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The Powell Memo and the Disappearance of the Credible Think Tank

October 23, 2017 Leave a comment

Yesterday Diane Ravitch wrote a post based on “The Credible Think Tank is Dead”, a New Republic article by John Judis. In the essay published in mid September, Mr. Judis bemoaned the outsized influence Google, a major donor to the New America Foundation, had on the firing of anti-monopoly crusader Barry Lynn from that organization because of his outspoken criticism of Google. Lynn’s “misdeed” was summarized as follows:

In a nutshell, according to the Times and correspondence released by New America: Google and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are major donors to New America, and Schmidt served as New America’s chairman. Lynn and his (Open Market) project have been critical of the tech giants, and in June published an endorsement of the European Union’s antitrust judgment against Google. Company representatives expressed their displeasure to (New America Foundation CEO Mary Anne) Slaughter, and she accused Lynn of “imperiling the institution as a whole.” Slaughter asked Lynn and Open Markets to leave.

Mr. Judis then describes the back-and-forth debate between Mr. Lynn and Ms. Slaughter over the rationale for the dismissal, with Ms. Slaughter downplaying the role of Google. In the final analysis, Mr. Judis sees the donor as dictating the outcome, and that troubles him:

I can’t claim definitive knowledge of what happened. But as someone who spent a few years at a Washington think tank, and has written extensively about these institutions, I can say that the controversy at New America bears out the credibility problem facing think tanks. Instead of bolstering public trust in expertise, as the think tanks were initially supposed to do, they are increasingly feeding the growing distrust. 

Mr. Judis then offers a history of think tanks, which began with the Brookings Institute in the early 1900s. He goes on to describe their evolution, noting that President Kennedy made extensive use of the Rand Institute in formulating policies during his administration. He then notes the point in time when the think tanks devolved into the partisan fray, with my emphasis added:

Beginning in the 1940s, and in earnest in the early 1970s, conservative Republicans and business groups established think tanks and policy groups that had a specific economic and/or factional purpose. Businessmen dissatisfied with the New Deal created the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in 1943. In 1964, it served as the policy arm of Barry Goldwater’s right-wing campaign for president, and in the ‘70s became the preferred think tank of the Fortune 500 and of center-right Republicans, even when, for appearance’s sake, AEI kept around a few liberal researchers.

The Heritage Institution was founded in 1973 as a sophisticated business lobby (its first president came from the National Association of Manufacturers) that, unlike the more scholarly AEI, actively worked on Capitol Hill to develop legislation. It became a key player in the growth of Republican conservatism. Other groups included the American Council for Capital Formation, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and later “action tanks” like Citizens for a Sound Economy and its successors FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.

Together, these business and conservative Republican groups attempted to take advantage of the reputation created by the older think tanks: They demanded attention for their “experts” in the media—on op-ed pages and, later, TV news shows—but they were in fact the kind of political organization or business lobbies that Robert Brookings and Andrew Carnegie had wanted to avoid at all costs. These groups’ scholarly output, particularly from a group like Heritage, was nugatory. They debased the coinage of the older thinking. And their model of partisan intervention and policy briefs spread leftward to groups like the Center for American Progress, which is something of a Democratic version of the Heritage Foundation.

As noted in two earlier posts on the evolution of education reform, the roots of the conservative think tanks that  was a memo written in 1971 by Lewis Powell where he explicitly encouraged the creation of partisan think tanks… think tanks that began somewhat innocuously with the Heritage Foundation but eventually devolved into organizations with innocuous names but toxic missions… like ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Koch brothers organization that develops boilerplate libertarian legislation.

These partisan think tanks gave birth to “reform” initiatives like NCLB, RTTT, and now DeVos’ voucher plans. Each of these ideas was based on the notion that privatization of public services would force competition and that, in turn, would lower costs and increase quality. The reasoning was that if we ran government like a business the profit motive would ensure cost effectiveness.

In the end, the conservative idea of creating partisan think tanks enabled them to frame the debates about the role government. We went from wholly liberal concepts like Lyndon Johnson’s Medicaid and Medicare programs to wholly conservative concepts like Obamacare. We went from big government programs like the War on Poverty to “reinventing government” by injecting competition wherever possible, We went from think tanks that were high-minded and non-partisan to a world where the majority of State Legislators get their advice from a think tank funded by billionaires who despise government regulations of any kind and want low taxes and no safety nets.

As noted in my two earlier posts on the Powell memo, if those of us who value progressive politics and progressive education principles want to put an end to this devolution, we need to play the long game and we need to be ready for criticism. Pushing back is not for the faint of heart… but pushing back against the racism, economic segregation, and fear-based policies developed by the likes of ALEC puts progressives on the high ground.


West Virginia Teacher Praises the Virtues of Engaged Parents, a Virtue Overlooked by “Reformers”

October 22, 2017 Leave a comment

Pocahontas County (WV) teacher Erica Marks’ op ed column in the Charleston Gazette Mail describes a step by step method public school parents can follow to make their child’s school “…as good as a private school“. Drawing her prior experience as a private school teacher, Ms. Marks notes the similarities between the schools and flags on major difference: the presence of the “High-Expectation Parent”.

The teachers here are just as skilled and caring as the ones at the fancy schools. The students have similar aptitudes and similar capacities for being goofballs. Class sizes are comparable. The buildings aren’t remarkably different either, believe it or not.

The main difference I found at a private school is the pervasiveness of the High-Expectation Parent. The High-Expectation Parent is a force like no other. He or she feels entitled to know what is going on with his or her child socially, emotionally and academically while at school. The HEP probably has the teachers, principal and superintendent on speed-dial. The HEP expects to be welcomed into the school.

The HEP expects frequent, prompt and detailed communication between the school and the family. He or she expects that his or her child will be known and educated as a unique and special individual. Beyond getting good test scores, the HEP expects children to be prepared to compete with students from around the globe.

Ms. Marks notes that from a teacher’s perspective, these HEPs can be intimidating. But she also notes that without these HEPs a school will wither. She also came to the realization when she became a parent that the HEPs are advocating for their children, and that advocacy makes a huge difference in the life of the child. And she imagines what it would be like to have the same kind of parent engagement in public schools that she experienced in private schools:

Imagine the advantage that children who go to these expensive schools get with advocates like that! Our kids — all kids — deserve the very same kind of advocacy, the very same respect, the very same level of involvement. A good K-12 education is our best shot at prosperity.

Fellow parents, the Pocahontas County school system is our private school. And all our kids got full scholarships to attend. We get to be HEPs without footing a hefty tuition bill! We can have a real impact on the culture of the school, on the way our children are learning, and on how much they can achieve.

Let me be clear. There are some amazingly involved public school parents. There are some deadbeat private school parents. I admit that I am making this unfair generalization to illustrate a point — which is, I think, that when parents pay for education (beyond their taxes), many get an amped-up sense of entitlement to an opinion about that education.

But I want us all to feel the pervasive sense of ownership of our schools that I witnessed as a private school employee. Our public schools are ours. We are entitled to help create them to be the schools of our dreams. (Do other people dream about schools or is it just me?)

No Ms. Marks, you are not the only one who dreams about schools. Many of us who worked in public education long for the kind of engagement you talk about and many of us share your ambivalence about the generalization you made regarding the extent to which parent engagement makes a difference. Complaining about parent apathy can sound a lot like whining or making excuses… but parent apathy and taxpayers’ unwillingness to raise funds for their schools often go hand in hand. And here’s the real issue from a policy perspective: when parents are given a choice about which schools to attend, those parents who take the time to do so are necessarily HEPs and the schools they choose are like the public schools Ms. Marks dreams about. Engaging parents is an important and overlooked issue in public education. Instead of expending energy trying to figure out how to make public schools operate in a “marketplace” policy-makers and politicians should spend more of their time and energy figuring out how to engage apathetic parents. If they did so they might find that decent paying jobs, predictable housing, and affordable healthy food might make a difference. As a generalization HEPs seldom worry about these issues. “Apathetic” parents’ time is consumed with worries about them.


Gates’ $1.7 billion donation to K-12 Education Garners Headlines… Microsoft’s $113 billion Sheltered Offshore, Not So Much

October 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Whenever I read about the largesse of any billionaire, the first thing I do is Google the name of their company as follows:

How Much Money Does “X” Have Overseas?

In the case of Bill Gates’ former corporation, the one that enabled him to have billions to give away, I entered “MICROSOFT” for “X” and found that Microsoft has $113,000,000,000 stashed overseas. From my perspective, I don’t care whether Bill Gates is using his money for schools or polio: if his corporation is willfully sheltering profits from taxes by stashing it in overseas accounts he should be ashamed of trumpeting any of his “generosity”. The shielding of these profits undercuts the ability of our government to help meet the basic needs of those in poverty and the ability of lawmakers to have a reasoned debate about to set priorities for money raised from taxes. In short, Mr. Gates and his billionaire buddies are undercutting the ability of our country to have a highly functioning democracy.

Economists Weigh in on K-12 and Higher Education… and Their Conclusions Are a Mixed Bag

October 21, 2017 Leave a comment

Lacrosse (WI) Tribune writer Nathan Hansen reported on a two day gathering of four economists at University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse. He detailed their reports on a host of education issues and, after reading them, I concluded that their findings can best be summarized in this sentence from Christopher Walters from the University of California-Berkely, who, when asked about the value of standardized tests said:

“Having test scores is better than nothing, A researcher would like more measures and different kinds of tests.”

All of the economists in one former another echoed the sentiment that they wished for more data, but one conclusion that none of the four economists challenged was the impact of poverty, with Matthew Wiswall from UW-Madison and Susan Dynarski from the University of Michigan, being especially outspoken on the issue. In examining the impact of pre-school education Mr. Wiswall was particularly forthright. He noted that family background has a disproportionate effect on childhood development, likely due to those families having access to more resources to provide better nutrition, schooling, early education resources or even ability to spend more time with their children. He advocated for government intervention in the form of income redistribution such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and advocated for funding of early childhood programs such as preschool or Head Start, which targets low-income families with children between the ages of 3 and 5. He was particularly disparaging of “choice”:

“One of the questions people ask is why the government should do something. In the education policy sphere, one major motivation is you don’t get to pick your parents or sign contracts before you are born.”

Ms. Dynarski noted that additional education funding can only be the answer if that funding is targeted to those children raised in poverty and targeted to their essential needs. She was critical of Wisconsin’s recent legislation that provided vouchers to students who were already enrolled in private schools at their parents expense and technology initiatives might be an unwise use of scarce funding if the goal is to provide an equal opportunity for all. Mr. Hansen offers this quote from Ms. Dynarski to summarize her thinking:

“For a kid in good shape, adding another dollar is probably not a good investment. If your family is having trouble putting food on the table, adding a nifty laptop isn’t going to make a big difference.”

The economists all lamented the use of test scores as the primary metric for “school quality”, but being driven by data felt that the scores at least provided a means of capturing the inequities in schools.

In the second day the four economists tackled higher education… and their analysis there was flawed by the limited data as well and particularly muddied by the fact that they effectively bought into the notion that post-secondary education is all about earning more money. That may be because earnings is the only available hard metric for post-secondary education in the same fashion that standardized tests are the only hard metric for K-12. But in both cases, using the hard data as the sole rationale for schooling is wrongheaded: it assumes that anything that can’t be measured is unimportant, which is clearly not the case in a democratic nation.

There is one area where hard data is can inform education policy, and that is in the area of student loans. In examining the student loan crisis, Ms. Dynarki noted that data she’s gathered indicates that “...interest rates don’t have as much impact on monthly payments as they do on longer loans, such as a mortgage.” Instead, she suggests that policymakers focus on the repayment process or reducing student borrowing.

After reading Mr. Hansen’s article I conclude that the economists’ ability to inform policy making is limited by the hard data available to us… and because of that economists have thus far provided more mischief than assistance. Enamored of the power of mathematical models, it is economists who helped develop VAM and who use complex algorithms rooted in standardized test scores and demographics to assess the effectiveness of charter schools…. and it is the economists and statisticians who are promoting the gathering of hard data on soft skills, thus leading to a time where educators might be held accountable for flawed test results in those areas that same way they have been held accountable for test results for two decades in public schools. My thought: anthropologists would be more helpful than economists.

In Virginia, Fear Generates Funds for Schools

October 20, 2017 Leave a comment

I read with a degree of dismay that the Virginia legislature will be giving several Central Virginia districts over $200,000 to beef up their security. As described in an article by Sydney Shadael in yesterday’s Lynchburg News and Advance several districts in that region will get anywhere from $22,000 to $80,000+ to install new safety devices like devices that automatically alert police and parents when a school is under a lockdown and  ID badges, cameras, and door locks. The article indicated that this was the fourth year such grants were offered, with the state earmarking roughly $6 million per year. I wish that the desire for equity was as strong and passionate as the desire for safety.

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Bill Phillis: Betsy DeVos Does Not Understand the Purpose of The Public Common School

October 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Bill Phillis is on the mark in this analysis… with one notable exception: ALL schools were NOT affected by NCLB. Districts serving the children of affluent parents effectively ignored NCLB because they effortlessly passed the purportedly rigorous tests. This enabled those schools to avoid the numbing teach-to-the-test mentality   that repelled parents, setting a vicious cycle in place that led to even more economic disparity.

Source: Bill Phillis: Betsy DeVos Does Not Understand the Purpose of The Public Common School

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Commodification of Education Corrodes Democracy

October 20, 2017 Leave a comment

Henry Giroux, the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy, posted an essay in Truthdig  earlier this week that makes the case that the commodification of education is corroding democracy. Titled “Rethinking Higher Education in a Time of Tyranny“, Mr. Giroux offers six action steps higher education should take to offset this disturbing trend.

After opening his essay with a description of how activists like Martin Luther King Junior and Mahatma Gandhi viewed education, Mr. Giroux suggests that the plutocrats running our country have willfully undercut the mission of higher education by converting it into a commodity, and in so doing have undercut the democracy that requires a well-informed electorate. This lengthy excerpt offers a concise and compelling description of what has transpired over the past five decades:

Institutions that work to free and strengthen the imagination and the capacity to think critically have been under assault in the United States long before the rise of Donald Trump. Over the last 50 years, critical public institutions from public radio to public schools have been defunded, commercialized and privatized transforming them from spheres of critical analysis to dumbed-down workstations for a deregulated and commodified culture.

Lacking public funds, many institutions of higher education have been left to mimic the private sector, transforming knowledge into a commodity, eliminating those courses and departments that do not align themselves with a robust bottom line. In addition, faculty are increasingly treated like Walmart workers with labor relations increasingly designed “to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.” Under this market-driven governance, students are often relegated to the status of customers, saddled with high tuition rates and a future predicated on ongoing political uncertainty, economic instability and ecological peril.

This dystopian view feeds an obsession with a narrow notion of job readiness and a cost-accounting rationality. This bespeaks to the rise of what theorists such as the late Stuart Hall called an audit or corporate culture, which serves to demoralize and depoliticize both faculty and students, often relieving them of any larger values other than those that reinforce their own self-interest and retreat from any sense of moral and social responsibility.

As higher education increasingly subordinates itself to market-driven values, there is a greater emphasis on research that benefits the corporate world, the military and rich conservative ideologues such as the Koch brothers, who have pumped over $200 million into higher education activities since the 1980s to shape faculty hires, promote academic research centers, and shape courses that reinforce a conservative market-driven ideological and value system…

Under such circumstances, commercial values replace public values, unbridled self-interest becomes more important than the common good and sensation seeking and a culture of immediacy becomes more important than compassion and long term investments in others, especially youth…

As Mr. Giroux notes at the beginning of this analysis: Institutions that work to free and strengthen the imagination and the capacity to think critically have been under assault in the United States long before the rise of Donald Trump. Indeed, the Obama administration advocated a system of “grading” post secondary institutions on the earnings of its graduates, effectively reinforcing the obsession with a narrow notion of job readiness and a cost-accounting rationality the Mr. Giroux rightfully decries. In response to this trend of commodification, Mr. Giroux offers six recommendations.

First he recommends that higher education “reassert its mission as a public good”. At every turn, those involved in any capacity in higher education need to make it clear that the politician’s and business community’s “obsession with a narrow notion of job readiness and a cost-accounting rationality” is wrongheaded and counter-productive. 

Second, “…educators need to place ethics, civic literacy, social responsibility and compassion at the forefront of learning.” Post-secondary education needs to be about more than getting a good job or earning more and moe money. It needs to focus on creating “…critically engaged and informed citizens contributing not simply to their own self-interest but to the well-being of society as a whole.

Third, our nation needs to view higher education as a right… not something for “the elite” and not a commodity that requires students to go into debt. Moreover, higher education should value and emphasize what Mr Giroux calls a “culture of questioning“.

Fourth, students need to learn how to express themselves and not regurgitate data and master algorithms.

Fifth, higher education needs to restore the status of teaching as a profession and not as a contracted service. Mr. Giroux notes that in America, the corporatization and commodification of higher education has resulted in a situation where “…Seventy percent of all part- and full-time instructional positions are filled with contingent or nontenured-track faculty“. This is efficient from a business-office perspective, but results in a de-professionalization of higher education.

Finally, Mr. Giroux recommends that students be encouraged to develop and use their imaginations: to envision a future that is “…more than a mirror image of the present.

Mr. Giroux concludes his essay with this quote from James Baldwin:

In The Fire Next Time, he writes: “The impossible is the least that one can demand. …Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them…. the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” It is one of tasks of educators and higher education to keep the lights burning with a feverish intensity.

When post-secondary education is about earnings, it does not encourage us to keep faith with one another. It, instead, encourages us to blindly compete with one another and, in so doing, turns out the light of compassion that will join us together.