Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home

The Plot Against Public Education: How Millionaires and Billionaires are Ruining Our Schools

Ohanian Comment: What a pity Bob Herbert wasn't so critical of Bill Gates when he was writing for the New York Times. Here is a letter the late, and deeply missed, Jerry Bracey wrote in response to a Herbert column:

by Gerald Bracey

Dear Mr. Herbert,

I am still amazed after all these years that people who can be rational and insightful about virtually every topic under the sun go all goofy when it comes to education. Goofy is you in today's column.

Consider "A large majority of the students showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history. They could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt." This appeared on the pages of your newspaper. Page 1. Right next to the major headline of the day: "Patton Attacks East of El Guettar." April 4, 1943.

The Committee of Ten reported that history "has never taken serious hold" on students graduating from secondary school. 1892. "History is bunk," said Henry Ford, something only an American could get away with.

A 1957 survey of American college graduates by Harrison Salisbury found that only 71% could name the capital of Russia, only 21% could name a single Russian author and only 24% could name a single Russian composer.

And ever since "A Nation At Risk" in 1983 (happy 25th anniversary in 6 days) people have pegged our economic future to the ability of 9- and 13-year-olds to bubble in answer sheets. Lousy schools are producing a lousy workforce, was the word of the day after ANAR. It was a very popular position as the country slid into the recession that cost 41 his second term. But by early 1994, your paper was running headlines like "America's Economy: Back on Top." Education critics didn't pay any attention. Almost precisely three months after the previous headline, IBM CEO, Lou Gerstner, took to your op-ed page with "Our Schools Are Failing."

This position achieved its height of ridiculousness on July 7, 1992 when Lamar Alexander said on the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour "For the country to change the schools have to change. Really. He actually said that and no one even snickered, at least not on camera.

It is horseshit.

It's always the same, something that led me a couple of years ago to write "Education's Groundhog Day" for Education Week. A draft is attached. You will recall, I'm certain, that in Groundhog Day, the movie, the same day keeps happening over and over and only Bill Murray notices. It's like that with education reformers and, alas, the education media. As you say, some of us are pretty dopey, "but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" (Santayana, and those who misquote Santayana are condemned to paraphrase him). The only thing that has changed since I wrote it, aside from a plethora of more absurd examples, is that I discovered that on September 20, 1956, over a year before Sputnik, the U. S. had a four-stage, satellite-capable rocket in the air travelling 13,000 miles an hour 862 miles about the earth after its first three stages fired. The fourth stage, which could have easily bumped something into orbit was filled with sand--Eisenhower didn't want to offend the Russians.

First it was Russia. Then Germany and Japan. Now China and India. In the meantime, the World Economic Forum continues to rank the U. S. as the most competitive economy in the world. A skeptical person could be forgiven for questioning the link between test scores and the economic health of a nation--and average test scores at that. After all, Japan went into recession and stagnation for 15 years and all the while Japanese kids continued to ace tests in international comparisons (if American and Japanese kids were the only two groups to take a test and the Americans scored higher, the headlines would read "Japanese Students Second; American Students Next to Last").

I am appalled at how the media simplfy all this and ignore relevant data such as the following: a piece on NPR recently stated that China's place in the economic sun was doomed to be short term because of the consequences of its one-child policy (recently renewed for another decade). If you think America is aging, look East, young man. An ever-increasing mass of elderly in China (Shanghai is already 20% over 65) will depend on an ever shrinking pool of workers.

Bill Gates' critique of the schools is just one more example of which there are far too many, of how when experts in one field make pronouncements in another, they often say very, very stupid things. Craig Barrett of Intel is perhaps the worst exemplar after Gates of this species.

Everyone emphasizes the need for skilled workers and many imply or state explicitly that we don't have enough. A recent study showed that we have three new scientists and engineers for every new science and engineering job and it has been noted that our science and engineering schools are full of foreigners for the same reasons our lettuce and grape fields are filled with foreigners: long hours, low wages, and little opportunity for advancement. Only a foreigner could see these conditions as a step up. Two thirds of new grads in science and engineering leave in 2 years (and you fret over 50% of teachers disappearing in 5). In fact, one science writer, Dan Greenberg, invented a new life-time position for scientists and engineers, Post-Doc Emeritus.

There are huge equity issues to be sure. In the most recent international reading study, if white American 9-year-olds were stacked up against the 39 participating nations, they would be 3rd, 5 points behind world leader Russia (which I don't believe and will be happy to explain if you're interested). Asian American students would actually finish ahead of Russia while blacks would rank 28th and Hispanics 25th.

But let's not confound the ethnic disparities with the performance overall.

In 1990, the education historian, Lawrence Cremin, succinctly took apart the schools and competitiveness assertion:

"American economic competitiveness with Japan and other nations is to a considerable degree a function of monetary, trade, and industrial policy, and of decisions made by the President and Congress, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Federal Departments of the Treasury, Commerce, and Labor. Therefore, to conclude that problems of international competitiveness can be solve by educational reform, especially educational reform defined solely as school reform, is not merely utopian and millennialist, it is at best a foolish and at worst a cress effort to direct attention away from those truly responsible for doing something about competitiveness and to lay the burden instead on the schools. It is a device that has been used repeatedly in the history of American education.


Gerald W. Bracey
Alexandria, VA

Herbert wasn't so critical of charter schools in The Times. Here is his love letter to KIPP.

here he declared that "America's greatest national security crisis is the crisis in its schools."

And so on. As Bracey said, when writing on other topics, Herbert could be eloquent and savvy. When writing about schools he could be as ill-informed as the rest of the New York Times op ed writers.

By Bob Herbert

Bill Gates had an idea. He was passionate about it, absolutely sure he had a winner. His idea? America's high schools were too big.

When a multibillionaire gets an idea, just about everybody leans in to listen. And when that idea has to do with matters of important public policy and the billionaire is willing to back it up with hard cash, public officials tend to reach for the money with one hand and their marching orders with the other. Gates backed his small-schools initiative with enormous amounts of cash. So, without a great deal of thought, one school district after another signed on to the notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.

This was an inherently messy process. The smaller schools--proponents sometimes called them academies--would often be shoehorned into the premises of the larger schools, so you'd end up with two, three or more schools competing for space and resources in one building. That caused all sorts of headaches: Which schools would get to use the science labs, or the gyms? How would the cafeterias be utilized? And who was responsible for policing the brawls among students from rival schools?

But those were not Gates's concerns. He was on a mission to transform American education, and he would start with the high schools, which he saw as an embarrassment, almost a personal affront. They were "obsolete," he declared. "When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad," he said, "I am terrified for our workforce of tomorrow."

There used to be a running joke in the sports world about breaking up the Yankees because they were so good. Gates felt obliged to break up America's high schools because they were so bad. Smaller schools were supposed to attack the problems of low student achievement and high dropout rates by placing students in a more personal, easier-to-manage environment. Students, teachers and administrators would be more familiar with one another. Acts of violence and other criminal behavior would diminish as everybody got to know everybody else. Academic achievement would soar.

That was Bill Gates's grand idea. From 2000 to 2009, he spent $2 billion and disrupted 8 percent of the nation's public high schools before acknowledging that his experiment was a flop. The size of a high school proved to have little or no effect on the achievement of its students. At the same time, fewer students made it more difficult to field athletic teams. Extracurricular activities withered. And the number of electives offered dwindled.

Gates said it himself in the fall of 2008, "Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for."

There was very little media coverage of this experiment gone terribly wrong. A billionaire had had an idea. Many thousands had danced to his tune. It hadn’t worked out. C'est la vie.

But Gates was by no means finished. He and his foundation quickly turned to the task of trying to fix the nation’s teachers. They were determined, one way or another, to powerfully influence American public education.

I've covered Gates, and his desire to improve the quality of education in America seemed sincere. But his outsized influence on school policy has, to say the least, not always been helpful. Although he and his foundation were committed to the idea of putting a great teacher into every classroom, Gates acknowledged that there was not much of a road map for doing that. "Unfortunately," he said, "it seems that the field does'’t have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it using one curriculum over another? Is it extra time after school? We don't really know."

This hit-or-miss attitude--let's try this, let's try that--has been a hallmark of school reform efforts in recent years. The experiments trotted out by the big-money crowd have been all over the map. But if there is one broad approach (in addition to the importance of testing) that the corporate-style reformers and privatization advocates have united around, it's the efficacy of charter schools. Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn't matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.

Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow. They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools.

None of it was true. Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools. In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes. And the levels of racial segregation and isolation in charter schools were often scandalous. While originally conceived a way for teachers to seek new ways to reach the kids who were having the most difficult time, the charter school system instead ended up leaving behind the most disadvantaged youngsters.

Bob Herbert, an opinion columnist for the New York Times from 1993 to 2011, is a distinguished senior fellow at Demos, a public policy think tank in New York City. This article is an adapted excerpt from "Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America" (Doubleday), out Oct. 7.

— Bob Herbert
Politico Magazine





This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.