Unanswered in all the noise about “education reform” is why, over the past decade, America’s establishment has become so obsessed with controlling public education, a complete reversal of two centuries of American faith in locally controlled schools.
There are answers that the op-eds will give you, such as the need to compete in the global marketplace, but this is pretty weak stuff and not the raw material for major presidential policy under two administrations.
There are answers that can be found in the general shift in government towards data as a worthy substitute, or delaying tactic, for action. As long as you’re assessing something you don’t actually have to do anything about it.
Then there’s the milking of the cash cow of testing. For example, the Washington Post now gets the bulk of its profits from the Kaplan education division, profits bolstered by the paper’s constant editorial boosting of the test tyrants. And Neil Bush started a company designed to help students pass the tests of his brother’s No Child Left Behind policy.
Certainly there is precedent for this, such as the efforts to privatize Social Security and subsidize health insurance companies, all part of a three decades rip-off of public programs by private industry.
But how, for example, does one explain that this effort has been carried out with such an extraordinary absence of knowledgeable educators or skilled teachers? What has happened is as if we had tried to reach the moon with space vehicles designed by economists, lawyers and corporate buddies of the president.
It has, in the end, a hopeless mush of sleaze, stupidity and statistical static, all having remarkably little to do with real education.
There is, however, an even more disreputable matter lurking in the background that has not been exposed, debated or confronted – namely growing evidence that the assault on public education is part of an urban socio-economic cleansing that has long been underway as the upper classes attempt retrieve the cities they surrendered to the poor many decades ago.
For several decades, I followed this phenomenon as a journalist in my hometown of Washington, DC. It was a topic seldom mentioned in the corporate media and not polite to mention at all in the better parts of town.
In 2006 I wrote,
“Part of the socio-economic cleansing of the capital city – still underway – included draconian measures to discourage the minority poor from staying in DC. Some of these were fiscal — such as a tax break for predominately white first-time homeowners but no breaks for the lower income blacks pushed out by them. But they also included a variety of punitive measures including new restrictions on jury trials, increased lock-ups such as for trivial traffic offenses, stiffer sentencing, soaring marijuana arrests, a halving of the number of court-appointed defense attorneys, increased penalties for pot possession, and the shipping of inmates to distant prisons.”
And in 2007:
“This is a 60% black city undergoing socio-economic cleansing. One suburban county has so many black former DC residents that it is known here as Ward 9. But it’s no joke. Here are just a few of things that have happened: Huge budget cuts of which 60% of the burden fell on the poor; closing of four of the city’s ten health clinics; slashing the number of public health workers; cutting the budget for libraries, city funded day care centers, welfare benefits, and homeless shelters; creation of a tax-subsidized private “charter” school system; dismantling the city’s public university including a massive cut in faculty, destruction of the athletic program and elimination of normal university services; selling the city’s public radio station to C-SPAN; transferring prisoners to private gulags hundreds of miles away; a dramatic increase in the number of lock-ups including for traffic stops; and the subjugating of the elected school board to an appointed board of trustee.”
There were other signs: the destruction of public housing units, the removal of a homeless shelter from the center city, and even a blockade of a crime- hit black neighborhood – with entry permitted only for approved cause – not unlike apartheid South Africa or the Israelis in the West Bank – about which the liberal gentry class said nothing.
In other words, it was absolutely clear and absolutely unmentionable that the upper classes – both white and black, incidentally – wanted the city back again and were using a plethora of tactics to achieve this goal, especially after our energy consciousness increased and it became apparent that the suburbs were no longer the favored haven, but the ghettos of the future.
Furthermore, it was clear that satisfying this goal was behind most of the major new city programs, ranging from the subway to the baseball stadium – only please always call it economic development rather than getting rid of the poor.
Public education “reform” fit the plan in some ways. For example, although it was widely claimed that charter schools did not discriminate in their selection of students it was obvious that parents – a central factor in any child’s ability to learn – differed drastically between those with enough ambition to apply for a charter school seat and those either indifferent or with too much else on their mind. The charter schools were in this way a subtle part of socio-economic cleansing as they helped to reduce the old public facilities to what were once called “pauper schools.”
Then there was the carefully crafted schemes for closing “failing” public schools. But there is far more to schools than aggregate test scores. They help define a community, anchor its loose pieces to common ground, and provide a place for children to meet and play in a decent and clean environment.
Describing DC’s plans to close eleven schools (mostly in order to build condos), DC Statehood Party activist Chris Otten argued a few years ago, “There are lots of ways we can use our publicly owned properties — homeless services and shelters, child care, before- and after-school care, services for children with special needs, transitional housing and permanent affordable housing, health care, literacy programs, training for jobs and workforce readiness, senior services, gardening and green spaces, recreation. It’s outrageous that Mayor Fenty would rather transfer them to his friends and other well-connected and powerful real estate and development interests.”
But Fenty and other mayors were not only willing to get rid of such schools, they were wiling to damage community in the process and force young residents to travel far away from their community and its values. It was not only bad educationally cruel it was mean to the communities as a whole.
But these schools were located on suddenly valuable ground and so the government stole from the children and their parents and gave to the developers.
But there was something more at work.
It took the recent DC mayoral election to make me realize that I had been putting too much emphasis on educational considerations in examining what was happening. What I had missed was that the war on schools was not designed to bring the upper classes into the education system but primarily as a a marketing tool to bring the upper classes and corporations back to the cities. The message was, as with crime sweeps, baseball stadiums and the subway. It was now safe, folks, to live here.
In DC, the battle peaked between incumbent mayor Adrian Fenty, who with his school chancellor Michelle Rhee was strongly committed to the Bush-Obama school model, and his opponent and strong critic, Vincent Gray.
Eddie Elfanbeen did a precinct by precinct analysis of the contest. Some 31 precincts gave Fenty 75% or more of the vote while 53 gave him 25% or less. All of the top Fenty precincts were heavily white while all the top Gray precincts were heavily black. But more significant perhaps was that the former were all upscale precincts while the latter were at the lower end of the income scale. .
This year Fenty got 80% of upscale white Ward 3 and 16% of far poorer and black Ward 8.
Rhee and the school system was obviously a factor. As Natalie Henerson pointed out in the Atlantic, “Among white Democrats, 68 percent said Rhee is a reason to support Fenty. Fifty-four percent of black Democrats cite her as a reason to vote against the mayor, according to a Washington Post poll. In an earlier August poll by Clarus Research, Rhee got her most unfavorable ratings from black women, only 15 percent of whom viewed her favorably.”
Now, here’s the hooker. Only five percent of the public school system consists of white students. So why did it matter so much? For example, why did heavily gay precincts – with a constituency least likely to ever use the school system – give over 70% of their vote to Fenty?
It seems that it mattered because school test scores represent a symbol that the city is getting the poor under control or out of the way. It was not about educating the city’s young but about marketing to the city’s newcomers. Another poll, for example, found that Fenty won overwhelmingly the vote of those who had lived in DC less than ten years and Gray those who had lived there longer.
Thus, it was not unlike the crime war phenomena. Back in the nineties I noted that “Between 1985 and 1988, in the wake of the revived drug war, murders in Washington, DC soared from 145 a year to 369. During this period, the city’s office of criminal justice planning did an unusually detailed analysis of homicides. The report illustrates [that] it was virtually impossible to be killed in Washington if you were a young white girl living in upscale Georgetown on an early Thursday morning in July. If, on the other hand, you were a young black 20-year-old male living in low-income Anacostia, dealing drugs on a Saturday night in June, your chances of being killed were far greater than the overall statistics would suggest. And if you were not buying or selling drugs at all, your chances of being killed in DC were about the same as in Copenhagen.”
But being safe and feeling safe are two different things. And, as with crime, it was important for effective marketing to be seen as keeping the problem population under control.
To be sure, whatever appeal school “reform” had, it was not matched by the facts. For example, here are DC’s scores according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress broken down by income class (based on food stamp eligibility). Since 2002 4th Grade reading scores have improved a modest 4 percent for low income groups and 8 percent for others. But the gap between poor and others actually increased by 32 percent. Scores for 8th graders showed even less improvement with low income scores edging up a mere 1 percent and other income groups improving by only 2 percent. The gap between them increased by 19 percent.
Several things to note here. The overall improvement was minimal – but half as much for the poor as the better off. Furthermore, the gap between the scores of the better off and the poor actually widened by far more than the overall improvement percentage. So, as 8th grade reading improved 2% for the better off between 2002 and 2009, the gap between these two groups increase by 19%. Obviously, we are not talking about better education here.
And DC was far from alone. Just recently it was reported that in Massachusetts, 57 percent of public schools had fallen short of the yearly progress standard.
Diane Ravitch has noted other flaws in the school reform con:
“A study released days ago by Sean Corcoran of New York University showed that a teacher who was ranked at the 43rd percentile, using student test scores, might actually be at the 15th percentile or the 71st percentile because the margin of error in this methodology is so large.”
“Privately managed charter schools do not get better results on average than regular public schools. Some are excellent, some are awful, but most are no better than their public counterparts. Even the Superman movie admitted that only one in five (actually, only 17%) of charters get great test scores. Twice as many charters (37%) are even worse than the neighborhood public school.”
“One group of teachers in Nashville was offered bonuses up to $15,000 if they raised students’ math scores; another, the control group, was offered nothing. The average teacher pay is about $50,000, so this was a significant incentive to get higher scores. Over the three years of the study, both groups produced the same results.”
Of DC, Leigh Dingerson wrote recently:
“There’s nothing remarkably visionary going on in Washington. The model of school reform that’s being implemented here is popping up around the country, heavily promoted by the same network of conservative think tanks and philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton Family Foundation that has been driving the school reform debate for the past decade. It is reform based on the corporate practices of Wall Street, not on education research or theory. Indications so far are that, on top of the upheaval and distress Rhee leaves in her wake, the persistent racial gaps that plague D.C. student outcomes are only increasing. . .
“Despite glowing reports from the adoring media, D.C.’s education miracle is a chimera at best. . . “
But that, it turns out, was probably the point: to create a political illusion that would support the city’s myth, sell real estate, and attract new residents and businesses. Just as it didn’t matter that Washington’s Metro was designed in a way that actually increased rather than reduced street traffic, it didn’t matter that school reform didn’t improve things. It only had to seem to change things.
Meanwhile the real city remained.
In 2008, one in five DC residents was poor, a higher rate than in any year since 1997-98. Since the late 1990s, some 27,000 more DC residents fell into poverty. Thirty-two percent of the District of Columbia’s children live in poverty, nearly twice the national average. And in 2008 there were over 52,000 families on the waiting list for affordable housing.
But perhaps most important for the educational system, and discussion about it, is something hardly ever discussed: in the first decade of this century, employment among residents with a high school diploma fell to the lowest level in nearly 30 years. Just 51 percent of DC residents at this education level were working.
Every one in the system – parents, teachers, students – knew this reality and reacted accordingly. This, more than any other factor, defined public education in DC. But few wanted to face it.
After all, the poor don’t balance your budget. Cutting their services and shoving them out into new suburban ghettos can. And they certainly don’t attract tax-paying residents and businesses. So you talk the talk of education reform but walk the walk of socio-economic cleansing.
SAM SMITH publishes the Progressive Review.