Saturday, July 29, 2017

Read One Percent Solution

I just finished up Gordon Lafer's book The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time. It's a simultaneously clear and depressing look at what's going on across the country, and how groups like ALEC are working to reshape our very notion of how America works, and what Americans should expect. And for those of us in the ed biz, there's a whole chapter looking at the reform movement.

Lafer's goal is to look at the broad span of corporate lobbying and legislative efforts. He sets out to make sense of the large mess, and his approach is fairly simple. Looking at what corporations and legislators and lobbyists and advocates for certain programs say, one can become confused at what the actual goal is. Lafer's technique boils down to looking at what they do. "Right To Work" is sold as a way to protect the rights of workers-- well, what else would we expect people who want to protect the rights of workers to do, and are these powerful groups doing those things (spoiler alert-- no).

In other words, never mind what they say to the public. What do they actually do (an what do they say to each other when they think the public isn't listening).

The conclusions are not cheering. Lafer sees a pattern or dismantling government, destroying unions, and pushing workers to lower and lower tiers of income and security while directing more and more fruits of the economy to that one percent at the top. All while gutting any political platform from which the rest of this can be fought.

The conclusion that may come as the biggest, most depressing revelation-- Lafer sees a systematic attempt to lower American expectations, to just get average Americans to think that life really shouldn't be any better for US citizens. For me, this insight is a bit of a gut punch. Who in the teaching world hasn't heard, come contract time, the mantra that teachers just get paid too much and if some convenience store worker is struggling on minimum wage and meager benefits, well, then, why shouldn't teachers do the same? We hear that argument over and over, instead of arguing that people at the bottom should be better paid, better treated.

Education merits its own full chapter because Lafer sees there an intersection of all the other threads. There's all this public money that ought to be funneled toward corporate bank accounts. There's the country;s biggest unions, constantly (well, often) acting as a thorn in the side of the one percent and a political counterweight to the GOP. There's the belief in a democratically, locally controlled institution instead of a corporately controlled business. There's a whole nation of people who expect certain things from public education, and the desire to adjust those expectations ever downward. Lafer writes

Wall Street looks at education the same way it regards Social Security-- a huge flow of public guaranteed funding that is waiting to be privatized, if only the politics can be worked out.

And there is high stakes testing as an instrument of the whole business:

Thus, what "slum clearance" did for the real estate industry in the 1960s and 1970s, high-stakes testing will do for the charter industry: wipe away large swaths of public schools, enabling private operators to grow not school by school, but twenty or thirty schools at a time.

Corporate America is manufacturing failure as a way both to improve their own power and control even as they convince folks to settle for less.

Lafer backs all of this with relentless and specific research and evidence.

It is not an uplifting read, but it does provide some clarity and it does help help you realize that you aren't just imagining some of what seems to be going wrong around us. Very readable and accessible, and free of demonization or sensationalism. I recommend you read this book.


  1. Do unto others...nope! Do as I say not as I think.....yep. That's the agenda. Welcome to the free market.

  2. Anything in the ed reform chapter on ed-tech, blended learning, or social impact investing?

  3. Telling people they are powerless as a way of empowering people is interesting.

    Never had money. Never felt powerless. I can't change civilization. Changing myself is a full time job.

    The world is a depressing story. But we need to hum a different tune that our students can hear. We don't deny facts. But I won't call myself or anyone else a peon. We get full authority over our own character. Transcendence. Or withering in despair. We have to honor character. Otherwise, we are no different than the odious 1%.