of wave after wave of high stakes standardized tests being being launched at them?  If children are, indeed, as envisioned by corporate reformers and venture capitalists, the troops in this war on public education, then I have to ask, who protects the children from the ravages of war?

The use of violent metaphors has been a consistent theme for corporate and free market reformers.  In 1971, conservative libertarian economist and political theorist Murray Rothbard invoked the war metaphor in his attack on America’s public school system with his book “Education: Free and Compulsory” when he proclaimed on the cover, “We are Ready — How about You?  SCHOOLS AT WAR!”  In 2008, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress, wrote an article entitled, “First, Kill all the School Boards” for The Atlantic.  At the 1995 National Governors Association meeting, corporate superstar Lou Gerstner (of RJR Nabisco and IBM fame) called for complete revolution in education policy, stating, “The only way this will happen … is if we push through a fundamental, bone-jarring, full-fledged, 100 percent revolution that discards the old and replaces it with a totally new performance-driven system.”  One year later, at a gathering of governors and corporate CEOs at the IBM Palisades NY headquarters, the organization Achieve, Inc. was formed — the organization that would bring us the Common Core State Standards.  And the bone-jarring revolution continues.  But whose bones are getting jarred in the end?  The federal Department of Education?  No — its still going strong.  The venture capitalists and corporate CEOs?  No, they’re getting richer by the minute.  The bone-jarring revolution, however, is leaving a lot of children bewildered and frustrated along with the teachers who spend their days with them.  And let’s not forget the parents who are trying to make sense of it all.

Thank you, Lee Fang, for reminding us that there is a price on the head of every child in America.  We’re not giving up, however.  I urge all Americans to call for unilateral disarmament in the war on public schools.  Of course, there is really nothing unilateral about it.  The reality is that there are no “knowledge troops” — just children.  They have no war machines to lay down.  They just want to pick up their books and learn.

I eagerly await the publication of my book by Palgrave Macmillan in January entitled, “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.”  I believe it will further expand the discourse among citizens and scholars interested in taking back their public schools.  Knowledge is power — and I’m not talking about the KIPP Knowledge is Power Program — and power in the form of knowledge is not violent.