Saturday, January 16, 2016

Meritocracy, Democracy, and Darnell Earley

This is the kind of thing I think of every time someone starts making noise about how teacher careers should live and die by merit, how pay should be tied to performance, and managers should be able to fire "bad" teachers instantly, at will.

You know. Just like in the "real world."

And then I think of guys like Darnell Earley.

At this point, you can find Earley's story everywhere (this coverage at eclectablog is a good one).. He's the man who poisoned the Flint, Michigan water supply so that he could save some bucks. And he did it almost single-handedly, because Flint is just one more city where, gosh, the only solution was to suspend democracy and appoint a local Czar to run the place.

Earley failed. By every conceivable measure, he failed. Even if you use the heartless metric of Saving Money, he has failed because the costs of cleaning up after the poisoning of an entire city will be huge. And that's before we even talk about the lifelong cost to the children whose health, talent and abilities have been stolen by lead poisoning. So let's be clear. Darnell Earley failed.

And his punishment was...?

Well, of course, we already know. His punishment was to be hired as the Czar for Detroit schools-- yet another place where the People in Charge decided that democracy had to be terminated.

For poisoning one feifdom, Earley got a new one, with a new hefty salary. And he is failing there as well. Detroit schools are such an appalling, unsafe miserable mess that teachers have been walking out, performing sickouts. How bad is it? The sickouts aren't even organized by the union-- they are just the actions of ordinary classroom teachers who have had enough.

In a meritocracy, Darnell Earley would be out of a job already. Not only would he be out of a job, but he would be unemployable.

Flint and Detroit schools aren't just about the failure of Darnell Earley (and a whole bunch of other people who have utterly failed at their jobs, all the way up to the governor). They are a real life full-on test of the current reformster theory of management.

Here's how it's supposed to work. You identify the very best people. You sweep democracy out of the way (because democracy let's the Wrong Sort of People have a say) and you put the Better People in charge, and give them free rein, making sure they don't have to deal with unions and government rules.

Here's how it actually works. A city poisoned. A school system in collapse. And leadership that can't tell the difference between merit and grotesque, dangerous, life-threatening incompetence. And because democracy has been suspended, no mechanism by which anybody can say, "Hey, wait a minute" or "Before we leap into this, let's talk about X" or "Convince me your plan is a good one."

Darnell Earley and all the politicians who helped enable and cover his incompetent butt are going to feel a ton of heat, and they should. But the rest of us should make note-- this is not the last time we're going to see this play out. When you substitute politician-appointed Czars for democracy, either in a city or a school system, this is what you get.

In the meantime, policy makers and thought leaders don't get to talk about meritocracy until they're willing to apply it to other members of the ruling class.


  1. You have put into words what my mind has been trying to wrap itself around over the past week. Connecting the dots on the arrogance, self-promoting, "we know better than you", reformster mentality that we know all too well as educators living in these strange and queer times but a mentality that has real life consequences far beyond the schoolroom's crumbling walls........

  2. Here's some of the back story on Early's decisions re: changing Flint's water source. Detroit's emergency manager decided to extort money from Flint for their water. It was a pissing match between 2 austerity tools of Gov Snyder.

  3. Another thing that we need is the return of zealous federal prosecutors who are allowed to go after political corruption. It is likely that federal laws were violated in the Flint case. We need a prosecutor like Patrick Fitzgerald. He put those Illinois governors in prison. He didn't care which party the corrupt politician were from. He even went after Bush and Cheney for the Plame affair. He was fearless. Unfortunately, the Obama administration doesn't seem interested in going after this sort of corruption. Look at the weak effort concerning Emanuel in Chicago, and they don't seem concerned about the people of Flint either.

  4. And, here in Philly, where the appointed SRC is in charge of dismantling our public school system and overseeing the demise of our crumbling infrastructure, we just had a maintanence man SET ON FIRE when the boiler he was lighting exploded. But, our superintendent makes $300,000 a year to get this job done.

  5. The City of Flint and the Detroit Public Schools have been fiscal disasters for decades. The option to an emergency manager would have been to let both go bankrupt. It would give both a fresh start, but with a fair amount of pain to bond holders and pensioners.

    1. Right, the only choices were clearly bankruptcy or poisoning. There was obviously no other possibility.

      People like you astound me. Scientists would probably be interested in researching just how you've lived this long without a heart.

    2. As Dienne pointed out, you have stated and obvious false dilemma.

  6. My favorite part was when the mayor of Detroit was shocked, shocked! there was a dead rodent in a building he toured.

    Here’s what the power brokers want: be grateful for the crumbs we brush off the table after the banquet has concluded. Proof:

    “DPS spokeswoman Michelle Zdrodowski responded via email late Tuesday, writing: ‘The mouse the mayor saw today was found in a trap that had been set by the district’s pest control contractor. Since school was closed yesterday and today, the custodians had likely not yet seen it. The fact that it was in the trap indicates that we were addressing the issue.’ ”

    There’s dead mouse in a class and that proves they’re addressing the issue. At least it was dead. There was a period of time in Boston where they used glue traps to catch our rodents, and more than once I arrived to find a mewling coming from the corner of my room where an unfortunate critter waited to die while I taught my classes. But they were addressing the issue.

    Christine Langhoff

  7. Oh, Peter. Given your headline, it's time to consider the source of the word "meritocracy". Michael Young, a British sociologist, coined it in a book that is sorta like something Swift and Defoe might write together. It's an account of the "success" of making over the British system into a meritocracy, written in 1958, looking back from 2033. He cites real papers from before 1958, and fake ones afterward. The society evolves and takes care to fix the problems of the meritocracy, though by the end, there's a really good test that you can give in the womb. Some people in this society in 2033 disagree....

    Poor Michael Young saw the problems of actually imposing such a system. And ever since he coined the word, it has been quite misused...

    It's a fun read, if your idea of "fun" is sardonic commentary on education. Oh, right...