It has the potential to become Barack Obama’s Vietnam. Not the Gulf oil spill, serious though that is. Nor Afghanistan. Other people’s mistakes are one thing. The ones that haunt forever are the ones you make yourself.
I mean the system of public education.
Remember the recipe for a policy disaster? Start with a handful of policy intellectuals confronting a stubborn problem, in love with a Big Idea. Fold in a bunch of ambitious Ivy League kids who don’t speak the local language. Churn up enthusiasm for the program in the gullible national press – and get ready for a decade of really bad news. Take a look at David Halberstam’s Vietnam classic The Best and the Brightest, if you need to refresh your memory. Or just think back on the run-up to the war in Iraq.
My jaw dropped last week when I picked up The New York Times Magazine and turned to its cover story “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand: How Obama’s Race to the Top could revolutionize Public Education,” by Steven Brill. In 8,000 breathless words, Brill described “a movement spreading across the country to hold public school teachers accountable by compensating, promoting, and even removing them according to the results they produce in class, as measured in part by student test scores.”
That means getting rid of pay and job protection based on seniority, breaking up the teachers’ unions, and starting a lot of new charter schools. True, Brill notes, these are initiatives historically associated with the Republican Party, but Obama “really does seem to be a new kind of Democrat.” By adopting a “Nixon-to-China approach,” the president and his lieutenants can hope to get “some, probably many” Democratic votes, “while winning support from Republicans on an issue they have championed so strongly in the past that taking a flat-out anti-Obama approach would be especially awkward.”
Making it happen, says Brill, “is a network of reformers dedicated to overhauling public education in the United States.”
They are working in key positions in school districts and charter-school networks, legislating in state capitals, staffing city halls and statehouses for reform-minded mayors and governors, writing papers for policy groups and dispensing grants from billion-dollar philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan; Teach for America’s founder, Wendy Kopp; and the New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein could be considered the patron saints of the network.
Teach for America? Kopp broached the idea of a privately-funded “domestic Peace Corps” for recent college grads in her senior thesis at Princeton in 1989. She founded the organization the next year with $2.5 million of foundation backing. More than 24,000 college graduates have done a stint of teaching in low-income communities since then.
“Race to the Top”? That’s the brainchild of Jon Schnur, Kopp’s college classmate, who had education policy jobs in the Clinton administration before going to work on Obama’s presidential campaign. Some $4.3 billion of new federal aid to education was tucked away in last year’s stimulus bill, to be awarded states based on their promise to implement various measures, including increased testing, opening more charter schools and eliminating “last-in/first-out” provisions in teachers’ union contracts.
Education secretary Arne Duncan devised the 500-point scale by which various “peer reviewers,” none of them directly involved in K-12 education, will evaluate the states’ competing bids. Duncan, a charter school entrepreneur (his 1987 Harvard College senior thesis dealt with education reform), served for eight years as chief executive officer of Chicago’s public schools before joining Obama’s cabinet.
Brill enthuses that by turning a grant program into a contest, “thousands of local news stories across the country speculated about how particular states were faring, some of them breathlessly referring to ‘March madness’ as governors, state legislators and bureaucrats rushed to consider reforms that might improve their chances.”
The competition comes to a head on June 1, when states must submit a second round of proposals. Last week, for instance, New York City officials and the State Assembly in Albany agreed to double the number of charter schools in the city to 200, and license another 260 around the state as part of its bid for some $700 million in federal money. Brill wrote, “Before Duncan had dispensed a nickel, the country had seen more school reform than it had in decades.”
As I read along in the Times Magazine, I wondered what Brill was doing writing about efforts to reform the public schools. A serial entrepreneur, he founded the monthly American Lawyer in 1979, the much less successful Brill’s Content in 1998 (the self-styled media watchdog folded in 2001), and has been involved in a variety of publishing ventures since. Deerfield Academy, Yale College, Yale Law: he has no background in public education. Indeed it was clear from the article that he didn’t know much about the classroom. The key difference between public schools and charter schools – the latter can exclude or fire troublesome kids – goes altogether unmentioned.
Then, as I read these particular sentences, it dawned on me:
[A]t about midnight on Saturday, January 16 [Merryl] Tisch answered the phone in her apartment on the East Side of Manhattan and let out an ear-splitting shriek. She recalls that her husband, James Tisch, who is the chief executive of Loews Corp., thought someone must have died.
I realized that Brill goes to parties with the people he was writing about – with Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s billionaire mayor, with Joel Klein, the former antitrust chief at the Justice Department whom Bloomberg appointed to run the city’s schools, and with Mrs. Tisch, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, who was upset that night that the State Assembly, in its negotiations with the teachers’ unions, might be backing away from the terms of its subsequent Race to the Top.
Brill’s Times Magazine story is an anomaly, interesting mainly for its cheerleading being so completely over the top. Not since Judith Miller built her case for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction has there been anything like it in the Times. (But then the Sunday magazine often seems to operate in a world of its own.) It will be interesting to see if Clark Hoyt, the newspaper’s public editor, takes a look. Meanwhile, though, Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top” is for real. And so is the well-funded army of policy entrepreneurs he describes.
I’m no expert on public education either, but I know an expert when I see one. Diane Ravitch has been the nation’s preeminent historian of education since her book The Troubled Crusade: American Education 1945-1980 appeared in 1983. She served as assistant secretary of education under George H. W. Bush. For forty years she has pondered each new proposal for restructuring schools as it has come along, often with considerable sympathy: vouchers, charter schools, curriculum reform, standardized testing, punitive teacher accountability.
In her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Ravitch describes the evidence that has changed her views of strategies that once seemed promising to her. (Her title’s echo of Jane Jacobs’ great 1961 book on urban life is intentional: she began her career in Manhattan in 1968, at a time when Jacobs was leading her epic battle against highway-planner Robert Moses.) The nostrums that school districts, Congress, and federal officials are pursuing, that mega-rich foundations are supporting, that editorial boards are applauding, are mistaken, she says, fundamentally flawed because they are built on a market metaphor. Schools don’t work like businesses, she says Public education should be preserved “because it is so intimately connected to our concepts of citizenship and democracy and to the promise of American life.” To that end she offers a series of prescriptions:
■ Leave decisions about schools to educators, not politicians or businessmen;
■ Devise a truly national curriculum that sets out what children in every grade should be learning;
■ Expect charter schools to educate the kids who need help the most, not to compete with public schools;
■ Pay teachers a fair wage for their work, not “merit pay” based on deeply flawed and unreliable test scores;
■ Encourage family involvement in education from an early age
Ravitch is especially good on the influence of what she calls the “Billionaire Boy’s Club” – the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the Microsoft fortune), the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart), and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation (home-building and finance) – that have eclipsed the older foundations long associated with education policy (Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie and Annenberg) as the powerful big givers. Sometimes described as “venture philanthropies” or exponents of “philanthrocapitalism,” meaning their methods are borrowed from start-up finance and management, the Gates, Walton and Broad foundations see their grants as investments, designed to produce measurable results. And though they preach accountability to teachers, they receive relatively little scrutiny themselves – or even much dissent, given the power of their interlocking grants to exclude critics. All that money buys a lot of silence, Ravitch says, not to mention admiring friends. The Teach for America program, with its youthful cadre of 24,000 veterans, in one of the fruits of philanthrocapitalism; the Race to the Top is another.
The situation is alarming. Not only is the federal government about to administer a hammer-blow to the basic principles of public education through its competitive grant program; over the next few months, hundreds of thousands of public school teachers are scheduled to be laid off, as well, thanks to state and local budgets that have been stretched to the breaking point by falling tax revenue and rising unemployment claims. Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, last week estimated that perhaps as many as one out fifteen teachers would receive a pink slip unless Congress extended the emergency aid that so far has saved more than 400,000 teaching positions. No soap, apparently. House leaders, worried about soaring levels of public debt, instead cut back sharply on the extension.
It is not too late for the administration to gradually change its stance on public education. Obama and David Axelrod should take out some old Time and Life magazines, compare them to Brill’s Times Magazine article, and reflect on how the media pranced as Presidents Kennedy and Johnson blundered into Vietnam. They should read and discuss Diane Ravitch’s book. They should think long and hard about whether they are going to let Arne Duncan and his whiz kids put Obama’s presidency in greater peril than the Deepwater Horizon ever could.