A Nation at Risk

29 Aug

All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to become happy creative people who can manage their own lives freely and not be coerced into an unwarranted servitude. Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by profiteers from throughout the world lusting after our public education expenditures. This report is concerned with the unwise education policies that are being proffered by the enemies of prosperity, cultural advancement and the democratic spirit of America’s citizens. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of greed fueled by antidemocratic hubris that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur—the world’s greatest school system is being destroyed by a worm in the lion’s bowels.

If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the sundering of democratic school governance and the purloining of taxpayer dollars that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have allowed wealthy amateurs to drown out the voice of experienced educators and let them impose their disruptive uninformed ideology on America’s children. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems which helped make America’s education system the bedrock of democracy and enlightened citizenry throughout the world. We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral self-destruction.

Our society and its governing institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined efforts needed to attain them. This report, the result of 200 years of experience, seeks to end the misguided reform of our educational system and save this fundamental foundation of America; our public education system. We seek to renew the Nation’s commitment to schools and colleges of high quality governed democratically throughout the length and breadth of our land.

That we have compromised this commitment is, upon reflection, hardly surprising, given the unprecedented amounts of money being spent by profiteers for control at the cost our children’s future. Schools are routinely called on to provide solutions to personal, social, and political problems that the home and other institutions either will not or cannot resolve. We must understand that these demands on our schools are being met in heroic ways. Unfortunately, many political elites call our best ever prepared schools and educators failures; even forcing them to write letters to parents confirming that failure.

President Reagan noted the central importance of education in American life when he said: “Certainly there are few areas of American life as important to our society, to our people, and to our families as our schools and colleges.” This report, therefore, is as much an open letter to the American people as it is a report to the Secretary of Education. We are confident that the American people, properly informed, will do what is right for their children and for the generations to come.

The Risk

 History is not kind to those who idly ignore evil. When America’s democratic ideals are under attack by titans of industry and wealth managers both at home and abroad, the time has come to stand and be counted. The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, wealthy, and arrogant individuals and corporations with no concern other than profits. They have become the enemies of common people, their communities and democratically governed education. We must compete with them to save free, non-usurious universal education. America’s democratic processes may once have been reasonably secure with honest dialog and sincere ideals. It is no longer.

The genius of America’s diverse decentralized education with few high stakes exams has shown through in the amazing production of its creative citizens. When standardized education and high stakes testing was embraced in Asia and the Indian sub-continent, America offered free universal education to all with multiple opportunities to re-enter a path to higher education. Our goal is creative students who can innovate and lead happy lives. Towards that end our system is clearly a humanistic approach, leading the way internationally.

One measuring stick demonstrating the success of our system might be Nobel Prize winners since 1949: America had 313 laureates; India 7; and China 8. Of the 8 Chinese, the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo who won peace prizes both are considered criminals – Xiaobo is still in a Chinese prison; four are scientists who earned their degrees in the United States or Great Britain; and the two literature recipients were educated in China at international schools. It brings to mind Professor Yong Zhao’s statement at the 2015 NPE conference, “If you want results like the Chinese, follow their example.” The US has never won at standardized testing but leads the world in creative thinkers.

Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters of educational theory and social justice. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society. The people of the United States need to know that greedy people are trying to create a new era that will effectively disenfranchise them, not simply from having their voice heard in the education of their children, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life. A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.

For our country to function, citizens must be able to reach some common understandings on complex issues, often on short notice and on the basis of conflicting or incomplete evidence. Education helps form these common understandings, a point Thomas Jefferson made long ago in his justly famous dictum:

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.”

Part of what is at risk is the promise first made on this continent: All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost. This promise means that all children by virtue of their own efforts, competently guided, can hope to attain the mature and informed judgment needed to chart their own path, and through no manipulation by the state or industrial powers manifest their own interests fruitfully which will naturally enhance society itself.

Indicators of the Risk

Three key players in the assault on California’s public schools are Walmart heiress, Carrie Walton Penner, Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings and nativist republican politician, Steve Poizner. In 2001, they started EdVoice an organization that claims California schools are broken and must be reformed. In 2003 Poizner founded the CCSA, which funds school privatization. Walton Penner and Hastings remain as board members of both EdVoice and CCSA.

Valerie Strauss reports, “Hastings’ slap at elected boards, while offensive, wasn’t unique. Gates said the same thing when he extolled “mayoral control” of urban schools. “Instead of having a committee of people, you have that one person,” Gates said, “where we’ve seen the willingness to take on some of the older practices and try new things.” The problem, as Strauss noted, is that many of these “pet projects” have yet to deliver on their hype as a pathway out of poverty for poor kids. The darker reality is that these schools are in fact doubling as product development centers for the fabulously rich and their well-connected associates.”

From noted historian and education authority, Diane Ravitch, “For the past three decades, critics of public education in the United States have assailed it and used its flaws to promote publicly funded privatization. Corporate and political interests have attacked the very concept of public education, claiming that the private sector is invariably superior to the public sector.”

From Professor Julian Vasquez Heilig, “The hundreds of millions of dollars spent to promote privately managed schools is coming from the non-democratic foundations of billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Broad Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation. Smaller organizations including the Black Alliance for Education Options and the Libre initiative and the Democrats for Education Reform have accepted tens of millions of dollars over the years from billionaires and their foundations to press for market-based school choice.”

Jonathan Palto, Connecticut’s leading education writer, “The colossal and disastrous effort to privatize public education in the United States is alive and well thanks to a plethora of billionaires who, although they’d never send their own children to a public school, have decided that individually and collectively, they know what is best for the nation’s students, parents, teachers and public schools.”

Peter Greene, education writer and teacher, “At this point, from its rejection by assessment and education professionals, to its defeat in court, VAM [Value Added Measures – based on standardized testing] has shed any possible pretense of being a legitimate means of evaluating teachers and stands revealed for what it always was– a way to destabilize the profession and get rid of public school teachers. It remains one of the big threats to public education.”

Carol Burris, Director of NPE and former New York Principal of the Year, “Charters, regardless of their original intent, have become a threat to democratically governed, neighborhood public schools, and questions about their practices, opacity and lack of accountability are increasing as their numbers grow.”

Dale Russakoff reported in the New Yorker, that Corey Booker, Chris Christy and Mark Zuckerberg decided to take over the Newark Public Schools, “Early in the summer of 2010, Booker presented Christie with a proposal, stamped ‘Confidential Draft,’ titled ‘Newark Public Schools—A Reform Plan.’ It called for imposing reform from the top down; a more open political process could be taken captive by unions and machine politicians. ‘Real change has casualties and those who prospered under the pre-existing order will fight loudly and viciously,’ the proposal said. Seeking consensus would undercut real reform. One of the goals was to ‘make Newark the charter school capital of the nation.”’

For Secretary of Education, Obama passed over former teacher and education expert Linda Darling-Hammond in favor of Arne Duncan, his basketball buddy, who’d aligned himself with the corporate reform movement as CEO of Chicago Public Schools. As Secretary, Duncan “continued and carried the torch for pushing educational policies that don’t have basis in research, such as value-added measurements, using high-stakes testing to evaluate teachers, or continuing to promote charters schools as a silver bullet to solve inequality,” said Wayne Au, who teaches in the education program at the University of Washington.

Emily Talmage, an educator in Maine, warns about the threat of Competency Base Education (CBE), “according to the U.S. Department of Education, students will ‘no longer [be] tethered to school buildings or schedules.’ Instead, the system will require students to earn ‘digital badges’  that they will display in individual competency-profiles accessible to potential employers and investors.”

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio recently wrote to Secretary of Education, John King about the waste, fraud and abuse in Ohio that has grown with the charter school movement: “Ohio’s current lack of oversight wastes taxpayer’s money and undermines the ostensible goal of charters: providing more high-quality educational opportunities for children. There exists a pattern of waste, fraud, and abuse that is far too common and requires extra scrutiny.” This is a scandal occurring nationwide.

Conclusion

Each generation of Americans has outstripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. The educational attainment of the last few decades far surpass that of their parents, however for the first time their opportunities are diminished.

What lies behind this emerging national belief that our schools are failing? It is the amateuristic or maybe cynical belief that standardized testing was a valid measure of educational quality which supported greed exacerbated by lust.

On a broader scale, we sense that this push for billionaire supported education reform has significant political implications, for it pits the interests of common community members against corporate interest and the super wealthy. These reforms have already destroyed many schools and harmed many communities by eliminating community schools and promoting segregation. These outcomes are readily apparent in places like Detroit, Los Angeles and Oakland.

As Jefferson said, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, …” The power of any society ultimately resides with the people. If we and our neighbors demand our democratic rights, then our wonderful community schools will continue their legacy of victory for the people.

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