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Leonie Haimson

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Bloomberg, Cathie Black, Bill Gates, and the Condescension of the Oligarchy

Posted: 12/13/10 02:38 PM ET

Despite their insistence that nothing matters more than the quality of teaching, the oligarchy of corporate reformers and billionaires that is currently driving education policy in this country has launched a sharp attack on the whole concept of professionalism in the field of public education.

This trend has culminated in Mayor Bloomberg's recent appointment of a magazine executive, Cathie Black, as New York City Schools Chancellor, despite the fact that she has no education experience, training, or demonstrated interest in the field of public education. Though she cited her membership on an advisory board of a Harlem charter school, this apparently did not actually involve any meetings or actual involvement on her part, and the school itself has been riddled with problems, including high levels of teacher attrition and student suspensions.

The oligarchy's determined attack on professionalism in the field of education is also implicit in the campaign of Bloomberg, Gates and others for teachers to be laid off regardless of seniority, and to discount experience as the primary factor in determining their pay.

In a recent issue of Newsweek, Bill Gates compared teachers to people who mow lawns, saying, "Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, 'Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? ... I want to pay you more for that reason alone."

Umm, yes. The value of experience is accepted in most professions and an intrinsic factor in compensation in all public sector jobs. Moreover, the importance of experience is especially clear in the teaching profession, as shown in a re-analysis of the STAR Tennessee experiment, showing that the students had higher achievement and earnings as adults, depending on how long their Kindergarten teachers had been in the professions, with larger gains for every year up to twenty. (See also this study from Florida, showing "in elementary school reading there may be student achievement returns to as many as 15 years of additional teacher experience.")

And none of this, of course, measures the incalculable attributes of teachers in areas other than test scores, like knowing how to comfort a child, manage a classroom, instill self-confidence and persistence, ignite curiosity, or engage the imagination -- all valuable skills that develop over time. Despite the overriding focus of the corporate oligarchy on test scores, "non-cognitive" student qualities such as confidence and persistence are increasingly recognized as important determinants of success in school and in life, even more than test scores.

Ironically, the oligarchy's attack on the value of seniority has occurred only in education, not in other fields where the evidence is far less strong that experience matters, whether that might be law, medicine, or even policing. No parallel effort has been made by Bloomberg or his deputies, for example, to change laws so they can lay off older police officers or firefighters in favor of the younger ones, even though presumably there might be more value to youth in these fields, given the importance of strength and/or speed.

Cathie Black has herself entered into the fray, even before assuming office, saying that she wants to be able to fire older teachers, and keep those with "younger, newer, fresher ideas."

Yet Kent, the Connecticut boarding school where her own children attended school, clearly recognizes the value of experienced staff and boasts, "Many of our faculty have advanced degrees and our average tenure is more than a dozen years."

Similarly, Kent advertises average class size of 12 students per class; a clear indication to parents that their children will get the individual attention and support that they need to thrive academically. Indeed, class size is one of only a very few education reforms that we know leads to higher achievement, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the US Department of Education.

Bloomberg himself enrolled his daughters in Spence, a private school with class sizes averaging 14, and yet over the course of his administration has allowed classes to grow sharply -- despite billions of dollars in extra education spending. In grades Kindergarten to third grade, there are now more children in classes of 25 or larger than in classes 20 or less -- for the first time since 1998.

A similar attack has now been launched by the oligarchs against the critical importance of class size. In a recent speech before the Council of Chief State School Officers, Bill Gates urged them to increase class sizes, while Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called for "targeted" increases in class size when necessary.

What policies are the oligarchs promoting instead?

Joel Klein announced that, upon leaving the NYC Department of Education, he will work for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, heading up a new online for-profit education venture. A few days later, it was revealed that News Corp had purchased Wireless Generation, a company that received millions of dollars in no-bid contracts from the Department of Education to operate their online learning project, known as the " School of One" or "the Innovation Zone." And before leaving office, Klein had already announced the city's intention to radically expand online learning to four hundred of the city's public schools over the next few years, with no proof of any positive effect on learning. In order to fund this expansion, the city has proposed to add one billion dollars in extra spending for technology in the school capital plan.

Cathie Black refused to respond to reporters who asked her if she would send her own children to a New York City public school if she had to do over again, and instead repeated the mantra of parental "choice." But the implicit policies pursued by Bloomberg, which she has announced her intention to pursue, in effect prevent parents from being able to choose a public school for their children with reasonable class sizes.

No doubt Gates, Bloomberg, and soon Black, are looking to make cost savings and efficiencies of scale by laying off experienced teachers, increasing class size, and delivering instruction via computers -- efficiencies meant for other people's children, but not their own.

As Patrick Sullivan, parent and Manhattan member of the Board of Education, said in a recent speech, in words that apply to all the oligarchs intent on imposing their misguided priorities on public school children,

the worst of all this is the people who control our schools, the people who run our schools, the Mayor, the Chancellor, the Regents, they don't send their own kids to these schools. They have one idea of education for our kids and and an entirely different one for their own.


Beyond autonomy, beyond accountability, beyond privatization, the core principle of the Bloomberg administration when it comes to education is condescension: the idea that there's one idea of education for their children and a totally different idea of education for everybody else's, and that's what has to stop.

 

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