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Hired Guns on Astroturf: How to Buy and Sell School Reform


For Barkan's other fine writing on the self-proclaimed "education reform movement," click here, here, and here.

Barkan notes that "Hubris is a core characteristic of today's ed reformers," and she shows that this hubris is backed by big money, much of it from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


By Joanne Barkan


If you want to change government policy, change the politicians who make it. The implications of this truism have now taken hold in the market-modeled "education reform movement." As a result, the private funders and nonprofit groups that run the movement have overhauled their strategy. They've gone political as never before--like the National Rifle Association or Big Pharma or (ed reformers emphasize) the teachers' unions.

Devolution of a Movement

For the last decade or so, this generation of ed reformers has been setting up programs to show the power of competition and market-style accountability to transform inner-city public schools: establishing nonprofit and for-profit charter schools, hiring business executives to run school districts, and calculating a teacher's worth based on student test scores. Along the way, the reformers recognized the value of public promotion and persuasion (called "advocacy") for their agenda, and they started pouring more money into media outlets, friendly think tanks, and the work of well-disposed researchers. By 2010 critics of the movement saw "reform-think" dominating national discourse about education, but key reform players judged the pace of change too slow.

Ed reformers spend at least a half-billion dollars a year in private money, whereas government expenditures on K-12 schooling are about $525 billion a year. Nevertheless, a half-billion dollars in discretionary money yields great leverage when budgets are consumed by ordinary expenses. But the reformers--even titanic Bill and Melinda Gates--see themselves as competing with too little against existing government policies. Hence, to revolutionize public education, which is largely under state and local jurisdiction, reformers must get state and local governments to adopt their agenda as basic policy; they must counter the teachers' unions' political clout. To this end, ed reformers are shifting major resources--staff and money--into state and local campaigns for candidates and legislation.

Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children ($5.2 million from Gates, 2003-2011), sums up the thinking: "We've learned the hard way that if you want to have the clout needed to change policies for kids, you have to help politicians get elected. It's about money, money, money" (Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2010).*

* The ed reform movement comprises a large network of nonprofit organizations and consultancies whose funding comes mostly from private foundations. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation--with assets six times larger than Ford, the next largest foundation in the United States--dominates the movement. To give some sense of the interconnections and the scope of the colossal foundation, I note in parentheses the amount of money various groups have received from Gates.

The Great Political Opening

The Obama administration created the perfect opening for the ed reformers' political strategy. The U.S. Department of Education stipulated that in order to win federal funds in the 2010 Race to the Top contest, applicant states would have to pledge to abolish limits on charter schools, legislate teacher and principal evaluations based in part on students' standardized test scores, and fully implement statewide data-collection systems. The mandates spurred money-starved states to propose controversial new education laws. Candidates running for office--from state senator to local school board member--took sides. The ed reform organizations plunged into both legislative and candidate battles, ratcheting up the campaign spending and rhetoric, casting each contest as a battle for the future of the nation through public school reform (tales of the campaigns further on).

The movement's market-modeled reforms have so far produced more failures than successes. Study after study throws into question the value of most charter schools, incessant standardized testing, and grading teachers or closing schools based on student test scores. The ed reformers' drive to get new laws passed aggravates matters by making bad policy mandatory and more widespread. It is mindless micromanaging gone amuck.

Take the case of Tennessee, where 35 percent of every teacher's evaluation is now based on standardized test scores. On November 6, 2011, the New York Times reported that no tests exist for over half the subjects and grades, including kindergarten, first, second, and third grades, art, music, and vocational training. So state officials ruled that a school's average scores for another subject and grade will be used for teachers without student scores. For example, fifth-grade writing scores will be plugged into, say, a first-grade teacher's evaluation. In addition, teachers can choose the plug-in subject themselves for 15 percent of the 35 percent. This means they have to bet on which classes will produce the highest scores. A travesty? Not for the ever-ready boosters of the ed reform movement, including the New York Times editorial page. The Times offered this judgment on November 11: "political forces [in Tennessee] are now talking about delaying the use of these evaluations. State lawmakers and education officials must resist any backsliding." Anything goes as long as it's stamped "ed reform."

A summary critique of the reform strategy comes from Frederick Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute ($5.2 million from Gates, 2003-20011) and executive editor of Education Next (sponsored in part by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, $4.2 million from Gates, 2003-2009). Hess swears allegiance to market-based reforms but often criticizes the quality of his allies' actual work. This is from his November 16, 2011 blog post on Education Week ($4.6 million from Gates, 2005-2009):

By turning school reform into a moral crusade, in which one either is, to quote our last President, "with us or against us," would-be reformers wind up planting their flag atop all kinds of half-baked or ill-conceived proposals....Would-be reformers insist that overshooting the mark with half-baked proposals is actually a strategy, because that's how they'll cow the unions and change the culture of schooling. Indeed, they think concerns about program design are quaint evidence of naiveté.

Chipping Away at Democracy

Yes, the policies of ed reformers are wreaking havoc in public education, but equally destructive is the impact of their strategy on American democracy. From the start, the we-know-best stance, the top-down interventions at every level of schooling, the endless flow of big private money, and the imperviousness to criticism have undermined the "public" in public education. Moreover, the large private foundations that fund the ed reformers are accountable to no one--not to voters, not to parents, not to the children whose lives they affect. The beefed-up political strategy extends the damage: the ed reformers (most of whom take advantage of tax-exempt status) are immersing themselves in the dollars-mean-votes world of lobbying and campaigning.

For the rest of this article, go here.

— Joanne Barkan
Dissent

2012-03-23

http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=4240

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