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The progressive addiction to educational bullshit

You’re at a dinner party and the topic of education comes up. Everyone near you is white, college educated, and has 2.5 children. They are on the vanguard of gentrification and appreciate cosmetic diversity. Over the past year they have made a contribution to either Hillary or Bernie.

You know schools are complex and can’t be expressed through shorthand. Congratulations on being a thinking person, but that won’t work in this circle.

Let me help you. Say this….

“We have to stop these Neoliberal corporate reformers from using standardized testing to test and punish our students (and teachers) so that hedge fund billionaires can privatize education by turning a public good into a profitable market.”

Now, you’re brilliant. Everyone shakes their head in agreement because you sound educated.

Except, it’s all bullshit. The number of errors in that trope should make you a subject for psychiatry, not praise.

If you’ve engaged about education on social media this type of bullshit is posted each minute. It’s like a recurring business card for shortcut thinking and middle-class preciousness.

As an example, today I posted a story about how Minnesota’s charter school opponents are using the state’s integration rule to attack schools with a culturally affirming curriculum (Afrocentric, Hmong, or Latino heritage). The outcome could be bring punishment from the state if these schools do not spend more money to attract white students.

That illiberal war against reason is bullshit, but not bigger than the bullshit I’m about to tell you about.

Shortly after I posted that story a doctoral student from one Northeastern university or another responded with this:

This is a propaganda piece, brought to you by corporate America and Hedge Fund investors who want one thing only: financial profits. They care as much about the growth and development of kids living in poverty as they did about all the subprime mortgages they sold to families knowing that it would collapse the world economy in 2008. They DO NOT CARE about anything but money. Period. The truth is beginning to come out about the charter “industry” and the massive profits that have been gained by investors, all at the expense of our most vulnerable children. 74 million is an organization that is led by former CNN journalist Campbell Brown, who is married to a billionaire Hedge Fund Manager. We know that fixing our schools begins with addressing barriers to education that kids living in poverty face: hunger, homelessness, lack of resources, medical care, joblessness etc. How about starting there, instead of finding ways to help the billionaire class pad their fat wallets. This piece is written to sell a product – a product that makes them rich and our impoverished kids a commodity. Beware of anything put out by 74 million.

Nothing there about the actual content of the article. When I asked if she had read the actual piece she said it wasn’t necessary, but then relented.

She said:

Well, since I AM in the process of getting a PhD from a respectable University, maybe I will actually read this. It goes against my policy to not waste any time reading complete propaganda, but since I’m on winter break right now, I can make an exception. I’ll think of it as a challenge – can I get through it without screaming, throwing my computer, or just breaking down and sobbing? I’ll read it and then I’ll let you know. Unless, or course, I’ve thrown the computer.

I shudder at the proposition that any degree granting institution would bestow the word “doctor” upon anyone so talented in the pervasive arts of bullshit. To pursue education by carefully avoiding any ideology counter to your own predicts your future as a bullshitologist (or a doctor of bullshitology).

None of this would have made sense to me had I not read a uncommonly good blog post by an English teacher, James Theobold, who blogs at Othmar’s Trombone.

His post “I Was A Teengae Progressive: Defense of The Debate” explained how those in education can get stuck in an ideology without seeing it.

You see, I was once what you might consider a progressive teacher. I believed in progressive aims of education, and my approaches in the classroom reflected this. But – and this is important – I didn’t actually know that my philosophy was progressive. I thought I was just teaching and that the beliefs I had and approaches I undertook were entirely neutral in their ideology. They were just what was handed to me by my entirely impartial and objective teacher training.

And then I got involved in social media. I saw people like Andrew Old arguing against some of the things that I believed in. I argued against Andrew. He was obviously wrong and was tied to some ideology. I made it clear that what I was doing was free from ideology, it was just common sense in teaching. Andrew very patiently argued his case clearly and coherently. It was frustrating. Infuriating, even.

And I watched others argue against Andrew. And like Seb with his new age thinkers, I started to see how what they were doing didn’t stand up to the arguments Andrew made against them. Andrew was patient. He wouldn’t deviate from his argument. His arguments were logical. I noticed that the arguments against him were often fallacious and the behavior of his interlocutors often didn’t match up with what they were saying – here were people arguing for group work, social interaction, critical thinking, individuality, etc., and yet they were displaying behavior that seemed antithetical to this. What’s more, and this is hard to admit: I was one of these people behaving this way.

I’ve wondered aloud often about what kind of Manchurian groupthink happens in higher education, particularly for students of education, that produces such a marvelously uniform legion of meat puppets seemly incapable of original thought, desperately vacant of an independent vocabulary to explain life.

Doctoral students on Twitter and Facebook raise that question for me more than anyone else, but teachers do too.

Theobold’s post links to a great study called “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit” that helps with that question.

Here is the abstract:

Although bullshit is common in everyday life and has attracted attention from philosophers, its reception (critical or ingenuous) has not, to our knowledge, been subject to empirical investigation. Here we focus on pseudo-profound bullshit, which consists of seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous. We presented participants with bullshit statements consisting of buzzwords randomly organized into statements with syntactic structure but no discernible meaning (e.g., “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena”). Across multiple studies, the propensity to judge bullshit statements as profound was associated with a variety of conceptually relevant variables (e.g., intuitive cognitive style, supernatural belief). Parallel associations were less evident among profundity judgments for more conventionally profound (e.g., “A wet person does not fear the rain”) or mundane (e.g., “Newborn babies require constant attention”) statements. These results support the idea that some people are more receptive to this type of bullshit and that detecting it is not merely a matter of indiscriminate skepticism but rather a discernment of deceptive vagueness in otherwise impressive sounding claims. Our results also suggest that a bias toward accepting statements as true may be an important component of pseudo-profound bullshit receptivity.

So, next time you’re at that dinner party surrounded by Hillary and Bernie types, and someone strings together an impressive sounding array of words (starting with “Neoliberal” and ending with “privatization”), take a sip of the Costco Chardonnay, smile, and tell that truth.

Say, “that’s bullshit.”

Pursuing the power of self-sovereignty and personalized learning to create secure citizens and abundant communities. #TheOppositeOfSchool #AllPowerToThePupil

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Johanna

    January 7, 2016 at 7:09 pm

    I love this post. Thank you.
    — From a white progressive democrat with 2 children is a terrible urban public school system who understands that all our city’s all non-profit urban charters (that my kids were not fortunate enough to get into) are the only schools actually consistently working hard to educate the kids in this majority-minority city. And the BS liberal-haters who fight so hard against these schools have never even been in one of them and mostly send their kids to the few good schools in the city (because their neighborhoods actually have the choice of some good schools), or they live in the suburbs.

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Short note about Network of Public Education’s (NOPE) focus on education fraud

My friends at NOPE need to broaden their scope of fraud reveals.

My friends at the Network of Public Education (NOPE) have an ongoing series under the hashtag #AnotherDayAnotherCharterSchool that aims to keep your eyes trained on the supposed never-ending abuses and fraud case in charter schools.

I applaud their commitment to public integrity and I share their vigilance in rooting out grift in public systems. Yet, their myopic focus on a small subset of public schools, in this case charters, is suspicious.

Why not expose all fraud, especially in the bigger system?

Well, you’ll have to ask them. They’ve mostly blocked me on twitter for asking such questions.

I guess their unionist funders and the privileged parents they cater to in America’s suburban hoarding schools want a clean message. Traditional schools with union teachers that work with privileged parents to rig the system in favor of white, middle-class, pampered children, well, that’s good.

Schools built for, by, or in favor of children so unfortunate as not to have suburban, white, progressive, college-educated families capable of obtaining mortgages for houses near the best hoarding schools, well, you know the drill, they must be stopped.

Thus, the campaign to turn public opinion against the most popular competitor to sputtering state-run schools that employ more people than they educate, and drown in so much pension debt that they can ill-afford parents choosing anything other than district failure farms.

In the interest of truth I should tell you that fraud in public education is indeed every bit the problem that NOPE says it is, but it’s much broader than they admit.

I’ve offered examples before, but here’s another from today’s reading list. In this article on lax oversight of millions of dollars of expenditures in Pittsburgh Public Schools:

a KDKA investigation has found that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have issued no less than 650 of these cards to teachers and staff, who are racking up millions of dollars of purchases every year.


And while the cards are not supposed to be used for personal purchases, Controller Michael Lamb says it’s a system of loose oversight and controls that IS based mainly on trust.


“When you have that many cards, you lose control,” Lamb said. “And when the proper procedures aren’t in place, you create the opportunity for fraud. And that’s what you have in the school district right now.”
KDKA filed a right-to-know request for purchases made over the last three years and the results were eye-popping.


Last year alone, teachers and staff rang up a total of $3,254,000 in p-card purchases, with some putting upwards of $20,000 or $30,000 on their individual cards.


The summaries obtained by KDKA show purchases from Amazon, Sam’s Club, Staples and Giant Eagle.


And while employees are supposed to submit receipts and the stated reason for each purchase, controller office audits have found that it is hard to tell if all or most of those purchases are legitimate.

But at Faison School, for example, the controller’s office found no p-card reports for half of the 12 months audited and missing documentation for dozens of the purchases that were listed.


And KDKA’s review found questionable expenditures, as well.
Records show that teachers and staff at Oliver Academy used cards on a weekly and bi-weekly basis at both Wiseguys Pizza and Kuhn’s supermarket — raising the question of whether they were using the cards for their own lunches and groceries.

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Fuller to charter advocates: You’re in a fight, don’t run home to Mama!

Dr. Howard Fuller has been on the vanguard of the fight for educational options, and today he has a message for education advocates: fight for your lives!

Charter schools came to the education game as a bipartisan plan to force a “bold departure” from the failure trap that caught too many students in traditional public schools.

Creating alternatives to assigned district schools for families that wanted them was picking a fight with the educational establishment that lives or dies on the student headcount that drives per pupil revenue. Now, after years of losing market share, the empire is striking back with organized moves to establish moratoriums on charter growth, forge attacks on the the integrity of charter supporters, and calcifying public narratives about the supposed negative impacts of charters on public education.

So what do reform advocates do when the opponent finally hits back (hard) and our cherished reforms take a public whooping like they stole something?

According to lifelong freedom fighter Dr. Howard Fuller we firm our spines and fight like we mean it. That’s what he told attendees at a recent conference for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools.

“You can’t go running home to your mama,” he says. “There are people out there who don’t care that you all have created good schools. They don’t care that you are going to teach computer science. They don’t care.”

His message comes at a time when weary charter school supporters are feeling drained from constant attacks, and many are vacillating between wanting to stand their ground and wanting to accommodate anti-charter organizers by finding fleeting common ground.

“They want you to not exist,” Fuller said of the organized opponents of charter schools.

See his powerful speech below.

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It’s time to admit Diane Ravitch’s troubled crusade derails honest debate about public education

The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress.

I should start adding a qualifier when I say the former scholar and historian Diane Ravitch is the Ann Coulter of education commentary.

In fairness, Coulter has better manners and makes more attempts to employ logic as she “owns” the libs with verbal Jujitsu.

Ravitch, by contrast, has fallen irreparably into polemics so much that her daily blogs put her in league with Alex Jones’ made-for-YouTube Info Wars.

Along those lines, her blog-fart today ties “the charter industry” to the “infamous pedophile and “super-rich” Jeffrey Epstein.

“In 2013, his foundation issued a press release announcing that he looked forward to the dominance of charter schools in Washington, D.C. and predicted that they would succeed because they were unregulated,” she crows.

Then she offers crude analysis of why people like Epstein would want to privatize schools in D.C.:

People often ask me, “Why do the super-rich cluster to the cause of privatization?” The Answer is not simple because many different motives are at work. Some see giving to charters as a charitable endeavor, and their friends assure them that they are “giving back,” helping poor children escape poverty. Others want to impress their friends in their social strata, their colleagues in the world of high finance. Being a supporter of charter schools is like belonging to the right clubs, going to the right parties, sharing a cause with other very rich people.

If you are reading this you probably know that Ravitch was once a charter school supporter, and that makes it fair to ask which camp of nincompoops she fell into?

Did she see charters as a “charitable endeavor,” or was charter support her attempt to “impress [her] friends in [her] social strata, [and her] colleagues in the world of high finance.”

Only she can say, but as an established scholar of education history (and a player in policy) it’s doubtful her support was so in want of a factual basis.

During testimony to Congress conservative William Bennett gave decades ago he invoked Ravitch as a bipartisan voice for school choice.

Regarding the school reforms that were advancing in Chicago under Mayor Daley and Paul Vallas Bennett declared “[t]he empirical evidence, now widely available, is irrefutable: Not only are many of our public-schools not getting better, they are getting worse. American students finish in the bottom half, and often near the bottom, in comparison to students from other industrialized nations.”

Then, after promoting the benefits of charter schools, he asked lawmakers to “follow my friend Diane Ravitch’s prescript” to:

…make Title I into a “portable entitlement” that would aid all poor kids regardless of what school they attend. This is the one way to assure that every single Title I child will receive Title I services at the school they currently attend. This is also the best way to assure accountability. If a parent is not satisfied with the Title I services they are getting, they can take their Title I dollars with them to the school or provider of choice; power to the parents, and not bureaucrats, in other words.

Was Ravitch’s support for school choice back then the result of suspicious philanthropy, or glossy marketing to mindless parents, or, more logically,  the result of her considerable scholarship by that point in her life?

Again, only she can say.

In the spring of 1997 she praised then-New York Pataki’s proposed charter school policies that allowed groups other than local boards to grant charters, allowed for an un-capped number of charters to open, and allowed these schools to hire teachers who weren’t state certified.

Why?

In supporting Pataki’s push she said:

It’s impossible to know whether a law permitting charter schools will emerge from this session of the Legislature; the opposition of the teachers’ union, which is the most powerful voice in Albany on education issues, is certainly not encouraging. This is unfortunate, for a large and vital network of charter schools in New York would offer hope to educators, parents, and students in troubled school districts and would promote higher academic standards for all the state’s public schools.

Why would she support such craven policies of such anti-democratic that today she maligns as wealthy pedophiles and privatizers? Projection much?

Forget that teachers’ unions – the ones Ravitch herself once admitted were the “most powerful voices in education” – today block legislation making it a crime for teachers to sexualize students, defeat resolutions that called for them to re-dedicate their profession to student achievement, and pay retail civil rights organizations to defeat the voices of their grassroots members.

Here’s the real kick to the taco, when Lamar Alexander pitched the idea that every D.C. school should be converted to a charter (in 1997, six years before Epstein arrived at the same conclusion) he ascribed this definition of charter schools to his friend Diane Ravitch:

Think of a charter school as a public school district with only one school. It receives public funds, agrees to meet clear academic standards and accepts all students who apply. Unlike existing public schools, it has a contract that can be revoked if the school fails to make good on its commitments.

If she were at all generous she would at very least admit the decency of long-term charter backers who hold valid theories for why charters improve the educational landscape. The longstanding arguments for charters could still be had in clean exchanges between judicious people – sans Ravitch – if we seek understanding and progress. The tensions between autonomy and regulation, local control and federal oversight, and public education as an institution or as a service to American learners could still be exercised by smart people truly seeking solutions to the inarguable problems of public schooling.

But not if we follow the zero-sum and divisive lead of Ravitch whose enemy-imaging toward those who differ on policy has escalated so far she no longer sees them as human. We’ll predictably end up in her abyss of false binaries, intellectual excursions, and forlorn paralysis.

Given Ms. Ravitch’s clever wits and stockpile of information I can’t imagine she leads us to that confused, somber place by accident. There is no better way to ensure the education establishment’s special interests – those who are among Ravitch’s most ardent disciples – are never brought to account than to ignore the brisk but level Ravitch of yesteryear and listen to the caustic and battled one before us now.

 

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