Sunday, May 31, 2015

Defending the USED

And that’s one of my chief gripes with the battle cry to banish the Department of Education. It’s policy by sound bite. There’s too much of that already.

That's the closing graf of Frank Bruni's NYT op-ed this morning. It follows a thoughtful discussion of the usefulness of the beleaguered Department of Education-- ha, no. Just kidding. It comes at the end of series of sound bites from the Usual Sources. I am envious of this style of well-connected mad-libs journalism-- you get out your list of reliable contacts and fill in the blanks. "Although many critics of [topic] have said [sound bite from critic], others disagree. [Sound bite from supporter.]"

Bruni's topic is the continued existence of the Department of Education, and his piece offers all the lack of nuance and shallowness of understanding that he's complaining about in the first place. Perhaps he is offering a post-modern deconstructive criticism of criticism. But on the off chance he's not, let's look at his actual argument.

Bruni starts by noting that beating up on the USED has become a GOP primary punching bag once again, coupled with knee-jerk Common Core hatred. He cites the most recent defection of Chris Christie without noting that Christie's stated faithfulness to the PARCC test means his CCSS rejection is a deeply empty gesture. As is always required in these pieces, Jeb Bush is singled out as Common Core's BFF (Bruni might have noted that, as reported by Buzzfeed of all things, Bush's love is so great that he co-ordinated Core defense with Arne Duncan.)

But, Bruni notes, Democrats are also unfriending the department. Well, actually, one Democrat. Bruni mentions that Murray has teamed up with Lamar Alexander "to sponsor legislation that would leave the department and its secretary with much less influence over states." Why he does not explain that he's talking about the proposed ESEA rewrite that came out of the Senate Education Committe that Murray and Alexander co-chair--- well, that's just a weird detail to skip. Instead he just notes that the bill-- if it passes, which it might, because "bi-partisan support"-- the department would be a shadow of its former self.

So-- to recap-- Bruni has taken the Senate attempt to re-authorize the ESEA, and instead of placing that in the context of a bill that has been awaiting re-authorization by Congress since 2007 and has finally been tackled by the appropriate Senate committee for that tackling, he's creating a new narrative in which, steeped in an anti-department atmosphere, Murray and Alexander just kind of go rogue and float this bill created out of whole cloth just to spank the department.

So what else does Bruni want to point out in this alternate universe?

Well, goodness. Under this proposal, the USED would not have say "over how (or if)" teacher evaluation would occur. And-- Good lord in heaven-- here's a short list of Things Bruni Does Not Know:

1) Even with the USED's watchful eye, states are managing to gut the teaching profession. Current leader in assaulting the profession would be the Wisconsin, where they're thinking that maybe anybody-- even a high school dropout-- can be a teacher.

2) USED's ideas about how to evaluate teacher are stupid. Their major contribution has been to demand that teachers be evaluated by using student test scores, an approach supported by no actual research or science or even common sense, and repudiated by pretty much everybody who doesn't have financial or political benefits tied to the approach.

3) "Or if"? Come on. Name one state, one school, one corner of the country where politicians and leaders are saying, "Let's never evaluate teachers at all." Well, except for charter schools. But the USED supports charters and the charter right to make up any rules they like, so again-- if this is a problem, the USED is definitely not on the case.

4) The best teacher evaluation systems are coming from local school districts, not the feds. Time magazine is profiling a system created by UCLA schools in Koreatown (in LA-- my son's neighborhood!) that Audrey Amrein-Beardsley calls "legitimately new and improved."

But now, having laid out the basic question, Bruni is ready to deploy his parade of sound bites for the USED opponents.

Lamar Alexander (former department head, but again-- not acknowledged by Bruni as the head of Senate Ed Comittee): All we need is a leader to man the bully pulpit about education and a treasury department to cut checks.

Mitch Daniels (former governor and Bush administration person): It's not "ludicrous" to get rid of the department. We did fine without them before 1979. Also, they haven't improved anything.

No, says Bruni, they haven't.

But there’s much more at work than the failings of the education department, which contributes only about 10 percent of funding nationally for K-through-12 schooling and has only so much impact on what happens in classrooms.

You'd think that sentence would open up a considerably larger discussion, but now-- Bruni leaves the mystery of A) if it's true that US education hasn't gotten better since 1979 and B) if not, why not for some other day. He really only wants to use that to the defense of the department and the sound bites for that side of things.

Kati Haycock (head of Education Trust, a advocacy group-- Bruni doesn't mention that they are charter school advocates): When states are left alone, they don't do right by poor students.

Joel Klein (former chancellor of NYC schools, corporate shill for hire, and creator of many reformster monsters): When states are left alone, they don't generate enough failing grades for students.

"Many advocates": Bruni seems to slip into the middle of his own piece to say that we have to compete globally and so students must be educated not just for their state, but for the whole world. Because everybody remembers America's big bunch of young people who never leave their home state because they are only educated in a state-specific way??

Mike Petrilli (Fordham boss and professional pusher of Common Core, testing, charters and other great education money-making schemes): We need to right-size the feds.

Bruni also muses about the money. If there were no department, who would make sure that the taxpayers are getting their money's worth. Which speaks to Bruni's view of the department, which seems to be as the national education police. There's a whole list of things that the states can't be trusted to do correctly, and a department is needed to Make Them Behave.

Recent history is more complicated. Haycock's argument that states don't do right by their poor educationally is valid; the problem is that the USED hasn't changed that a bit. Haycock, Klein, and Petrilli are fine examples of all the folks who have used the Problems of Educating the Poor as ways to Make Lots of Money. Under modern ed reformsterism, we locate educational problem areas and mark them for strip-mining, while simultaneously depriving the folks who live in those communities of voice or vote. Reformsters did not descend upon post-Katrina New Orleans out of a deep, driving concern that the poor children of the city were being deprived of an education-- they packed up their bags and headed south because it was an opportunity, a chance to create a system that gave a whole spectrum of profiteers and investors the opportunity to get their hands on public education tax dollars.

That magical time has become the reformsters dream, and a dozen techniques for forcing disaster and failure on school districts and using that failure as a means of diverting public tax dollars to private pockets. And the USED has been a champion of the process, putting the interests of investors, hedge fund operators, charter school companies, test manufacturers, and corporate interests ahead of concerns for American students.

From Common Core to Big Standardized High Stakes Testing, the USED has become the champion of one-size-fits-all reform (though, of course, wealthy folks are exempt).

And here's the problem with strong central planning. It requires your central planner to be right every time, and no human can pull that off. But with central control, a single bad idea becomes everybody's bad idea. And when your central planner has mostly only bad ideas, you get widespread disaster.

When your system is infected with money, that only makes things worse, because central planning makes one-stop-shopping for those who want to buy themselves some friendly policy decisions.

There's a lot to discuss, but when Bruni hit his contact list, he missed a particular group of sound bite generators-- he forgot to contact any actual supporters of public education. And so his Festival of Sound Bites is lopsided and nuance-free. Let's hope that next time he collects a better class of sound bites.



  2. I missed anything in the article that justifies the continued existence of the Department of Education. We went to the moon on the basic plain vanilla "basics" system that prevailed in the 50s, the same as the system that produced the winners of the WW2 war effort. So far as I can tell every federal top-down thing since, from the "New Math" to the "Whole Language" has done nothing but mess everything up. If you still think anything about the Common Core makes sense to look at YouTube "9 + 6 + 15" and see if you find anything of significance there. It's the New Math re-packaged again, the stupidest thing you could possibly do.

  3. Bruni typifies the lazy commentary by rolodex style at the Times on education. Everyone of his sources outside of quoting Senators, every one of them, is from the reform circle of Gates, Broad, and Walton funded people. He couldn't bother to open more than one browser window to write that piece.

    Reminds me of how columnist after columnist cited the NCTQ report on teacher ed when typing critique of NCTQ into Google took you directly to something written by LINDA DARLING HAMMOND on how poorly done that 2013 report was. It was as if none of the Times writers had ever thought to check.

    Bruni is personal friends with Campbell Brown so my suspicion is that he gets occasional phone calls, speaks with whomever she recommends, and we get another one of these hack and dash columns in the paper of record.