Archive for November, 2015

Democracy Compromised II: The Insidious Effect of Philanthropy on Public Education

November 30, 2015 Comments off

A few days ago the Naked Capitalism website included a link to an Intercept article by Michael Massing titled “How the Gates Foundation Reflects the Good and Bad of Hacker Philanthropy”. In the article, Massing critiques tech magnate Sean Parker’s June 2015 Wall Street Journal article titled “Philanthropy for Hackersand the recently published books No Such Thing as a Free Gift by Linsey McGoey, a sociologist at the University of Essex, and The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? by journalist Dale Russakoff.

Massing insinuates that Parker’s article overstates the “disruptive” tech philanthropist’s desire “to treat philanthropy as “a series of calculated risks” and “big bets””. Quoting from Alessandra Stanley’s Times article in late October that “offered a skeptical assessment of the outsized claims made by Sean Parker and other Silicon Valley philanthropists” , Massing writes:

“Tech entrepreneurs believe their charitable giving is bolder, bigger and more data-driven than anywhere else — and in many ways it is,” she observed. “But despite their flair for disruption, these philanthropists are no more interested in radical change than their more conservative predecessors. They don’t lobby for the redistribution of wealth; instead, they see poverty and inequality as an engineering problem, and the solution is their own brain power, not a tithe.”

Massing’s analysis of McGoey’s book criticizes the superficiality of her perspective, particularly when it comes to the Gates’ impact on public education. In his rejoinder to McGoey Massing seems to side with Gates’s spending on schools:

In McGoey’s view, the Gateses’ missteps stem mainly from their refusal to see that the real problem in American public education is not failing public schools nor ineffective teachers but poverty. If Gates and other wealthy backers of charter schools were to admit this, she writes, they would have to face the question of why people like themselves are allowed to make so much while so many others have so little. This is a standard critique of the wealthy elites who support the school reform movement. It’s persuasive, in its way, but too easy. Many public schools clearly are substandard, and many teachers are ineffective. Assuming that poverty is not going to be solved overnight, what other, more immediate steps might be taken to address these problems? How might Gates spend its money more wisely? McGoey offers little guidance on this. She seems to have visited few schools and talked to few teachers or parents. Nor does she give much space to the perspective of the Gates Foundation itself. As a result, her conclusions carry less weight than they otherwise might.

In this critique of McGoey’s criticisms, Massing diminishes the most compelling argument she offered against Gates’ foray into public education. In the book McGoey noted Gates’ acknowledgement that many of his disruptive innovations (e.g. smaller high schools, VAM, and charter schools) either failed or made no difference whatsoever. Yet, their “disruptions” remain in place:

While the willingness of the Gateses to change their minds in the face of evidence is admirable, McGoey writes, the reforms they championed “are now entrenched. For many teachers and students, their recent handwringing over the perils of high-stakes testing has come a little too late.”

Russakoff also looks into the philanthropy of Tech magantes, specifically Mark Zuckerburg’s $100,000,000 gift to Newark (NJ) Public schools. In doing so, Russakoff shines a light on the ultimate problem with all philanthropy that attempts to “fix” public schools: it’s lack of grassroots input from teachers, administrators, and school boards, the group elected by voters to oversee schooling:

Spending time with politicians, administrators, teachers, and parents, Russakoff showed how the “reformers” — convinced that they knew what was right for Newark largely excluded teachers and parents from the policymaking process. That sparked strong grassroots opposition, and in the end little headway was made. Sobered by the experience, Zuckerberg and his wife last year announced $120 million in grants to schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the Bay Area, with the express intention of getting more input from teachers and community leaders.

The underscored phrase is the key issue I have with tech reformers: they are convinced that the talents they brought to bear in creating a product that earned them billions of dollars are transferrable to public schooling. What they fail to understand is that programming is complicated but political policy is complex. A complicated problem can be solved by engineering and the persistence of a small cadre of individuals… but a complex problem requires artistry and collective will… and developing collective will takes more than slick salesmanship: it takes time to bring to life.

“Reformers”, like businessmen, rely on top-down edicts instead of bottom up consensus building… they are more totalitarian and less democratic… and when politicians embrace the quick fixes advocated by the business experts who view complex problems as complicated ones they invariably find “strong grassroots opposition” because the people on the ground are not invested in the ideas the businessmen advocate and— it is entirely possible that some of their ideas, like the ones Gates promoted for over a decade, are flawed.

Democracy takes time… and it invariably adds layers of complexity… but it is worth fighting for. I believe our country would eventually rue the day when the private sector with it’s top-down market-based quick fixes took over the governance of schools…  because the bad ideas they champion, like test-and-punish, become entrenched and irreversible…. and the consequences of bad ideas and good marketing can be seen everywhere around us in the obesity crisis, the offshoring of manufacturing, and the over-reliance on legal and illegal drugs to alter our moods and way of thinking.

Democracy Compromised I: The Insidious Impact of Money on Elections and Public Policy

November 29, 2015 Comments off

I was disheartened to read two recent articles describing the impact of money on public policy, an impact that is undercutting the ability of our country to function as a democracy. This post and one tomorrow illustrate how this is happening and what we need to do to stop it.

“A Wealthy Governor and His Friends are Remaking Illinois”, Nicholas Confessore’s article in today’s NYTimes describes how a small cadre of billionaires in that State supported fellow billionaire Bruce Rauner’s election to Governor and how they are transforming the way politics are handled in that state. Voters in Illinois, whose last ten Governor’s include four who were convicted of various corruption charges, whose legislature and elected officials have a dismal record when it comes to operating effectively, and whose economy has been hit hard by the loss of manufacturing. were particularly ripe for the message Rauner sent: “…cut spending and overhaul the state’s pension system, impose term limits and weaken public employee unions.” The message penetrated in large measure because it echoed that of a small group of businessmen who donated millions to Rauner’s campaign, which– at $65,000,000— outspent his opponent 2:1 and massively outspent the public unions none of whom donated anything close to a million.

Spending on elections is nothing new… but the massive outpouring of funds that followed Rauner’s election is unprecedented. Since his election, two donors contributed over $20,000,000 to help Rauner implement his agenda. Indeed one donor, hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin, contributed $13.6 million to Mr. Rauner through the end of 2014 — more than the combined sum donated to his gubernatorial opponent by 244 labor unions in the state. 

But while Rauner arguably bought his way into office, he did not as yet buy the hearts and minds of voters in the state:

For Mr. Rauner, the election results affirmed his agenda to shrink government and make the state more friendly to business.

But voters seemed torn. Along with electing Mr. Rauner, they gave Democrats a supermajority in both houses of the legislature.

They also approved two advisory ballot measures. One proposed an increase in the state’s minimum wage, something Mr. Rauner had told a candidate forum he was “adamantly, adamantly against raising.” Another urged lawmakers to amend the Illinois Constitution to allow a millionaires-only income tax increase, something Mr. Rauner had campaigned against.

Rauner is undeterred by the voice of the people on either of these issues, and as a result he is at loggerheads with the legislature over his budget proposal as well as some of his proposals to effectively eliminate public sector unions. His solution to this conflict: spend more of his money and that of his fellow billionaires.

In June, after Mr. Rauner and lawmakers failed to reach a budget deal, Turnaround Illinois (a PAC funded by Rauner and his billionaire friends) spent close to $1 million on television ads assailing Democrats.

The true impact of their financial muscle may not be felt until the legislative elections next fall, in which Mr. Rauner’s allies could again exploit an opening in the campaign finance law to spend unprecedented sums. (The same provision that removed the caps on Mr. Rauner’s campaign lifts them in any legislative race in which a “super PAC” spends more than $100,000. Mr. Rauner’s group has enough money to trigger the law in more than two dozen races.)

Mr. Rauner’s closest supporters hope to elect more Republicans. But some wealthy families, mindful that Democrats are likely to control the legislature for the foreseeable future, have financed an even more ambitious goal: to carve out a new faction of Democrats more willing to reach a compromise with the governor.

That effort has raised more than $14 million, in donations that rival the largest contributions in the presidential campaign. One million dollars came from Helen Zell, Mr. Zell’s wife, and $2 million from the head of a financial firm in which Mr. Rauner is an investor. The largest disclosed contribution came from hundreds of miles beyond Illinois: The former Texas energy trader John Arnold and his wife, Laura, gave $5 million.

Rauner’s strategy in a nutshell: if I spend enough money strategically I can get voters to elect a legislature that agrees with my desires to shrink government, reduce taxes on me and my friends, and eliminate unions and pensions. Rauner is shrewd enough to know that many voters will vote against their own self interest in the name of cutting taxes and other voters, resentful of the jobs, pensions, and benefits they lost will vote to reduce their neighbors pensions and benefits to help fund that tax cut.

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that Rauner is a great advocate of privatization of all public services including public schools. Like many of his billionaire buddies, Rauner believes that businesses can operate these services more effectively and efficiently than “government” and they can do so with less corruption. Like his billionaire friends Rauner cannot see the paradox here: they are spending millions of dollars to advance their self interest while protesting the impact of public sector unions who spent hundreds of thousands to advance the self-interest of their employees. Too bad the unions don’t have the same access to the press as Rauner. As Confessore wrote:

The Chicago Sun-Times reversed its no-endorsement policy to back Mr. Rauner, who was a part-owner of the paper before he ran for governor.

Money can get a newspaper to reverse it’s policy… here’s hoping money won’t prevail in it’s efforts to undermine public policy in the coming years.

Vermont is Quietly Scaling Self-Actualized Learning… Without Standardized Testing

November 28, 2015 Comments off

If the purpose of education is to prepare students for work or college, it is difficult to see how passing standardized tests are helpful in any way shape or form. The workplace values self-actualization, good work habits, and strong interpersonal skills over a passing grade on an exit examination and colleges expect more than high SATs… and yet State after State emphasizes test scores as the means for measuring readiness of work or college and the accumulation of passing grades on a series of courses as the basis for awarding a diploma.

One state is different, though: Vermont. In Vermont the legislature adopted a law that defined Education Quality Standards, one of which was a requirement that every student in grades 7-12 develop a personalized learning plan (PLP) based on their personal interests…. and a recent Atlantic article, “What Happens When Students Create Their Own Curriculum” by Erin McIntyre describes how this could change the high school experience for a large number of students in the State. The article’s primary focus is on the Big Picture model, is described in these two short paragraphs:

Big Picture… bucks the traditional model of high-school learning. There are no tests, no grades, and, for some students, no traditional classes to sit through.

That’s because the program is centered around the concept and execution of self-directed learning. With input from advisors, working professionals, parents, and peers, each teen participant creates his or her own curriculum, tailored to fit personal interests.

While Vermont schools are not beholden to or explicitly endorsing the Big Picture model, their personalized learning plans mesh well with the model and the model does provide a template for schools to implement the personalized learning plans. Ultimately, though, if the implementation of the personalized learning plans is well executed Vermont may be showing the way for truly reforming secondary education and truly preparing students for work or college. Unlike “reform” recommended by non-educators that work from the top down and outside in, Vermont’s PLPs work from the inside out. The PLPs require the student and their parent to reflect on what the student hopes to gain from high school and in the upper grade levels requires the student to take responsibility for their learning…. and a self-actualized learner has a higher chance for success in college or the work force than now who can follow directions imposed from on high.

If we want to transform students from the “Excellent Sheep” William Deresewicz described in his book of the same name to independent life long learners PLPs are the way forward. Keep your eye on Vermont in the coming years if you want to see how we can move from the Factory School to a de-schooled Network School model.