Now that we’re past the embarrassing Presidential world tour where the headlines seemed most focused on Melania’s brushing off Donald’s attempts to hold her hand, the Pope’s dour facial expressions, handshake duels, bogus arms deals, and GolfCartGate, but before we all become engulfed in memos detailing Trump’s attempts to force high-ranking national security officials to ignore potentially treasonous acts; everyone needs to devote at least a little attention to the budget the White House proposed to Congress right before Trump left the country. As the details of this recommendation become clearer, so does the Republican party’s fundamental priority, philosophy, belief, or however you’d like to label their mantra: If you have resources, you can buy whatever you want; if you don’t, too bad. We all need to recognize just what kind of country the Republican party envisions—at least the Republican party with Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, and Mitch McConnell at its head. While everyone is understandably distracted from this reality with Trump leading a seemingly endless parade of foolish acts and inane tweets, in one area Donald, Paul, and Mitch have been pretty consistent: Rather than proposing anything new or trying to improve current programs, they are dedicated to the “good old days” when wealthy people had an even greater share of this country’s resources and power than they do now. And from health care to withdrawing from the Paris climate accord to huge investments in weapons (all of which, conveniently, can be manipulated by Washington to profit friends and family), every position they stake out screws over those who don’t have very much to begin with.
Naturally, it’s no different with education. The foundation of public schools for many years has been what is basically a socialist construct: We all contribute so that every kid in America can learn the basics every citizen should know. No, that’s hardly an absolute standard since every state legislature or local school board can interpret what those “basics” are in a variety of ways, but at least the cost of however that ideal comes out is shared by all. And yes, the system of paying for education has also been significantly corrupted since it is generally financed through local funding (property taxes here in Illinois) which has created huge differences in how much any one school district spends per pupil. But the Trump administration as led by Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos (a billionaire in her own right), is now proposing an even more dramatic shift in resources which will allow parents more “choice” over the schools that receive their tax dollars. Many rich people already send their children to private schools at their own expense, but DeVos believes they should be able to direct any money they pay in taxes for education to whichever school they wish. In effect, these vouchers would take money originally going to public schools and redirect it to the schools parents select (which would include private and parochial institutions), robbing public schools of crucial revenue when they can ill-afford any decreases whatsoever.
Schools would thus compete with each other to attract parents and their money, with institutions already struggling being left even further behind. And the children whose parents don’t have the resources to get their children out of those impoverished schools? Well, they’re just stuck with an under-funded, second-rate education forever. This is social Darwinism at its worst with those already well-off being subsidized at the expense of the poor who stay trapped and powerless with little hope of their future being any different. That theme plays over and over again in the proposals in Trump’s budget, which is entitled “A New Foundation for American Greatness” (another ready-made lesson in irony). Budgets for health, welfare, education, art, and social service programs are slashed with funding for some sixty-six programs ended entirely.
There are dozens of other sources which can give you more specific details on the ramifications of Trump’s budget, including many which document how directly some of Trump’s staunchest supporters—working class whites—will be hurt by his draconian spending cuts, the better to benefit the wealthy. But it’s crucial for everyone to acknowledge exactly what’s going on here: The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. has increased significantly in recent years, and Republicans are doing everything they can to encourage, magnify, and accelerate both the gap’s size and the pace at which it widens.
Now, many are pointing out that this budget, like the horrific health care act which came out of the House on May 4, will never be enacted as currently written, that both are “DOA” in the Senate. And let’s all hope that is true. But regardless, this document shows exactly how Trump and his cronies view their constituents. Of course they hide behind the claim that they are cutting ineffective, wasteful programs, but the clear good which comes from things like Planned Parenthood, the National Endowment for the Arts, or Meals on Wheels has been evident for many years. Eliminating or reducing the government’s support for these programs in order to buy more weapons can’t be explained any other way than a preference for getting rid of things which help people so our military can obtain more things which kill them.
I understand that some Republicans would respond to my views with the argument that there are better ways to achieve the goals of the cut programs, but merely repeating that endlessly offers little solace to those who need help. What ideas, programs, or approaches do Trump, Ryan, McConnell and the rest of the Republican Party offer as better alternatives? It seems that they have nothing but “glittering generalities” rather than any concrete, workable solutions. For those of you who have forgotten the propaganda techniques you learned about in high school, a glittering generality is something that sounds good, but has no substance or validity behind it. The most glaring example of this comes from Trump as he was campaigning for the Presidency and regularly characterizing Obamacare (the Affordable Care Act) as a “disaster” (it isn’t). His alternative was that he would replace it with “something terrific.” Now that we’ve actually seen his replacement, we know what a ridiculous scam his campaign rhetoric was, unless by “terrific” he meant “awful for anyone who isn’t already a millionaire.” Then there are the flat-out lies he told: His terrific plan would cost less, cover everybody in the country, and make no cuts to Medicare. The reality, though, is that the Trump plan would increase rates for low-income seniors by as much as $12,000 per year, lead to over 20,000,000 Americans losing their coverage, and include some $800 billion in Medicare cuts. Ryan has been the cheerleader for this monstrosity, and we’ll see how McConnell handles the Senate revisions of the highly unpopular proposal in the weeks to come.
That’s not to say that the Democrats are perfect or have all the answers to the many problems which our country faces. But no matter how you try to spin it, Democratic proposals have generally tried to improve things for those less well off—Obamacare, environmental legislation, and a host of other programs now under attack all provided benefits for the poor. You can argue about the effectiveness, sincerity, or cost efficiency of these initiatives, of course, but there can be no denying the fundamental humanity on which the intent of the programs is based. That is in sharp contrast to the callous indifference Republican initiatives show toward anyone who is struggling. From immigrants to decaying urban neighborhoods to senior citizens barely scraping by on social security, the Trump/Ryan/McConnell vision for America works to shift resources away from the neediest to those already well off.
Let’s hope the brazenness and crudity of Trump’s approach will finally help everyone to recognize this key difference and vote accordingly. Many of us are praying that the Trump administration will be short-lived, ending in impeachment (my prediction is he will resign long before the Russian investigation proves how corrupt he is so that President Pence—which sounds almost as bad to me as “President Trump”—can immediately pardon him), but wishing for an end to Trump is hardly much of a strategy to minimize the damage Republican leadership could still do.
Instead, we have to recognize that Donald is not the source of this heartless approach to governing, but merely the loudest symptom of that which has taken over the Republican Party. As someone who spent his younger days criticizing the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, I can’t believe how wonderfully progressive his policies seem today. Some have argued that this saint of conservatism would never be even seriously considered in today’s Republican party given that he cooperated with liberal Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, approved tax increases (his two bills passed in 1982 and 1984 together constituted the biggest tax increases ever enacted during peacetime), instituted an amnesty program for undocumented workers, and even lobbied on behalf of stricter gun regulation (all these and more can be found here). That the Republican Party leadership has moved so far from what most Americans (and, I think, Republicans) believe is really quite shocking, and I still don’t understand how we Americans allowed them to take over. Regardless, that needs to be changed as quickly as possible.
Although the circus surrounding Trump’s ignorance and self-absorption will continue unabated for as long as he inhabits the White House, we have to recognize that it’s not just him, that Republican leaders are supporting and enabling him every step of the way. Regardless of what happens with His Orangeness, we have to recognize that the Republican Party is being taken to extremes by others as well.
Thus, every election from now on provides us with the opportunity to alter this tilt toward heartlessness. We need reasonable people to run for office who, regardless of party affiliation, will represent the interests of all of us and who will oppose those who would appeal only to our fears and prejudices. That applies to all parties: While many current Republicans will have to answer for backing Trump/Ryan/Mitchell, I would hope that voters will be astute enough to listen to any candidate—Democrat, Republican, or Independent—to assess her/his level of opposition to our current directions. From the air we breathe to the helpless we protect, nothing about the current heads of our executive or legislative branches represents the best humanity has to offer. We are capable of so much more, and through our actions—especially in voting—we must take steps to make sure our leaders are too.
To “Resist!” that which the Trump administration will attempt to do has become a rallying cry for all who disagree with his agenda (or the agenda of the puppet-masters who control him, depending on your view of Trump’s competence). One of the most controversial of his appointments, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has been front and center in this spotlight, given her past history of favoring for-profit charter schools and educational vouchers which would allow parents to divert tax money from public to private/parochial schools. So what is the best way to resist someone in charge of the federal approach to public education who will have significant influence in both funding and policy? The two largest teacher unions—the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—have adopted different approaches, as explained in this New Republic article, but the NEA tactic is not the one which is in public education’s best interests.
No matter what happens, who’s in charge, what program’s being pushed, or which laws are proposed in Congress; kids will still keep going to schools. Every day, they will show up, expecting to be educated (even if their attitudes occasionally suggest otherwise), and plop themselves down (eventually) into their seats as the bell rings to start the day. And the teacher will do her all to make that educating process happen, 99.9999% of the time. I taught for thirty-three years beginning in 1979, which is when the very first Education Secretary, Shirley M. Hufstedler appointed by President Jimmy Carter, took office. And not once in all that time did I spend any significant time worrying about what the Secretary of Education wanted me to do. It simply did not intrude upon my daily work life. Sure, I was aware of what comments, for example, Arne Duncan (9th Education Secretary) or William Bennett (3rd) might make—Duncan (despite his weak record) always came across as reasonable while Bennett never failed to elicit anger—but never did I ever alter what I believed to be in the best interests of my kids because of what federal educational experts preached from Washington. It makes me laugh that anyone would think good teachers would worry much or (God forbid!) alter their behavior because of what Betsy DeVos says. She simply isn’t relevant to teachers’ worlds.
And that does provide some justification for the NEA’s avowed intent to shun DeVos as not worthy to meet with or talk to, as explained in the above article. NEA president Lily Eskelsen García has stated, “There will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.” As a past NEA member and union activist, I completely understand that reaction to the problems that DeVos brings to her position. DeVos has been strongly opposed to teacher unions and worked against both teacher rights and interests. But that has been true of many educational leaders at the local, state, and federal level over the years; regardless of who’s in charge, it is the job of elected union representatives to continue communication in order to push for that which is good for their members. And the AFT, in contrast, has agreed to meet with DeVos, and its president, Randi Weingarten, has already had a brief conversation with the Education Secretary.
Don’t get me wrong: Given the chasm which exists between how DeVos views public education compared to almost every public education teacher, it is unlikely that either García or Weingarten will be able to make progress softening or changing her positions on basic educational policy. In the best case scenarios, it’s possible to envision a frosty, agree-to-disagree kind of relationship. But the stakes are significant enough that the unions need to remain engaged. Then too, they’ve got plenty of resources and opportunities to try to modify, fight, and/or protest against Republican measures. There will be many talking points and chances to set the public straight about what DeVos is trying to do. But one aspect of DeVos’s position trumps all these things when it comes to doing what’s best for public education and a key reason the unions need to maintain some sort of contact.
And that’s something which matters to every school in the country: Money. From teacher salaries (always my top priority in my role as teacher union representative) to supplies to facility maintenance, up-grading, and construction to getting quality support staff, to instituting new programs/technologies, every dollar counts. And that’s where teachers’ unions come in. At the local level (where I was active for most of my career), the unions negotiate contracts, file grievances, and generally advocate for the teachers whom the leaders (who are also teachers in that district) represent. The state organizations sometimes provide assistance with local issues that might overwhelm a small union, especially things requiring legal help, but devote most of their time to working with and lobbying state legislatures. And the national unions, like the NEA and AFT, receive members’ dues to help advance educational issues at the federal level. In the end, the most tangible issue affecting teachers’ lives and their ability to do their jobs effectively relates to funding, to money. And the federal government has some.
Granted, the amount of Washington dollars which end up in any one school district varies by a lot. In the district where I worked—Hinsdale High School Township District 86—we got a very small percentage of funding from the federal government—a percent or two of the total budget. You can contrast that with the 12% Chicago Public Schools expects to receive this fiscal year. And that difference might be one reason AFT leaders automatically show a greater willingness to work with DeVos than the NEA: AFT locals tend to be larger, more urban, and more strapped for cash than the more suburbanized, wealthier, smaller locals which make up the bulk of the NEA’s power base. Chicago Public Schools? An AFT local. Naperville Community Unit School District 204, Butler School District 53, or Community High School District 99? All part of the NEA. NEA’s locals are more able to shun federal money should they so decide, whereas large city school systems operate at huge deficits regularly. Losing federal money can mean larger class sizes, school closings, and less qualified teachers. But any loss of funding can negatively impact any school system.
And that doesn’t mean union leaders need to compromise their ideals or goals just to curry favor with DeVos in order to receive a few dollars. The issues which matter to NEA and AFT members have to do with labor laws, governmental unfunded mandates, and collective bargaining regulations. How those complex issues work requires that all sides maintain clear lines of communication—during my time as teacher representative, our local had to work with numerous board members and administrators who did not agree with our positions; some even actively sought our elimination. Yet, we continued to interact, negotiate, and ultimately hammer out agreements which allowed for working relationships to exist and the shared goal of educating kids to continue. Nobody’s expecting García and DeVos to go on joint vacations or to become besties—the teachers just need her to communicate their opinions and represent their interests, regardless of how hostile DeVos is to those views.
Refusing to engage with DeVos might play well with García’s membership and enhance her popularity among the anti-DeVos crowd (which includes most teachers), but it’s hard to see how it helps out the schools where her members work. We have definitely entered a different political environment, and I certainly don’t want to overstate the influence DeVos will wield (I’ve actually written exactly the opposite), but grandstanding instead of doing the job you’ve been elected to do hardly seems an effective strategy. Maybe García has some unstated plan which will make this seeming futile petulance pay off in the long run, but for now, I don’t believe giving DeVos the silent treatment will serve anyone’s best interests—except maybe Devos’s since she will have to interact with one less critic. And this will improve the lot of NEA teachers how…?
For ideas that can improve public education, you might want to read Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found here.
Let’s make this perfectly clear right from the start: I do not think that Betsy DeVos is qualified to be Secretary of Education and I did not support her controversy-laden nomination process which ended in a 50-50 vote in the Senate. For the first time in history, a vice president had to cast the deciding vote; DeVos enters office with the least popularity and most notoriety of any cabinet-level appointment I can remember. And that’s what bothered me more and more as the whole cabinet Senate-approval process has gone on—given the relative importance of the various positions Trump has at his disposal to appoint, DeVos is a very small fish in the sea of incompetence and/or disregard (if not outright desire to harm) that other departments will have to endure, yet those appointments have generated much less furor than DoVos’s.
Don’t misinterpret me here: Of course I believe public education is crucial! I spent thirty-three years teaching, so obviously I’m biased, but it doesn’t get much more significant for the continued success and growth of the country than how much education our kids get. From income to contribution to society to likelihood of voting, the better your education, the better your chances to contribute and to achieve. And when you achieve, you’re also more likely to recognize the need to give back, not to mention having the resources to do so. Public education is one of the greatest assets America possesses, and it is the pipeline that supplies what is truly our crown jewel and the envy of the world—America’s outstanding collection of colleges and universities which have fostered creativity, innovation, and leadership second to none. Yeah, I think education is important.
But Betsy DeVos won’t have much impact on most of the educational world, especially the middle-class enclaves which receive scant monetary support from the federal government whose budget Betsy will now influence. I spent twenty-five years teaching and union agitating in one of the better school districts in the state, Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Central. Through eight different teacher contract negotiations, I became familiar with the financial condition of the district, and we never got more than a percent or two of our funding annually from Uncle Sam. Of course, every cent matters, but it wouldn’t be a huge hardship for many of the suburban school districts in Chicagoland to blow off the relative chump change they get from the feds should DeVos try to ram through some controversial change. And do you really think Donald will let her go after the ‘burbs with their bastions of conservative, management types as opposed to the wicked cities?
Those city schools will be the ones to get the brunt of DeVos’s attention since those enormous, cash-strapped districts depend much more on federal money. For instance, Chicago schools are budgeted to get over 12% of their funding from Washington this fiscal year. That’s a lot of programs, teachers, and facility upgrades/repairs. These districts, however, have been the most troubled for the longest time due to conditions which often hamper the ability of children to function well in school—less local tax money, higher percentages of low-income families, and eroding facilities. There is much that needs improvement in some areas of our cities, and it’s a pretty safe bet that DeVos will push one of her favorite programs, charter schools. Certainly vouchers will also be encouraged, but her inclination in this direction will be staunchly opposed in the suburbs since most people are happy with their schools. (They’re happy with them because they’re damn good, by the way.) And in the cities, vouchers have much less impact since most families have no other reasonable options save their local public school. The main battle ahead, in my view, is between the federal government trying to leverage its more significant monetary contribution to the large urban districts where the teacher unions are pretty strong. We can anticipate some epic confrontations, but it will be hard for DeVos to dislodge many state laws which provide a basis of power for the unions. Much work needs to be done for our city schools, but I’m doubtful that we’ll see a revolution educationally in Chicago’s public schools; she’ll just try to increase the speed with which cities are moving in the directions fostered under the two previous administrations.
On top of that, educational bureaucracy is largely decentralized and notoriously slow-moving. It will take years for DeVos to get up to speed and even longer for her to mount any effective legislation or initiative. Plus, it’s not like she has a stellar record of achievement shining down on her from the recent past courtesy of either the Bush or Obama administrations. Her poor performance won’t be unusual given how Arne Duncan, Margaret Spelling, and Roderick Paige did preceding her. No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core all had laudable goals and motivations, but none of those programs has really made a dent in the most stubbornly underachieving districts any more than they impacted to any great degree good, independent, locally supervised schools. Then too, teachers can be (speaking from first-hand experience) extremely stubborn in refusing to do things which they don’t believe are in the best interests of their kids. Okay, maybe that sounds naïve and idealistic, but keep in mind this assessment is coming from someone who spent years fighting with his bosses for better teacher rights and was a noted challenger of authority (aka “a huge pain”)—I’m not exactly a dewy-eyed neophyte on how school systems work. I’ve witnessed what teachers do, and believe me; no math department in the world will veer one problem away from what they have determined to be the best route until you have proved to them the new way will be significantly better. Schools have a rich history of ignoring grand plans from on high, and DeVos doesn’t have much of a track record in accomplishing the radical change she often espouses. For an alternative view (fact?) check out this article I found pretty amusing—there’s absolutely no evidence supplied to support the attention-grabbing title, not to mention this one which has a heartfelt and inspiring back story, but again offers not one iota of support to show how DeVos will wreck schools.
Contrast the limited impact she will have with the potential for harm coming from the rest of Trump’s awful cabinet. Rick Perry was appointed to the Department of Energy without even knowing he would be overseeing our thousands of nuclear weapons. Ben Carson was selected to head Housing and Urban Development as the token black, despite admitting how little he knows about running a huge department. Steve Mnuchin worked for the much maligned Goldman Sachs as well as evicting thousands of homeowners during the 2008 financial meltdown, so we have a pedigreed swamp dweller at the helm of Treasury. Likewise, Rex Tillerson comes to the State Department with years of experience glad-handing various repressive governments (especially Putin’s Russia) to advance the interests of Exxon. Scott Pruitt will head the Environmental Protection Agency with a history of opposing most of its works and filing lawsuits against it. Tom Price is in charge of Health and Human Services despite several conflicts of interests, mainly revolving around his habit of pushing legislation which would benefit pharmaceutical companies in which he had purchased stock. Jeff Sessions is our Attorney General although his past is littered with racist, discriminatory behavior. All these men will be able to change our country in much more significant ways—from the air we breathe to the wars we fight to our economic well-being to the laws we enforce—than Betsy DeVos’s feeble attempts to expand charter schools.
Yet, the outrage over DeVos burned brightly while most of the others were approved with much less rancor. Yes, Elizabeth Warren did crusade against Sessions and Al Franken has been tough with whomever he’s questioned (including DeVos), but the antipathy to DeVos seems much greater and louder. So what is it about this particular appointment that so galvanized the opposition to the point where even a couple of Trump’s lapdogs (aka Republican Senators) voted against her?
The obvious answer is how important everyone sees education as being. More than that, though, everybody has a strong reaction when we believe our kids our threatened. Some of the DeVos firestorm, then, came from our knee-jerk reaction to potential negative outcomes for our kids. As The Simpsons character, Helen Lovejoy, is fond of wailing, “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” Nobody ever wants to be seen as short-changing children or puppies, so it makes sense that once it became clear that DeVos was hardly a wonderful candidate for Education we all sharpened our knives and had at her. That she won’t have nearly the negative influence as Sessions, Pruitt, Tillerson, or any of the other bad cabinet members gets lost in the invective. That she’s a billionaire only makes it easier to pile on when she doesn’t even know the difference between growth and proficiency.
Sadly, however, I believe there’s more going on here than just a bad candidate for an important position. In this case, we have a bad woman candidate. I know there were a couple of other females nominated (although pathetically few), but they had more political cover than DeVos—like newly appointed Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, who also happens to be Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s wife. Yep, America’s blatant sexism, which in my view is one of the key reasons Hillary Clinton is not our President, has reared its ugly but equal opportunity head in going after another woman who has poor public relations skills. Don’t get me wrong—I disagree with almost every education pronouncement DeVos has ever made, but at least she has been interested in the field over the past several years. I know she didn’t go to, send her kids to, or work in any public schools; yet she has been lobbying, proposing, and working on educational issues for years. No, that isn’t the same as direct public education know-how, but it’s more experience than Carson or Perry, more transparency than Price or Tillerson, and less corrupted values than Sessions or Mnuchen bring to their departments. Yes, she doesn’t like unions and has no problem with tax dollars being shifted to parochial schools as part of parents’ being able to choose their child’s school. But she will have a much harder time enacting that agenda than Pruitt will in lowering clean air and water standards for the profits of industrial barons at the cost of everyone’s health—Flint was just a warmup with a guy like this having so much influence. And that’s just fallout from ONE of the other departments peopled with Trump’s much more deplorable choices. Essentially, I believe that DeVos would have gotten significantly less flack if she had been a man, and the men got off way too easily since most belong to the “old boys network.” (As I was writing this, one of the old boys did get rejected as Andrew Puzder—who despises labor unions, opposes any minimum wage, and of course was slated to be Secretary of Labor. So at least when a man has an undocumented servant and was once accused of abusing his ex-wife, even Donald can’t get him through the Republican Senate.)
I’ve written before how we need to prioritize in the coming battle with Trump in charge. Like everybody, I’m just now coming to grips with how bad it is rapidly becoming, not to mention concerned as hell about how much worse it could get. But expending huge amounts of energy and devoting significant dollars against DeVos is to misallocate vital resources that we’re going to need for other more dire crises to come. As I’ve pointed out repeatedly throughout this essay, I am NOT in favor of Betsy DeVos or her plans for American education. I do, however, have much faith in the teachers, students, and their parents who are not going to let their schools be taken over by some unqualified rich person in Washington. State legislatures and local school boards are the keys to most school districts, and coupled with energized teachers unions, I am confident that DeVos’s impact will be minimal. With so many other more important challenges ahead from those who face much weaker opposition, save your time and energy for Mother Nature, Lady Justice, Columbia, three women who are going to need all our help from attacks coming from the Trump administration.
And of course, you should check out the arguments which contradict what I have written here, so here are several I have come across. Hey, I’ve got no problem with people criticizing DeVos’s record and opposing her agenda, and if you disagree with my assessment and want to spend your time and energy making public education better, that will never be a waste of time and will always be beneficial. Just don’t over-exaggerate the damage she will cause. These articles come from the following sources: Gizmodo, NPR, Policy.Mic, Vox, Inside Higher Ed, North Carolina Policy Watch, and The Chicago Tribune.
And if you’d like more ideas on how public education can be improved, please look into my eBook, Snowflake Schools, which has way better ideas than any DeVos has every articulated from someone who went to public schools, studied them in college, worked in them for thirty-three years, and sent his kids there as well. Take that, Betsy!
As our new year starts and the in-coming administration gears up to assume office, it is time to move away from general analyses of how Trump came to office, the problems with his approach to the Presidency, or the general suggestions for what we who doubt his ability to govern effectively or fairly should do. Now, we need to get more specific in understanding those who will assist him in governing; and given my experience in education (thirty-three years as a secondary English teacher), Betsy Devos, soon-to-be Education Secretary, is the most suited for a more detailed look from me.
What everybody notices right away about Devos’s résumé is how little experience she has with public education of any sort. She did not attend public schools growing up, she did not major in education or have a job in the field, and she did not send her kids to public schools. She has, however, devoted much her time as an adult (who can pretty much pick whatever field she wants to dabble in, given her status as a billionaire) to education reform. So as we unravel her qualifications, work, and beliefs prior to her taking over as the highest ranking education figure at the federal level, we have to understand that she has spent much of her time and millions of her dollars to modify an institution with which she has no direct experience. Certainly, several previous Education Secretaries have not been totally steeped in a public education background, but it is reasonable to note that none of them has been as free of any real familiarity with how our schools work while having strident, documented opinions about their weaknesses. If that sounds a lot like her boss in the White House, well…
So the logical place to start—absent an historical walk through her biography—is what does she believe strongly enough to be able to devote so much time and money to changing, despite no first-hand experiences? When you take a look at the areas of her focus over the years, it becomes clear she’s very strong on individual families having as much flexibility as possible in making their educational choices. Naturally, it’s possible to see her educational work as either negative or positive, depending on the political lens through which you view it. What is apparent, however, is that whether it is charter schools operating outside traditional public educational administrative structures, vouchers for parents to use in directing their tax dollars to specific schools, or public funds being made available to private/parochial schools; Devos has consistently sided with positions which empowered individuals rather than the public education. And that seems reasonable when you view our educational system as a competitive one. If you have the means to find and get into a good school, Devos’s plans will work very well for you. You’re probably already making a sizable financial contribution to your local school districts which are, by and large, very good. If Devos has her way, you’ll have the additional leverage of transferring both your children and your tax dollars to whichever school system you like best—thus insuring that school districts will have to work harder to meet your needs lest they lose your funding. You will have more power in both influencing how your schools operate and whether some can even remain open. Those with money could be okay with Devos’s initiatives.
The problem, of course, is that not everyone has that win-win of quality public and private options close to their homes or within family budgetary limits. Instead, the only schools these families have access to will be those deemed as the worst, the ones losing additional funding necessary to improve since any family with the means to do so will find another option (or home school—if you home school, will Devos propose that you get to keep the portion of your tax bill devoted to education?). These schools could become so impoverished that only for-profit, non-union corporations will be willing to take them on, slashing programs and increasing class sizes to foster greater financial returns. The stratification of the privileged from lower-income groups can only increase with this model in place.
Additionally, the obvious question becomes who should be making the decisions on the best educational directions for our kids. Devos seems to believe that parents should be the ones with the most power, and she has a point that nobody is more invested in any one particular child than his/her parents. But that begs the question as to how objective parents can be about their children. (Not very, this parent would argue.) There’s also the problem of the greatest good for the greatest number. Left to their own interests, how many parents would choose less luxury for their children in order to benefit the masses? Parents should be included more significantly than they are now, but that doesn’t mean they should be the ultimate authorities on all things related to their children’s schools and their programs. Devos’s goal seems to be a total shift of decision-making power away from school administrators and teachers to parents.
It’s important to point out that this process is already in place to a certain extent. Although the Obama administration has done extremely well in many areas (in my opinion), one of its weakest areas has been education. Arne Duncan largely embraced the “Corporate Reform” model that Devos seems to favor, just to a lesser degree. Race to the Top did little to improve No Child Left Behind (the signature legislation of the Bush years), and the Common Core had a laudable beginning (trying to establish high standards for all students to achieve), but quickly degenerated into way too much federal interference in the teacher/student relationship which is at the heart of good education. Unless teachers are free to utilize methods they believe will best help their students to learn, progress is impossible. The Common Core tied federal dollars to forcing teachers to teach a certain way and school districts to required procedures that went far beyond the quality standards upon which Common Core should have based entirely. Also, charter school initiatives increased significantly during Obama’s terms, with for-profit companies taking over many schools. At least Duncan never tried to initiate vouchers or advocate public tax money being given to private institutions.
I was no fan of Duncan, the Education Secretary from 2009-2015, as I explained when he left Washington. And I’m mildly hopeful that the lack of direct experience with public education might mean Devos hasn’t totally hardened all of her beliefs, and she might be open to recognizing how central teachers are to any changes in public education; that top-down directives from Washington, state capitols, or even local school boards will have no positive impact unless teachers support them. We’ve been over and over this, but it seems that each new “leader” operates under the delusion that his/her vision is so compelling that teachers with decades of classroom experience will radically alter their approaches simply because someone who’s never been in their classrooms tells them she/he knows better. Culled down to its essence like that last sentence, most would recognize how idiotic an approach that is.
Unfortunately, Devos’s background seems to indicate she won’t understand this any better than Duncan did. Billionaires can operate as if no rules or restrictions should matter to them (This observation is based solely on anecdotal evidence—I have no first-hand experience with any billionaires nor can I come within 1% of their net worth. But watching Trump over the past couple of years, it seems like a reasonable assumption). So I have very low expectations for Devos seeing the light and changing her course to help schools understand their individual and unique situations which only those on site best know how to address. Instead, she’ll probably try to steer as much funding from traditional public school systems to alternatives in her belief that choice is more important than providing everyone with an equal opportunity for a quality education.
But as her boss will probably soon understand, bureaucracies move at glacial speed. (Um, glacial speed prior to the warming of the poles, which has greatly increased their melting in recent years, unfortunately. Yes, as you can tell, I’ve been completely brain-washed by the Chinese hoax on climate change. So sad.) What’s really sad, though, is that our best hope that Devos and Trump’s administration won’t damage public education too much is how resistant to any changes systems as large and complicated as school districts are. My best guess is they will try to help rich and middle class families to exert more influence over public schools while abandoning those who have no opportunity to choose at all to for-profit corporations. And the entrenched powers (administrations and—where they still exist—unions) will fight them every step of the way. Meanwhile, all the problems that each side rails against will continue as the battle grinds to a standstill. And that will leave us right where we are now, with the privileged getting a pretty good education and the poor being left far behind.
We can hope that Devos will surprise everybody and recognize that our society is based on the need for a literate populous, and one which provides all its citizens with the opportunity for a good education. The pessimistic view that Devos will lead the charge to further stratification seems most likely, but given the strange political events of 2016, it seems nobody has a clear idea on what will happen next. If nothing else, maybe it will take Devos so long to figure out the ins and outs of her huge department’s workings, that a new administration elected in 2020 will be taking over before she has time to do much damage. I do hope that she will come to the conclusion that empowering teachers to do their jobs well is the only way to improve schools, and she will move away from the sideshows of vouchers, for-profit charter schools, and public funds being directed into private institutions not subject to federal rules and regulations. Like most things about the Trump Presidency, we have little knowledge of what is going to be done and every reason to expect the worst without much concrete upon which to base our dread. But, dread is the most realistic feeling to have for now. Here’s to Devos’s proving me wrong.
If Secretary Devos needs a manual for how best to guide our schools, perhaps she could read Snowflake Schools, available for a very reasonable price, especially for a billionaire. Excerpts of the e-book can be found here.
It’s become fashionable for people like me—those who participated in public education (thirty-three years teaching English to junior and senior high students as well as significant union activism) and followers of what the outside world thinks about it—to bash what we regularly refer to as “corporate reform.” And to be perfectly clear right from the start, we are totally right to be bashing what’s behind that label since it has impeded educational progress. Too often, however, some let that label do all the talking without making sure that everyone understands exactly what’s specifically wrong with these programs. We (like most humans) want things to be as easy as possible and tend to assume those to whom we are trying to communicate know exactly what we mean, or—much worse and probably even more common with bloggers—we arrogantly assume that because you know how awesome and righteous we are that you will simply take our opinions as your own without much consideration. And that has led to the walled off world we tend to see on-line, where people only read things with which they know they will agree. Sadly, this leads to the kind of “source contaminated” bias many of us have against anything coming from, say Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow (Yes, that dichotomy seems way unfair to Rachel from my perspective, which shows you what kind of stuff I generally read). The main place where you find “debate” occurs in the comments section or on Twitter feeds, and we all know how those often degenerate into name-calling, mindless attacks, and stereotyping. This, however, isn’t a plea for more nuanced and courteous communication, useful though that might be. Instead, I want to be sure that it’s clear why there is so much mistrust and resistance to this movement by pointing out the problems with the various different programs/laws/innovations that the “corporate reformers” (which tends to be the code for “billionaire philanthropists”) are trying to institute in/legislate for/force on our public schools.
This will be a series, necessarily, since there are so many who believe they have the answers to public education issues, but if you click on only one link that I’m going to be citing here (because you’re foolishly ignoring my warning against just assuming anyone is completely trustworthy when it comes to subjective issues), please check out this one, “High schools don’t need a redesign,” written by Jack Schneider. In it he reviews the incorrect assumptions that have led Lauren Powell Jobs (Steve’s widow) to fund an educational reform movement/project to redesign American high schools from scratch. In doing so, he insightfully sums up the mistakes most reformers make when charging ahead with their programs. Understand his key points and you will see why making schools better has to be approached school-by-school, with an emphasis on making sure teachers are allowed to take the lead on how innovations, ideas, technology, and philosophies are incorporated into their classrooms.
I’ll review the errors of Jobs according to Schneider later, but his general points apply to many who believe to know best how to “fix” public education. First he demolishes the given from which most reformers begin: That schools are totally static entities which haven’t changed in the last 100 years. Not all reformers are as blunt in that statement as Jobs’s group. The underlying belief, though, is that whatever the reformers in charge went through in their school experiences mirrors exactly what today’s kids are going through too. Schneider points out this assumption (that since classes are still being led by teachers in school buildings means education hasn’t changed) is comparable to insisting that because businesses operate with a corporate hierarchy and are housed in office buildings those facts prove that they too haven’t changed since 1916. This assumption simply isn’t true as technology, psychology, methodology, and physical plants are all dramatically different as compared to previous iterations of both businesses and schools. Teachers and business people who worked forty years ago (about the time I started) would hardly recognize much of what is standard procedure today.
To elaborate on that point further by stating the obvious, the personnel are also very different now than they were before. Even if you presume that colleges haven’t been revising, adding, and subtracting different teacher training methods over the years (which they have); teachers don’t teach for more than three decades typically—many less than that—so you have different people in the classroom which alters how schools function. Schools are reflections of the cultures in which they exist, so changes in the way community members think will show up in the schools since—big surprise—community members work there. Even basic curriculum items change since what was important yesterday has little significance today: Spelling and penmanship were mainstays of the English curriculum when I was growing up, but they faded during the time when I was teaching (1979-2012), and now have become largely irrelevant and abandoned (especially hand-writing) thanks to word processing on computers. It’s hard even for me to believe that as recently as 2000, I was requiring my students (who were still writing timed essays with pens) to use cursive since I believed cursive allowed students to write faster; you don’t have to lift your writing implement as often as you do when you print. And don’t get me started on my 1981 attempt at a nationwide business franchise: CranManuscript, a drop-in handwriting tutoring center, where students with poor penmanship could receive one-on-one assistance. Maybe you’ll soon see me pitching that gem on Shark Tank!
Horrible, antiquated, fake business schemes aside, schools are only as good as teachers make them, and with turnover anywhere from 5-15% annually in most districts, the line-ups are constantly changing; as new people replace the old, schools change. Any reform movement based on the idea of modifying a static environment demonstrates its ignorance of how personnel-dominated workplaces operate.
This leads to the second of Schneider’s issues with school reform—that much of it is predicated on a foundation of starting from scratch. This error ignores that our public education system has been in place for centuries; the first American high school opened in Boston in 1635. Any institution that old has evolved over time, slowly adapting as historical trends and new insights filter their way in. To throw out all that has been accomplished in the name of “starting over” makes about as much sense as tossing aside all we know about producing automobiles so we can construct a brand new and different mode of transportation: Sure, the gas engine might need to be phased out as our supply of fossil fuel dwindles and the negative impacts of burning all that carbon degrade our environment, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore all the knowledge we’ve gained over the years on safety, aerodynamics, or cup holders. Maybe even that dirty engine might be useful during our transition away from gas in the form of hybrids that make use of gas and cleaner battery power.
Schools similarly have developed many laudable and beneficial traits over the years, and anyone intent on improving public education must sort through the things that work from those that don’t. Even the most dysfunctional district will have many positive attributes; to insist on tearing it all down to the ground in order to create a new order will not only be wasteful, but is destined to fail. Certainly there are some things that might do better with a complete reboot—can you say “Republican Party Leaders”? Schools, however, are continuously operating which makes it almost impossible to start totally from nothing. To institute radically different methods or structures at the same time you are trying to teach and discipline students—as well as evaluating performances, communicating with parents, and keeping detailed records—just won’t work. Any change needs to be broken down into small steps, worked in gradually over time. Everybody wants change to be immediate, but that’s simply not how schools or people work.
Then too, massive, wholesale change is predicated on all schools having the same issues, needing identical solutions to identical problems. Even the most hard-core corporate reformer should be able to see the folly in that approach. Certainly, anyone who’s spent more than a day or two in more than one school would understand how idiotic that would be. From the students to the communities to the economics to the parents to the resources to the teachers to the facilities, every single school in the country is unique and requires a different mix of ideas and programs to address the issues it faces. This fundamental reality is the key reason that any reforms that try to apply single solutions for all schools have absolutely no hope of anything but abysmal failure. Yes, that’s the reason this blog is called, “Snowflake Schools,” since just like the frozen crystals of water that fall from the sky, so too is every school in the world one-of-kind.
So as we take a tour of the wrong turns so many wealthy people are taking as they try to “solve” public education, we would do well to remember and apply Schneider’s points. Any leader or expert who claims to be injecting change into the “static” entity of public education doesn’t understand how much schools have evolved over the decades. And anyone who wants to tear the current systems down to start over with something brand new has no clue how different each school is from every other school. Solid school improvement plans will always seek to understand the strengths (as well as the weaknesses) of what is currently in place in order to make modifications designed specifically for that school. Such plans will prioritize what needs to be done as countered by that which is already working. You can see why these successful industry barons struggle so much with public education: They are blinded by the wealth their single-minded approaches have brought to them and assume that what works for Wal-Mart, Apple, or Microsoft will be easily transferred to Hinsdale South, Hinsdale Central, or Proviso West. Yet deep down, even they understand how foolish that is since none of them is unaware of the reality that those three companies evolved into successful enterprises in extremely different ways, using different resources, methods, and personnel to get there. Every school requires an equally unique, individual approach.
Next time we’ll begin our more specific analysis of the many influential corporate reformers. For more on what should go into running one of those snowflake schools, check out my e-book, oddly enough entitled, Snowflake Schools. Excerpts can be found here.
Postscript: Just a quick follow-up on an essay I wrote back in October about a foolish expenditure of money taking place in Florida where teachers were being given bonuses based on top 20% scores they received as high school students on their ACT or SAT standardized tests. If you recall, nobody except the Florida state legislature thought this was a good way to reward teachers since nobody has shown that ACT or SAT scores are correlated to good teaching skills. Florida went ahead with the program anyway, and some 5,200 teachers will get $8,200 extra pay this year. Despite heavy criticism of this as a reasonable way to reward teachers and the fact that some excellent teachers don’t qualify because they have no way to access their old test scores, the Florida legislature is planning to continue the program with even more funding than was allocated for this year. You can read more about this “wonderful” idea at this site.
As we begin 2016 with a new federal public education policy in place (The Every Student Succeeds Act, which we’ll take a more detailed look at in the near future), it seems appropriate to review that which preceded it: recently retired Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s last seven years as Washington’s education leader.
It’s important to recognize and be transparent about one’s biases right from the start: As a retired junior high and high school English teacher of thirty-three years, I have been a supporter of Barak Obama from the time he was a relatively unknown Senator from Illinois. In many ways—health care, energy, economic directions, equal rights issues, gun control, tax code, and many other domestic policies—I believe he has done an excellent job, or at least (in the case of gun control, specifically) articulated a view with which I agree. His foreign policy has seemed much less successful to me; but my expertise there is minimal at best, and it’s debatable just how much one leader can influence the world in this day and age. His greatest failing during his two terms in office, however (from my vantage point at least), has been how federal education policy was managed by his appointee, Arne Duncan.
The problems with the previous administration’s key education initiative, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, were clearly understood and negatively impacting schools when Duncan took over in 2009. Basically, school districts were required to use standardized testing to determine how well they were doing, with schools considered “Failing,” if a single sub-group population of students (based on race, special needs, and/or economic status—often representing a very small percentage of all a school’s students) did not make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) on those tests, with the standard for AYP being set by the federal government. By 2014, 100% of all students were to be achieving at the “meets or exceeds standards” level on these tests, regardless of the fact that each year a different set of students would be taking the tests. (One-twelfth of the students from the previous year would have graduated, for example, meaning that the overall group would be at least 8% changed from one year to the next.) Regardless of the specifics of NCLB, the law pushed schools in the direction of using standardized tests as created by for-profit companies as the single most important metric in evaluating how effective or “good” a school was. Again, my biases shine through, but I believe a school as excellent as Hinsdale South High School (where I worked for twenty-five years) being rated as “failing” several years in a row based on NCLB, shows just how misguided this policy was.
Enter Duncan in 2009 with a clear mandate to address NCLB’s problems. But, instead of attempting to rectify the obvious failures of NCLB’s direction, he increased the importance of outside influences on schools with his Race to the Top program which doled out federal money only to schools deemed deserving based on criteria such as tying teacher evaluations to standardized tests—making them even more important to school districts than they had been previously. More Duncan policies were pushing schools to adopt standards created by those with no understanding of or experience with specific schools (the Common Core), as well as encouraging for-profit corporations to take over public schools, greatly increasing the number of charters in the country. The term, “Corporate Reform,” basically describes Duncan’s philosophy: More centralized control of schools achieved through weakening teachers’ rights and local school boards’ power in order to give state and federal governments more say in how schools are run. The goal was to use data (standardized tests) to identify poor-performing teachers, principals, and schools so that those resources could be redirected to privately run charters. Vouchers and tax credits were also favored, in theory so that parents could have more choice in which school received their tax revenue. Under some proposals along these lines, public funds could even be spent on private or parochial schools.
In short, Duncan presided over a period of the federal government’s trying to make public schools more like private businesses. If a business provides a good product (by Duncan’s criteria for schools, high standardized test scores and low costs), then it will attract more customers (parents who want their children to attend that school). If the product is inferior (poor test scores or high costs), the company (school) should go out of business (close) to be replaced by those who will do a better job using a different business model (privately run charter schools funded with public funds) and fostering more competition for customers (parents shopping for schools among different charter and public school options).
Although there have been a few positives with this model—high school graduation rates have increased, and there have been modest improvements on some standardized test scores—overall, Duncan did not improve education in America. For every small gain, there have been much larger losses. Excessive standardized testing has led to a narrowing of schools’ curriculums, especially since only English and math tests counted when evaluating a school’s worth. Art, music, and physical education programs have suffered, with some schools dropping elective courses and even programs. Teachers now spend way too much time trying to prepare students for these tests, despite believing test prep to be a poor use of class time. And the results have shown little improvement in the test scores in comparison to other countries, many of whom do significantly less testing.
In the meantime, tests have stressed everyone, while enriching testing companies. Teacher dissatisfaction—difficult to measure accurately, I will concede—seems to have increased. My direct evidence is mostly anecdotal, but I do come from a teaching family and have had contact over the years with hundreds of teachers; and from what I’ve seen, teachers are significantly unhappier now than they were twenty years ago. And some evidence of this has cropped up in recent years as the baby-boom generation of teachers has retired. Many school districts are having difficulty in finding capable replacements as the profession of teaching has suffered the erosion of hard-earned rights and status in the public’s eyes with many outside “experts” attacking tenure as a refuge for incompetent, lazy slackers. The Common Core has also negatively influenced schools as teachers were compelled to change successful methods and programs in order to comply with what the experts had determined was “better.” One of the poorly understood aspects of Duncan’s granting schools waivers from meeting the aforementioned AYP targets of NCLB was his then being able to pressure schools into adopting the common core—the federal government’s “ransom” for not enforcing the unrealistic goals set for all schools by those completely unfamiliar with them.
Teachers’ feelings of powerlessness, lack of respect, and not being valued have increased to the point where many of my former colleagues are simply serving their time until retirement, encouraging students to stay away from the teaching profession, and/or leaving the field entirely for better working conditions and pay. The steady progress teachers made in the 1980s and 90s has given way to stagnation and regression. And despite all the time, effort, and billions of dollars spent on these federal initiatives, neither Race to the Top nor Common Core has improved public education for students, teachers, or parents.
In short, very few in the education field are sorry to see Arne Duncan go. That’s not to say that he was evil or bigoted or mean-spirited (unlike several of the current Republican Presidential candidates), but he pushed our schools in a negative direction. (And you really observant readers will notice how I’ve loosed my avalanche of criticism on Duncan, as though President Obama had nothing to do with this. He clearly has, and I do believe it has been his major shortcoming.) As mentioned earlier, we’ll take a look at the new federal law passed last month in the coming weeks, and it’s way too soon to evaluate the new Secretary of Education (who will probably be in office barely a year anyway); but Arne Duncan’s legacy (with Obama’s imprimatur) is not one that many will see in a positive way.
If you would like to see more analysis of Duncan’s seven years in office, you can check out the following sources, listed here by their publisher: The American Spectator, The Nation, Vox, Socialist Worker, The New York Times, this one from The Washington Post, and another one from The Washington Post. For more analysis of positive directions for public education, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools—you can find entire chapters here.
The more one thinks about it, the more inevitable the current clash between business leaders and teachers seems: The worlds in which they function have very little in common, and business leaders are taking a more active and political approach to public education which they perceive as an expensive monopoly which would be both cheaper and more profitable if broken up. Charter schools, vouchers, and the repeal of collective bargaining rights all change the direction in which public dollars flow. In doing so, they also alter the fundamental philosophy of public education to one of competition based on objective data (like standardized test scores) in an attempt to demonstrate “profitability” through superior numbers or “loss” as in lower rankings when comparing schools’ scores. Public education, illustrated by how teachers function, has always been about a collective effort to achieve an overall societal good. Teachers and schools have not seen themselves in competition with each other (except in various extra-curricular activities), nor have they ever viewed their success as coming by way of someone else’s failure. There can be no other way to put this—the war between business leaders and teachers is a battle between capitalism versus socialism.
Of course most teachers don’t view themselves as Socialists, especially with that inflammatory capital S, but their profession operates that way: The workers have a shared goal of educating young people and are encouraged to work hard to fulfill a duty to their pupils as well as to their organization. Their pay schedule is based on experience and training, with little variation or use of other criteria allowed. Their work days are spelled out as specifically as possible in their contracts, and they are supervised by government bodies, elected by the public. Their qualifications, certifications, and licenses are also regulated by the state, with required additional training regularly occurring (as well as changes in their responsibilities) mandated by new state and federal laws. The public is taxed to fund their salaries regardless of the taxpayers’ having children in the schools. Should more revenue be necessary to pay those salaries (buy supplies, make repairs, or construct new buildings), the public is asked to vote on approving additional taxes to provide more money.
The public school culture reeks of sharing and cooperation, not competition. My goal in teaching English was to prepare my students to achieve the standards which had been collectively worked out by teachers (90% of them), administrators (8%), and school board members (at most 2%). My colleagues and I would confer on the best ways to make that happen as well as sharing any materials that might enhance its outcome. While there was much room for individuality and originality in how we achieved our goals, we were encouraged to be open and accommodating to other teachers, to view them as partners, not competitors as would be the case in a merit-based salary system. It would never have occurred to me to refuse another teacher’s request—whether or not that teacher worked in my school district—to use anything that I had created, nor was anyone ever reluctant to make me a copy of something she/he was using. We would even employ institute time to grade essays together in order to make sure we understood the criteria that we all should emphasize so the basis for grades was similar. If none of that sounds like the competitiveness associated with capitalism, that’s because it wasn’t, not even close.
Nobody had a quota of grades to meet, no one hid teaching techniques that might benefit others, and we never felt that any of our accomplishments came at the expense of anyone else. All our students achieved the grades they had earned, based on the work they did in our classrooms. There might have been some competition to get into honors programs rather than average classes, but that all took place between department administrators and parents; we teachers were totally above that particular fray and merely taught the students we were assigned. There was some sniping internally about how hard it was to teach math as compared to social studies or physical education, for example, but we never seriously considered an unequal pay scale to reward “better” teachers or “more important” subject matter. Our unions represented all teachers equally, and we saw ourselves as part of a larger entity. As politics entered schools more and more, teachers tended to vote as a bloc to ensure their rights were maintained. The profession of teaching exists in a country steeped in capitalism, but it functions much more like hippie communes of the 1960s, minus the free love and drugs.
Enter the über-capitalists with their billions in disposable income who no longer need to spend so much time building their businesses and are looking for new challenges. Public education to them seems ripe for a healthy dose of the competitive struggles they endured to become successful in the free-market world. If a school isn’t delivering a quality product for its customers, they reason, why on Earth shouldn’t those customers find another school with a better product? If a community or state is strapped with too much debt to fix roads or incarcerate prisoners, why shouldn’t public employees (like teachers) take a cut in pay, benefits, and/or pensions? And how in God’s name can we allow these expensive institutions to avoid proving, through objective means, that they are providing a quality product? Why should there be a monopoly on this vital service if a different organization could provide similar results for significantly lower costs?
So many of the educational “philanthropists” of recent years jumped into public education with business-oriented models to solve the “problem” of public education. If the monopoly most districts had wasn’t serving their customers well, there needed to be alternatives—charter schools and voucher systems which would allow parents to choose where to send their children and on which district to spend their tax dollars. The best way to cut costs in a personnel dominated field like education would be to lower teacher salaries by eliminating collective bargaining laws which had forced school districts to negotiate contracts directly with teachers’ unions and permitted those irritating organizations to call for strikes. And if we were to assess any school’s performance accurately, a national curriculum and standardized tests were the best ways to determine how well each school—and eventually, teacher—was doing. The battle lines have been drawn.
But the teachers in this war don’t really see their way of doing things as part of a larger struggle. The good ones (which total well over 90% based on my anecdotal experience of thirty-three years teaching English in two school districts—the other 10% breaks down with 9% merely satisfactory and 1% who shouldn’t be teaching, for what my opinion’s worth) can’t understand how comparing different sets of students’ metrics, standardization, a national curriculum, or decreased pay/benefits will make things better. This is especially true in the suburban districts where I worked and live which are doing a good job educating our kids. Visit the vast majority of schools in the Chicago collar counties and you will see amazing things teaching staffs are doing to educate their students. Yes, there are dysfunctional school districts, and they attract the most attention since they also tend to be the largest, but the most objective studies which have been done show that the primary reasons these schools have such difficulty achieving the results suburban districts do are because of poverty, lack of parental support, a weak property tax base, and crumbling facilities. No doubt, many teachers in these systems have become hardened to the stark realities they face each day, but the two greatest predictors of student success and achievement are parental income and parental education. Where families value schooling because of the success it has brought the students’ parents and are willing to fund it, public education is doing exactly what it is supposed to do.
And that leads to a way out of this pointless, expensive struggle between two groups who share the same vision of an educated, enlightened population. Instead of casting aspersions on the entire system, which is working quite well where parental education has led to material success and teachers earn a decent living, these philanthropic billionaires need to work at raising the level of income and opportunity for those at the bottom. The most threatening statistic I’ve seen in recent years is the huge increase in the gap between those financially at the top and the bottom of our country. No matter what your political orientation, the amount of wealth that those in the top 1% have amassed in recent decades while the bottom 50% have been suffering is the key social/economic issue that needs to be better balanced going forward. All the statistics show the same fact—the rich are getting richer while the poor are growing in number. Nothing can destroy our belief in the American dream more quickly (not to mention the motivation to work hard in school) than millions coming to the belief that it is virtually impossible to escape the lower echelons of our economy when you are born to poor parents.
So wouldn’t it make sense for business leaders to use all their savvy, their experience, and (especially) their billions to help poor people improve their lot? Things like increasing the minimum wage, improving health insurance, early education, improved day-care for working families, recognizing the importance of unions in helping workers make it to the middle class, recruiting the most talented candidates into teaching, and re-training/education centers for displaced workers would all contribute to decreasing the inequality which has taken root in the U.S. to the detriment of lower wage earners. Then too, these areas play into the strengths of business people since these “reform movements” would be based on the expertise they used to amass their fortunes.
The screwed up logic, which is pervasive in America and has led to the ludicrous result of our current leading Republican Presidential candidates, results in many believing that accumulating billions somehow gives the accumulator a general brilliance which readily translates to ANY endeavor. That this makes no sense whatsoever has not seemed to sink in as people like Bill Gates (skilled in computer software and monopolistic tendencies), the Waltons (experts on mass marketing and low wages), and the Koch brothers (brilliant in inheriting massive wealth and exerting political influence) have leaped into all kinds of unrelated fields (including education) despite having no qualifications to lead in those fields except huge bank accounts. Money can get you many things, but it can’t purchase experience and understanding in areas as complicated as public education.
Imagine if I were to begin trying to dictate to Microsoft or Walmart based on the huge wealth I had amassed in public education as a teacher (by “wealth,” obviously I mean my rich experiences and affluent grammar knowledge). Nobody would take me seriously, and rightly so. I don’t understand the subtleties or histories of those businesses, and my simplistic ideas on what would improve them would be doomed to failure, especially if I forced them on these companies without much or any input from those affected by my decisions. Yet, we seem to ignore that common sense when it comes to wealthy people and public education. “Of course Warren Buffet has worthwhile advice to provide us when it comes to determining the best ways to train teachers—do you have any idea how loaded that guy is? Surely he knows everything!” Donald Trump currently leads all Republican Presidential candidates based on a platform of, “Hey, I’m incredibly successful and rich, and that will make me a great President!” Despite the illogic of that (You surely wouldn’t even think about soliciting their advice on what technique your surgeon should use for your coronary by-pass operation, would you?), our politicians follow the money more and more, ceding decision-making power to this new class of “experts.”
Completely out of that particular world, however, teachers continue to work together and struggle to do what they know to be best, despite the contrary and time-consuming reforms and mandates raining down on them from legislators influenced by wealthy campaign donors, think-tanks funded by agenda-minded billionaires, and foundations like those started by Bill Gates or the Waltons. The only thing which has saved public education from even more damage at the hands of these meddlers so far is that it is a mind-numbingly huge bureaucracy of thousands of separate school districts. More and more, however, those layers of inefficiency and idiosyncratic procedures are being stripped away so that a few wealthy people can impose their ideas of what would make education better on millions of Americans. And don’t get me wrong; laying waste to the bureaucratic nightmare that is public education is a fantastic goal. It’s just that what should replace it is teachers having freer rein to teach in ways they know will help their students, not putting some well-intentioned-but-educationally-clueless business titan or his well-funded henchmen in charge.
Nobody likes to admit it (or even talk about it), but the best system to educate our children is one based on socialism, not capitalism. If you’d like to show your support for capitalism, however, I would strongly encourage you to buy my e-book, Snowflake Schools. You can read excerpts here, buy the book here, and raise my income into the top 0.1% just to see if I change my tune when I become as wealthy as Gates—clearly a worthwhile experiment for humanity.
As the furor over the April 7 Hinsdale District 86 school board campaign wanes and the 2016 Presidential marathon heats up, it seems an appropriate time to bring up the whole issue of elections in America. With the Citizens United Supreme Court decision of 2010, money became a form of protected speech, which has injected billions into the process. But my concerns and suggestions are about more than just money. Voter participation and access to information about candidates and issues are also problems that seem to be ubiquitous in American politics as well. When it comes to the democratic process, the United States could use an extreme makeover.
Without question, money is a corrupting force in American politics. The Obama and Romney camps each dropped roughly a billion during their campaigns for President in 2012, and most experts are saying that those figures will be chump change compared to what Clinton versus Bush (or Sanders versus Cruz—it’s still way too early to know who’s going to run— or my dream ticket, Warren versus Paul?) will have to raise this time around. That Sheldon Adelson can hold tryouts in Las Vegas to see which Republican candidate best meets his needs while the Koch brothers have publicized their intent to spend some $900,000,000 in 2016 shows how screwed up things have gotten. More and more legislator time is devoted to fund-raising, which cuts into our representatives’ ability to enact laws; someone should do a study to show the correlation between the increased pressure to solicit contributions and the inability of our politicians to pass bills. My belief is that there’s a strong interaction between the two.
And the 2016 Presidential campaign scandal stories have already begun with Peter Schweizer’s book, Clinton Cash, leading to Bill Clinton’s Global Foundation admitting to “mistakes” in its acceptance of donations from foreign governments while Hillary was Secretary of State, giving, at the very least, the appearance of impropriety. In an exclusive psychic revelation that only readers of Snowflake Schools will get, my prediction is that this will not be the last story of its kind this election cycle. (You’re welcome.) In order to be a viable candidate these days, you must have access to large amounts of cash. To get that cash, you have to be able to tap large donors. As we all know, those large donors have agendas which sometimes necessitate the receivers of those donations to act in ways that are not always in the best interests of the constituents whose votes put the receivers of the donations into office in the first place. Money is a cancer that is eating away at the organs of our democracy.
But money is far from the only problem we have with our elections. Several states have pushed through voter identification programs which make it more difficult for people to vote, using voter fraud as the rationale. But the kind of voter fraud which IDs would prevent has been shown to be virtually non-existent in the United States. One study reported in the Washington Post (found here) discovered a whopping 31 cases of voter fraud out of roughly one billion votes cast from 2000 to 2014 (that’s a 0.00000031% rate). We here in the Chicago area can be forgiven for some skepticism on this, since the Democratic machine of the 1950s and 60s was notorious for generating “creative” voting practices, allowing, for example, the deceased to keep participating in elections. Yet those days are long over.
The problem we have with voting has nothing to do with fraud. Instead, we struggle with participation; voter turnout in so-called “off year” elections, like April 7th’s, is pathetically small. In the College of DuPage Trustee and Hinsdale Township High School District 86 School Board elections (two of the more hotly contested and highly publicized races in the area most recently), the percentages of registered voters in DuPage County and District 86 attendance areas who showed up to cast ballots were 17.4% and 27% respectively. And that 27% in District 86 was one of the biggest totals in recent history. So even when there is a good deal of publicity, record amounts of money spent on campaigns, and larger than average turn-outs; the best we seem to be able to do around here is for one-in-four voters to show up. People simply do not vote in very large numbers.
And that leads to the third issue: Information. Given the amounts of cash being burned on campaigning, you would think that there would be all kinds of solid information on the issues, the candidates’ stands on the issues, their records, and their qualifications to do the jobs for which they are running. But you would be wrong to think that. You have to hunt diligently to be able to find much factual, objective material about the candidates or the issues, especially in the over-looked local elections which actually have a much more significant impact on citizens’ lives than national elections do. Media outlets like Fox News and MSNBC don’t even attempt to hide their biases, so you can’t rely on them for anything even close to objective reporting. And more dramatic world and national stories like ISIS beheadings or riots in Baltimore draw much attention from newscasters, justifiably as we do need to pay attention to these important events. In your everyday life, however, the quality of your schools, roads, police protection, fire prevention, bridges, electrical grids, zoning, water, and property taxes—while not as attention-grabbing, perhaps—have much more significant impacts on your quality of life.
The people who have the greatest responsibility for ensuring the maintenance and improvement of all those issues are school board members, village trustees, and local mayors. But try and find objective data and biographies about the candidates for those offices. Local papers and on-line news sources (WARNING: Shameless pandering to one of the places where I am allowed to publish my stuff just ahead) like The Patch do a reasonably good job of reporting what’s going on locally, but they have more difficulty in showing side-by-side comparisons of the most important issues in the most objective way possible, the candidates’ stands on those issues, and the experience/expertise those running have to offer.
The aforementioned District 86 school board election of April 7th provides an illustrative example of the problems voters face in determining which candidates are most qualified. What became the key “issue” in the District 86 school board election had little to do with the candidates running or the issues facing the schools. Instead, a confrontation about neither school policy nor candidate qualifications came to dominate the coverage of the election: When a board member (who wasn’t even running in this election) interacted with a high school senior who was passing out cards for a slate of candidates prior to a play at Hinsdale South; their petitions, charges, and countercharges took over election coverage.
No longer were the very real and significant issues before the district mentioned much in the media as the Chicago Tribune, which had featured little about the election up to that point, had several stories and an editorial over the next two weeks (and continues to feature the story as evidenced by this May 12th story). Local media and their comments sections on-line were rife with accusations and analyses of who was in the wrong, what should be done about this, and especially attacks on the characters of those involved as well as those who were posting comments. The campaign manager of the slate of candidates aligned with the school board member (but not the slate supported by the high school student) became a focal point as he was relentless in his defense of the board member and used questionable language; meanwhile, the important aspects of the election were subsumed in the trivia of whose definition of “tart” was most accurate.
So what should be done to make our election system better? Let’s begin with the easiest solution: Election Day should be a national holiday so that everyone has plenty of time to vote. I’m not sure we should go so far as to requiring everyone to show up at the polls, but if we all had the day off every first Tuesday in November, that would certainly eliminate many of the excuses we generate not to vote. No, I would not change the day to a Monday, as that would just lead to people taking off for a three-day weekend and might even lower turn out. Shrewd merchants could have special sales for those who had proof that they’d voted, and parents could take their kids to the polls to help establish a voting tradition. Maybe we could even combine Election Day with another important holiday which has been neglected more and more in recent years, Veterans Day. If soldiers risk their lives to protect our system, then Veterans/Election Day might encourage us to vote, at least to show we appreciate their service in protecting our right to do so.
Getting better, more objective data shouldn’t be that difficult with the internet. I remember the disaster that was the government’s health insurance website, but it would seem logical to set up a system where a governmental group determined the key issues before voters and provided exactly the same amount of space to all candidates to outline their positions. The same could be done for the candidates’ background and experience. A side-by-side explanation of where Hillary and Jeb stand on education, gun control, marijuana legalization, assisted suicide, social security, treaties with Iran, etc. would be a big help. But even more useful would be explanations of local issues and the positions of potential school board and mayoral candidates. Not only would the electorate be more informed on the candidates’ stands, but voters would probably learn an immense amount about those important-but-less-reported local issues.
The first problem listed in this essay—money—is also the toughest to address, especially in light of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. But we do have examples in other countries (the United Kingdom, for example) where both the length of the election and amount of money spent on campaigning are tightly regulated. How about banning paid political commercials from TV and limiting candidates’ appeals to equal access on government-run channels? Want to see the candidates debate? Turn to the Campaign Channel (national, state, and local editions) to see an endless loop of the officially sanctioned face-off between the candidates. Or tune in to the government radio station. Or check out that internet site. There are ways to lessen the impact of money by making sure each candidate has the same amount of exposure so that the voters can understand what their positions are without the lies and exaggerations that most political ads currently employ.
The goal here should be to elect the best person for the job, not the most media savvy or richest. Right now, we’re getting the latter, and our country’s political problems reflect that.
January 25-31 was National School Choice week, and according to its website, this week “provides an unprecedented opportunity to shine a positive spotlight on the need for effective education options for all children.” While I doubt that anyone would dispute that all children should have an effective education, the “option” part is where things get somewhat muddled for me. More and more, school choice has become synonymous with the idea that parents should be allowed to pick any school they want their children to attend. The original public school concept, of course, was slightly different: that any public school would provide a good education, which would mean that schools would be similar in what they provided. If that were the case, then the need for any choice in schools would be moot—no matter which school you picked, your kids would receive basically the same treatment, so there’d be no issue with kids being required to go to the school most geographically compatible with their homes. Obviously, many people don’t believe that we’re anywhere close to achieving that ideal, hence the need for school choice.
So, assuming that there is a wide gap in the quality of many of our public schools, what’s the best way to address that problem? Many are arguing that public schools should compete for students—that by allowing parents to select the schools to which their children and their tax dollars go, schools will have to shape up or ship out; that the capitalist model of whoever has the best product gets the most sales is the way to improve education. School choice proponents generally attack things like tenure and unions as having led to teachers who have little reason to perform well, that public education has become complacent and lazy. But, the argument goes, if parents had the right to take their educational vouchers to whichever school they pleased, every school would have to tighten up and actually do the job of educating students, lest they see a sharp decline in enrollment and funding.
Now, I would have no problem with that approach if we were talking about television sets or snack foods, but these are kids and their futures we’re playing with here. Basically, the school choice approach seems counter to the ideal of providing every single child in America with the same basic education. Of course, I have to admit that we’re pretty far from that ideal with our current system of local property taxes providing the bulk of funding in the more well-to-do areas. We definitely do not have equitable education for our kids with the wealthiest districts in Illinois spending over three times as much per pupil as the lowest. But voucher systems could exacerbate this funding inequity.
Why would any parents send their children to schools that have run-down facilities, underpaid teachers, and few technological innovations? The answer is the only kids who would wind up in the weakest schools would be those whose families lacked either the resources to get their children to the better schools or the knowledge about which schools were the best. But you could be certain that even the weakest schools would still have some students. These warehouses without hope would be Dickensian in their horrors, creating the same (and possibly a much larger) gap we currently have between the haves and have nots, just with a different set of each.
My guess is that you would also ignite a wave of bias and hard feelings since the lucky poorer people who managed to get their kids into the more prestigious schools might discover that those already in those schools—whose property taxes and thus costs to attend that school were much higher—would not be all that appreciative of their school’s popularity when those less-advantaged families’ kids actually created a lower per-pupil revenue for the district. Should that decrease in money cause a decrease in programs at the more popular school, can you imagine how the long-term residents would react? There would be protests, quotas, and much anger from both “sides” as everyone lined up as “native” versus “invader.” Unless every student in every district has exactly the same dollar amount following him/her to whatever school is picked, I don’t see how this system would create better education. The lesser schools would lose vital funding with fewer students, and the better schools would have more students with less money to be spent on each.
Yes, the students who managed to get into the better schools might receive a better education, but it would definitely come with some socially stratifying costs for them. And it’s hard to see how the flight of some students wouldn’t make the schools in poorer areas worse off. Finally, there would clearly be significant adjustments needed at the higher ranked schools with some compromises needed there as well. School choice would get a select few to better schools, but the gains made by those few would seem to be—just as capitalism has always fostered through its foundation in competition—at the expense of many others. In short, if you use a competitive system for the basis of school enrollment, there will be winners and losers. And that sounds much worse when you consider that the losers we’re talking about are kids.
That’s not to claim that many of the reasons school choice has become a popular idea for so many are not real and legitimate; our society should never meekly accept the status quo when it is clear that while many of our schools do achieve their key purpose—which is to provide every child with the opportunity for a good education. Too many don’t; the statistics on that are clear. We just have to recognize that the consequences of whatever solutions we seek to remedy that inequity will not be free of costs. To me, school choice is simply a band aid which will help a few while ignoring most.
Instead, we need to seek solutions that benefit all students, or at least, provide equitable education for everyone. Regardless of how savvy a kid’s parents are, where a baby is born, or how much money a family pays in property taxes; every student deserves that opportunity for a good education. It really shouldn’t be a competition.
Recently I have been spending much time reading up on public school reform. Yes, I totally have an ulterior motive in doing so—I’m trying to figure out how to create more interest/buzz about my year-old e-book, Snowflake Schools (you can read excerpts at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html if you would like)—but it is starting to depress me more and more. (No, it’s not the anemic sales of my book that’s getting me down–I know what everybody says, “That’s the lot of most authors,” “You just have to keep plugging,” “Blah, blah, blah,” “Have you considered the possibility that your book totally sucks?” Hmm, that one doesn’t sound so encouraging…) No, it’s the tone of what’s being written about public education that I find awful. From what I’ve read, the majority of educational reformers spend most of their time attacking other educational reformers whom they believe have gotten everything wrong, rather than trying to figure out ways to bridge the gaps between positions, so that we can work toward ways to improve public education.
Naturally, I first gravitated to articles from reformers I consider most like me—those I believed were pro-teacher, wanted to de-emphasize the importance of standardized tests, and saw public education as a possible solution instead of the main problem. And I do mostly agree with what these reformers advocate. What I found in their articles, however, is that the majority of them strive to trash the other side. Several of these pundits had end-of-year lists citing the highs and lows of education in 2014. Not surprisingly, the lows all had to do with advances of for-profit charter schools, the “corporate” reform movement’s strides (Bill Gates and the Walmart Waltons were the ones most often cited as destroying education), and how the Common Core is driving teachers out of schools. Again, I would tend to agree that these directions do not best serve America’s students. Are they destroying education? Um, no, I taught too many sharp kids over too many years to believe that our system can ever be efficient and ruthless enough to stamp out the creativity, desire, and talent of the kids with whom I was lucky enough to work. Of course that might sound overly idealistic and Pollyanna-ish to many of you, but you can check with just about ANY of the students I ever taught and they will assure that I will never, ever be confused with Pollyanna. Anyway, I pretty much agreed that their lows were in fact, lows.
But when I came to the best public school events of 2014, almost all of them celebrated others’ lack of success: This charter school company folded, that anti-education candidate lost, those high-and-mighty leaders fell out of favor, these studies showed how stupid Arne Duncan is, and on and on. Hardly any of these lists had positive achievements, just failures on the parts of those they considered enemies. The gloating, sniping, low-road nature of most of their comments made me feel embarrassed to be on their side. I had to stop following one prominent educational leader whom I had admired because all I was getting from her was a barrage of emails about her blog entries almost all of which were blast after blast about how awful charter schools and their leaders are.
That’s not to say those who see things differently took the high road either. The gloating about tenure being overturned in California (currently that ruling is on appeal), melodramatic Time covers that suggest the teaching ranks are rife with rotten apples, and the strident commentators who demonize teacher pay and teacher unions certainly don’t improve the tenor of the discussions we should be having on how to improve struggling schools or to help spread the good word about teaching that is working, about schools that are educating young people.
In short, the debate on public education has descended to the level of our political wrangling. It’s the same “Red vs. Blue” garbage that has led our news channels to being little more than propaganda outlets for viewers who have no interest in “fair and balanced,” but tune in each day simply to have their already granite-like opinions given another coat of shellac so that their minds might be even further protected from having to consider other points of view.
None of this should be surprising, I guess. Pointing out how other people have screwed up has always been one of the chief human joys; it’s the same emotional relief and horrific interest that motivates people to gape at traffic accidents and watch America’s Funniest Home Videos. Hell, it’s what I’m doing right now. It’s just that one would hope when it comes to something as potentially life-changing and positive as education we would try to have reasoned debates in which opponents parried over facts, instead of automatic attacks simply based on the source of the opinion.
You run into this same negativity all over the internet, especially with the relative anonymity of the comments sections at the end of every article, blog, or Facebook entry on-line. Recently, I saw what appeared to be an innocuous posting of a baked chicken recipe that had been vociferously attacked by some because the recipe made use of brown sugar. (And we all know that brown sugar is a satanic poison designed to kill every overweight or diabetic person in the world. The horror that anyone would share a recipe with such an evil ingredient!) I’m guessing that there has always been this kind of over-reaction to the things people read, but the freedom and ease of expression allowed by computers has certainly encouraged people to abuse this opportunity. And it’s not only the negative people who are taking advantage. “I earned $666,666,666,666 in one month working at home for five seconds a day. You can too if you just…”
Nobody has all the answers, and I do realize how pompous it can seem when people like me regularly share our “brilliant” ideas in public forums. I have never been shy about stating what I think, but as I’ve aged, I’ve tried (with minimal success at times, I will admit) to temper my views, to consider alternative ways of doing things, and to work at being polite even when those with whom I’m dealing aren’t. I’m not big on resolutions for the new year, but I would like to do better at being open to those with whom I disagree and striving to find ideas that will move public schools forward rather than adding another strident voice to the cacophony of current discourse.
So I vow to be neither red nor blue in my biases, but to seek the purple ground, to blend the extremes to a consistency that will appeal to a variety of palates, and to refrain from mean-spiritedness or gloating at others’ failures. What we need are things that work, things we can use, things that will ensure our kids have the opportunity to enter the “real” world with the skills they need to make that world better. It’s always ego-satisfying to score debating points or to lambast people with whom you disagree in a funny-at-their-expense way, but that’s not going to get us anywhere. Let’s try to get somewhere, okay?