The cult-like religion of corporate education reform

The cult-like religion of corporate education reform

Recently I’ve seen some interesting, puzzling news items about education wherein the principal players seem to cast logic to the wind and fall back on irrational opinions like medieval peasants.

Like those parents in New York who are angry about the fact that their school just ended homework for young students. A committee was created at the school to examine the efficacy of homework, whether it made any difference in grades or learning outcomes, and they found that there is no evidence that homework makes any difference. They looked at a lot of research and, based on the factual, empirical evidence, sent home a letter to families that said: we see now, based on all these studies of children and learning, that all this homework does nothing for our children’s intellectual development. In fact there are indications that it might be bad for their intellectual development. So we want your kids to come home from school, play, read, spend time with their families.

And now parents are angry and not only giving their children homework at home, but are planning to withdraw their children from the school. Why? Because children need homework to be smarter!

You sense, perhaps, my puzzlement.

But it all became clear to me this morning, when I was in the middle of doing a hundred other things. Sometimes epiphanies are like that.

Most parents with school-aged kids have by now been sort of brainwashed. We’ve been told so many times that our schools are failing and our children are failures and the only way to fix it is to give them more, and harder, work, continuously. And now we literally can’t see it any other way. We are so convinced in our conviction, that all the research in the history of the world, all the empirical evidence based on all the experiments, could not move us from this belief.

This belief.

That was my epiphany.

We parents have been listening to folks who are richer and more powerful, and seem smarter than we are, for 20 years now. They’ve been telling us lots of things contrary to reason but we’ve stopped arguing and started believing them. We do this because those reformers have us in the tight grip of a very particular type of persuasion.

Corporate education reform is a belief system that operates like a religion, or even a religious cult.

I have long known that corporate ed reform proponents like Rahm Emanuel operate on our schools not out of knowledge but out of ideology. His decisions have little to do with evidence or data, and everything to do with preordained conclusions and the will to push his agenda. Hang the kids, it’s about his terribly uninformed ideas.

But you can take it further and see that all the characteristics of a cultish, religious ideology line up one by one with corporate ed reform planks to match.

Like so.

Corporate ed reform denies data, as noted above. From homework to standardized testing to evaluating teachers by VAM, nearly every study on any one of these topics overwhelmingly proves the opposite of the claims springing from the billionaire’s imaginations. Alfie Kohn says of homework for our youngest children in particular, “the evidence of positive effects isn’t just dubious; it’s nonexistent.”

The idea that 100% of kids will perform at “proficiency” or above on standardized exams–a revered NCLB goal for 2014 that we have just succeeded in not meeting–is not only silly, it’s a mathematical impossibility, but does this stop reformers from saying it? No! Because mathematical reality does not matter!

VAM–evaluating teachers based on student test scores–has been disproved time and again, most recently by statisticians who aren’t invested in the outcome. One simple sentence will suffice to present the general drift of the 2014 American Statistical Association study. “VAMs typically measure correlation, not causation,” writes Valerie Strauss in summarizing the ASA findings. But this does not matter! Arne Duncan, chief astrologer for the billionaire reformers, loves VAM; it is knitted into Race to the Top.

Corporate ed reform’s tight grip on the national conversation is based in fear. Starting with the 1984 report, “A Nation At Risk,” the corporate reformers have been ginning up the fear machine, telling us all that the US will lose its global economic edge without their kinds of major changes in education. You all know the drill. You probably have it memorized: We are 34th in math in the world. Our economy will collapse. Our children will not be ready for college and career, they will never get into college and never get a job. Without the Common Core and PARCC testing, we are throwing away our last chance for fixing public ed. Without test practice they will never be ready for the test. Without Kindergarten homework they will never be ready for the future. They will be at a competitive disadvantage. They will fail. We will fail as parents. Our nation will fail.

You cannot criticize the tenets of corporate ed reform without consequences. This one is connected to the fear thing. Because frankly it is a little scary to be a teacher who wishes to criticize any element of corporate ed reform today–you can lose your job. At the very least, name calling and marginalization is the end result of questioning the tenets of corporate ed reform.

No other beliefs are allowed. If you oppose standardized tests you are accused of wanting to “dumb down” American education. If you say poverty is a contributing factor to poor test scores (and in fact it is THE SOLE FACTOR in poor American test scores), you are accused of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” If you question charters, you are accused of standing in the way of innovation. If you oppose “choice” you’re downright un-American.

Corporate ed reform fixes are shrouded in secrecy and lack transparency. PARCC schools, teachers, and students all must sign confidentiality agreements; teachers cannot see the tests. Charter operators such as Gulen have zero accountability, zero transparency, and deal behind the scenes with high-level politicians. Charter schools in Chicago have no LSCs. In Chicago, only the Board of Ed knows the winding details of the crazy financing deals that are imposed on us to pay for “universal preschool” and “alternative education” and the hundreds of millions given to Pearson.

Corporate ed reform is a cash cow. Just like Scientology, corporate ed reform generates piles of cash for advanced practitioners. Pearson‘s testing, test prep, and testing lobby; Reed Hastings’ interest in streaming ed content; deposed revivalist Juan Rangel‘s $98M for UNO; Deb Quazzo’s edtech businesses reaping millions as a result of contracts with CPS. And like Scientology, the folks at the bottom of the pyramid aren’t reaping the bucks; they’re paying.

Finally, there is one last way in which corporate ed reform is like a religious cult.

Corporate ed reform causes psychological damage. Having to exist in a system which is based in fear, disallows questioning, and makes its subjects feel weak and stupid is not a recipe for mental health. Whether you’re a teacher or a parent, you may find yourself questioning your sanity as you look around at all the unreason and irrationality coming down from above.

And if it’s bad for the grown-ups, imagine what this toxic, confusing context is like for our kids.


If you want a better Chicago Public Schools system please like my Facebook page and join me there for more discussion. You can also follow me on twitter @foolforcps.

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