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The Power of Big Money & Big State Over Knowledge


Dear Diane,

But let’s not postpone our discussion about national standards for too long. It mostly boils down to my fear about official ideologies and centralized power over ideas. Plus, our old disagreement about intellectual “neutrality” and objectivity.

I found your analysis of Obama’s education policy intriguing: pro-spending, but largely along lines Chicago, NYC, et al have pioneered.

My disagreements are deep-seated. I want a public system of schooling that has local bases and biases—where we don’t all have to agree on what “social justice” teaching means. It’s a risk—but democracy rests on that risk. The messiness of different standards is, to me, a blessing that creates escape hatches for trying something different—within broad limits.

The power of Big Money and the Big State over knowledge and its distribution is immense—including in schooling. My early image of charters was precisely that they might be counter-powers, not so different than what in Boston we called Pilots and in NYC Alternative schools: mom-and-pop ventures, built around a few people with interesting ideas and a constituency that wants to join them in carrying it out. In the case of Pilots and Alternatives, they came under the jurisdiction of local labor-management; charters depend on an arrangement with the State.

But somehow we’ve gotten the worst of both private entrepreneurs and public bureaucrats. Transparency has never been harder to find, whether in our highly centralized urban systems or our continuously enlarging charter sector. There are no serious checks and balances, and lots of private “edu-chains” supported by public funds. There is no “public.” Thus, with virtually no public input, NYC’s mayor is allowed to close neighborhood schools and replace them with charters. Parents meanwhile try to figure out how to manipulate a bewildering array of choices while schools are “empowered” to restrict entrance only to high test-scorers, good writers, whatever. In the name of “fairness and equity” we have more selectivity along racial, class, and ability lines, more (white) gifted classes, and fewer than ever minorities in the prestigious high schools. And flat test scores and rising dropout rates.

The big business mindset, so destructive nationwide, is being offered a free hand in our schools. Schools are “delivery” systems, teachers are deliverers of curriculum, principals are CEOs. It’s an intensification of the old factory-model for new technology factories. Local empowerment in today’s schools usually means more power to the principal and less for the line workers, students, or parents—now seen as obstructers of progress.

We’re told the AIG exec bonuses weren’t tied to performance, but school teachers' salaries should be. And Eli Broad, long associated with AIG, is giving advice to our schools? (See Mike Klonsky’s Small Talk, March 17.)

Garbage in, garbage out is an adage from the early years of computers. At their best, as Walter Stroup so clearly lays out in "What Bernie Madoff Can Teach Us About Accountability in Education" in Education Week this week. Even respected tests are insensitive to schooling—by design. Stroup's succinct piece is a must-read. To make matters worse, when the stakes are high enough you can rely on doctored books. It’s called Campbell’s Law. It reminds me of the old Soviet system—with five-year goals that were met on paper, but rarely in reality. In the end, the Russian people turned the tide in WWII, but only after the State’s vaunted economic power was exposed as a lie. We’ll someday face a similar fate re. education’s cooked data.

You can’t make an omelet, as the expression went in the 1930s, without breaking eggs (meaning people). Making a “revolution” in a labor-intensive field is hard to do without abandoning democracy. Well-intentioned reformers have always seen resistors as obstacles that can best be dealt with by sending them to the “rubber rooms” or their equivalent. It’s a process which views organized teachers and organized parents as obstacles. Temps who move in and out every 2-5 years have many advantages—no retirement pay, for example, and they are less prone to loyalty to a union.

NYC's Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein have a vision that requires a series of changes, one quickly following another, close control over data, and little or no discussion so that by the time they’ve “finished” we have no idea what they have wrought—or why. The old reality on the ground has simply disappeared.

A decade of the current bipartisan theory of change, which Obama seems to have bought into, has produced almost no positive results—even in test scores and graduation rates—although claims are made. In NYC class, race and “ability” segregation is one byproduct. The demise of neighborhoods is another. Neighborhood schools are first ignored and then dismantled without community approval. You and I, with our unreasonable hope for schools that put intellectual power in the hands of “the people” are not on the winning side, Diane.

I listened, last week, to some Finnish educators describing what they’ve accomplished by taking the exact opposite path—during approximately the same decade. They have no standardized test (although they do sampling) and have gone from mediocre to No. 1 in math and science. They don’t start formal reading or math teaching until kids are 7 years old, but they’re at the top internationally by age 10! (They provide a classy system of child care starting at age 4.) And they have maintained schools as sites for local community-building. Granted they have a more homogeneous population, more supports for children and families, and, like Singapore, they are the size of NYC. But unlike Singapore they are also a democracy, which should be of special interest to us.

Forgive me for being doom and gloom this week.



Hi Deb and all.....

"Forgive me for being doom and gloom this week." ( Deb )

Certainly is difficult to be on the ground and not feeling doom and gloom these days!

As i watch this unfold... what you describe is certainly what is actually happening on the ground... in American Public Schools.

"In NYC class, race and “ability” segregation is one byproduct.
The demise of neighborhoods is another. Neighborhood schools are first ignored and then dismantled without community approval.

You and I, with our unreasonable hope for schools that put intellectual power in the hands of “the people” are not on the winning side, Diane." ( Deb )

After working for almost 30 years in public education would have to agree with you on which side is winning...and it certainly isn't ours....

** We are creating a system where those most in need, those without the "family privelege" that America refuses to see will be segregated and left way behind.

"Democracy is always a movement of an energized public to make elites responsible-it is at its core and most basic foundation the taking back of one's powers in the face of the misuse of elite power. In this sense, democracy is more a verb than a noun-it is more a dynamic striving and collective movement than a static order or stationary status quo. Democracy is not just a system of governance, as we tend to think of it, but a cultural way of being." Cornell West

A comment a while back asked what might another view look like.... Kohn has painted this vision better then i ever could.....

Characteristics of Democratic Schools:

Attending to the whole child-
Progressive educators are concerned with helping children become not only good learners but also good people. Schooling isn’t seen as being about just academics, nor is intellectual growth limited to verbal and mathematical proficiencies.

Learning isn’t something that happens to individual children — separate selves at separate desks. Children learn with and from one another in a caring community, and that’s true of moral as well as academic learning.

Progressive schools are characterized by what I like to call a “working with” rather than a “doing to” model. In place of rewards for complying with the adults’ expectations, or punitive consequences for failing to do so, there’s more of an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving — and, for that matter, less focus on behaviors than on underlying motives, values, and reasons.

Social justice:
A sense of community and responsibility for others isn’t confined to the classroom; indeed, students are helped to locate themselves in widening circles of care that extend beyond self, beyond friends, beyond their own ethnic group, and beyond their own country. Opportunities are offered not only to learn about, but also to put into action, a commitment to diversity and to improving the lives of others.

Intrinsic motivation:
When considering (or reconsidering) educational policies and practices, the first question that progressive educators are likely to ask is, “What’s the effect on students’ interest in learning, their desire to continue reading, thinking, and questioning?” This deceptively simple test helps to determine what students will and won’t be asked to do. Thus, conventional practices, including homework, grades, and tests, prove difficult to justify for anyone who is serious about promoting long-term dispositions rather than just improving short-term skills.

Deep understanding:
As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead declared long ago, “A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.” Facts and skills do matter, but only in a context and for a purpose. That’s why progressive education tends to be organized around problems, projects, and questions — rather than around lists of facts, skills, and separate disciplines. The teaching is typically interdisciplinary, the assessment rarely focuses on rote memorization, and excellence isn’t confused with “rigor.” The point is not merely to challenge students — after all, harder is not necessarily better — but to invite them to think deeply about issues that matter and help them understand ideas from the inside out.

Active learning:
In progressive schools, students play a vital role in helping to design the curriculum, formulate the questions, seek out (and create) answers, think through possibilities, and evaluate how successful they — and their teachers — have been. Their active participation in every stage of the process is consistent with the overwhelming consensus of experts that learning is a matter of constructing ideas rather than passively absorbing information or practicing skills.

• Taking kids seriously:
In traditional schooling, as John Dewey once remarked, “the center of gravity is outside the child”: he or she is expected to adjust to the school’s rules and curriculum. Progressive educators take their cue from the children — and are particularly attentive to differences among them.

Wonder.... which vision American parents would want for their children?

My fear is that we no longer have conversations about vision or values. An extreme example is Liz Goodwin's account on Gotham Schools' website about last night's Harlem Charter Night where Lil Mama yelled "Parent!" and the crowd responded "Choice!" Any supermarket in this country offers several dozen kinds of salad dressing, but is our salad any tastier than when it is prepared with good olive oil and vinegar? What Mike describes from Kohn, and Deb from Finland doesn't strike me as rocket science, but it does require people having substantive discussions about what they value and how to put it into action through a vision of what is possible. I recently had a discussion with my graduate students about an essay by Carla Rinaldi, who is the director of Reggio Children in Reggio Emilia, Italy, home of world famous early childhood schools. As she outlines the core values that guide those who work, live, and learn within the Reggio community - democracy and participation, subjectivity and difference, learning and play - we realized with dismay that we no longer talk about these values within our daily lives in schools. We too easily succumb to the habits of referring to children by their test scores or other pejorative labels, allow Kaplan test prep to replace precious instructional time, and don't question the practice of getting children to comply with silence and stillness all day long. Doom and gloom indeed.

So many thoughts. I recall way back to my first awarenesses of injustice in the world. Like many of my generation of the 60's we were not only shocked and surprised--but we thought that the problem was that not enough people KNEW what was going on. If they all KNEW that some of the people of Appalachia were dirt poor (and that some of that resulted from things like the separation of "mineral rights" from property ownership), or that black kids were actively steered away from college preparation, or that some realtors built fortunes on exploiting racial fears in "block busting," they would want these things changed.

The real growth in awareness was not that these things had been going on all the time in a world next door to our protected suburban enclaves, but that people did not want to know, many did not care, some already knew and agreed. This is where I see our difference with Finland. We talk about the cultures that "value education," (and assume that our own "culture" is plagued by sub-cultures that do not). But the culture that I see in Finland, that values education, is one that values community. The Finns accept a 50% tax rate because they accept that what is ultimately good for "my child" is to grow up in a world in which all children are valued. This is a very different slant to community than what we typically envision by community--meaning something more like "neighborhood," or the geographical environment with unseen determinants like income, race and religious commonalities. We do not see community either as a commitment to some "social good," a coming together of ideas, or as something that is built at all. We tend to see "community" as some value-add that comes with real estate. We buy a house in a "good community." We assume that our neighbors "share our values," meaning that we envision similar economic outcomes for our children.

Among the "values" that is addressed in management literature (although I first encountered it in community organizing) is the value of a shared vision. Certainly something like a shared vision is included in the package sold with real estate: a variation on the picket fence, spouse/children, college, etc. Yet this same vision is denied to others of lesser economic strata in their available housing/neighborhood quasi-community offerings.

I don't know that there is the same value in an unexamined vision (those handed to us through some combination of experience, advertising, propaganda, whatever), as in a vision that has been carefully examined, thought about, critiqued, discussed, held up to the light of day, etc. The first might be good for purchasing real estate--but the second is what is required for making sound "high stakes" decisions about thing like raising children or the fate of the nation.

My observation of the Finns leads me to believe that there is a value-based commonality of vision, or agreement, with regard to "community." Their homogeneity is frequently pointed out (with the assumption being, I guess, that they all automatically agree, since they all sort-of look alike and share history). But, I find that they have more institutionalized support for and appreciation of diversity than we do. Diversity in the US has come to almost represent "challenge," at best and low or variant quality at worst--and almost never a source of great strength. The Finns accept a reality of bilingualism, and use this to support student growth in "mother-tongue," even as new groups emigrate. We center our debate on the best ways to teach English as a Second Language, with an implicit assumption that English is better and those who start in another language are automatically disadvantaged.

While a good deal of decision-making is entrusted to the local (or community) level, their (sampled) test data, reveal that there tends to be little difference in outcomes from school to school. The scores are not published--however, within the value-context sets the growth of the individual securely within the pre-requisite of a sound community, the data is used for improvement purposes. The additional difference, that I would say makes the local decision-making effective, is their focus on the quality of the teaching force. Teacher candidates are selected (based on test scores) from the upper echelons of their secondary school cohort. Higher education is paid for, and training (to a Master's level equivalent) is tightly tied to the local district.

But the pertinent question, for us as Americans, is, what do we want? Do we really want an education system that produces equitable results for students across lines of race, income, language? Do we agree with the Finns (and the Japanese, for that matter) that the best school system is one that serves individuals through a constant and vigilant eye on the greater good? Do we believe in communities, or just neighborhoods?

Hi All.....

"What Mike describes from Kohn, and Deb from Finland doesn't strike me as rocket science, but it does require people having substantive discussions about what they value and how to put it into action through a vision of what is possible." ( Alexandra )

Well said and the kinds of discussions you mention are really not happening.

To broaden that kind of discussion.... here is what is going on in Philadelphia and who it is we are experimenting on: NOTE THE PERCENTAGE OF POVERTY IS THESE SCHOOLS......


Restructuring process looms for up to 70 schools in Philadelphia.....

Allen, Ethan SDP 69%

Bache-Martin SDP 68%

Bartram HS SDP 79%

Bethune Victory 92%

Blaine CEO 90%

Bluford CEO 90%

Bryant SDP 84%

Carroll HS SDP 71%

Clemente MS CEO 87%

Clymer SDP 91

Cooke SDP 85%

Cramp SDP 90%

DeBurgos SDP 90%

Douglass CEO 92%

Drew SDP 87%

Dunbar Temple 73%

Edison HS SDP 85%

Edmunds SDP 70%

Fels HS SDP 63%

Feltonville Arts/Sciences MS SDP 81%

FitzPatrick SDP 63%

FitzSimons HS Victory 86%

Frankford HS SDP 79%

Franklin, Benj. HS SDP 85%

Germantown HS SDP 72%

Gillespie MS Edison 86%

Gratz HS SDP 82%

Harding MS SDP 85%

Harrity Edison 85%

Hill CEO 91%

Holme SDP 80%

Hopkinson SDP 81%

Hunter SDP 87%

Jackson SDP 72%

Jones MS SDP 90%

Kenderton Edison 87%

King HS Foundations 70%

Lincoln HS SDP 62%

Locke Edison 95%

Ludlow Edison 86%

Mann SDP 79%

Marshall, Thurgood SDP 81%

Mastbaum AVTS SDP 79%

Meehan SDP 63%

Morrison SDP 81%

Munoz-Marin SDP 91%

Northeast HS SDP 47%

Overbrook HS SDP 72%

Pastorius Foundations 90%

Penn Treaty MS Edison 90%

Penn, Wm. HS SDP 82%

Pennell SDP 81%

Pepper MS Victory 80%

Potter-Thomas Edison 91%

Roosevelt MS SDP 80%

Roxborough HS SDP 63%

Shaw MS Edison 85%

Smedley SDP 92%

South Philadelphia HS SDP 80%

Southwark SDP 80%

Stearne SDP 86%

Stetson MS Edison 91%

Swenson HS SDP 48%

Turner MS SDP 81%

University City HS CEO 81%

Vare, Edwin MS Universal 86%

Vaux HS SDP 91%

Washington, George HS SDP 47%

Webster CEO 91%

West Philadelphia HS SDP 81%

Provider, 2006-07: SDP – School was managed by School District of Philadelphia.

CEO – School was managed by School District, part of District’s CEO Region.

Other entities are education management organizations that have contracts to manage some District schools.

% Low-income: Percentage of students in 2006 who qualify for subsidized lunch.

In your area of America.... which schools are being "restructured" and wonder what their % poverty looks like?

I've been following some research around the concept of social capital, and how it improves student performance in school. I've started a library with articles on this topic, which can be found at http://tinyurl.com/czjn4e

When you ask Americans "what do we want?" I think we first need to start a discussion saying a) "How do we get more than a few Americans talking to each other about this topic, in face-to-face meetings that are connected to online forums where more people are involved?; and b) How do we increase the number of people who don't send their kids to poorly performing schools, who are willing to sacrifice time, talent and dollars to improve the opportunities for kids who do attend these schools? and c) How do we sustain this involvement for many years, in thousands of places?

If it's only a few of us discussing these ideas, how can we expect to influence what others think and do?

Obama was able to get millions of people into his on-line election campaign and I see evidence that he is using the internet to give people a voice and mobilize actions. Here's one site which I don't know is official, or not: http://www.obamacto.org/

Are there other examples where people are talking of what it takes to get more Americans involved, then, what actions do they take once they get involved? Voting is one. How about direct service? Or Philanthropy?

Deb, your 'doom and gloom' had nothing on Peggy Noonan's column today. Having foregone sucking on a tailpipe after reading her, your thoughts seemed as sunny and bright.

Fortunately, I share the pessimism of neither of your. True, we have perhaps the worst Congress in...well, who knows. If they're still in power come Jan 2011, I'll be a bit worried.

Meanwhile, there's still chance the people of the US will get up tomorrow and work, despite a President doing his best to wreck the world economy.

I'm holding with those people. Some of them haven't been educated, but a slim majority still have the spirit of those who left all behind to come here, who banded together to defeat the world's greatest army and navy, not once, but twice, who built great canals and dams and rails fleets; those descendants who still, in 2008, could field a tired army of young men and women to bring order to chaos, to make friends, against all odds, in one of the most divided countries in the world.

At our local arts center, interest on the loan was cut in half this week; that will help. My sister bought her first house, courtesy of the low prices. That will help. People are going in greater numbers to church, and others are learning the global results of "little white lies" on forms such as mortgage applications and CDO rate analyses. That will help.

I guess I wasn't talking much about education here. Or was I? You and Diane and others are quick to take the troubles of the credit markets and somehow draw some grand organizational/economic lesson that this somehow proves that the Educracy as we knew it in the 80's was a superior and promising gift to children.

Mike, Here the lunch eligibility rate is 84%. Adults with college educations are but 9%. Ninety five percent of the students graduate.

Its an Excellent High in an Effective district (at odds with the testing primarily in some middle school areas).

Around the world, people learn to read, write, calculate, and think...whilst still being poorer than most of the above students.

In the previous comment, the Peggy Noonan column I referenced was There's No Pill for This Kind of Depression , now replaced.


"My fear is that we no longer have conversations about vision or values." Exactly.

Yet whose values will we impose in a public school?

All my life, the trend has been to remove values and behavioral standards from the public schools.

Other values, such as a learned understanding of the (sometimes faulty) march of progress in civilization, have been eschewed for a more bitter, victim-oriented view of things.

Its understandable that some parents don't want others' values imposed on their children; yet sometimes they would like some values reinforced whilst Jimmy is in the care of others.

The biggest value of charters and vouchers is that it lets some parents choose value systems (or reinforcement systems) which may not be available or appropriate in a compulsory public school.

Deb, You and I seem to agree so much

I want a public system of schooling that has local bases and biases—where we don’t all have to agree on what “social justice” teaching means.
Yet you so unequivocally support the structures of Big Education which push us away from just those worthy goals.


Call me optimistic, but I think these discussions about what we want in education are going on all over. And I also think parents, children, teachers and community members will fight to learn what they need to know. I head out next week to do a bunch of book signings for "How Lincoln Learned to Read," a look at the educatins of Americans from Ben Franklin to Elvis Presley, inside and outside the classroom. (Ms. Meier was kind enough to give me a great blurb on it!)And I'm pretty confident the tour will uncover exactly this kind of discussion: folks fighting the big business mindset and top-down control as best they can. More to follow!

Great points.

I want my children to learn how to learn, not how to take tests. I want them to learn that there are all kinds of people in the world because when they're adults they'll have to make their way among people who are vastly different than they are. I don't care if my kids score well on tests; I want them to have the tools they need to go to college and become productive adults. Learning appropriate test-taking "strategies" isn't teaching them anything except how to take tests. And I've never taken a test since I left college almost 20 years ago. If that was all I had learned, I would be a dismal failure.


Dear Deb,

You say that (charter) schools are “empowered” to restrict entrance only to high test-scorers, good writers, whatever. While I live in New York (Long Island) now, my experience with charter schools relates to Ohio. In Ohio you are not able to turn children away or have them apply for school. I guess I can only speak for the schools my dad opened. It was a lottery system. You could not turn anyone away unless they had reached maximum capacity. Are you saying that in New York children apply to charter schools and can be turned down. That is a crime if that's what you are saying.

Dear Deb,

You say that (charter) schools are “empowered” to restrict entrance only to high test-scorers, good writers, whatever. While I live in New York (Long Island) now, my experience with charter schools relates to Ohio. In Ohio you are not able to turn children away or have them apply for school. I guess I can only speak for the schools my dad opened. It was a lottery system. You could not turn anyone away unless they had reached maximum capacity. Are you saying that in New York children apply to charter schools and can be turned down. That is a crime if that's what you are saying.

If I said that, Claire, I was wrong. I'm talking about public choice. Charter choice is subtler--but public choice (at least in NYC) is blatant about choosing winners. Asd a champion of pubic choice that particularly infuriates me.

However, note that in the end we have no evidence that either public or private--choice or nonchoice--has much of an effect on test scores. The variables re scores seem to rest on something else. The biggest variable is who your family is and the nature of your community's resources; the second may be what the school does with who you are and what you and you family bring with them to school. (The first includes your health, your nutrition, etc) A bad school has relatively little affect on upper middle class test scores. Nor does it on lower class. Write me if you want the data.

When I first entered teaching (and parenting) everyone was a determinist--as they had been for centuries. "Some" kids are just smarter than others and society's class and racial structure reflect these differences. We'd all been steeped in such literature, even us radicals and civil rights advocates. It influenced us--and our schools.

I was determined to look closely at what the schools could do about inequality and fearfulness and compliance and civic empowerment vs what they couldn't do. That was Dewey's challenge. I didn't expect to find it so quickly - in the way we treated even 4 and 5 year olds. Nor did I expect the rhetorical turn-around ("all children can") without any plan other than rhetoric for making it MORE OF a reality. So while I've spent 40 plus years trying to stretch the schools to fit the child and his/her family, not squeeze the child into "our" exclusive mold, nor assume that his or her language differences from "ours" were deficiencies vs differences--the reformers of today have given up on changing the school and in favor instead of just being tougher on teachers and children.

I've been more successful than I expected on the small scale in which I worked; but what would always have been a long journey has been halted and in some cases reversed. Now "all children can" is translated into get high scores no matter.

While what all children are doing from birth until 6 is leading an "examined" life we too often ask them to stop that--even forget it-- when they enter "our" schools. We're in that room, I figure, to expand on their triumphs not demean them, to make unexpected connections to between worlds, Our job is not to hurry the child's growth but to deepen it's roots and expand its branches.

And other such jargon! Forgive me, I'm on my favorite subject again! Blah blah blah


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