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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.

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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.

 

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.

Childhood Trauma Survey Underscores Need for School Services

October 19, 2017 1 comment

A quick review of the data from a recent National Survey on Children’s Health underscores the daunting challenges schools face in dealing with problems children bring to the classroom. The most compelling chart from the report was one that provided information on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) among children in the US. ACEs “…include a range of experiences that can lead to trauma and toxic stress and impact children’s brain development and physical, social, mental, emotional, and behavioral health and well-being” and include a lengthy list of incidents ranging from economic hardships to the death of a parent. Researchers have determined that “… the impact of ACEs extends beyond children and can have far-reaching consequences for entire communities” and given this impact addressing the consequences requires a coordinated effort on the part of various service providers and agencies. Most important in reviewing the findings is the “…growing evidence that it is the general experience of multiple ACEs, rather than the specific individual impact of any one experience, that matters.”

That finding is crucial because according to the survey findings, 46% of the children in this country have had at least one ACE during their school experiences and over 21% of the children have had more than two ACEs. That means that 1 out of five students have experienced more than two “experiences that can lead to trauma and toxic stress and impact children’s brain development and physical, social, mental, emotional, and behavioral health and well-being.” 

And while schools are not solely responsible for addressing these childhood traumas, they feel the impact of them far more than any other public institution… and today they are effectively held accountable for the adverse consequences that result from these ACEs. Two findings underscore this reality:

  • More than three in four (76.3 percent) U.S. children ages 3-5 who were expelled (“asked to stay home”) from preschool had ACEs.
  • Children ages 6-17 with no ACEs are half as likely to be disengaged in school compared to those with 2+ACEs (24.1 percent vs. 49.0 percent).

And the link between poverty and race and ACEs is also noteworthy, with 58 percent of U.S. children with ACEs coming from homes with incomes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level and an astounding 6 out of 10 black children experiencing ACEs.

Armed with these facts one would expect states to increase funding for social services and health services to schools serving children raised in poverty and black children. But these facts are evidently less important than standardized test scores when it comes to determining the well-being of students and the success of schools. Instead of moving in the direction of neighborhood schools that provide comprehensive health and social services, though, we are giving parents “choices” in schools— none of which provide a choice that includes the kind of nurturing environment needed to address children who have experienced ACEs.

The GOP’s Budget + President Trump’s Executive Orders on Obamacare = Disaster for Those in Poverty

October 19, 2017 Leave a comment

I just finished reading Katrina vanden Heuval’s op ed piece on the GOP budget from the October 17 Washington Post and I am dismayed and outraged. The combination of tax breaks for the top 1%, which will yield “…more than half of the tax cuts next year and an obscene 80 percent by year 10” and budget cuts that will gut the safety net when combined with President Trump’s cuts to what’s left of “Obamacare” will devastate those in poverty in this country and widen the economic divide.

Ms. vanden Heuval opens her column outlining the tax breaks, but then flags the appalling cuts which she asserts have been largely overlooked in the coverage on the “tax reform”:

The spending side has received less attention but may be even worse. The Senate bill proposes $5.8 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. At a time when baby boomers are retiring, it calls for cuts of $473 billion in Medicare, $1 trillion in Medicaid and another $300 billion in Obamacare subsidies to medium- and low-income workers. It cuts more than $650 billion in income security programs for low-income workers — primarily food stamps, the earned-income tax credit and child tax credit, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for disabled seniors and others in need. Another $200 billion is cut from Pell grants and student loans that help working families afford college. These decreases will leave millions without affordable health care and make millions of disabled and low-income Americans even more vulnerable.

The budget also projects stunning reductions in what is called non-defense discretionary spending, essentially everything the government does outside of the military, entitlements and interest payments on the national debt. These include programs that contribute to our safety — such as law enforcement, the Coast Guard, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration — as well as services vital to our health — such as environmental protection, water and sewage systems. It also includes public investment vital to our economy and our future — in science and technology, medical research, modern infrastructure, education, advanced training and more…

As a share of the economy, spending on domestic services will be cut to levels not seen since Herbert Hoover.

These cuts are consistent with the overarching message of the GOP: if you get in trouble, it’s your fault, and you’re on your own…. because as the GOP has insisted for decades: government is NOT the solution, it is the problem. How can the GOP do this in the face of the need for more government services, better education, greater regulation, and crumbling infrastructure? Here’s Ms. vandal Heuval’s assessment of their thinking:

Part may be desperation — Republicans believe they have to get something done, even if it does more harm than good to most Americans in the long run. If Trump’s increasingly manic careening terrifies, the remorseless suicide mission of the Republican caucus in Congress should horrify.

But there is another factor at play: the American public’s belief that the poor and infirm are somehow responsible for their lot in life and do not deserve help— especially help in the form of subsidies that need to be funded by their hard earned wages. Two recent posts on the “othering” of the poor and the “screw ’em” economy explain the roots of this apparent cold-heartedness. The only possible benefit that might result from this “remorseless suicide mission” is a public awakening to the services government needs to provide to those who are experiencing employment and health crises. Such an awakening might help voters appreciate that government IS the solution in some cases: it is the only thing preventing most Americans from falling into bankruptcy when serious illness strikes or when their jobs disappear overseas in order to reward shareholders.

 

The Faceless “Poor People” and “Basket of Deplorables”: Two Sides of the Same Coin

October 18, 2017 Leave a comment

Earlier this month I saved a City Lab post by Arthur Brooks and John A. Powell based solely on it’s title: “America Can’t Fix Poverty Until it Stops Hating Poor People”. In the article Mr. Powell and Mr. Powell lament the “bothering” that is occurring in our nation, where we see “…whole groups of people as unlike ourselves—as the undesirable “other”. They assert that this othering phenomenon is exacerbated by the fact that we increasingly live in bubble communities where groups are increasingly isolated from each other. Because that is the case, there is an increased demonization of one group of individuals— the poor:

Many different kinds of people have been harmfully “othered” throughout our country’s history, and the plights of these groups have received well-deserved attention and focus. But there is one group that we systematically other today—with hugely damaging consequences—while hardly even realizing that we are doing it. Those people are Americans living in poverty.

Mr. Brooks and Mr. Powell offer research to support their contentions, and from my perspective there is no reason to question them. Just as racial re-segregation is rampant in our country, so too is economic segregation. As a result affluent children seldom come in contact with children raised in poverty and as a result “the poor” are perceived as a faceless caste of lazy, uneducated, and dirty individuals. And they also suggest that there is an evolutionary basis for this “bothering”, which makes the problem even more insidious and intractable:

Some evolutionary biologists describe this tendency to sort ourselves into ingroups and outroups as an organic phenomenon that once served a defensive function. But today, othering is a political and social process, and it poses a grave moral problem. Othering uses bonds of shared identity to deny empathy and a sense of belonging to others. It gives elites and dominant groups an excuse to see social problems as distant pathologies, rather than soluble crises affecting people who are like them. And in the specific case of people living in poverty, it creates manmade barriers to the social inclusion and economic mobility of vulnerable people and communities.

Without intervention, this problem is likely to only get worse. A prosperous society like ours will always have the ability to sustain those in poverty in ways that may be materially adequate, but this can be totally bereft of any meaningful sense of autonomy or earned success. We need to address the forces that are pulling us apart along social and economic lines. We need, both personally and structurally, to change the way we see our fellow citizens who are struggling.

It is easy to call for “intervention” on an issue like this, but finding a politically viable “intervention” will require a change of thinking… and, even more difficult, a change of heart. Mr. Powell and Brooks suggest that “traditional welfare programs” create a cycle of dependency but offer no clear alternative. They also offer a list of other systemic changes that might yield less “bothering”: “education reform… criminal justice reform… and broad tax and regulatory reform“.

Mr. Powell and Brooks conclude their post with this:

A competition of ideas is healthy. But it requires a deep moral consensus: a shared belief in the equal dignity of all people. And that entails a deliberate, conscious effort to bridge the growing physical, cultural, and emotional gaps that increasingly set low-income people apart as something other than the rest of America.

Like many in our country who lament the current tenor set by President Trump, I deeply regret the outcome of the last election. In retrospect, there is one comment more than any other that led to the demise of Hilary Clinton’s candidacy, and it was when she referred to some of Mr. Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”. In doing so, she brought the “competition of ideas” down to Mr. Trump’s level and made it impossible for her to call for a shared belief in the equal dignity of all people. If we aspire to having a high-minded dialogue about the future, we need to not only stop “othering” the poor, the blacks, the LGBT community, and women… we need to strive to understand the mindset of those who support Mr. Trump for whatever reason. To do otherwise is to undercut a shared belief in the equal dignity of all people.

 

Retired Journalism Professor’s Op Ed Piece Connects the Dots Linking Segregationists, Free Marketers, and Vouchers

October 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Retired Western Illinois University journalism professor Bill Knight wrote an op ed piece for the Canton (IL) Daily Ledger titled “Right Wing’s Targeting Public Schools Tied to Segregation”, an essay that links the so-called “free market” anti-monopoly theory of public education to its racist roots.

As in previous posts on this broad topic, Mr. Knight draws on Nancy MacLean’s recently published book, “Democracy in Chains: the Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.” After over a half century since the ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, Ms. MacLean asserts that the segregationists are using “choice” and vouchers to re-segregate schools based on race…. and the neo-liberals who support those concepts are complicit in this trend. Drawing on MacLean’s book, Knight writes:

The radical Right supports private school vouchers (an obsession of DeVos, a long-time advocate) not because of a commitment to improve education, but because it weakens government, from Washington to local school boards. Long an American ideal, public education started coming under fire after the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in “Brown v. Board of Education” ruled that separate schools based on race were unconstitutional since they denied equal access to education. Southern white elites resisted desegregation and used economic arguments to criticize public schools to neutralize integration, MacLean said.

“These ultra free-market/property supremacist ideas got their first test, and it is in the situation of the most conservative whites’ reaction to ‘Brown’,” she said. Economist “Milton Friedman, had written his first manifesto for school vouchers in 1955 as the news was coming out of the South. That was after several years of reports on these arch-segregationists, saying they were going to destroy public education and send kids off to private schools.”

And while Friedman’s manifesto on vouchers might have been rooted in economic theory, some of his acolyte’s used his free market theory to advance their segregationist views:

Other conservative economists, such as James McGill Buchanan and Warren Nutter, argued that public schools were a “monopoly,” MacLean found. Ten days after courts prohibited Virginia from shutting down schools in some communities while maintaining them in others, Buchanan and Nutter recommended Virginia privatize all its schools and sell them to private providers that could profit from the once-public resources, the author said. The two went so far as to propose eliminating the requirement that there be public education in the constitution – which the Right’s long crusade called “government schools.” Removing the requirement would enable privatization on a massive scale.

The phrase “government schools” and the notion of a sclerotic “monopoly” on public education all stemmed from Friedman’s thinking… and both concepts were used to sanitize the racism that rooted these notions.

And Mr. Knight also flags Ms. MacLean’s linking this “free market” thinking to the anti-union sentiments that underpin Freidman’s ideas. She contends that the Right doesn’t oppose unions based on education principles but rather because they exemplify the kind of unity that undercuts libertarianism and supports government programs:

“It’s not because they are only concerned about the quality of education and think that teachers are blocking that,” MacLean said. “This is a cause that hated public education before there were teachers unions. Today, with so many industrial jobs destroyed or outsourced or automated, our main labor unions are teachers unions, and teachers unions are really important forces for defending liberal policy in general, things like Social Security and Medicare, as well as public education. In targeting teachers’ unions, they’re really trying to take out their most important opponents.

“They hate the idea of collectives (they would call them), whether it’s labor-union, civil-rights [or] women’s groups,” she continued, “and any kind of government provision for people’s needs. In their dream society, every one of us is solely responsible for ourselves and our needs, whether it’s for education or retirement security or health care. We should just do ourselves.”

I concur completely with Ms. MacLean’s thinking on these issues. The go-it-alone ethos is uniquely American  and the “Take Back America” slogan captures the resentment many voters feel toward those who are “takers” and those, like union members, who have higher wages, better benefits, and greater job security than the “independent contractors” who work in the so-called “gig economy”. And when the union workers in question draw their revenues from taxation the resentment is even deeper and stronger. And when this economic resentment is combined with racism, it yields the toxic environment we are witnessing today.

How do we turn this around? Only by appealing to the higher angels in people. Service learning projects, the creation of clubs at public schools that promote humanitarian causes as opposed to athletics and careers, and direct instruction and direct experience in how democracy works would all be helpful. As long as schools are viewed as career-preparation we are reinforcing the go-it-alone ethos that led us to where we are today…. where those who have made their fortune are loath to share it with others and so the .1% cling to their “earnings” while the vast majority of the workforce works from paycheck to paycheck.