Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Were So Many Education Reformers Bad Students?

 


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Bad students often hate school.

Not exactly shocking, I know.

But perhaps more surprising is the pattern of low, sloppy or inconsistent academic achievement by so many of those adults who consider themselves education reformers, particularly corporate school reformers.

Our ideas of school are certainly formed during our years in it. Those working so diligently to destroy the public school system and reshape it to resemble the business model are so often people who didn’t fit in. They earned low grades or only excelled in subjects they really liked. Perhaps school failed them or perhaps they failed school. There’s no way to know for sure since school records are almost always kept private. But details do trickle through and display a clear pattern – a pattern that certainly gives the appearance of an ulterior motive.

Are these former bad students more interested in fixing the perceived problems they see with the system? Or are they consciously or unconsciously seeking revenge against a system that found them to be inadequate?
Take Scott Walker.

The Wisconsin Governor-cum-Presidential candidate has been one of the most virulent enemies of public education and public school teachers in the past decade.

But when he was a lowly student, he wasn’t anywhere near the head of the class. His grade school years are mostly shrouded in mystery, but his college career is ablaze in controversy.

He claims to have been a solid C-student with a 2.59 grade point average. Contemporaries say it was closer to a 2.3.

“I had some classes I was more interested in than others, I suppose,” he admits.

In any case, college wasn’t for him. He attended Marquette University for almost four full years before dropping out. He only had a year or more to go before earning a bachelors degree.

Why did he quit? Numerous contemporaries allege he was expelled for cheating in student government.

Walker says he simply accepted a full-time job and had to devote his time there.

The facts are these: Walker unsuccessfully ran for student body president with a tumultuous campaign. He was found guilty of campaigning a week early thereby losing campaign privileges at one facility and a day of campaigning at another.

When the student paper endorsed his opponent, the edition mysteriously vanished from the stands. Students reported seeing Walker staff taking almost all of the papers and replacing them with campaign literature against his opponent.

An investigation was conducted but the university refuses to release it saying the results are either private or have been destroyed.

However, the university denies that Walker was ever in bad standing or that he had been expelled.

The matter could easily be cleared up if Walker released his academic records to the public, but unlike most Presidential candidates of either major political party, he refuses to do so. (All while continuing to criticize President Barrack Obama for not releasing a birth certificate that the President clearly released to the public.)

Not exactly student of the year. Nor would the preacher’s son ever win “Most Ethical” in the student superlative section of his college yearbook.

It’s easy to see why someone who had such difficulty in college would spend so much time as Governor attacking that world.

He reduced state funding to Wisconsin colleges by 13% and then mandated they freeze tuition for 4 years.

He recommending replacing University of Wisconsin leadership with a private authority governed by his own appointees. He proposed the university change its fundamental commitment from “a search for truth” to the goal of workforce readiness.

That’ll show ‘em, I guess.

But he didn’t just attack post-secondary education. He went after high, middle and elementary schools, too. He signed a law mandating high stakes reading testing begin in kindergarten. That’s right – kindergarten! Teachers and principals, of course, had to be evaluated based on these scores. Oh and don’t forget the massive school budget cuts.

He also presided over the largest roll back of collective bargaining rights in state history – and who make up the biggest unions? Teachers. Other working people are just more grist for the mill of his petty power trip.

If Walker had studied harder, spent less time on extra-curricular politics and finished his degree – I wonder if he wouldn’t have such animosity towards education. Maybe then he wouldn’t spend his days congratulating himself for hobbling colleges and public schools while trampling on workers rights.

Moving from politics to punditry, few people have devoted their careers to destroying the teaching profession as much as former anchorperson Campbell Brown.

Since being quietly let go from CNN when her news program was cancelled for low ratings, Brown has become an outspoken corporate education reformer. School choice, the destruction of teacher tenure and labor unions – there are few supply side education ideas she doesn’t support. Most notably, she serves on the board of directors for the infamous Success Academy Charter Schools – a system that uses student humiliation to ensure children swallow a curriculum consisting almost entirely of standardized test prep. Moreover, her husband, Dan Senor, is on the board of StudentsFirstNY, a corporate school reform organization affiliated with Michelle Rhee.

How anyone so personally invested in the factory schools model could possibly claim she was impartial enough to serve in a journalistic capacity on this matter is beyond belief. But that’s just what Brown does. This summer she even co-founded The Seventy Four – a news site dedicated to covering education. She claims it’s all “non-partisan” and “non-profit.” Ha! Her husband is a former adviser to the Romney campaign and spokesman for the Bush administration’s Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq! Her “news” site is like Fox News for schools – which given the supply side bias of MOST news organizations is really saying something!

Is it any surprise that when Brown was in school, herself, she wasn’t exactly honor roll material?

She describes herself as a “terrible student” in Catholic school, but immediately justifies her academic performance by saying the teachers were awful, too. Since she had such a horrible parochial school experience, it’s a wonder she reserves her rancor for the public school system where she has little first hand knowledge. A child of privilege, Brown was a private school girl.

At Virginia’s elite Madeira School, she was kicked out for sneaking off campus for a party. She eventually earned a GED, and briefly attended Louisiana State University before waitressing in Colorado and enrolling in a Catholic college in Denver. It was there that a priest who taught political philosophy finally reached her. She eventually earned a B.S. in political science.

It was a long, difficult academic road for Brown. I wonder how she would have done at Success Academy where mostly poor Black and Hispanic students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; where reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea; where her teachers would be inexperienced drones forced to work 11-hour days and face high turnover.

Something tells me as a student she’d find those teachers just “awful,” too. It’s a hard thing to take responsibility for one’s own actions especially as a child. If only the teacher had taught me better, if only I had gone to the good school, if only someone had done this or that. Poor little rich girl.

Now Brown is a professional at casting blame on our public school system in favor of unproven or disastrous education models. She’s come from the back of the class to the front – where she can criticize and wag her finger.

But to do the most damage to the school system, you need to be more than a politician or a pundit – you need to be an ideologue. And you need so much cash you don’t now what to do with it all.

No one has had a greater negative impact on public education than Bill Gates and his billions in so-called philanthropic contributions. As one of the richest men in the world, he has steered the course of education policy away from research-based policies to a business-minded approach favored by corporate raiders.

Common Core State Standards would not exist without his backing and financial bribery of federal and state governments. The man of ideas who instinctively understands the world of computers extends his hubris to encase all subjects. For clearly, what is true of a network of calculating machines must be true of young minds. Gates knows best, and where he is contradicted by one peer-reviewed study, he can pay for several independent ones to back up his pet ideas.

But whatever you say of Gates, he differs dramatically from Walker and Brown. Gates is clearly brilliant. He was a National Merit Scholar who scored a 1590 out of 1600 on his SATs. One would think his academic record must be impeccable. But one would be wrong.

While he excelled in subjects he cared about, he neglected others that weren’t immediately interesting. According to a college friend:
Gates was a typical freshman in many ways, thrown off pace by the new requirements and a higher level of competition. He skipped classes, spent days on end in the computer lab working on his own projects, played poker all night, and slept in a bed without sheets when he did go
 to bed. Other students recall that he often went without sleep for 18 to 36 hours.
Even at Harvard, Gates continued his pattern of 
getting good grades in the subjects he liked and disdaining those that were of little interest. His heart didn’t seem to be in his studies. Gates joined few college activities unless his friend Steve Ballmer dragged him off to a party.
School was of little interest to him. He dropped out of Harvard before getting a degree to start his computer software company.

Some tell it as a story of an eccentric’s unstoppable rise, but few tarry long enough to remark on the privilege from which Gates emerged. He didn’t have a public school education. He attended an elite preparatory school since he was 13. Once again someone with such little experience of public school is a self-appointed expert in reforming it.

His parents also instilled in him a peculiar marker for success. In his home, the family encouraged competition. One visitor reported, “it didn’t matter whether it was hearts or pickleball or swimming to the dock … there was always a reward for winning and there was always a penalty for losing.” How interesting that this same philosophy has become Gate’s vision for all school children! Schools must compete against each other for resources and the losers get shut down. Yet what irony that his own personal success relies on ignoring his weaknesses and focusing solely on his successes! We excuse the inconsistent grades and dropping out of college. But would Gates-backed education policies do the same for other children?

Gates, the student, easily might have wilted under the education policies of Gates, the edu-preneur. How hard it is to see oneself clearly. How hard to admit one has limitations. Especially when one is brilliant in one narrow field and has too much money and free time.

And so the enemies of America’s public education system gather round. Many of them may have axes to grind. Of course this doesn’t hold in every case. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, for example, is no friend to schools. Yet by all accounts he personally had a relatively trouble free academic experience.

However, the case holds often enough to be instructive. An awful lot of C-students think corporate education reform is needed to fix our schools. Heck! Most of these policies come from No Child Left Behind legislation proposed by the most infamous C-student in American history – President George W. Bush!

These kinds of psychological conflicts of interest should give us pause. Do we really want to support such personal crusades? Should all the power of public policy really back the revenge of indifferent students?

Corporate education reform policies don’t work. They never have worked. They’re destroying our system of public education.

Doesn’t there come a time when you have to get over your personal childhood traumas and pay attention to the facts?


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive.

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