Monday, November 2, 2015

NC: Queen of NCLB Takes Over University

North Carolina's conservative GOP leadership has been working hard to show the nation how an education system can be trashed quickly and thoroughly, and while we have focused lots of attention on how they are trying to gut their K-12 system, what dismantling of public education would be complete without going after the state's university system?

The writing (in big blocky letters carved out in crayon) has been on the wall for a while. Governor Patrick McCrory proposed a new funding formula for the university system just as soon as he took office in January of 2013.

It's not based on butts in seats but on how many of those butts can get jobs.

Stupid liberal arts. What universities need to be doing is providing high-level vocational training.

But the big shocker came when the state system's board of governors, led by Charlotte lawyer John Fennebresque, canned the well-respected university president Tom Ross. The firing was not well-received, and was even less well-received because Fennebresque and the board would not explain their action. Not political, they said. Doing a great job, they said. But still out of a job. The board is hand picked by the legislature, but Fennebresque swears "on a stack of Bibles" that nobody at the capital tells him what to do.

The search for Ross's replacement was quickly lost in a forest of red flags. The search was conducted in secrecy, with no opportunity for participation or input from university faculty or even many members of the board of governors. And the secrecy wasn't all that effective, because word leaked that one and possibly only one candidate was being considered-- this despite the legislature passing a rule to require the search to look at at least three.

And then in October, the board called an "emergency meeting" to consider one, and only one, candidate. It's not exactly clear what the "emergency" might have been-- UNC would be overrun with herds of unruly hamsters without a president in place? But the legislature found themselves circumvented and the faculty and half of the board of governors found themselves ignored.

And that one candidate?

Margaret Spellings.

Yes, that Margaret Spellings. Spellings is a career politician, but her career has often intersected with education, and it has generally intersected with it in the same way that a passing motorist once intersected with my open car door, changing it for the worse. She was Bush's domestic policy advisor from 2001 to 2004, then most notably the Secretary of Education from 2005-2009, where she got to lead the charge on No Child Left Behind. She had been with George Bush since he deposed Ann Richards as governor of Texas, brought into the Bush fold by Karl Rove.

Spellings has worked in everything from lobbying to political consulting. Some of her opponents view her as a culture wars combatant; she infamously called PBS to demand that they yank a children's show episode that included a lesbian couple. (Also, fun fact: back in 2007 she went toe-to-toe with NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo over student loans).

This profile of Spellings attempts to paint her as a balanced set of contradictions, a tough-talking good ol' girl with a heart of gold. But the sources for Spellings praise run the political gamut from A to B (Andy Rotherham to Mike Petrilli), and the list of things she does that annoy conservatives is thin (even though one might expect "help engineer the federal takeover of public ed" to make that list).

But while some might want to talk about Spellings' style or qualifications or experience, I'm mostly struck by the way that she is pretty consistently wrong about education.

Back in March of this year, she was still spouting nonsense about NCLB. She likes the narrative of test scores as part of national defense ("The success of every student in reading and doing math on grade level is vital to the future success of our nation") and she is another reformster to claim that, prior to NCLB's testing requirements, nobody knew if their schools were failing or not. Spellings has remained all in, loving not only national standards, but national standardized tests.

Last year she was in the Wall Street Journal, peering into the future, and what she sees is education as a consumer good:

Parents, for one, will have access to the flow of data, allowing them to help their children find the education that best fits them. Buyers, meaning the parents and students, will be in control of the education, selecting from an à la carte menu of options. Gone will be the fixed-price menu, where a student attends a school based upon geography and is offered few alternatives. Students and their parents can take their state and federal dollars and find an education that best suits them.

Like much of what Spellings has to say about education, this reveals a narrow and stunted view of education. In Spellings world, education is not a public trust, helping to bind the communities that provide it and benefit from it. The social and civic growth of children, the learning about how to be their best selves and how to be in the world-- all of that will, I guess, happen somewhere else, because school is just about collecting the right modules of pre-employment training. And if you've been paying attention to the renewed interest in our Data Overlords and their social engineering goal of knowing everything about everyone, Spellings' words have an eerie familiarity. Her dream of unleashing the foxes of market forces in the henhouse of education is not good news, and like many of Spellings' pet ideas encased in NCLB, long since proven to be bunk.

Spellings also has a checkered recent past with connections to predatory for-profit schools and the college loan collection industry.

Or you can watch her do this little spot with the Boston Consulting Group (one of the four investment horsemen of reformsterism) arguing how more data and more information will help us "wring out efficiencies" so we can do "more with less." We've poured money into education and gotten no returns in "student achievement." She also calls again for the kind of integrated data-collection that is scary. Note also that government can't do it without private sector investment-- so shrink government and sell off the pieces to investors. The very formula of privatization and austerity.

But then, the most troubling part of this is that Spellings was there in Texas and DC with Bush and Rod Paige, which means she had front row seats for the massive fiction that was the Texas Miracle. It was the Texas Miracle that was used to sell us No Child Left Behind, which means that anybody involved in that sales job ends up looking like either a fool or a liar.

It is the pattern of Spellings' career-- she either doesn't know baloney when she sees it, or she is determined to make a living selling it.

So congratulations, North Carolina.  You're getting a new higher education boss who has this to say about the post:

It’s a fantastic way to make policy, in a political setting, because that’s the setting we operate in.

That's from her opening press conference, filled with goodies. And who believes that the public wants "a good value proposition" in education. Issues the schools face? Affordability, access, and "responsiveness to employers." Of course the vision and goals will have to be "measurable" because accountability. She's going to get to know every stakeholder, and she knows "a good bit about the business." The first thing she'll do is "look at the data." She likes to focus on first principles; for instance, in K-12 it's that third graders must be able to read, so what's the equivalent for higher ed? She wants to set "a few very powerful, very strategic goals." We know that most jobs require higher education and without that people won't have access to the American Dream. She likes the idea of coming to North Carolina because of the people and the quality of life and the intellectual vibrancy and the arts and the sciences. She thinks there's room for everyone in the higher ed industry, including for profits, and we shouldn't be threatened by that. We can learn a lot because between computery stuff and convenience for adults, the for-profits did swell things (she didn't mention the predatory bilking of students part) like teaching us to provide a product for customers.       

Oh, and it just piles higher and deeper. She'll want co-ordinate with K-12, starting with providing super-duper teachers armed with research. The reading wars were settled by brain scientists who told us all we need to know; she doesn't explain how that fits with NC's "pass your third grade standardized reading test or fail third grade" policy, supported by roughly zero science.  

We could delve into the Spellings talky catalog at greater length, but you get the idea. Every reformster idea ever is an idea she loves. Privatize, data-collect, starve for funds, test and punish, and generally treat educating our young people as if it's the same process as manufacturing toasters.

North Carolina higher education-- this is your new boss. I wouldn't ding her for having no education background-- that's not a rare issue these days. But I would view her with extreme caution based on her view of higher education as a vocational training factory. And like most reformsters, she suffers from selective data blindness-- data is absolutely awesome and our guiding star, unless it shows things like the failure of NCLB-RTTT programs or the complete inappropriateness of flunking eight year olds based on a BS Test.

One final note. Three days after serving as conductor of the railroad that chugged Spellings into power, John Fennebresque resigned his position on the Board of Governors.

Hang on to your hats, NC. Your leaders have made a hash out of K-12 education. Now the prognosis for higher ed isn't looking too great, either.


  1. I'm surprised at how little outrage there seems to be about this.

  2. I was totally outraged by the salary of $775,000. Not bad for someone with just a BA. Basically, the pay is way too high for anyone. This position really isn't that difficult. I'd do it for half the pay and do at least as well at it.

  3. Peter, I would suggest just a slight change in the wording of your post, from your friendly neighborhood North Carolinian. When you use the words "the state's flagship university" that implies (at least to those of us that attended one of the UNC colleges) she is going to lead UNC-Chapel Hill, which is regarded as the state's flagship university. She is going to be president of the entire UNC system, not just UNC-CH. God help us all.

    1. You are correct, and I have edited to reflect that.

  4. I wish the undergrads and grads there would get their consciousness raised, and do a "Strawberry Statement"-style occupation of the president's office or something.

  5. Peter. First thing she did was give our chancellors at each campus raises even though the rest of the faculty and staff have had no real raises in many years. At least she is consistent. She wants to copy every bad business practice for education including increasing CEO to employee wage gap.

    1. Exactly. And the BOG started the ball rolling by giving here a raise of $175,000 over the previous UNC System president.