California Passes Legislation to Compete for the Race to The Bottom (RTTB): The commodification of teaching and learning under guise of educational reform

by: Kenneth Libby and Danny Weil

     The cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s education agenda is the “Race to the Top” (RTTT), a package of competitive educational grants authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The $4.35 billion fund, lead by former NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF) COO, Joanne Weiss, provides one-time grants to states fulfilling the four assurances laid out by the program.  The first round of applications for this federally-sponsored venture fund are due January 19th, with the ‘awards’ officially announced in early 2010. 

California wants to race

     Earlier this year, California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered legislators to gather for a special session in order to hammer out an application capable of landing the state roughly $700 million in federal funds.  If California wins part of this venture fund, the state will be receiving only a few hundred dollars per student, a paltry sum that cannot dramatically improve the quality of education.  The money, however, is not the real purpose of this Race to the Top: the goal, as I’ve written elsewhere, is re-arranging the laws and economic and social policies that will allow for the corporatization of public education through the creation of retail charter chains, shuttered public schools that can then be converted to privately run charters, and teacher pay tied to student performance on the standardized tests.  This is the hooded story that one rarely sees in the corporate media (Weil, D., Resuscitating the debate over education: From Dewey to Lippmann and today’s neo-liberal onslaught on public schools. In Counterpunch. Volume 16, #22.  December 16-31, 2009).

      Recently, the California Assembly rejected a proposal by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Senator Gloria Romero, a Democrat from East Los Angeles, which would have allowed students in the lowest-performing schools to transfer to any school in the state or let their parents force school boards to turn their schools over to outside operators.  But with passage of a new California Assembly educational ‘reform’ bill, this has all changed.  Now, students enrolled in the state’s worst 1,000 schools (rated by scores on state mandated No Child Left Behind tests) would be allowed to transfer to higher-performing schools (Samantha Young, Calif. Assembly passes education reform bills. (Associated Press http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/jan/05/calif-assembly-passes-education-reform-bills/?dsq=28641406#comment-28641406)  Also, under recent passage of the bill by the California Senate, school districts are expected to adopt standards for accepting and rejecting transfer applications.  In other words, the transfers are supposed to be regulated.

     These market-based policies – privatization and widespread choice – appeal to the Governator and his wealthy corporate backers, including the pro-charter school crowd that have donated heavily to the Governor and Romero campaigns for office.  Bruce Fuller, director of the Policy Analysis for California Education at UC Berkley put it best when he told the Mercury News, the reason the Governor likes privatization is, “Because he’s got well-heeled donors that remain very supportive of charter schools, it’s a no-brainer for the governor given his affection for market remedies.” 

     The backers of charter schools Fuller refers to include Eli Broad, Donald Fisher (owner of the Gap), and Netflix founder Reed Hastings – and each of these powerful individuals have funded EdVoice, an educational advocacy group, and the NewSchools Venture Fund, a powerful venture philanthropy group pushing the expansion of charter schools.  NSVF’s CEO, Ted Mitchell, pulls in a $500k salary for his work for NSVF, and also serves as the President of the California State Board of Education.

California votes to race to the bottom

     So what did California get under the management of the directorship of the legislature and the Governor, both beholden to economic market based necessity and moral and ethical inadequacy?  On January 5th, 2010, after the citizenry was barely able to crawl into the new year and under the closed eyes of the corporate media, the California Assembly passed two landmark education reform bills that will now give parents and state officials broad authority to overhaul the state’s worst schools.  The State Assembly’s action will serve to carry-pigeon the two bills to the state Senate, which is scheduled to consider them January 15th, 2010 four days before applications are due to the feds.  If they are approved, the legislative package will then go to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for his uncontested signature.

     According to the Associate Press, lawmakers who support the reforms said the legislation would provide a lifeline to parents and students in California’s poorest-performing school districts. Eager to stage the bill’s passage as helping kids, Assemblyman Juan Arambula, a so-called independent from Fresno stated:

It’s bold. It signifies a commitment to President Obama’s call to take drastic steps when our schools are failing (Calif. Assembly passes education reform bills (ibid).

     The new bill requires persistently failing schools to make sweeping changes, including the possibility a public school could be closed or converted to a charter school and then the title simply given over to the new turnaround artists. This is great news for Eli Broad, the Gates Foundation, the Walton’s, the Fisher Family and all the entrepreneurs who have lobbied for this valuable shift to charters.  Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, a democrat from Los Angeles stated she hoped California, which has 6 million public school students, would be given special consideration for embracing reforms such as parental choice, which she said were beyond the requirements called for by the Obama administration. In other words, she is hoping that they, the legislature and Governor, have pandered sufficiently enough to Arne Duncan and to the vested business interests coveting the new bill just to get their hands on the $700 million in cash. 

     Here we go again; bi-courtesan support for sinister “parental choice: which is hardly ‘choice’ when one considers that admission to these charters will be based on a lottery; just as the financing of the public schools are.  Not to mention the fact that parents were not included in the decision making process and will have no say over the day to day operations of the schools as non-profit boards or for-profit corporations and wealthy individuals will make the daily decisions; nor will the teachers have any say over their curriculum or how they assess students.

     These democrats want nothing more than a reform plan for an education based on corporate models of competition.  The whole bill is a victory for educational maintenance organizations, like Alliance Schools or Green Dot, who through its activism has long been pushing for decertifying schools, as Green Dot did when Locke High School was turned over to the EMO after Steve Barr and Ben Austin convinced teachers to decertify the school.  It is also a victory for the “supplemental educational” business that will now sell kits directly to the schools.  As for the children, it spells little more than doom and more regimented testing.  For the public, it is a tragedy for the “commons”.  According to Michael Mayo, a writer at boston.com:

 In charters across the country, there’s a movement toward “paternalistic schools,” a term used favorably by David Whitman of the Fordham Institute. Their argument is that “urban” students need schools with the highest levels of student compliance and routine. In some of these schools, children don’t speak from the moment they get off the bus until they get back on again. Others have disobedient students wear a certain-colored shirt and order other students to “shun” them. When we were starting our school, some of these schools were saying, “We’re not for everyone.” These schools continue to get enormously positive attention and deep private funding (Mayo, Michael, Lessons from a failed charter school, February 22, 2009. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/02/22/lessons_from_a_failed_charter_school/).

     Regardless of the platitudes of the likes of Assembly woman Gloria Romero or Juan Arambula, who insist this is a template for reform, the passage of the bill is a horrifying victory for neo-liberalism and the privatization of public education in California.  We now have mandated corporate health care and compulsory privatized education. 

     The bill, now submitted for Senate vote, creates a corporate reality, replicating the failed policies of Chicago, Duncan’s former dumping ground, as well as Washington D.C., New York, and Houston, amongst many other major cities.  Here is precisely what the bill would do if signed by the Senate and approved by the Governor, which it most likely will be:

School districts could tie teacher evaluations to student performance if allowed by collective bargaining agreements.  This would usher in merit pay or pay for performance quantified by No Child Left Behind which would now be institutionalized by the Department of Education;

          The state superintendent of public instruction would identify poor-performing schools that need help, including high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.  But these metrics too will be tethered to NCLB test taking so the poor performing schools themselves will be reduced to quantification standards under the new metric system of education tied to No Child Left Behind, the cornerstone of  Race to the Top;

          Districts with a failing school (defined by failing under No Child Left Behind) will be required to take aggressive steps to turn it around. That could include replacing the principal and half the staff, converting a school to a charter school, closing the school and enrolling students in other high-achieving schools, and replacing the principal and completely overhauling curriculum and teaching methods.  Sure, this is the plan.  Remember the double speak and two-faced rhetoric of “raising all boats through creative charters schools and innovation?  Forget it, it was never the plan, as I have outlined in Counterpunch, and the nakedness of the hypocrisy is now in plain sight.

          Students enrolled in the state’s worst 1,000 schools would be allowed to transfer to higher-performing schools.  School districts would adopt standards for accepting and rejecting transfer applications.  Sure, but the problem is that there are not enough higher-performing schools with seats to accept the thousands of children displaced.  Developers and business interests know this.  Unleashing student transfers to schools that do not exist or with no seats in them guarantees that charter schools will have to be built and this is all good news to entrepreneurs for they get to privatize profits and socialize costs through public bonds and the $700 million dollars, such as junk bonds, much like Minnesota did (See Counterpunch.com Race to the Slop, Weil, D.)

          Parents whose children attend poor-performing schools could petition a school district to ‘turn around’ the school, meaning allow the EMO’s or educational maintenance organizations to run schools. The program would be limited to 75 schools, a cap imposed as part of the legislative negotiations, but this is a big first step for charter school retail outfits looking to get their foot in the door.  It is also great news for Los Angele’s Parent Revolution, an astro-turf organization ginned up by Green Dot’s Ben Austin, among other charter charlatans looking to capitalize on disaster.  They now not only have funding, but they have legitimate government cover for their bold, hostile takeovers and ‘smash and grab’ privatization policies.

It is clear from witnessing the California Assembly vote what the government role is not in ‘turning around’ schools; it is in ‘turning them over’ to profit driven economies, drawing a virtual chalk line on the public playground around the corpse of public schools.

CTA opposes California’s Race to the Top plans

    Schwarzenegger and his pals in government are delighted with the plan and feel it is a victory over the teacher’s unions, the special interests, as the Governor calls them.  Of course the special interests that Schwarzenegger complains about are always working men and women, never his friends and cronies in the private sector that fulcrumed him into office.  According to teachers’ representative, the California Teacher Association who has been battling both the bill and accusations of “killing reform” and “hurting kids”, CTA notes the following about The Race to the Top in general:

The RTTT proposed regulations require states to change their current educational system in order to even apply for the grants. These demands are not about “minor details.” Federal officials want a fundamental change to state standards and accountability systems; teacher credentialing, evaluation, compensation, and promotion; and charter schools. The Phase 1 applications require state governors to make assurances that their states will take action and make progress in the following areas of reform: 

1)  Adopting internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace. 2) recruiting, developing, and retaining effective teachers and principals. 3) building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices. 4) and turning around our lowest performing schools (See www.recovery.gov). Providing additional dollars is hugely important, and CTA has been at the forefront in supporting comprehensive education reform. But these proposed regulations are not education reform. They are onerous, unnecessary, and reminiscent of the failed NCLB. The proposed regulations really require:

• Overhauling California’s content standards and creating a new testing system.

• Creating alternative credentialing systems in order to “fast track” unprepared and unsupported teachers in the classroom.

• Mandating student test scores are used as a “significant” factor in teacher evaluations. (School districts are already required to use criterion referenced tests as part of a teacher evaluation.)

• Mandating that teacher compensation and promotion be linked to student test scores.

• Encouraging charter schools to be the number one reform for turning around failing schools. Educators believed that the new administration would eliminate the onerous one-size fits all model of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) but the RTTT competitive grant continues the same philosophy (California Teacher’s Association, Teachers Back Effective Educational Reform that Addresses Student Needs But the Rush to Qualify for Race to the Top Competitive Grants Can Hurt Students http://www.cta.org/NR/rdonlyres/B397DEA2-903F-492D-8999-574C5EBDD20D/0/legislativebriefracetothetop.pdf.

Just what is the Race to the Top?

     The Race to the Top sets out to do what the Bush administration was never able to accomplish, not even in its wildest dreams, and truly shines a spotlight on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the hideous policies of his Department of Education, basically a wholly owned subsidiary of the Gates Foundation, The Fisher Family (owners of the Gap), The Walton Family, the Broad Foundation and other venture capitalists and philanthro-entrepeneurs.  One needs to simply look at the list of Gates and Broad officials stacked in Duncan’s DOE: Margot Rogers (Duncan’s chief of staff; formerly the assistant for Gates Domestic Education head, Vicki Phillips), James Shelton (former Gates official; also worked at the NewSchools Venture fund and started his own for-profit charter chain, LearnNow, which was sold to the for-profit Edison Schools), Carmel Martin (took a job at the Gates Foundation, but never spent a day at the foundation and instead headed for the DOE) Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana (trained through the Broad Superintendent’s Academy), and Carl Harris (also trained through the Broad Superintendent’s Academy).  One could also include Joanne Weiss, head of the Race to the Top fund, as a de-facto Gates/Broad employee considering her previous experience at the NewSchools Venture Fund, which has taken many millions from the aforementioned philanthropic foundations.

The Four Assurance Areas

     The whole sordid policy rests its assumptions on four principles, or what the bill calls four assurance areas.  To begin with, states who apply for the RTTT monies are now expected to implement large scale and system wide ‘reforms’ that will supposedly assure and (1) enhance standards and assessment, (2) improve the collection and use of data, (3) increase teacher effectiveness and achieve quality in teacher distribution and (4) turn around struggling schools.

Enhancing Standards and Assessments

     On the campaign trail, then-Senator Barack Obama chided the use of fill-in-the-bubble tests and promised to develop higher quality assessment pieces, but the Race to the Top application specifically pushes the very same high-stakes and standardized tests. California’s memorandum of understanding makes it quite clear that teacher-lead assessments, portfolio assessments, and non-test measures of student achievement cannot be used to evaluate student learning, which not only hurts children but also de-skills the teaching profession.  Even the definition of a “high-quality teacher” is reduced to gains students make on these tests, thus serving as a calibration mechanism for teachers as well. 

     Obama/Duncan’s Race to the Top forces teachers to teach directly to the test and encourages students to learn only the material covered on these crude pieces of inauthentic assessment.  This form of functionalism in “learning” neglects to respect the varied skills and qualities of our children, and instead evaluates them and their teachers based on a child’s performance on a single test on a single day.  Even more disturbing, the Secretary has set aside $350 million of this $4.35 billion federal venture fund to develop a national test tied to the new national standards.  We can kiss local control, parent involvement, and participatory democracy good-bye in favor of a highly-centralized form of “knowledge,” which the Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce have been pushing for decades.  A Democratic President will deliver on these promises; not even the despised George W. Bush could implement this kind of plan. 

     Race to the Top will assure that the any intellectual digestion by the mind promoted through critical thinking will be confronted by an anorexic-bulimic learning model of memorization and regurgitation for test taking purposes. The test results then become “chits” able to be cashed in at the federal or state “cage” for more tax monies.  But the tests have an even more insidious purpose: by hitching student and teacher achievement to the “enhanced standards and assessments” the scores can then be used to “evaluate and rate” the new private and non-profit providers (outsourced schools), the burgeoning charter school retail chains designed to replace public schools, which is the real plan for “turning around struggling schools”.  Therefore, the necessity and institutionalization of a toxic testing regime is of paramount importance to the new ‘turnaround artists’ and charter school hucksters.  They will rely on the tests as a rating agency for their own performance allowing them to bid for ever more private contracts to run and manage the new charter schools.  This will serve to turn the lights out on public education while placing a hammer lock on pedagogical practices.  Individual test scores are to “knowledge” what private profits are to social good – there’s little, if any, connection, but these test scores provide a basis for expanding privatized education schemes and impoverished, uncreative pedagogical approaches.

Data Systems to Support “Instruction”

      In language reminiscent of Reagan’s anti-Soviet rhetoric, Secretary Duncan has called for tearing down the “firewall” that prevents teachers from being evaluated based on student test scores.  The results of these new tests will be fed into an expanded data system, which will then be used to evaluate teachers to see if they are meeting the ‘measured outcomes’, the free-market ‘targets’ they have been hired to accomplish.  Reduced to ‘clerks in the classroom’, this will only further encourage teachers to abandon anything not related to these high-stakes tests: critical thinking, creativity, citizenship education, the humanities as well as local indigenous forms of knowledge.  Teachers have been one of the few constituents to complain about the use of standardized tests to evaluate children, and these same measures will now be targeted at the teaching profession itself.  Using “longitudinal data systems” – which track student test scores over many years - will allow federal, state, and local authorities to conduct surveillance on teachers, a virtual panopticon that will only further narrow a curriculum hacked to pieces by the bi-partisan No Child Left Behind law. 

     Testing companies and software developers are salivating over the possibility of these data systems, particularly when they consider the national standards that will allow their products to be used across the entire nation.  Charter chains, too, would prefer national standards, which would allow them to use prepackaged curricula across their charter outlets no matter the location – it’s highly conducive to expanding their “market share”, for dummied down standardized curriculum keeps costs down and the dispensation is formulaic.  It’s unlikely, however, to help us make any meaningful progress in improving the quality of education for our children, particularly those with the least access to a high-quality, well-rounded education.  Nor will it equip them for the ruthless economic and social landscape they will find when they leave the new dungeons of learning

Increase teacher effectiveness and achieve quality in teacher distribution

     In order to be eligible for Race to the Top funds, states must allow student performance on mandated tests to determine teacher evaluations and thereby promotions, salary, seniority and tenure; this is what California just did.  This is basically, a means of imposing merit pay, which the anti-teacher union coalitions have been promoting for some time.  This all assumes that to increase productivity (as defined by test scores) assembly line teachers now must be incentivized with the threat of expulsion or tempted with extra dollars.  Unfortunately, most research shows teachers are hardly motivated by money, unless we’re talking about paying teachers like private doctors or lawyers.  Otherwise, teachers are motivated to work in schools where job conditions are conducive to learning: parental support, strong relationships between teachers, authentic curriculum and learning, creativity, and supportive staff and principals.  However, the tendency to think in economic models instead of humanistic terms compels economists and politicians to believe that dangling a few thousand dollars in front of teachers will tempt them into raising test scores or working in the toughest schools. 

     All of this is part and parcel of the insipid philosophy of a neo-functionalist education that reduces teachers to mere dispensaries of official information and students to empty receptacles of fragmented knowledge. Education will now be diminished to schooling as a preparatory institution for future market needs.  Yet, as pointed out by FairTest:

There is no evidence that paying teachers for increased student scores improves education. International research shows the practice leads to narrowing the curriculum and teaching to the test, to the detriment of all-around learning. Researchers have concluded that similar sorts of problems resulted from “performance pay” in other professional fields, such as medicine, which helps explain why payment for results is quite rare (FairTest critical comments on US Education Department’s “Race to the Top Fund” guidelines. August 13, 2009, http://www.fairtest.org/fairtest-critical-comments-us-education-department).

In fact the evidence is quite to the contrary. 

Merit pay: tying teaching to material incentives

     Part of the Race to the Top attempts to mandate that teachers be paid for their “performance”.  However, in Duncan’s world teacher performance is tied to how well students do on the state mandated standardized tests tethered to No Child Left Behind.  Now, with No Child Left Behind not only are students tested in-authentically, but teachers will be rewarded for lacing their imperatives to the inauthentic tests.  This is where the data systems come in; they will hijack education and force teachers into docile hostages.  The whole idea is tied together based on competition -competition among and between students on tests, competition among and between teachers for tests, competition for vendors selling privatized materials – none of this magnifies what is needed in education.  Collaboration, solidarity, an appreciation for diversity, equitable opportunities and participation in the day to day operations by teachers and educational workers is what is needed; this and a commitment to public education, not for-profit education.  Not so, says Duncan.  Teachers need to compete, just like their students – but in a monopolized economy.

     Performance pay for teachers has not fared very well. State by state you can see it and I chronicle this in my new book (Weil, D, 2009).  In the 2005 06 school-year, just to take an example, Texas introduced a merit pay plan for teachers. It offered $100 million in bonuses at 1,150 schools if teachers raised their students’ test scores. But in May 2009, the Texas Educator Excellence Grant was quietly retired after getting lackluster results, even though payments to teachers were based overwhelmingly on the test scores of their students.

     These examples reinforce the overall finding of the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University. It reported no conclusive data on the power of financial awards to promote more effective teaching and elevate student performance; nor did merit pay have any long-term effects of performance awards on the supply of effective teachers.  The study was statistical but from a moral standpoint the whole idea is repugnant and antithetical to learning and teaching.  Teachers are not motivated by the same factors that shape the behavior of those in business and to corporatize the profession is truly a betrayal of critical thinking and public citizenry.  In Texas, to take the example, more than three-fourths of teachers eligible for performance pay said the bonuses had no effect on the way they taught (Springer, L., Podgursky, M. National Center on Performance Incentives August, 2009.

http://www.performanceincentives.org/news__events/detail.asp?pageaction=ViewSinglePublic&LinkID=427&ModuleID=48&NEWSPID=1)

     Moreover, nearly half of new teachers who leave the profession within the first five years consistently have reported that salaries were not the No. 1 factor in their departure. They quit because of frustration over not being able to teach the way they wanted or the way they had learned to teach.  They were being managed and held hostage to managerial doublespeak and classroom tyranny – by the same personnel who either never have taught in a classroom or sought to flee one as soon as they could to join the coffers of upper management.

     Sign-up incentives and so-called combat pay have not proved effective in inducing a critical mass of teachers to teach and remain in the inner cities and rural areas where they are needed the most.  Despite the headlines of a bump in teachers due to the job market, those who have sought shelter from the current recession by teaching, and there are not many of them as cutbacks bar the school house door, are likely to leave the profession once the economy recovers.  Teacher retention and commitment will be born by collaboration and as said earlier, participation in curriculum development and power, not by inducements and by-offs.  These are the same corrupt ideas that encourage teachers to pay students to do well in school, tying learning to the sordid mess of materialism and servile self interests.  How insipid, how disdainful for what it means to be a human being and educated.

     In this hyper-competitive environment of material incentives there is little motivation for teachers to collaborate or share strategies, self-produced lessons, or tricks of the trade.  Instead, the policy encourages teachers to horde their own experiential knowledge in a race to a slightly higher paycheck in an increasingly downsized world.  Collaboration is sacrificed in the endless quest for higher test scores, an extremely crude way of commodiying education.  This philosophy also neglects to recognize that most teachers entered the profession because they enjoy connecting with children and helping students in their exploratory quest for knowledge.  Teachers want to build communities, not high-stress hierarchical work environments, where learning is reduced to testing and teaching minimized to drudgery and despair. 

Turning around ‘struggling investors’

Arne Duncan commented in June of 2009:

States that don’t have charter school laws, or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools, will jeopardize their application for some $5 billion in federal grant money.  Simply put, they put themselves at a competitive disadvantage for the largest pool of discretionary dollars states have ever had access to (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124476693275708519.html The Wall Street Journal Obama’s Charter stimulus An incentive for states unfriendly to school choice to mend their ways. June 12, 2009

     The California bill now would cap new charters at 75, creating a slippery slope for eventually removing all caps.  Although California promises that they will police the new market based bureaucracy they are creating, so far there has been little oversight and as we know, charter schools are all about escaping regulation and oversight; that is why they are so attractive to their investors.

     Perhaps the Assembly is unaware of the fact that in 2004, a California chain consisting of sixty charter schools collapsed, leaving ten thousand students with nowhere to attend school.  The California Charter Academy, the largest educational retail charter chain of publicly financed but privately run charter schools in the state, slid into insolvency in August of 2004, just weeks before the start of the new school year.  The businessman who founded the educational chain of charters, former insurance executive C. Steven Cox, managed to collect $100 million in state financing to build a small retail chain of 60 mostly storefront charter schools.  Cox abandoned the schools, refusing to answer phone calls while terrified parents scrambled to find educational opportunities for their displaced children.  Thousands of students’ immunization and academic records, along with school equipment had been virtually abandoned all across the state of California at various Charter Academy school sites (The NY Times September 17, 2004).  http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9901E5D61639F934A2575AC0A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=print

In Arizona, reporter Randy Harrington wrote:

Arizona’s Charter Schools are an abysmal failure. Drop out rates among Charter High Schools are the highest in the nation when compared to public schools, despite the amount of money spent on each student. Student’s in Arizona Charter Schools have a higher failure rate on the state required AIMS test when compared to those students in public schools.

My son attends a Charter High School. He has had some learning difficulties for years, and a year ago my wife and I were led to believe that a Charter School was the best alternative because of the smaller class sizes, and the higher curriculum standards. Regrettably my wife and I didn’t do our homework before we enrolled him in a Charter School Program.

I went back to the Arizona Department of Education and randomly selected 25 Arizona Charter High Schools. I found that performance wise, despite the expenditure of taxpayer money for charter school students, and a higher expenditure for each student that their retention rates, were almost double, and sometimes more than double the rate in Arizona public schools. The drop out rates at these charter high schools when compared to state public schools were almost triple, and sometimes quadruple the rate at public schools. The AIMs (state required test laced to No Child Left Behind) failure rate was almost triple that of public high schools ((Randy L. Harrington ARIZONA’S CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE AN ABYSMAL FAILURE THAT SHOULD BE AN EXAMPLE TO THE NATION August 20, 2006 http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/12648).

If history is any lesson, there will be little oversight, disclosure or regulation of these new behemoths.

How Did We Get Here?

     As President Obama indicated during his campaign for high office, the use of test scores to judge schools, as mandated by NCLB has harmed education and should be prevented.  Unfortunately, this is likely yet another campaign promise broken by a Democratic President who abandons a public option for health care while at the same time embraces a private, corporate option for education.  By encouraging states to make student test scores a “significant factor” in teacher and principal evaluation, RTTT will intensify damage to education and further erode student learning for generations to come.  The combination of market-based reform proposals and Taylorism-like pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning – a production line of despair, where simple input-values are used to measure the efficiency of any worker by setting measureable outcomes tied to pay – is bound to result in regressive educational reforms. 

     The Governator and his pals on both sides of California’s political aisle have bought these business-minded reforms hook, line, and sinker but let’s face it they were easy fish to catch if one takes a cursory look at the campaign funds they receive from the new burgeoning educational market.  The market-based logic of Race to the Top (merit-pay for test scores, competition, and defining education with a single measure) mirrors the rationale of Wall Street investors looking to see stock prices (test scores) go up, and they’re willing to pay bonuses (merit-pay) to those thriving in the highly-competitive environment (charter schools vs. public schools).  We’re told to believe the economy has recovered because stock prices have rebounded; we’re told our kids are receiving a high quality (or low quality) education based strictly on test scores.  Both are crude measurement tools that obscure more than they reveal, but this is the easiest way to convince the public to embrace a reform agenda that fails to incorporate the idea of the common public good or democratic principles. 

Neo-liberal economics: the “hard currency” of human suffering

     The elephant in the room in nearly any discussion of education reform is the absurd poverty rate among our nation’s children and their lack of access to the public realm.  According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, a whopping 19% of our children are forced to grow up in living conditions that are not conducive to health, prosperity, or learning - and this number is based on 2007 data.  As Henry Giroux has written recently:

The havoc wreaked by neo-liberal economic policies can be seen in the hard currency of human suffering such policies have imposed on children, readily evident in some astounding statistics that suggest a profound moral and political contradiction at the heart of one of the richest democracies in the world.  For example, the rate of child poverty rose in 2004 to 17.6 percent, pushing upward the number of poor children to 12.9 million.  Moreover, children make up a disproportionate share of the poor in the United States in that “they are 26 percent of the total population, but constitute 39% of the poor.  As a result of the severe economic crisis, Dr. Irwin Redlener, President of the Children’s Health Fund in New York, claims that the number of children in poverty may increase to 17 million by years end.  Just as alarming, 9.3 million children lack health insurance, and millions lack affordable childcare and decent early childhood education (Giroux, Henry. Youth in a suspect society. Palgrave/Macmillan 2009)

     In the minds of the captains of industry and finance and their political managers, none of these horrific statistics matters; for these are personal failures not policy or economic failures inherent in the system of capitalist accumulation.  Their job, as far as they are concerned, is to assure that the capitalist system prevails, and this is no better reflected than in their social and economic policies.  This is why No Child Left Behind was a bi-partisan effort and a victory for the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.  Poverty and racial disparities in learning are “personal deficiency” and “personal responsibility” matters in the minds of these neo-liberal ideologues and pirates.  However, as to any claims that No Child Left Behind will ameliorate the racial disparity in students’ educational outcomes through standards and accountability, Enora Brown writes eloquently in her piece, The Quiet Disaster of No Child Left Behind, dismissing the claim as rubbish:

This narrowed, skewed construction of the source of the racial achievement gap, positions this disparity as a private matter reflecting individual’s relative normalcy as racialized beings, rather than as a symptom of socio-historical relationships in society. The achievement gap among African-Americans, Latinos, Native American, and Europeans becomes a function of unclear curricular goals, poor instruction, student deficiencies, and teacher incompetence unconnected to the exploitative legacies of slavery, colonization and genocidal westward expansion, which have mutated into new forms of race and class inequality (Brown, E. (2007): The Quiet Disaster of No Child Left Behind. In Kenneth Saltman, Schooling and the politics of disaster. Routledge, NY).

     One can only wonder if the American mind is capable of stepping outside of the capitalist ethos of competition, privatization (via charter schools), go-it-alone individualism, suspicion, fear and pay-for-performance schemes; we seem unable to see how this neo-liberal economic approach brought the economy to its knees, and we’re certainly unequipped to see how the same approach is bound to dismantle the public education system, what was once one of America’s greatest national treasures.

References

Brown, E. (2007): The Quiet Disaster of No Child Left Behind. In Kenneth Saltman, Schooling and the politics of disaster. Routledge, NY

California Teacher’s Association, Teachers Back Effective Educational Reform that Addresses Student Needs But the Rush to Qualify for Race to the Top Competitive Grants Can Hurt Students http://www.cta.org/NR/rdonlyres/B397DEA2-903F-492D-8999-574C5EBDD20D/0/legislativebriefracetothetop.pdf

FairTest critical comments on US Education Department’s “Race to the Top Fund” guidelines. August 13, 2009, http://www.fairtest.org/fairtest-critical-comments-us-education-department

Giroux, Henry. Youth in a suspect society. Palgrave/Macmillan 2009

Harrington, R., ARIZONA’S CHARTER SCHOOLS ARE AN ABYSMAL FAILURE THAT SHOULD BE AN EXAMPLE TO THE NATION August 20, 2006 http://www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/12648

Mayo, Michael, Lessons from a failed charter school, February 22, 2009. http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2009/02/22/lessons_from_a_failed_charter_school/

NY Times September 17, 2004).  http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9901E5D61639F934A2575AC0A9629C8B63&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=print

Racial Poverty Gaps in U.S. Amount to Human Rights Violation, Says U.N. Expert November 30, 2005 http://us.oneworld.net/node/123107

Springer, L., Podgursky, M. National Center on Performance Incentives August, 2009.

http://www.performanceincentives.org/news__events/detail.asp?pageaction=ViewSinglePublic&LinkID=427&ModuleID=48&NEWSPID=1)

Young, S. Calif. Assembly passes education reform bills. (Associated Press http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2010/jan/05/calif-assembly-passes-education-reform-bills/?dsq=28641406#comment-28641406)

Weil, D.,  Charter School Movement: History, Politics, Policies, Economics & Effectiveness Second Edition.  Grey House Publishing, October 2009

Weil, D., Race to the slop. December 18-20, 2009. Counterpunch.com. http://counterpunch.com/weil12182009.html

Weil, D., Resuscitating the debate over education: From Dewey to Lippmann and today’s neo-liberal onslaught on public schools. In Counterpunch. Volume 16, #22. December 16-31, 2009

Obama’s Charter Stimulus: An incentive for states unfriendly to school choice to mend their ways.  Review and Outlook. Wall Street Journal http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124476693275708519.html

Danny Weil is an educational writer, a former kindergarten, first grade and second grade teacher and the author of many books on education. He is currently a junior college teacher at Allan Hancock College, where he teaches philosophy.  He can be reached at weilunion@aol.com

 

Kenneth Libby has his masters in teaching and is a contributing author to an upcoming volume about the Gates Foundation and the future of public education. He can be reached at KennethLibby06@gmail.com.