School & District Management Opinion

The Power of Big Money & Big State Over Knowledge

By Deborah Meier — March 19, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.


Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.