“When you are basing the effectiveness of teachers on lots of softer things, whether the kids feel good, whether the classroom is happy, whether we’re creative (don’t get me wrong, those things are important), but if the kids can’t read…that’s not acceptable,” former Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee asserted indignantly in a recent interview with Charlie Rose, defending her testing based reform movement, one she has touted very successfully in a year long celebrity tour of the applauding corporate media. Rhee is fighting a battle against these “softer things,” as The American Thinker recently observed, an image she cultivates carefully in her iconic stern pose on the cover of Time Magazine – humorless, severe, standing imposingly above the viewer as she holds a broom, ready to sweep away “bad teachers” like errant spitballs and broken pencils littering the classroom floor, and with them, “softer things” like creativity, and perhaps, empathy.
And certainly, Rhee has little empathy for “bad teachers,” and in fact, has built her career – and her fame – by sweeping them out the front door. As the legendary educator Mike Rose reported in a recent blog on Rhee, she casually invited a film crew documenting her to watch her fire a teacher live, in a real life version of Donald Trump’s Apprentice.
“I’m going to fire somebody in a little while,” Rhee said to John Merrow’s crew on the film of The Influence of Teachers, inviting them to televise the teacher’s career execution. “Do you want to see that?”
Rhee has no compunction canning “underperforming” teachers, just as a CEO would make layoffs of employees not hitting their quarterly profits. And in this case, a teacher’s profits lay in what percentile their students’ find themselves on standardized tests – and a teacher who can’t pass muster, who can’t keep the educational balance sheet in the black, is canned, and deservedly so.
If Rhee is the callous face of education reform in the last year, then data is its spirit. The debate on education – from independent blogs to the White House – has centered compulsively on data, as we saw most vividly illustrated in the aftermath of 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, when President Obama declared that we had reached our “Sputnik moment,” and that if we don’t “out-educate” the world, we just might be Shanghai-ed by Shanghai, and actually “Lose the Future.” In fact, our Obsessive Compulsive Data Disorder – which sounds a lot like Corporate Speak – is so deeply entrenched in the educational debate that even critiques of Michelle Rhee focus on data: most recently, over whether she fabricated data in her resume, demonstrating that as a new teacher she helped students improve from the lowest to highest percentile.
The Empathy Emergency
And yet, in our OCDD debate, a frightening “data point” has escaped discussion: college students today are dramatically less empathetic than previous generations. In a 2010 comprehensive study for Personal and Social Psychology Review, University of Michigan researcher Sara A. Kontrath found that “empathic concern” has dropped “sharply” since 1979, and more quickly in the last decade. “[A] lmost 75 percent of students today rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago,” Scientific American Mind reports in a recent article exploring Konrath’s findings. In other words, Kontrath’s findings suggest that new college students – who will one day lead our country – are less able to feel for anyone other than themselves.
Where’s the empathy emergency?
There is no empathy emergency because empathy is not valued in our culture today, which Harvard-based physician-researcher J. Wes Ulm describes in his 2010 essay for Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, “ Cache of the Cutthroat.” Ulm argues that Social Darwinism – a perversion of Charles Darwin’s theories – has seized control of our economy and culture. In Cutthroat Capitalism, it’s not just survival of the fittest, but survival of the most ruthless: all behaviors, no matter how ruthless or “cutthroat” are “fair” in competition, and “qualities such as compassion and empathy” are roadblocks to “success and social advancement,” Ulm claims. Cutthroat Capitalism is the unregulated free market, the Wall Street ethos, in which “ferocious, mercilessly competitive conditions weed out the weak while preserving and enhancing the strongest members of an institution, a market, or a civilization as a whole.”
In Cutthroat Capitalism all that matters (to quote the Wall Street star turned carnival sideshow Charlie Sheen) is winning – who cares how you won, what corners you cut to get there, who you harmed in the process, nor what you snorted or injected, so long as you come out on top. Gordon Gecko would be proud.
Gordon Gecko Elementary School
Unsurprisingly, from Cutthroat Capitalism, which values economic savagery that Gordon Gecko applauded, the Cutthroat Curriculum is born, in which the methods of the unregulated free-markets are being applied to our children. The Educational Venture Philanthropists or the “Billionaire Boys Club,” as distinguished education professor Diane Ravitch dubs Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton Family in her award-winning book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, are using their vast fortunes to remake public education in the image of the Cutthroat Culture from which they emerged victors. The Broad Foundation’s primary goal, as Ravitch demonstrates, is that “schools should be redesigned to function like corporate enterprise,” a goal that he accomplishes by training education-outsiders to become superintendent CEOs. And thus, it comes as little surprise that Rhee – a public education outsider who acted like a CEO during her tenure in the Washington, DC public school system – is the star of the “Billionaire Boys” and the corporate reform movement they bankroll, for her cutthroat methods mirror just the sort of management style they used to destroy the competition, and earn their billions.
And while the corporate reform movement sounds like the work of the neo-conservative business elite, some of its’ greatest political allies are Democrats – especially President Obama, who speaks of education in purely economic terms in his 2011 State of the Union. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan makes the economic focus of the Obama administration explicit in a speech previous to the State of the Union, describing the goal of public education to create a “seamless cradle-to-career educational pipeline,” as if the children are raw material to be processed and sold on the open market, like iron ore. And certainly, Obama/Duncan’s educational policy Race to the Top implements this business-oriented focus, which Ravitch referred to as George W. Bush’s “3rd Term in Education,” by favoring the free-market standardized testing regime of No Child Left Behind. Not surprisingly, following Obama’s lead, the New Democratic Coalition met with Michelle Rhee – the face of corporate education reform – to help make American education “the most competitive in the world.”
From the perspective of corporate reformers and complicit Democrats, who employ the language and ideology of corporate America, the Department of Education is a subsidiary of the Chamber of Commerce, and thus, public schools are factories designed to manufacture potential employees, human products who can compete effectively on the global market, and help the United States “Win the Future.” This is a striking departure from the original mission of public schools, which conceived of our schools as not just skills centers, but civil institutions which cultivate democratic values – empathy, compassion, citizenship, creativity, and other “softer things.”
Towards an Empathic Nation
Our limping economy clearly demonstrates the consequences of the sort of Cutthroat Culture Rhee, and the “Corporate Takeover of American Schools” stands for. While it might be good for enriching the few, Ulm argues this ruthless way doing business ultimately bankrupts the public by incentivizing corruption, rewarding “unscrupulous behavior,” promoting “short-termism” at the expense of long term gain, and worst of all, it “commoditizes human beings,” treating them as products to be exploited, to be capitalized on, rather than people. Ulm concludes that in encouraging selfish individualism, “the most cutthroat societies collapse in a state of corruption and acrimony–their ‘winners’ ultimately hoisted on their own petards… Social-Darwinist systems fail, and fail on their own terms.” Ravitch poses a nearly identical argument to Ulm, that the “Billionaire Boys” in bringing this Cutthroat Culture into the schools, have reaped the same sort of “unscrupulous behavior,” which she documents extensively in her book. And much like Ulm, Ravitch concludes that this culture of selfish, free-market individualism threatens our schools, as it has our economic fabric: “Deregulation contributed to the near collapse of our national economy in 2008 and there is no reason to anticipate that it will make education better for most children.”
Not only does the Cutthroat Curriculum imperil our already weakened public schools, making our children’s “hard skills” like reading worse, but more importantly, it also encourages just the sort of ruthless behavior that makes for a morally bankrupt country, one in which the citizens are callous towards the plights of each other, and anyone else in the world. As Ravitch reminds us “we tend to forget that schools are responsible for shaping character, developing sound minds in healthy bodies… and forming citizens for our democracy, not just for teaching basic skills.” If we do not heed Ravitch’s warning, a generation of children who do not value empathy will soon become our leaders – CEOs, politicians, administrators, teachers, neighbors, voters – who will make cold-hearted decisions about the direction of our community, our nation, and our way of life. In essence, by ignoring public education’s responsibility to not just produce consumers and workers, but also empathic, well-socialized citizens, the United States is endangering 21st century democracy.
And that’s no future I want to win.