Last week, I wrote a post about Bob Herbert and his new book titled Losing Our Way: An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. Herbert, who was a columnist for the New York Times for eighteen years, is now “a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos, a national think tank that works to promote economic opportunity and equity for all Americans, democracy, and a strong public sector.” Recently, Herbert talked with Bill Moyers on Moyers & Company about the inequality of income and wealth in our country—which he thinks should be a great cause for concern for Americans. Herbert said that the United States is becoming “a place of limited expectations” instead of a “land of opportunity” for all.
On October 6th, Politico published an article that Herbert wrote about wealthy school reformers and how they are having a negative impact on public education in this country. In The Plot against Public Education, Herbert talks about how millionaires and billionaires are “ruining our schools.” He says the school reformers’ “let’s try this, let’s try that” approach to improving public schools “has been a hallmark” of their “efforts in recent years.’
BILL GATES, SCHOOL REFORMER
Herbert provides an example of what he calls the reformers’ “hit-or-miss attitude” with regard to implementing new educational approaches—Bill Gates’ idea to break up large high schools. Herbert said that Gates “backed his small-schools initiative with enormous amounts of cash. So, without a great deal of thought, one school district after another signed on to the notion that large public high schools should be broken up and new, smaller schools should be created.” Herbert said that establishing these smaller schools—or academies as some called them—within larger schools “was an inherently messy process”—and that the details appear not to have been well hashed out. But Gates was “on a mission to transform American education” and wasn’t concerned about the nitty-gritty—such as what might happen when you had “two, three or more schools competing for space and resources in one building.” Herbert said, “That caused all sorts of headaches: Which schools would get to use the science labs, or the gyms? How would the cafeterias be utilized? And who was responsible for policing the brawls among students from rival schools?”
From 2000 to 2009, he spent $2 billion and disrupted 8 percent of the nation’s public high schools before acknowledging that his experiment was a flop. The size of a high school proved to have little or no effect on the achievement of its students. At the same time, fewer students made it more difficult to field athletic teams. Extracurricular activities withered. And the number of electives offered dwindled.
Gates said it himself in the fall of 2008, “Simply breaking up existing schools into smaller units often did not generate the gains we were hoping for.”
Herbert said there “was very little media coverage of this experiment gone terribly wrong. A billionaire had had an idea. Many thousands had danced to his tune. It hadn’t worked out. C’est la vie.” Despite this failure, Gates was undeterred. Herbert said Gates and his foundation then “quickly turned to the task of trying to fix the nation’s teachers. They were determined, one way or another, to powerfully influence American public education.”
Herbert said that although Gates’ desire to improve the quality of education in this country may be sincere, the billionaire’s “outsized influence on school policy has, to say the least, not always been helpful.” After his first debacle at school reform, Gates and his foundation invested their efforts toward the idea of “putting a great teacher into every classroom.” Gates admitted that there was no “road map for doing that.” He said, “Unfortunately, it seems that the field doesn’t have a clear view on the characteristics of great teaching. Is it using one curriculum over another? Is it extra time after school? We don’t really know.”
But what the heck?! Gates is rich. People will listen to his school reform ideas even though he has no experience as an educator or as a public school administrator. Better to listen to him than to those who work as professional educators and understand the nitty-gritty of running a successful school or teaching a classroom of children/young adults.
The experiments trotted out by the big-money crowd have been all over the map. But if there is one broad approach (in addition to the importance of testing) that the corporate-style reformers and privatization advocates have united around, it’s the efficacy of charter schools. Charter schools were supposed to prove beyond a doubt that poverty didn’t matter, that all you had to do was free up schools from the rigidities of the traditional public system and the kids would flourish, no matter how poor they were or how chaotic their home environments.
Corporate leaders, hedge fund managers and foundations with fabulous sums of money at their disposal lined up in support of charter schools, and politicians were quick to follow. They argued that charters would not only boost test scores and close achievement gaps but also make headway on the vexing problem of racial isolation in schools.
None of it was true. Charters never came close to living up to the hype. After several years of experimentation and the expenditure of billions of dollars, charter schools and their teachers proved, on the whole, to be no more effective than traditional schools. In many cases, the charters produced worse outcomes. And the levels of racial segregation and isolation in charter schools were often scandalous. While originally conceived a way for teachers to seek new ways to reach the kids who were having the most difficult time, the charter school system instead ended up leaving behind the most disadvantaged youngsters.
While few people would accuse Bill Gates, a billionaire school reformer, of “acting out of greed,” Herbert says that isn’t true of many other school reformers for whom “a huge financial return has been the primary motivation.”
While schools and individual districts were being starved of resources, the system itself was viewed as a cash cow by so-called education entrepreneurs determined to make a killing. Even in the most trying economic times, hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars, earmarked for the education of children from kindergarten through the twelfth grade, are appropriated each year. For corporate types, especially for private equity and venture capital firms, that kind of money can prove irresistible. And the steadily increasing influence of free-market ideology in recent years made public education fair game.
Herbert provides much more information about what has been going on in this country in the name of “school reform” in his excellent article The Plot Against Public Education: How Millionaires and Billionaires Are Ruining Our Schools. Click here to read the entire article.
FURTHER READING (Flowers for Socrates)
Why Are Campbell Brown, David Boies, Robert Gibbs, Hedge Fund Managers, and Other Wealthy Elites Going after Public School Teachers and Their Right to Due Process? Part II: David Boies, Star Lawyer and School Reformer