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Bloomberg for President? A Reformer’s Dream… and Public Education’s Nightmare

September 27, 2018

Diane Ravitch shared a San Diego Free Press op ed article by San Diego City College professor Jim Miller titled “After the Education Wars: Someone Needs to Save Us from our Billionaire Saviors”. Mr. Miller opens his essay with this tidbit about one “reform minded” billionaire drawn from recent political news:

After failing to prop-up Antonio Villaraigosa’s flagging gubernatorial campaign last June, Michael Bloomberg apparently spent the summer pondering whether it would be wiser for him to personally save the United States rather than waste his time trying to rescue California by proxy.  Last week the New York Times reported that Bloomberg was mulling a run for the Presidency as a Democrat because that represented the most viable path to victory.

Mr. Miller then turns his attention to why Mr. Bloomberg’s candidacy would be devastating to public education, drawing extensively from Andrea Gabor’s new book After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform. The book echoes Diane Ravitch’s premise (and mine) that the “reform” model reinforces everything that is backward about education and suppresses any opportunity for students to experience the joy of learning. I found this quote from Ms. Gabor especially on point:

The business reformers came to the education table with their truths: a belief in market competition and quantitative measures.  They came with their prejudices—favoring ideas and expertise forged in corporate boardrooms over knowledge and experience gleaned in the messy trenches of inner-city classrooms.  They came with distrust of an education culture that values social justice over more practical considerations like wealth and position. They came with the arrogance that elevated polished, but often mediocre (or worse), technocrats over scruffy but knowledgeable educators.  And most of all, they came with their suspicion—even their hatred—of organized labor and their contempt for ordinary public school teachers.

And Mr. Miller also offers some good insights into the flawed thinking of the billionaire “reformers”:

Wedded to a factory-style approach to education, corporate reformers “focused on a Taylorite effort to standardize teaching so that teachers can be easily substituted like widgets on an assembly line.  This despite the fact that, on average, ‘unions have a positive effect on student achievement’ and the best charter schools are often the independent charters that give teachers voice, often via union contracts.”  All of this reflects the fact, Gabor reminds us, that “the corporate education-reform movement has deeply undemocratic roots.”

What this movement has brought us is not pretty.  We have systematically devalued the “art” of teaching in favor of a dumbed-down, accountability regimen that prefers standardization and over-testing to empowering educators and students to think more creatively and independently.  It has assailed teachers and attacked educational culture to such a degree that it should be no surprise that our society has become increasingly anti-intellectual and hostile to fact-based analysis.

Later in the article, Mr. Miller supports Ms. Gabor’s analysis that insinuates a link between the “reform” movement to the ascendance of President Trump:

Perhaps when you re-imagine the education system in a fashion that is designed to create fewer people interested in “fluff” like arts and humanities or any other discipline that does not put one on the track to gaining only skills that one can monetize, you should not be surprised  that your standardized pedagogy has produced a host of voters with a disdain for educated citizenship.

It may not have been the intended outcome of those who simply wished to produce a more useful workforce, but it does show the profound limits of their debased instrumentalism.  Hence Gabor again observes: “Corporate education reformers cannot be directly blamed for the ascendance of Trump. However, over two decades of an ed-reform apparatus that has emphasized the production of math and ELA test scores over civics and learning for learning’s sake has helped produce an electorate that is ignorant of constitutional democracy and thus more vulnerable to demagoguery.”  

The focus on education as a means of earning money and the metrics that use post college earnings to set a “value” on schooling have debased public schools and the students who attend them. These may be the values of the plutocrats who are seeking employees, but I do not believe they reflect the values of local school board members, parents, or educators. Mr. Miller’s article closes with two paragraphs that support this conclusion:

Thus, there are some insights to be found in approaches that rely on “local democracy” that can help do right for our children and the society at large.  Following these examples, rather than the lead of self-important billionaires, is where we can find hope for a better education system and a more democratic society.

As for Bloomberg, maybe he should just go away and let the people lead.  We’ve had too much “reform” from self-declared rich saviors and philanthrocapitalists already.  In fact, it’s long past time that we save ourselves from them.

 

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