01/17/2013 04:42 pm ET Updated Mar 19, 2013

The Narcissism of School 'Reform'

This week, two icons of the contemporary school "reform" -- the Gates Foundation and Michelle Rhee -- illustrated the movement's essence. And it wasn't pretty. They exemplify the late Christopher Lasch's concept of the "culture of narcissism."

Lasch was at its best when describing cultural losses due to deindustrialization. The year his masterpiece was published, 1979, was the time when manufacturing jobs peaked. Since then, 40 percent of those jobs have disappeared. Industrial employment had provided purposeful activity and a sense of dignity. The end of the old model of work damaged the family and it explains the biggest reasons why it is so difficult to improve low-income schools.

In post-industrial America, work became more of "an exercise in presentation," and the workplace became "more competitive, exploitative, and unsatisfying." Post-modernism celebrated "not so much individualism as solipsism," justifying self-absorption. "Professional advancement came to depend less on craftsmanship or loyalty to the firm than on 'visibility,' 'momentum,' personal charm, and impression management."

Echoing the "Robber Barons" of the previous century, a new kind of paternalism emerged, with a "grandiose vision of a technological utopia." While the elites professed a desire to improve the world, their hubris recreated the "predatory individualism" of the pre-New Deal era.

Lasch was thus prescient in predicting the rise of brass knuckled edu-philanthropy. And, last week, the archetypical leader of the "Billionaires Boys Club" released its final report on "teacher quality." The Gates Foundation's Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project concluded that it had been right all along in promoting test-driven evaluations. Presumably because Bill Gates liked standardized testing, edu-philanthropists instigated laws mandating bubble-in accountability.

Gates and other billionaires coerced the nation's schools into using statistical models to fire teachers and punish under-performing schools. "Ensuring Fair and Effective Teaching" now claims that their research into value-added models "should give heart to those who have invested considerable effort to develop practices and policies to measure and support effective teaching."

I wish Lasch could provide his take on the genre of "papers" that have been funded by Gates et. al. They, like the latest MET paper, carry the trappings of scholarship, but use "evidence" dis-connected from reality for soundbites promoting their opinions.

Cut through the spin and their policy manifesto comes down to this. If all districts were like the MET sample, 56 percent low-income where 8 percent of the students were on IEPs, and the average high school student was only suspended .15 times and truancy was minimal, effective teachers could be measured. If districts would use the statistical models endorsed by Gates, and give them the weight that the foundation wants, and if they assigned four classes of twenty to all middle school teachers (as the MET did), and if systems would not respond with rote, basic skills instruction and non-stop test prep, then teaching and learning would be transformed. Based on this solipsism, all types of systems throughout our diverse nation should use the three-part Gates evaluation model for terminations, incentives, professional development, and generally redesigning themselves.

The other exemplar of edu-narcissism is Michelle "not a democracy" Rhee. Rhee, like so many TFA teachers, spent three years in a classroom and then decided that she had the solution for overcoming generational poverty. She flaunted her ego by offering to fire a principal on television.

John Merrow's excellent "Frontline" on Rhee is latest venue for her cult of personality. It documents the fabrication of data which created the illusion of progress. In her world, reality is blips of electricity in a computer. As long as the numbers come out right, she proclaims victory.

I have to believe that our post-modern alienation from the real world is one of the reasons why Rhee's abusiveness is lauded. Back when I read Lasch, I was doing hard physical labor while completing my doctoral dissertation. I can guarantee that the weight we hefted was more than statistics, and failing to face up to reality had actual consequences.

We paid our union building representative to negotiate compromises, and he could only do so by demonstrating that his word was good. When management was abusive, the rep taught us, "don't go off rootin' and tootin' and there won't be no cuttin' nor shootin'." But, the union's job was to protect the "integrity of the collective bargaining agreement." In union, we had the strength to stand up for our dignity. We would have fought to the end against a tyrant like Michelle Rhee. And when the front office theorists poked their noses onto the shop floor, the union and lower level management found ways to shield us from the "suits'" illusions.

I'm not saying they could have talked sense to today's billionaires and the narcissism that they fund. But, back then we had an advantage. In the industrial world, reality was more than just another paradigm. Even Bill Gates, and perhaps Michelle Rhee, would have learned that if you ignore it too long, actual consequences would result.