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The Ayers Affair (IV): In The Interest of Full Disclosure (Cont.)

My own experience in public education policy is based on a firm belief in the superiority of imperfect markets over central planning.


At RAND I shifted from national security to public education when the Cold War petered out and nuclear strategy evolved into the control of nuclear proliferation. In the 1990s I worked with Paul Hill around the time he was developing his thinking on school contracting, shifting his place of business from RAND’s Washington DC Office to the University of Washington on Seattle, and establishing a joint RAND-UW program that became today’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Perhaps because of my own understanding of central planning in the Communist world, I was drawn to thinking about decentralization in general as a means of improving the performance of public education, and especially to breaking up vertically integrated monopoly school districts by introducing competition in various ways at various levels of the system. I took a law degree because, while I wanted to go to business school, Washington isn’t the place and I needed to keep working at RAND. I focused on corporate, business and transactional law, but kept my hand in subjects relevant to national security and education reform.

In the early 1990s, I wrote a lengthy legal analysis for RAND client and corporate-directed New American Schools Development Corporation (NAS) on potential obstacles to the implementation of the whole school designs it sponsored arising from collective bargaining agreements. My conclusion was that where they had such rights, unions had many ways to deny, delay or disrupt the implementation of NAS designs and that those states should either be avoided for initial scale-up, or recognized as de facto partners in the success of NAS scale-up. It caused a whole lot of problems for the left-of-center, pro-teachers union political scientist at RAND (as it happens, current AERA Executive Board at-large member Lorraine McDonnell) called upon to review it, and for me making the transition from national security to domesic studies. After that, I used Hill’s Center as my forum for research publication, writing studies on many aspects of the charter school phenomenon.

I joined NAS to help transform its grant based-design teams into fee-based professional service providers and help establish a dozen or so school district markets across the nation for the purchase of their designs. In that capacity I was exposed to the whole range of educational philosophies expressed in the form of curriculum, instructional strategies, and professional development - from models inspired by Howard Gardner to E.D Hirsh; design teams formed by people from Chester Finn to Henry Levin; from approaches that told teachers what to do in class every minute of every day, to ones that emphasized a process of conversation among educators and their principal; from those based on technology to those avoiding it; from teams based in for-profit and nonprofit R&D. I formed a small investment fund controlled by NAS to capitalize high risk, innovative, for- and nonprofit k-12 firms with loans and equity investments. I passed the bar in 1994, and used that expertise to spin out the design teams from their parents, negotiate a $10 million loan from Prudential to capitalize the fund, form a private bank, establish and enforce intellectual property rights, negotiate loans and equity investments with the teams, and comply with Department of Education regulations and nonprofit law. Today, I‘m a small businessman, providing information services to these kinds of organizations. In short, I’m not the type to become a member of AERA, let recruited by its leadership.

I consider myself fortunate to have come to my work without a history in the education front of the culture wars. Dealing with such a wide variety of organizations led by divas from across k-12 education, I could never have done my job with the burden of a prior relationship with any school of thought. I was focused on creating viable business models and that depended on three things: the interest of potential consumers in school districts, charter schools, and private schools; the record of efficacy the organizations could establish in value-added to student performance; and managements' ability to balance revenues and costs.

What I learned from all of this work was that any of the educational models I've dealt with had a very good chance of improving student performance where they were wanted by the school staff and supported by their school district and parents. My conclusion: If the market is allowed to work by reporting on school outcomes and the value-added of external providers, establishing some basic consumer protections by with entry requirements derived from evaluations of efficacy; and providing choice to teachers and parents, the nation will get better student outcomes than is likely with any curriculum and instructional program based on diktat from central planners of the left or right.

That said, at best, I find Prof. Ayers’ education philosophy romantic. It constitutes no threat to our society. I certainly don’t buy into an “entry drug” analogy – start on marijuana, move to cocaine and end up on heroin; Let your kid attend ed school with Ayers and like-minded colleagues, she'll start reading Arrow’s Meritocracy and Economic Inequality, then Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and, before you know it, she’ll be bombing the Pentagon or at least defending them.

I think much the same of Ayers counterparts on the right and their work, although frankly I’m sympathetic to the writings of Dead White Old Men, and giving more attention to learning basic skills in literacy and math, and knowledge of American history, before moving on to other topics.

I agree that the left dominates much of American higher education, although less so than in the 1970s and 80s. Today’s dominance is not confined to schools of education. It is also a consistent complaint about our law schools. Still, corporate law firms have no shortage of effective lawyers, and the courts no shortage of advocates for moderate or conservative interests.

By the same token, the impact of left-leaning education schools is attenuated. I suspect that once you get past the Northeast Corridor, the West Coast and the “Third Coast” of the Great Lakes, you would be hard-pressed to find a public school system adhering to a leftist curriculum. (I’m not convinced you’d find all that many within those liberal bastions.) You’d be a bit more likely to find empathy for the “on again/off again” decisions of Kansas to teach creationism and at least far more rhetorical support for E..D. Hirsh. In th end, the philosophical bases of the pedagogies proposed by Ayers or Hirsch are so far over the heads of teachers and administrators and the public that the debate is quite literally "purely academic."

I would argue that American k-12 state and local education agencies’ approach to teaching and learning is driven less by political ideology than economic self-interest, long standing purchasing relationships, and bureaucratic inertia. There’s a part of me that would prefer either ideology to that muddle. Nevertheless, in the end, I would not want the k-12 curriculum to be dictated by the right or the left.

If I had children, I would hope that they understood the value of exposure to as many world views as possible, especially the ones they or their father found abhorrent. I hope that they would realize the importance of coming to their own conclusions through their own powers of reasoning and their own interpretive skills. I hope they would value the acquisition of conceptual skills over information they might just as easily gain through their own reading. I hope that they would learn the superiority of defending their own ideas through reason over of the mindless advance of whatever they happen to believe because that’s all they’ve been taught. I hope they would resist indoctrination of any sort, even while giving the professor what ever it is that earns the "A."

To recap: Ayers views on education are inconsequential, in the sense that they are not the basis of teaching and learning in many America schools or classrooms. The philosophical bases of the pedagogies proposed by Ayers on the left or E.D. Hirsch on the right are so far over the heads on teachers, administrators and the public that their debate is quite literally "purely academic."

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