June 7, 2020

Cash cows and milk maids

Should we be surprised that the anti-reform movement would be cranking up a tantrum engineered to take the national education debate back to the future? If history has taught us anything about social progress it’s that every struggle for liberation is met with obstruction by people profiting from the privilege of inequality.

Today, the old guard fears that extending marriage to LGBT families will spell the destruction of the institution. Fundamentalists in many countries fear that educating girls will end civilization. War profiteers lobby against peace, suburban taxpayers fight against integration, and rural workers oppose immigration.

In response to demands of the oppressed, groups like Westboro Baptist Church carry hateful signs to intimidate marriage equality advocates; girls in Afghanistan are victims of beatings or acid attacks; and American voters are targets of ads stoking their fears about national insecurity and racial invasion. The result: people turn to strange behavior when they feel their way of life is threatened.

And then there are teacher unionists who fear that most proposals to modernize education will “redefine” public education systems in ways that interrupt their dominant influence.

For at least 30 years new liberals and technocrats have been jiggering with public school systems in an attempt to use the science of student achievement to defeat the witch doctoring that took place before standard educational measurements. Further advanced by No Child Left Behind law, and funded by educational venture pioneers, the “movement” is impacting everything.

Teacher unionists see the red writing on the white wall. The message is clear.

“Your days are numbered,” they read.

If your occupational class were feeling the heat of reform and competition like teachers do now, you might devise organizing strategies to change the subject. You might redirect focus from the rights of children to something more distracting and compelling. If you were drawing on your Shanker roots you might consider the artful ways that white liberals have defeated negro uprisings in the past, and if you were praying to Saul Alinsky you might look for places to create tension.

The most useful device of all is a well-cartooned enemy image, one that creates utile fear, paranoia, and panic. You need a powerfully negative oversimplification of opponents that invites lust against them. So, even though the movement proposing improved educational outcomes for children of color is a mash-up of new liberals, communities of color, religious groups, technologists, futurists, and social change adherents, this complex and confluent group must be conflated into a neoliberal, globalized, ultra-wealthy, and anti-public education monster.

We don’t have to look far to see how the cartoon foe travels far and wide, even landing here in Minnesota.

Case in point: A motley crew of local teachers are poking the education reform voodoo doll and hoping it imperils the fight for better schools.

Valerie Rittler, a Minneapolis Public School teacher, warns us of the connection between reform and profiteerism:

Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul owner of Fox News and dozens of other companies around the world, recently announced he was moving into the “education” business. He said, “When it comes to K through 12 education, we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone.”

Murdoch is part of a growing list of corporate executives who see schools as profit centers. The education reform industry and their privatization efforts that have virtually destroyed the public education systems in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans have been quietly, and not so quietly, targeting the Twin Cities.

The logic is pretty obvious, right?

Rich white men see profit potential in public school systems. The best way to extract the profit is to ruin the stellar performing school districts in pristine academic oasis’ like Chicago and New Orleans (before the storm).

Caroline Hooper, a high school teacher in Minneapolis, lays out the neoliberal conspiracy in a Facebook post:

Minneapolis has been targeted for destruction of the public school system and its replacement by charters. This master plan includes partners such as Teach for America and its many spinoffs. If we sit quietly by we will watch the disintegration of our public schools. Just this week, our school district sold the Northrop school building to a charter network; this while classrooms in the Minneapolis Public Schools are overcrowded. Get angry, speak out, get involved. Make sure the people you vote onto the school board support public education and are not tools of the corporate charter movement.

Former Minneapolis teacher, Julie Landsman, takes another swipe at the theory. She says:

Millions of dollars are now being spent on standardized tests. One parent was told in the beginning of March that her teacher could not create assignments that involved students working on the computers in her building’s lab for any time during the rest of the year because the lab was to be taken up every day for testing.

Landsman’s point is especially useful for anti-reformers because it simultaneously attacks accountability and the funding of accountability measures. That rhetorical arrow deserves special points for clever execution of resistance to teacher accountability, and money spent on anything other than teacher pampering. She drives the point home by saying the district should suspend “evaluations of teachers not done in their school by their principals or mentors,” and cut “instructional leaders” in order to reallocate funds in ways that teachers prefer.

Finally, Rob Panning-Miller, a teacher and former president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, goes further than any of the in others specifying that social justice is for teachers, not students. He expresses anger about the expectations that proponents of “no excuse” schools have for teachers. He says:

They claim to be the leaders of the “new” civil rights movement, fighting for social justice.  They then create schools on the backs of teachers and staff who are required to work 10 hour days at school, and then be “on-call” until 9 or 10 p.m. each night to answer any and every question a student or parent may have.  Many schools also have classes on Saturdays, resulting in teachers working 60 to 70 hour weeks.  Many charters also have extended school years.  What does this teach students about social justice?

These teachers are part of an emerging ecosystem of intolerance for efforts to make schools work for disadvantaged students. They’re scribblings litter clunky blogs full of cartoons, clip art, sensational headlines, incredible theories, and unwarranted, humorless attacks on good people (and their families). They’re the shrill voices of teacher unionist sharply focused on money and defending the system as it is, children be damned. And, while they cast the battle as one between the rich and poor, it is important to ask where they themselves fall in the economic hierarchy, especially given that 65% of their students are in poverty.

But you ARE the 1% (or at least the 7%)!

When Occupy mania broke out a few years ago there was a successful focus on the gross hoarding of the 1%, those folks earning more than the supposed rest of us in the 99%. That meme has been transposed onto the education debate to further the enemy-imaging of ruthless, greedy corporatists seeking to ruin public schools.

But there is a problem with the idea that school reform is a contest between ultra-wealthy, mega-powerful white men (the billionaire boys club) on one side, and the lowly, democracy-defending, romantically-impoverished teachers on the other side. The problem isn’t alleging that a lot of rich people have vast interest in education and every other major life activity. That’s settled science in my book. The problem is the notion that teacher unionists are an altruistic, egalitarian, countervailing body that forms a Birkenstock brigade to protect the poor and oppressed from the capitalist virus. That delusion is a barrier to progress for marginalized communities and we can’t fall for it no matter how many Afro-turf groups they hire to blackwash their self-preservation agenda.

Yes, money corrupts education just as it does in politics and other arenas. But the truly oppressed are best positioned for freedom when they run credit checks on their suitors.

Let’s be clear about the facts. Randi Weingarten receives nearly $500k for leading the American Federation of Teachers, and Dennis Van Roekel takes in $460k to lead the National Education Association.

Believe it or not, those numbers place the union heads in America’s 1% of wage earners.

Further down the food chain, Tom Dooher takes in nearly $292,000 as president of Education Minnesota, and 49 of his staffers have salaries above $100,000. Does that color their interests in public education? The question is especially important when you consider the fact that less than 7% of the American population earns more than $100k.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Looking at public data from the Minneapolis Public Schools it appears that our lowly teachers so hell bent on exposing the moneyed interests destroying public education are also amongst the nations top wage earners. Considering the fact that they work fewer months than most American workers, the income inequality between them and their students grows even wider. Without divulging their actually salaries and total compensation, it is safe to say only 7% of Americans earn what they do.

Are members of the 7% who oversee a nation-leading gap in student outcomes really lecturing us about rich people destroying public education?

The real battle in the Twin Cities

It looks to me like the plan of our local teachers in the 7% revolt is to replicate the middle-class movements seen in other parts of the country, with the mission of erasing knowledge of the achievement gap by ending testing, lowering expectations for low-income students by combating the charter schools which serve students best, and furthering the belief gap by blocking Teach For America teachers who consistently bring an annoying narrative about the potential for all kids to learn.

All of this masks what is truly wrong with education in Minnesota – at least in Minneapolis. Public school teachers here coasted for years on their world renowned ability to educate white students. That was before people of color migrated to Wobegon and brought something a little extra with them, something I’ll call “culture.” The coasting was halted when two elements were added to the the North Star public education universe: data and disaggregation.

Student achievement for non-white students was like the tree of good and evil in the center of the garden for years in Minnesota. All life would be at peace so long as no one ate of that fruit. Once a forward thinking superintendent demanded the district disaggregated the data by race the picture was clear. Minneapolis was not educating children of color. Through several lawsuits over time, and a quarter of a century later the situation is worse. Nearly two-thirds of students are not proficient in reading. It’s worse in math. Knowing that the inability to read or compute are associated with ending up in social ruin rather than in the 7%, it’s hard for me to make a case against those “reformers” who 1) see there is a problem that is a human crises, 2) realize that the problem can be solved, and 3) believe they are morally responsible for producing the solutions.

Much like the abolitionists who came to “save” us from slavery, or the Northern teachers that came to “save” us in post-slavery schools, these heroes are imperfect. They can be a bit technocratic and sometimes socially awkward. Though they aim for justice they often settle for pragmatism. They repeat the patterns of our useful allies of days past, and I appreciate them for their care, sacrifices, and generosity.

On the other side, the 7%-ers who are blogging about the evil rich (while doing pretty well for themselves), are taking the role of traditionalists protecting a dying way of life which has enriched and privileged them. They see the “reformers” in the way southern planters saw the northerners that were “invading” their lands, bringing their industries, and changing the social order. For this group, marginalized communities are doing just fine on the plantations that they operate, and any suggestions that a new system – one that frees the captives – will be met with endless hostility.

The real problem in the Twin Cities is not an invasion by reformers, but the captivity of young minds trapped in a system where “professionals” defend a way of life for adults more than a way to life for students.

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