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Education in the 'Twilight Zone'

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For those old enough to remember, one of the nation's favorite TV programs of the 50s was Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone. As a youngster, I was fascinated and terrified by the show at the same time. Serling came up with mind-bending plots that had everyone talking the next day.

One episode, for many the episode that makes the top 10 favorites list, is called "To Serve Man." Thanks to Wikipedia we have easy access to the plot:

The Kanamits, a race of 9-foot aliens, land on earth. One of them addresses the United Nations, vowing that his race's motive in coming to Earth is solely to be helpful to humanity. Initially wary of the intentions of an alien race who came "quite uninvited," even skeptical international leaders begin to be persuaded of the aliens' benevolence when the Kanamits share their advanced technology, quickly putting an end to many of Earth's greatest woes, including eradicating hunger, radically reducing the cost of energy, and rendering nuclear weapons harmless. The aliens even morph deserts into big, blooming fields.

Trust in the Kanamits seems to be justified when Patty, one of a staff of elite U.S. government cryptographers, cracks the title of a Kanamit book left behind by a visiting alien. Its title, she reveals, is To Serve Man.

Soon, humans are volunteering for trips to the Kanamits' home planet, which is portrayed as a paradise. Just before one of these voyages departs, Patty, the intrepid cryptographer, appears. In great agitation, she runs toward the last man to board the ship. While being held back by a Kanamit guard, Patty cries:

"Don't get on that ship! The rest of the book To Serve Man, it's... it's a cookbook!" The man tries to run back down the spaceship's stairs, but a Kanamit blocks him, the stairs retract, and the ship lifts off.

For me, this reminiscing has been a pleasant pastime -- as well as a warning. I wonder if we are not living through a version of the Kanamit tale today.

The New York Times recently ran a story addressing how the big ideas of billionaires are holding sway over scientific research. These donors are privatizing the American science frontier, mounting a "private war" on disease, amongst other grand initiatives. Names like Koch and Zuckerberg and Milken are behind foundations offering huge sums of money to back scientific investigations. The Times reported that: "This is philanthropy in the age of the new economy -- financed with its outsize riches, practiced according to its individualistic, entrepreneurial creed." A policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science suggests that "... the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money."

I will stipulate that eradicating disease is a worthy goal. If I were a research scientist I would probably jump at the chance to have a project underwritten by any passing billionaire. But, and this is a big but, how much of our planet's agenda should we turn over to a handful of people? The 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. Call me ungrateful, but I think it is only fitting that the unbillionaires at least submit some serious questions to the "quite uninvited" billionaires before we join the cause.

A cautionary tone is also in order lest we become intoxicated with the rarefied atmosphere that billionaires inhabit. The Times reported that a researcher was given the key to the estate of Lawrence Ellison, the Oracle corporation founder, after a meeting between the two goes so well that Ellison suggests that the scientist think of it as his second home. The estate is described by the scientist as " 'the most gorgeous setting in the world,' complete with Japanese teahouse, strolling gardens and ponds of ornamental fish. "

Sounds like a portrait of paradise to me.

Also appearing in the piece was everybody's favorite billionaire, Bill Gates, one of the richest men in the world. His philanthropic ties to science and medicine are legendary. He has offered his billions in the search for cures for TB, malaria, polio, etc. What the Times article did not cover is Gates' influence in the educational arena. As a lifelong educator, this is where it gets real for me.

It is estimated that between 2008 and mid-2010 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation underwrote $650 million in education projects -- projects like charter schools, testing and 'teacher effectiveness,' standardized curriculum and a national test. One grant offered a half million dollars for research on Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets to measure student engagement physiologically. This fits neatly into the Measuring Effective Teacher (MET) initiative, the Gates approach to improving schooling, i.e., identify great teachers through standard measures (and, apparently, student sweat glands).

I have heard Bill Gates in person; he talks like he is the savior of children who are otherwise being neglected by the public schools. This, despite the fact that he has no experience as an educator himself and he ignores those who are in the teaching force who live the challenges of educating youngsters every day.

Sounds like alien benevolence to me.

This reminds me of a recent confrontation I had with a big city foundation person who headed up an office which handled philanthropic donations and how they would be distributed to schools. He had no education experience but was making decisions about which schools would stay open and which would close. A reporter who was recording the conversation asked me whether or not I thought rich people could spend their money any way they wanted to. I said I don't.

For example, I said, if I had a billion dollars and I went to my local hospital and said I'll give you a good chunk of money, but first you have to close down the emergency room. I just never believed that they were useful, I'd insist. The hospital administrators would have every right to throw me out.

What's happening in schools nowadays approaches the absurdity of my hospital argument. Designing a plan for assistance without the leadership of those who know the system best is more like misanthropy than philanthropy. My simple rule has become: for those who tell me they want to assist our schools, I will not sign on until I know veteran educators are at the center of the decision making. I would assume that many of my scientific research brethren have a similar sentiment regarding who gets to be the decider about their work.

So, we need a new, real version of Serling's brave cryptographer. We need someone screaming a warning when we are being seduced into believing those with money and power have the answers -- simply because they have money and power. When billionaires and corporate spokespersons regale us with their plans to share their advanced technology, promising to put an end to many of education's greatest woes, including eradicating illiteracy and morphing "failing" public schools into blooming charter schools, we need to listen to those modern day Cassandras warning us of the charade.

The Twilight Zone was a fictional television series. Billionaires and international corporate influence exist in the real world. The next time you are asked to participate in a Gates-sponsored grant that promises to hold teachers accountable through a mechanized system fit for producing widgets and not for nurturing children, or the next time a representative from the Broad foundation mentions that the Broad superintendents academy graduates do not need an educational background to run a school district, or the next time you hear that Pearson Inc. has an even better standardized test to assist with educational goals, be wary, be skeptical, be frightened, and, most of all, ask questions.

A lot of questions.

When you hear that the goal is to serve man, make sure you know what you're getting into before you get on board.

References

Broad, W.J. (March 16, 2014). Donors with Big Ideas are Privatizing American Science. The New York Times, 1, 22-23.

Ohanian, S. (2013). The Gates of Hell. In J. Gorliewski & B. Porfilio (Eds.), Left Behind in the Race to the Top: Realities of School Reform (pp. 103-127). Charlotte, NC, Information Age Publishing.

Shin, L. (2014). The 85 Richest People in the World Have as Much Wealth as the 3.5 Billion Poorest, Forbes Magazine. Retrieved on April 25, 2014 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2014/01/23/the-85-richest-people-in-the-world-have-as-much-wealth-as-the-3-5-billion-poorest/