Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools system of Washington, D.C. (Photo: The National Academy of Sciences / Flickr)
Recently, I had the honor of being dubbed a "vapid champion of the status quo" by American Enterprise Institute (AEI) resident education scholar Frederick Hess, a widely published, renowned advocate of the free-market public school "reform" movement, one that has reached the mainstream with the popularity "Waiting for Superman." Hess has published numerous books; he's on the head of national organizations and even hobnobbed with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a recent event for AEI. To my shock, Hess made time to write in his blog about me, a lowly assistant professor of English at a community college with a blog audience of a few hundred.
The conflict was over a cover story in The Oakland Tribune, in which the reporter pointed out the role that teacher pay played in creating budget problems. Hess was cited as a nonpartisan education expert, which I took issue with in my blog - not because he shouldn't have been cited in the article, but because the reporter failed to point out to readers that he is a scholar for a neoconservative think tank, one that is a strong proponent of the pro-corporate education "reform" movement and that states on its official website: "The government's authority to tax and regulate represents a growing encroachment on the private sector." In other words, Hess is paid to advocate for a fiscally conservative, free-market educational ideology, a fact the reporter neglected to mention, and one that readers deserved to know so they could best evaluate his perspective.
In response, Hess lambasted me, framing me as someone who stands in the way of real reform, a stodgy supporter of the "status quo," the establishment standing in the way of reform. Hess reveals a prevalent attitude among free-market education advocates: that if you don't support their reform - if you don't support a capitalist, competitive approach to education replete with extensive testing - you don't support students, or improving education in general.
Hess - and the corporate reformers, such as Bill Gates and Michelle Rhee - present the public with a false choice: that there is, on the one hand, the "status quo," one that doesn't work, and, on the other, their "reform" movement, which is the only pathway out of our morass of mediocrity. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has unquestioningly bought into this limited conception of educational reform.
Corporate Reformatory School
The word "reform" itself is a linguistic trap. At face, it assumes that something is profoundly wrong with our public schools, a commonplace belief in the wake of "Waiting for Superman." Further, it suggests a way to fix this wrongness - discipline. Think of a "reformatory school," a military-style institution where frustrated parents ship their bad children, who are then molded - literally re-formed - into good children through discipline. The public school system, in this case, is like an ill-behaving child, in need of a ruler on the wrist and a 5 o'clock wake-up call to get it disciplined, remolded and reformed so it'll say, "Yes, ma'am" when called on.
But most of all, "reform" is a gracefully ambiguous term - formless, even - one that implies an urgency, a need for discipline, for fixing, but it is a term that doesn't suggest what, exactly, is wrong. The word "reform" is an empty shell, one that could suggest any number of problems, innumerable diagnoses - without identifying a single one. Thus, the listener can insert whatever idea she likes into "reform," whatever she thinks is wrong with the schools, whether it is "bad teachers" or unhealthy school lunches.
Who can disagree with reform? Who can be against helping children stuck in a bad school system?
What the corporate reformers have done well is to essentially trademark "reform," branding in the public mind their diagnosis of what's wrong with schools and the harsh, chemotherapeutic remedy.
They own reform.
Rhee Goes Rogue
What's wrong with the school system, according to corporate reformers, is the bad teachers, their unions and "special interests," as Rhee claims practically unchallenged in her Newsweek cover story and across the corporate media, including in "Waiting for Superman," which earned ample air time on Oprah's "Shocking State of Our Schools." The corporate media has adopted this diagnosis, as is best illustrated in Tom Brokaw's segment in "Education Nation," an NBC special applauding the corporate reformers featuring Rhee and Gates (Gates also appeared in "Waiting for Superman"). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was also one of the sponsors of Education Nation, and Gates was a star of his own show. Not surprisingly, Brokaw - a reporter, not a pundit - claims, as fact, that there is a "teacher establishment," which is part of the problem, echoing Rhee and other corporate reformers sponsoring the event.
Given this diagnosis, the corporate reform remedy is obvious: take down the "teacher establishment," a sentiment that sounds surprisingly similar to that of the Tea Party bent on taking down the Washington establishment. Much like Sarah Palin, Rhee frames herself as a rogue agent of change, with the forces of the establishment aligned against her, against "reform." We hear the same David and Goliath sentiment echoed in the mainstream media again, in a Time Magazine editorial by education policy analyst Andrew Rotherham in " 'Waiting for Superman': Education Reform Isn't Easy." He claims that "despite all the attention ["Waiting for Superman"] is bringing to education, there are still more reasons to bet against reform than for it." "Reform," in this case, is the corporate reformers' policies. And again, "reform" is being stopped by the "teachers unions" and other special interests, which have put "a lot of money to keep various reforms at bay." Rotherham writes a blog that is underwritten, in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
In essence, Gates and other corporate reformers have heavily bankrolled a media blitzkrieg to convince the public our schools need "reform," and that the free-market, test-heavy, privatized pathway is the only logical definition of reform. Joanne Barkan, reporting in Dissent Magazine, makes transparent how Gates - and other "venture philanthropists" - have created this successful propaganda campaign through extensive invisible (and visible) funding, Koch-Brothers-style. On the one hand, Gates uses his extensive funding to hire out hidden proxy bloggers - like Rotherham - to spread the "reform" message. And, on the other, the corporate media is wary of casting a critical eye on these positive "reform voices," as they are stuck in the linguistic trap of "reform." Barkan cites Hess, who found in a study of national corporate media that the "press ... handles philanthropies with kid gloves." For every one negative account, Hess found in his ten year study from 1995 to 2005, there were thirteen positive ones - which explains, in part, why the corporate media has highlighted the efforts of "reformers" with applause and why Hess himself got a pass during his interview with The Oakland Tribune.
And again: who can be against "reform?"
Waiting for Alyssa Milano
"In view of the money and power now arrayed on behalf of the ideas and programs I will criticize, I hope it is not too late," are the fateful final words in the introduction of Diane Ravitch's 2010 book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System." Ravitch, however, is not critiquing the "special interests" aligned against reform, but the reform movement itself, of which she was a former elite member. She switched sides after extensively studying the results of No Child Left Behind and is now convinced that these reform efforts are "undermining education." Ravitch is convinced that by relentlessly testing children and by pitting schools against schools, teachers against teachers, parents against parents and children against children, we are diminishing the quality of learning that happens in schools and undermining the foundations of a democratic society. And while Ravitch has relentlessly promoted this well-supported perspective - such that Hess acknowledged her as the most visible education scholar based on her publications and mentions in media - she still has made little dent in the public mind and in the corporate reform "status quo."
Besides the considerable money and political clout behind it, the corporate reform movement - much like the Tea Party - has a compelling narrative package: a hero (Rhee), villains (teachers' unions) and poor, innocent victims (children). Like the Tea Party, the reformers have adopted a David and Goliath stance and evoked it again and again. That stance is appealing to a country that currently feels a lot like David beaten senselessly by Goliath. This powerful, human narrative was brought to life on the big screen with "Waiting for Superman," repeated in major media outlets and even tweeted by "Who's the Boss?" star Alyssa Milano to her million-plus followers. The story is so emotionally potent that it feels like fact - it must be true, especially to many that, like Milano, know nothing about real issues in education and are championing a cause they do not understand.
The corporate reformers have reached the hearts of the public, blinding them with a beautifully rendered fiction.
Even though Ravitch is very visible, even though she has powerful data and analysis to support her conclusions, which are widely published and read, she hasn't been successful in capturing the public imagination, as there is no story - no hero or villain - for the American public to easily grasp, to reduce into a simple plot with an obvious moral. There is no heartwarming tale to sell newspapers or to draw viewers to the evening news or sob-filled theatres.
Yet, until Alyssa Milano is tweeting Ravitch, the corporate takeover of our schools will continue, reforming public education - and our children - to behave well in the free-market.