Education Wizards

A few years ago I sat with a group of fairly young “executives” at MTV, seeking MTV’s support for an anti-racist initiative being developed at the Calhoun School.  They were managing charitable giving and were quite breezily confident.   To my amusement and dismay, they referred to themselves as “Wizards of Good” and quickly turned the conversation toward what might be good for MTV.

Wizards of Good!  The self-satisfaction was palpable and the attitude oozed condescension.

I relate this anecdote to introduce a troubling direction the Biden administration is taking in education policy.

Several education observers, including the fine blogger Jan Resseger and estimable Diane Ravitch have raised red flags over the nomination of Roberto Rodriguez, as reported in Education Week, 

President Joe Biden announced Wednesday that he plans to nominate Roberto Rodriguez, one of former President Barack Obama’s top education advisers, to lead one of the most important divisions of the U.S. Department of Education. Biden wants Rodriguez to lead the Education Department’s office of planning, evaluation and policy development. Rodriguez, a former special assistant to Obama on education policy who also previously worked in the Senate, is currently the president and CEO of Teach Plus, a teacher-advocacy organization.

There he will join Carmel Martin, another long-time Obama staffer and major architect of Race to the Top.  Together they will direct education policy in the new administration.  Their heritage includes roles in and support of Common Core, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

The intricacies of the education “reform” business are too arcane for one blog post.  But there are some assumptions about education that are common to nearly all the players.  As at MTV, they regard themselves as the Wizards of Education, while exhibiting nearly no understanding of or experience in teaching or child development.

* They believe teacher unions are an impediment to good schools

* They believe that testing children is very important.

* They use language of innovation, entrepreneurship, standards, accountability, equity, impact, change agents, and empowerment.

* They support school choice, believing that education, as other consumer goods, improves in a free market. 

* They use all the same “buzz words” with no apparent understanding of what they mean.

* They are funded by the same array of private investors who also see themselves as Wizards of Education.

Take Rodriguez’s organization, Teach Plus.  On the surface it is dedicated to developing “teacher leaders.”  The clear sub-text is to inculcate the values of anti-union reform in a generation of young teachers.  Sort of like Teach for America, graduate school edition.  They rail against seniority as job security, asserting with no basis that subpar teachers are retained in times of cost cuts because of union protection.  They also claim that unions stifle innovation.

Teach Plus has received more than $27 million from the Gates Foundation and has among its donors the Walton Family Foundation and an all-star roster of philanthropic sources dedicated to so-called reform.  Its Board includes Emily McCann, CEO of Citizen Schools.  McCann’s “education” experience includes stints with J.P. Morgan and the Walt Disney Company.  

Another Board member is John King, Jr., who served briefly as Obama’s Secretary of Education and parlayed that job into a lucrative gig as president and CEO of Education Trust.  King’s education career began with a brief teaching stint at a charter school.  Education Trust’s funders include Gates, Zuckerberg, Bezos and Bloomberg - a sterling roster of “Business Knows Best” education disrupters who have no experience in education.

Nearly all of the leading staff and board leaders of these organizations come from backgrounds as strategic consultants, lawyers, marketers and Wall Streeters.

I report these things in support of a general proposition that is too often lost in the complexity of political discourse:

For several decades public education has been a battlefield between committed educators with little money or power and committed non-educators with lots of money and power.  

The levers of political influence have been wielded for decades by the Wizards of Education and the roster of Business Knows Best.  They have brought us the abject failure of No Child Left Behind, which left more and more children behind.  They concocted Every Student Succeeds Act, which missed “Every”by a country mile.  Then they tried Race to the Top; and most students slid down on the lower slopes. 

The Wizards just can’t believe that slogans don’t educate children.  They also can’t imagine why high standards don’t automatically improve things.  As I quipped years ago, it’s like believing that Hansel and Gretel will gain weight if you just weigh them more often.

In a prior post I cited these miserable statistics:

  • Teachers earn 21.4% less than comparably educated peers.

  • Teacher pay has declined 4.5% in real dollars over the past decade.

  • 20% of teachers work a second job.

  • Teachers use, on average, $500 of their money each year to buy supplies for students.

  • The average workday for teachers is 12-16 hours per day.

  • 55% of teachers wouldn’t want their own children to enter the profession.

  • One poll showed that 62% of teachers were considering leaving the profession.

It would be lovely if the Wizards would address those problems rather than exacerbating them.  

Unfortunately, all signs indicate that the Biden administration is headed down the same damn circular path.

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