Monthly Archives: April 2015

Education: Public Good or Private Right?

Reducing the purpose of education to economic utilitarianism has dark consequences:

“… a dark cloud of political and ethical ignorance has descended on the United States. Thoughtlessness has become something that now occupies a privileged, if not celebrated, place in the political landscape and the mainstream cultural apparatuses. A new kind of infantilism now shapes daily life as adults gleefully take on the role of unthinking children and children are taught to be adults, stripped of their innocence and subject to a range of disciplinary pressures designed to cripple their ability to be imaginative.

Under such circumstances, agency devolves into a kind of anti-intellectual cretinism evident in the babble of banality produced by Fox News, celebrity culture, schools modeled after prisons and politicians who support creationism, argue against climate change and denounce almost any form of reason. The citizen now becomes a consumer; the politician, a slave to corporate money and power; and the burgeoning army of anti-public intellectuals in the mainstream media present themselves as unapologetic enemies of anything that suggests compassion, a respect for the commons and democracy itself.

Education is no longer a public good but a private right, just as critical thinking is no longer a fundamental necessity for creating an engaged and socially responsible citizenship. Neoliberalism’s disdain for the social is no longer a quote made famous by Margaret Thatcher. The public sphere is now replaced by private interests, and unbridled individualism rails against any viable notion of solidarity that might inform the vibrancy of struggle, change, and an expansion of an enlightened and democratic body politic.”

Henry Giroux, Domestic Terrorism, Youth and the Politics of Disposability

“What Would You Do?”

It’s not unusual for me to get push back from friends and others that goes something like this. “You give lots of criticism, and no answers.  What would you do?”

I hate it when that happens.  For a number of reasons.

One reason is that what these questioners are really asking is, “What is the solution that you would impose on others if given the opportunity?” The question is asked in ignorance of the fact that education is under assault because some, mainly business leaders, outside of education are imposing their solutions on others.  This question obscures issues of power.  It doesn’t recognize that any solution has to be determined with those directly affected by the solution.  In this case, those directly affected are educators, parents and children. The question  also accepts the assumption, ignorantly again, that “failing schools” and teachers are a problem, thus the need for a solution. To quote Peter Block,  “When we believe that the ‘other’ is the problem and that transformation is required of them and not of us, we become the beneficiaries of their suffering in the world.  Some of us make a living off of their deficiencies…All in the name of virtue.”  Replace “the ‘other'” with “teacher in the above quote and Block’s description offers much clarity to what is taking place under the auspices of education reform.

The main reason I hate this question is that it shows that those who ask it just aren’t paying attention. And, because of its highly politicized nature, those of us in public education greatly depend on the knowledgeable attention of those outside of it. There are lots of great programs, visions and ideas around.  Just ask educators.

This is why I greatly appreciate An Alternative to Failed Education ‘Reform,’ If We Want One.  This article explains the ways in which the state of California has resisted federal testing mandates and develop an alternative system that is actually based on teaching and learning.  Michael Fullan is credited with much of the philosophy behind the California Model.

Fullan contends American education policy since NCLB has been obsessed with “the wrong drivers.” In his studies of education systems around the world, he finds, “In the rush to move forward, leaders, especially from countries that have not been progressing, tend to choose the wrong drivers. Such ineffective drivers fundamentally miss the target.”

Four ‘culprits’ Fullan finds that ‘make matters significantly worse’ are over-emphasizing accountability and test results, promoting individual rather than group solutions, substituting technology for good instruction, and choosing fragmented strategies instead of systemic strategies to improve the system.”

Sound familiar?

In my mind this approach outlined isn’t perfect. The article uses phrases such as “high performing countries,” without explaining what “high performing” might mean. Is this in terms of test scores? Economic health? In other words, it still projects forward a language of business rather than education.  It also doesn’t address the broader and crucial context of poverty and the racialized culture that schools operate within.  (Though it does show how California addresses some issues of equity.)

Still, it rests on important foundations- that we need to move beyond “…a myopic attention to test scores to look at other kinds of results,” that educators are also solutionaries, and that looking at students as whole beings rather than test data are all important.

What are Fullan’s “right drivers”?

  1. Building capacity in schools and teachers rather than stressing accountability.
  2. Emphasizing teamwork and group quality instead of individual performance.
  3. Focusing on instructional improvement rather than technology.
  4. Enacting whole system reforms rather than piecemeal reforms.

So if someone asks, “What’s your solution?” let them know that this approach is leading in the right direction.

Approaches to Education Reform: Privatizing Poverty

Part of the sordid side of our American history includes Native American boarding schools.  In the 18th and 19th century, these schools were established as a means of assimilating Native Americans into white culture.  As Wikipedia tells it, “Children were usually immersed in European-American culture through appearance changes with haircuts, were forbidden to speak their Native languages, and traditional names were replaced by new European-American names (in order to both ‘civilize’ and ‘Christianize’). The experience of the schools was often harsh, especially for the younger children who were separated from their families. In numerous ways, they were encouraged or forced to abandon their Native American identities and cultures.” (Emphasis added)

The assumption was that these children had to be separated from their parents, from their history, from the context of their support system of religion and culture in order to properly assimilate to white standards of “success.” And this needed to happen because all of the Native American cultural characteristics were of a lower standard than the dominant white culture. in 1892, Army officer Richard Pratt said“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one…In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

With the passage of time, it’s a little easier to see the racism, arrogance and violence inherent in this idea. And I know it seems like ancient history, but it isn’t.  The numbers of native Americans in boarding schools peaked in the 1970’s.  Not really that long ago.

The framing assumptions underlying this movement were that of the deficit model.  That is, by standards of the dominant white culture, these Native Americans just weren’t “measuring up.”

Is this beginning to sound familiar?

The problem with  history is that it always replicates itself now, albeit in somewhat differently nuanced forms.

And that bring us to a brand new, shockingly contemporary version of the above in Phil Power’s recent editorial in The Bridge, “Could A Boarding School Model Work in Detroit?”

Powers gives an overview:

“I had thought boarding schools for poor and vulnerable children did not exist until I learned of something called the SEED Foundation in Washington, D.C., which does just that. …

Children are chosen for admission by lottery, which means their participation is entirely by family choice, not imposed by some exterior authority. Kids stay on campus during the school week, returning home for the weekends.”

Let me be clear- I do not begrudge parents who choose to send their children to these schools one iota. Children are chosen by lottery, it’s not imposed without choice, and for many I’m sure it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. I wish these parents and their children well. This is an important difference to note between SEED and the Native American boarding schools. My problem is not with them, it’s with Power and others who privatize the problem of poverty and assume education is the answer, rather than assuming that addressing poverty is actually the answer to problems with our education system.

I give Power some credit, as he does recognize there are issues with this model,

“Beyond the purported educational advantages, there are obvious and important social and moral questions about such a system.”

But then he continues,

But for kids in enormous need of a stable, sustaining home environment that encourages good learning, a public boarding school model might make all the difference in the world.”

The implicit assumption is that the problem lies within home environments rather than in the structural conditions of inequity that lead to difficult conditions in the first place. And this implicit assumption is the red herring directing attention away from the social context that learning takes place within, and replacing that with the individualistic notion that overcoming poverty simply entails pulling yourself up by the boot straps. You know, “they” need just a little “grit.”

In a story on the Native American boarding schools from NPR, their purpose is made clear.  “…the intent was to completely transform people, inside and out.’Language, religion, family structure, economics, the way you make a living, the way you express emotion, everything,'”  Why?  Their culture didn’t measure up.  And we can see the ghosts of this approach in Power’s piece. Kids need a “stable, sustaining home environment….”  The problem from Power’s frame, is not the conditions of poverty, but the home environment.  One more, subtle and tricky way of blaming the poor.

In addressing the false myth of individualism, which Power subtly propagates in his privatizing of poverty, Paul Thomas writes:

“The U.S. is trapped in our false myths—the rugged individual, pulling ones self up by the bootstraps—and as a result, we persist in blaming the poor for being poor, women for being the victims of sexism and rape, African Americans for being subject to racism. Our pervasive cultural ethos is that all failures lie within each person’s own moral frailties, and thus within each person’s ability to overcome. We misread the success of the privileged as effort and the struggles of the impoverished as sloth—and then shame those in poverty by demanding that they behave in ways that the privilege are never required to assume.”

I’m reading William Deresiewicz’s  Excellent Sheep, in which he asks the rhetorical question, “Can we address the problems of education without addressing the broader problems of societal inequity?”  Hmm..

Phil Power seems to say yes.

I say it’s pretty to think so, but absolutely not.

Power finishes his work with this sentence:

“The compelling moral argument is that ALL kids deserve a quality education.”

I say this doesn’t go far enough.

The compelling moral argument is that no one deserves to live under the dehumanizing conditions of poverty. And, because education is inextricably tied to the conditions it exists within, attempting to “solve” education without addressing poverty is a waste of time.

Coloring Within the Lines

Does this seem familiar to anyone else?

In writing of the degree of misery that our education system currently inflicts on our status seeking students, William Derersiewicz writes:

“It would be bad enough if all this misery were being inflicted for the sake of genuine learning, but that is quote the opposite of what the system now provides. Our most prestigious colleges and universities love to congratulate themselves on the caliber of their incoming students:  their average SAT scores, the proportion that comes from the top 10 percent of their high school class, the narrowness of the admissions sieve that lets them in, all the numbers U.S. News & World Report has taught us now worship. And make no mistake; today’s elite students are, in purely academic terms, phenomenally well prepared.

How could they not be, given how carefully they’re bred, how strenuously sorted and groomed? They are the academic equivalent of all-American athletes, coached and drilled and dieted from the earliest years of life.  Whatever you demand of them, they’ll do. Whatever bar you in front of them, they’ll clear. A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize thirty lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Every single kid got every single line correct, down to the punctuation marks.  Seeing them write out the exercise in class, she said, was a thing of wonder, like watching Thoroughbreds circle a track.

The problem is that students have been taught that that is all that education is: doing your homework, getting the answers, acing the test.  Nothing in their training has endowed them with the sense that something larger is at stake. They’ve learned to ‘be a student,’ not to use their minds. I was talking with someone who teaches at a branch campus of a state university.  His students don’t think for themselves, he complained. Well, I said, Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to. I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League- bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development, one that they directed by themselves and for themselves…

…kids are eager to accept creative challenges, but only as long as it will get them an A.” (Emphasis added)

Deresiewicz is careful through the rest of his book to be sure to not blame the students for this system but to place the blame on the rest of us, where it belongs.

I encourage all to read Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite.

Democracy is For Some People

” None of us is free until all of us are free.”  Martin Luther King

Let me start by being very clear.

I am a patriot. I am a believer in the stated ideological foundations of the United States of America.

I am a believer, for instance, in the ideal of democracy.

a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives:
“capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world”

synonyms: representative government · elective governmentPowered by OxfordDictionaries · © Oxford University Press\

Yes, good old-fashioned democracy. The governing by the whole population “typically through elected representatives.”

And when I, as an idealistic citizen of the United States of America, see situations that undermine democracy I get a wee bit upset.

With this context in mind, let me bring you up to date on the establishment and recommendations of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

First of all, let’s go back to the ideal of democracy and the fact that this coalition is making recommendations to the Governor of the State of Michigan, Rick Snyder.  Consider:

*  That the democratically elected Detroit Board of Education, in exile since the imposition of a governor appointed (i.e., not democratically elected) emergency financial manager, did not have a say in the recommendations.

*  That it is clear who did have a say- the members of the  Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

With all due respect, how were they picked?

Honestly, I’m not sure.  Everywhere I search, news articles say this coalition was “created” or mysteriously “formed.”

Duh. We know the coalition was created, and that, as a result of this creation, it also was formed. So much for investigative journalism.

Who created it?  The evidence suggests that it came from the Skillman Foundation.  It’s important to note that a foundation has co-opted, intentionally or not, the task of what was formerly given to democratically elected governmental agencies. A foundation has somehow taken, been given, or had this task land its lap.

To me, as a believer in the democratic principles supposedly inherent in these United States, that is a problem.

The coalition has 5 co-chairs, and for the sake of my framing, as an example, I would like to focus on one of them, John Rakolta.  Now, I don’t pretend to know John, his perspective or his intentions.  In fact, I think it’s important to note that, given all of the evidence since his involvement with the coalition, it seems that he has been open-minded and fair.  (See, for instance, his pointing out that the state is responsible for much of DPS’s debt accumulated while under the control of emergency management.) My gripe is not with John Rakolta, but with the usurpation of democracy that has placed John Rakolta as co-chair deciding the fate of public schooling in Detroit.

Rakolta is the white, very rich CEO of Walbridge Construction, a company that has been involved in a number of construction projects for the very poor, over 80% black Detroit Public Schools.  On the surface, it seems that this might be a conflict of interest.  On another level, the question comes to me, how does the CEO of a construction company (or anyone else for that matter) become a co-chair of this coalition? Who elected him?  Is this how a democracy is supposed to function?  According to the web-site of the Skillman foundation, the coalition is made up of, “…independent, diverse cross-section of Detroit leaders who came together to move swiftly to make recommendations for changes that will improve the city’s education system.” Who determined what a “Detroit leader” is? Who didn’t? Why is the decision-making process that has historically been made by elected school board members given over to unelected “Detroit leaders” as determined by a foundation?


Again, I have no perspective on the intentions of Rakolta or anyone else involved with this project.  My question simply is, who put them in charge, and why do their recommendations trump the recommendations of others in a functioning democracy? Why do these chosen but unelected officials have more say than the fairly elected representatives of the citizens and parents in Detroit?

In trying to get at some answers it may get a bit complicated, so hang with me.

Let’s start by conducting a thought experiment.

Imagine that your local community (or use Grosse Pointe, or Birmingham, or Bloomfield as potential examples) had their locally controlled, democratically elected school board replaced first by an emergency financial manager, and then by a group of self-appointed citizens. How might that be accepted?

My guess? Not so well.

So why is it ok in a city that is 80% black with 40% living in poverty?

I’m stuck with the conclusion that it is ok because that city is 80% black, with 40% living in poverty.

Oh, did I play the race card? I’m sorry.

Let me be more subtle, then, and quote the all too common sentiment of Gary Naeyaert, the head of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro school choice advocacy group, as printed in the Gongwer News Source,

“Enough is enough, and it’s about time we recognized that the Detroit Public Schools are academically and financially bankrupt, and they’ve lost the privilege of educating children in Detroit,” Gary Naeyaert, executive director of GLEP, said in a statement.”  (Emphasis added)

I’m guessing, then, that democracy is a privilege afforded to some, and not to others. Coincidentally, the places where that privilege is denied is in cities that are overwhelming black and poor, with eroded infrastructures that make financial and academic issues exceedingly difficult to address.  In other words, because of the organizing principles of poverty and race, because of the increased financial and academic stresses caused by such circumstances, despite the heroic efforts of many involved in working in such stressed conditions (to be fair, many of whom served as members of the Skillman coalition), all driven by the false narrative of “failing schools,” “they” deserve to have the “privilege” of democracy removed. It seems “they” haven’t earned it in these United States. Such an attitude might be likened to colonialism- that old idea that, since “they” obviously can’t make their own decisions, “we” need to “help them.”

Now many people will say that my analysis simply isn’t realistic. That, in the real world, such a lens simply isn’t politically practical. That it simply isn’t realistic to expect people to think this way.  Many people will say, what’s the beef?  Look at the results- the coalition actually made three huge, and, to me, surprise recommendations- to have the state of Michigan assume much of DPS’s debt, to dissolve the controversial EAA, and to return power back to the DPS board of education (kind of).

My problem, again, starts with the undemocratic nature of this process itself.  It is a process that wouldn’t be allowed, at this time at least, in other communities.

Let’s be honest. Democracy is for some people.

And it also is a process that concluded with a recommendation that retains control in an entity that is outside the auspices of democracy.  It is returning some power back to the board, but, in spite of the rhetoric, much of the actual and deciding power is recommended to stay with another newly created coalition, essentially creating a portfolio system.

“Regarding the coordination and oversight across the education sectors

  • The State establish a new, lean board/legislative body, the Detroit Education Commission, to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions for all Detroit schoolchildren, with members appointed by the Mayor. The DEC will set and hold all schools to the same performance standard.”

In other words, the DPS school board will work under the umbrella and auspices of the Detroit Education Commission. So yes, democracy is reinstated, at least, you know, kind of. Right?

In a very real, very practical way, democracy is only for some people.

Honestly, I have no illusions that this will go away.  I have no illusions that Governor Snyder will reinstate democracy in Detroit.

But I do think we should all be asking ourselves an important question:

Is this what we should accept in these United States?