The Clare Spark Blog

May 3, 2012

Index to blogs on education reform

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This series of blogs not only reviews  recent work on the reform of our education system, but points out disagreements in what is wrongly considered to be a unified establishment. Some of the blogs also insist upon the materialist epistemology of the Constitution. Culture warriors take note!

https://clarespark.com/2010/09/22/links-to-arne-duncan-blogs/

https://clarespark.com/2009/10/01/perfectly-progressive-parenthood/

https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/

https://clarespark.com/2010/01/02/jottings-on-the-culture-wars-both-sides-are-wrong/

https://clarespark.com/2010/06/15/the-classics-as-antidote-to-science-education/

https://clarespark.com/2011/08/03/jobs-program-for-education-reformers-or-the-new-prometheus/

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/21/the-persistence-of-white-racism/

https://clarespark.com/2011/08/31/review-steven-brills-class-warfare/ (Read this one first)

https://clarespark.com/2011/05/12/the-great-common-goes-to-the-white-house/

https://clarespark.com/2011/05/16/questions-for-education-reformers/

https://clarespark.com/2011/06/23/the-u-s-history-establishment-divided-and-failing/ (my correspondence with Ravitch, contrasting Ravitch with Gary Nash)

https://clarespark.com/2011/05/28/who-is-a-racist-now-2/ (retitled Diane Ravitch and the higher moderation)

https://clarespark.com/2011/07/17/literary-criticism-ravitch-variant/.

https://clarespark.com/2011/10/09/vox-populi-vox-big-brother/ (A review of Terry M. Moe’s new book)

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/28/popular-sovereignty-on-the-ropes/.

https://clarespark.com/2012/03/22/3760/ (On the great dumbing down)

https://clarespark.com/2012/01/15/prometheus-bound-but-good/

https://clarespark.com/2012/09/19/bullies/

https://clarespark.com/2012/11/09/race-and-the-problem-of-inclusion/

https://clarespark.com/2013/01/05/american-fascism-and-the-future-of-english-and-american-literature/ (On Common Core curriculum)

https://clarespark.com/2013/02/27/american-exceptionalism-retold/

https://clarespark.com/2011/01/26/obama-and-the-rhetoric-of-the-political-family/

https://clarespark.com/2014/02/01/harvard-ed-school-leads-in-vaguely-dumbing-down/

https://clarespark.com/2015/07/09/harvards-advocacy-of-simplicity-as-remedy-for-failing-schools/

https://clarespark.com/2015/07/14/depraved-indifference-to-education-reform/

Arne Duncan and Obama at play

August 31, 2011

Review: Steven Brill’s Class Warfare

Eva Moskowitz and Joel Klein

Steven Brill, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix American Schools. New York. Simon and Schuster, 2011. $28. 441 pages.

[Added, 3-16-12: thanks to Larry Sand for this reference: http://reason.com/archives/2005/12/01/the-father-of-modern-school-re. It is about Milton Friedman’s campaign for school choice.]

I have spent many days reading Brill’s book, and my free copy (sent to his followers by education reformer Whitney Tilson) is heavily dog-eared, annotated with objections, and exclamation points. Since it purports to be an inside account of attempts “to fix America’s schools” that will appeal to those interested in the interactions between bureaucrats, government or union officials, and other technocrats operating within the Democratic Party, this review will focus on the major message of Brill’s efforts. I should also preface the review by saying that Brill’s attempt at moderation, along with his careful distancing from [union-busting] conservatives, may be a ploy, for he is appealing to union-loving liberals, including teachers, to reform themselves to the point that accountability and a meritocracy may be furthered by his revelations of shocking behavior all around, shocking at least to those not familiar with the education wars in their latest manifestation: the teachers’ unions offensive against the charter school movement.

The headline for my readers is this: there is a hard-fought battle within the Democratic Party (along with Republican moderates such as Rupert Murdoch and Jeb Bush) going on, regarding the failure of American public education. Powerful Democrats, egged on ostensibly by our education president, Barack Obama, and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, are outraged that students in developed countries are way ahead of American students when tested for proficiency in science and math. Several liberal foundations, most famously the Bill and Melinda Gates and Eli Broad Foundations, along with hedge fund managers such as Whitney Tilson, have been attempting to impose a business model upon the profession of education. That is, they would like the 3.2 million schoolteachers, K-12, to be measured for their performance, and held to high standards. Brill, in conversation with Diane Ravitch, described their objectives as accountability and meritocracy, as opposed to the current heavily unionized profession that protects teachers’ jobs, not student learning.

There is a heated interchange on C-SPAN Books, August 1, 2011 (linked here: http://hnn.us/articles/8-31-11/school-reform-grudge-match-diane-ravitch-vs-steven-brill.html), in which the redoubtable Ravitch, in her own words an ex-conservative (!)* attempts to diminish Brill’s heroes, such as charter school founders, e.g. Eva Moskowitz, whose remarkable Harlem Success charter network has demonstrated that minority children can, through a well-thought out set of strategies (for instance, learning to discern the main message of a text), ace tests that their public school competitors fail; indeed her remarkable accomplishments and tenacity fill out his book. But Brill, as his long book ends, worries that Moskowitz’s rigorous demands on teachers and students alike will cause her [and her victims] to burn out. That leads him to suggest that 1. teachers in K-12 schools get higher pay, but 2. that they also sign on to no more than five or ten year careers, for he can’t imagine either Moskowitz or her teachers making a lengthy career of teaching school, virtually defying the low expectations that prior educators have had for blacks and Latinos in such neighborhoods as Harlem and environs.

There are theoretical and practical problems with Brill’s general approach. 1. He can’t make up his mind as to whether teachers are professionals or workers, to be lumped in with firemen, policemen, and other state sector employees. Yet on the C-SPAN dialogue with Ravitch, he wants teachers to be professionals, like other pros, measured for their performance. In my view, teachers should see themselves as middle management, dependent on social forces and institutions that attempt to dictate their methods and aims, sometimes ambiguously, so that they may be left to drift in a sea of uncertainty, hence unable either to help students learn or to please their supervisors. In a country like ours, filled with religious, sectional, and other long-standing conflicts, there is no curriculum that will please everybody.  Like other social democratic band-aid measures, the entire enterprise of education reform fails to examine the big picture that puts teachers in double binds: are they to prepare their students for a life of independent, critical citizenship, or for conformity to unknowable or shifting “standards” for the sake of “social cohesion”? Should there even be a federal Department of Education, or should all education be locally managed, with major funding derived from property taxes? If teachers are a profession, should they not be relatively autonomous in their classrooms, or are they to be cogs in a vast machine constructed by non-professionals?

And 2. Brill actually has a fantasy that Randi Weingarten, hitherto a reform-resistant teachers union leader and stalwart, should be appointed chancellor of the NYC school system, for, as an astute operator, she is most likely to be able to raise up the mediocre (or sub-mediocre?) majority of current teachers to heights that would please the Big Money education reformers, saving American progress in science and technology. Meanwhile, although Brill has demonstrated ad nauseum the intransigence of the union establishment,  he trashes Republicans such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or “so-called right to work states” that defy Big Labor.  Given the hostile “interview” conducted by Ravitch for C-SPAN, it is hard to follow Brill’s logic of one big happy family, redeemed by such as himself, a non-teacher who has latched onto a scandal that can have no solution, given the premises of Big Government, its beneficiaries, and its electoral base.

By the end of their 59 minute sparring match on C-SPAN, Brill and Ravitch had come to an amicable ending, as Ravitch called for “collaboration” as opposed to competition [between charters and traditional public schools].  Such are the ways of “moderates.” There is no easy fix to the education problem. Both Brill and Ravitch adhere to a management-labor model of class warfare. Is it not time to leave this model behind as a relic of an earlier period of industrialization? Might not teachers look to new forms of solidarity? But that would mean a massive change of consciousness, and the relinquishing of such elite-driven intiatives as multiculturalism. The curriculum is everything. If Eva Moskowitz’s students can learn to decipher textual messages, study science in the earliest grades, along with chess (!), what might our youngsters accomplish with the encouragement of a student-focused teaching culture?

[Added 9-3-2011:] Larry Sand, education writer (see http://city-journal.org/2011/cjc0825ls.html) and founder of the Facebook group California Teachers Empowerment Network, has written this statement to suggest new directions for teachers dissatisfied with the unions: ” If teachers want to be thought of as professionals, they should resign from their union and convince as many of their colleagues as possible to join them. They should do everything in their power to eliminate collective bargaining, fight for an accountability system that would include teachers and administrators, fight for performance pay and fight to eliminate tenure and seniority. Teachers will lose some of their perks – notably all the safety nets that unions have provided for them, but they will gain a professional status that could rival that of doctors. They will have a chance to make a lot more money than they do now. Additionally, they will know that they are part of a system that is about educating children, not a jobs program for those who at this point graduate on average at the bottom of their college class. They will know that if they are good and layoffs are necessary, they will keep their jobs even if they have less seniority than a less effective colleague. They will have much more say in how their schools are run because they won’t have a one-size-fits-all bloated district-union contract monitoring their every move.”

*Ravitch may have been, in her own mind, a conservative Democrat, but she always floated above the fray, crafting a career that was just critical enough to qualify herself as an objective, analytical scholar. See my blog on her “higher moderation” here: https://clarespark.com/2011/05/28/who-is-a-racist-now-2/.

February 20, 2011

Are we still fighting the Civil War?

[Added 2-26-2011: I have finished reading David Blight’s book, quoted below, and now have a better idea of the obsessions of Blight and his academic cohort at Yale and Harvard. They are hostile to modernity, for that signifies the rule of capital, machines, and materialism. The white working class is nailed as part of the Herrenvolk democracy that they decry. So Charles Sumner, notwithstanding his reputation as a great man and friend among 19th century blacks, has to go, for he was a modernizer. Blight is clearly a Populist sympathizer and entirely “anti-imperialist,” and though not a Marxist, his version of U.S. history is identical with that of Soviet critics of the U.S, and he may be viewed, overall, as a cleaned-up Reverend Wright.  So although Blight is fiercely critical of the South, his hostility to modernization ironically aligns him with Southern organic conservatives similarly opposed to markets and the modern world. The South did win the Civil War, ideologically speaking. ]

Joel Klein and Mayor Bloomberg

This blog is about flawed historical analogies and the appropriation of the Civil War for partisan ends. Writing in Pajamas Media, a non-historian Rand Simberg rejected the usual analogies being tossed about in the media between the uproar in Wisconsin and Egypt or the Spanish Civil War, but chose Gettysburg, forcefully making the point that the unionized state workers were more correctly seen as slaveholders with the citizenry of Wisconsin in a position analogous to those of slaves.  I for one found this comparison to be not just distasteful but disturbing, as are many other analogies that are politically motivated, and often used as a short cut to analytic understanding of a specific conflict. Indeed I wrote about another distasteful analogy in a recent blog: https://clarespark.com/2011/01/25/american-slavery-vs-nazi-genocide/.

When I was considering my doctoral dissertation, I had to defend the idea of comparing the 19th century family of Herman Melville with the situation of academics in the humanities writing after 1919.  Some members of my committee insisted that I had to choose, but I held fast to my interest in both the humanities curriculum as it had been revised between the 20th century wars, and in the ways in which Herman Melville coped with his own family—a family more conservative in most ways than he was, given his life experience as a common sailor and then a form-challenging romantic artist. So I looked around and found that some sociologists considered such violations of strict historicism (the incomparability of individual historical events with one another; i.e., history never repeats itself) to be permissible in the case of a “functional group.” With respect to Melville’s family group, if the purpose of the family was socialization into a particular ideology, with similar relations of the “children” to parental authority, and if this socialization could be shown to be arguably identical with that of academics in elite universities during the decisive phase of the Melville “revival”, then I could be on solid ground. In both cases, archival research strongly indicated that cognitive dissonance abounded, or to put it my way, both institutions inflicted double binds on their members: There could be no conflict between Truth and Order. Melville faced this contradiction head-on in his fiction, while his revivers suppressed it, turned him into a moderate man like themselves,  and got sick or extremely depressed while studying and writing about Melville.

In the blog linked above, I objected to the notion that Americans should “work through” their treatment of black slavery and their promotion of the slave trade just as the Germans had been urged to “work through” the Nazi past, specifically the Holocaust.* I queried a former professor of mine about the propriety of the comparison, and in his answer he ended a long exposition comparing the brutalities of the persecution of the Jews and the slave trade and slavery with the adjuration that the effects of slavery were still with us, implying that the Holocaust and antisemitism were something of a dead letter—a problem already solved.  If that was his implication, I cannot agree.

I got a better understanding of the latter’s mind-set when reading a fascinating cultural history of how the Civil War was memorialized through 1865-1913. The book is Yale Professor David Blight’s Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Johns Hopkins UP, 2001). In this passage, Blight summarizes the situation that apparently motivates an entire generation of activist historians who cut their teeth during and after the civil rights movements of the mid-1950s onward, and who were inspired by the massive contributions of my Cornell professor. Referring to a number of Congressional hearings looking into activities of the Ku Klux Klan, beginning in March 1871, Blight wrote:

“These public hearings are a unique testament of how law and order collapsed in many areas of the South, and to the shuddering brutality of many white Southerners toward blacks and many whites judged to be complicitous with the Yankee conqueror. They are America’s first public record where ordinary freedmen, public officials, poor white farmers, Klansmen, and former Confederate generals came before federal officials and described, or evaded, what the war had wrought—a revolutionary society that attempted forms of racial equality without the means or ultimate will to enforce them against a counterrevolutionary political impulse determined to destroy the new order. The hearings were designed to produce prosecution and justice. Some justice was achieved, but the reconciliation that the country ultimately reached ironically emerged through avoidance and denunciation of the mountain of ugly truths recorded in those hearings.” (p.117)

An entire generation of cultural historians has not only corrected the record, but has taken unto itself a grand piece of the conscience of the nation insofar as it supports big government programs or black studies programs (with a black nationalist flavor) to instruct the unregenerate nation. Ironically, some of these same historians have tended to view Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, proponents of land reform to start the freedmen on the road to capitalist independence, as extremists, as too harsh or even paranoid in their critiques of the old South/the Slave Power/unrepentant rebels (see my conference paper, https://clarespark.com/2008/05/03/margoth-vs-robert-e-lee/.)

In other words, their hearts are in the right place, but having been focused upon a piece of history that has been at least partly transcended since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and onward, they appear to me to remain invested in the cruelty of white people—a series of injustices that seems to them never to have been fully repaired, and which crowds out those antislavery Americans who rejected big government bureaucratic and collectivist remedies for a divided nation.  It remains to be seen whether this cohort will ever see school choice (as Joel Klein has advised) as a road to “social justice” for inner city schools.  Are our public schools everywhere, but especially in still backward cities and towns practicing a kind of bondage to ignorance, a bondage that can be compared to slavery? Now that is an analogy I can live with.

*In further reading by academics with similar mind sets, I see that I have missed the point: the persons I criticize here are anti-materialists, and write history through the prism of religion, and also epistemological idealism. They believe in “identity” politics, and through appropriate “working through” followed by reparations, believe that a more positive national identity can be achieved. But first, one must acknowledge the atrociousness of the past, repent, undergo a change of heart, and then redemption is possible. This kind of history writing, focusing on myth and symbols, is foreign to me as an epistemological materialist and advocate of secular modernity. Not surprisingly, their anticapitalist, anti-machine mentality, is as ferocious as any academic dare put down on paper.

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