Thursday, April 28, 2011

Public Education Under Attack

Consider the article, "Problems with the Use of Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers", co-Authored by Scholars Convened by The Economic Policy Institute, August 29th, 2010. The quality of the scholars and analysis seems to be very high, and the conclusion is that "value added" methodology is inaccurate and inappropriate for teacher evaluation.

Further, before becoming involved in public education, I saw this method applied in a manufacturing company where it belongs, but applied wrongly (to evaluate people) even there, and it proved to be an utter failure. My experience taught me that it needs to be applied very carefully even in its proper realm which is to inanimate objects in manufacturing, and I can think of an almost endless number of reasons why it would fail the way it is applied in education.

As a former engineer, I had to ask myself, why a manufacturing industry methodology was being applied to people in education, and why have public education and teachers unions been getting so publicly attacked for the past five years or more by politicians and the major media? The "value-added" method was used as a very public method of rating teachers within the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, when the Los Angeles Times published teachers names along with a rating based on this method.

This article, "Charter schools and the attack on public education", by Sarah Knopp, ISR Issue 62, November–December 2008, sheds some light on that question, I think. Knopp, a teacher, a public education advocate, and a union advocate explains who and what the teacher unions are fighting. Read it, and judge for yourself. I think you will find that she really is defending the idea that public education is a public good, and that public good is under attack.

For a broad brush picture of what is happening, please read, "Higher Education Under Attack: An Interview With Henry A. Giroux", by C. Cryn Johannsen, Margins of Everyday Life, April 22, 2011. I couldn't agree more with Giroux, when he wrote "What is distinctive about the U.S. is that higher education is under attack not because it is failing but because it is public. It is now considered dangerous because it has the potential to function as a site where a culture of questioning can operate, the imagination can blossom, and difficult questions can be openly debated and critically engaged. Hence, many conservatives see higher education as a threat to their reactionary and corporate oriented interests and would like to defund higher education, privatize it, eliminate tenure, and define the working conditions of faculty to something resembling the labor practices of Walmart workers."

Now, don't get hung up on Giroux's use of the term "conservatives", if you or your parents happen to think of yourselves as "conservative", because when people like Giroux use that term, they are not referring to people like your parents, mine, or you or me. They really mean something like "the US oligarchs", and those people are really apolitical in terms of traditional political ideologies. However, most people think every CEO of a Fortune 500 company is a Republican, and every Republican is a traditional conservative, whereas nothing could be farther from the truth.

To put what is happening with our school systems countrywide in perspective, it is necessary to paint an even broader brush picture of what is happening in US politics and economics. I'll make this as brief as I can and try to get to the point, but it is hard to be brief and do much explaining. I'll try, though.

Part of the reason I turned from engineering to education twelve years ago was the sorry state of the US aerospace industry, but it was also due to the military-like structure of large corporations where most engineers like me worked. It wasn't as if I understood why or thought very much about why large corporations involved in manufacturing or product design were structured along military lines, but I knew and experienced how they were, and I really didn't much like being "an Army sergeant" or "corporate samurai" so to speak.

After leaving engineering, education seemed like a refuge to me, in a way. For a while, I worked on a plan to develop math teaching software, but working full time and raising a family made it rather difficult to be an entrepreneur. However, I learned something from working on another project with my friend, and that was how military and Government funding and military organization came dominate almost every aspect of science and technology in corporations and universities during the US mobilization for WWII. K12 education, however, was basically untouched and control remained with the States and local school boards.

Even today, K12 is still funded almost entirely by the States, and local school boards retain control despite a trickle of Federal grants and funding. That is changing with "No Child Left Behind", which was devised by a rather unsuccessful businessman in Texas by the name of George W. Bush and reflects the corporate business management philosophy. I've had 12 years to experience its transition into public education.

Here's the obvious reason why it stinks. Well, it's obvious if you've worked for large manufacturing companies and taught high school, and I have done both. Public education is essentially a social program, socialism in fact, always has been. It never has been a "for profit" activity. It's purpose was, in the past, to produce "good US citizens", able to read, write, and think for themselves. What are the purposes of a military or corporate organization? Sure, the military is about fighting and a corporation is about making a profit, but in more general terms they are very much alike insofar as they use people. Basically, the military and corporations are designed to obtain their members obedience to tasks that serve the military leader's or business owner's objectives. That is entirely different than education, which is supposed to be about students learning: how to think, question, and be creative, for themselves and for their own purposes.

Military and corporate organization and leadership are fundamentally incompatible with education's goal of producing good citizen's who can think for themselves, decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong, and decide for themselves what kind of country and Government they want.

Now, read this, and consider what educators and all citizens are up against, "How Wall Street Thieves, Led by Goldman Sachs, Took Down the Global Economy -- Their Outsized Influence Must be Stopped", by Les Leopold, April 25, 2011. Other sources of information on the same topic include the series of articles by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone and anything written since about 2007 by William Black. Dig into this in just a little depth, and you will find that there is no bottom to the unprosecuted corruption that exists in the US of today. The largest banks, the military-industrial complex, and the Federal Government are now essentially like one giant corporate conglomerate.

I think the U.S. at this time is well along the way to mature corporate-Government fascism, in a position not so different than Germany before Hitler. We are also undergoing a national bankruptcy just like Germany before Hitler, and wealth inequality is at the same extreme as it was on the eve of the 1930s Great Depression. Labor participation in unions is at a low not seen since the same point in time. Unlike the Great Depression, however, power is not falling away from financial and corporate interests due to business bankruptcies and bank failures. Unlike the Great Depression, Government is not finding ways to better the lives of everyone. Instead, Government, the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve have colluded with the largest banks and corporations to indemnify the failures of the very richest financiers and businessmen, to bring about the greatest wealth transfer in history from the general public to the architects of the financial crisis, and to ensure that credit continues to flow to the largest banks, corporations, and CEOs but not to small banks or small businesses. An all-encompassing regulatory apparatus for the financial sector is being developed to bring control over all banking-monetary-financial activity, the financial equivalent of the Department of Homeland Security.

Our history is playing out like the history of every powerful expansionist government of the past: like Rome, like Britain, like Germany, etc. At some point, a small number of people control nearly all the money, assets, government itself, and the people. When this happens, there is no meaningful democratic element in society any more that is capable of influencing government. There are only super-rich aristocratic rulers, their officials and functionaries, and the people subject to their rule. The last time this happened in the US, we got the Great Depression, but the oligarchs of the day could not completely control the banking crisis, the Government, or the people, and the oligarchs lost wealth and power. Today, the oligarchs are securely in the driver's seat. During 2007-2009, it wasn't clear it would turn out this way, but now it is clear.

What does this super-rich, class of self-styled U.S. aristocrats apparently want? If they are judged by their actions, they want: more power, more money, and more control. How are they getting it? By shaping public opinion via the wholly owned major media instead of responding to public opinion. By destroying the middle class, eliminating unions, bringing the military/corporate model to education, cutting social programs, by telling Government to ratify whatever laws corporations desire. By employing the US military to serve as their global police force, to protect their business interests, to topple foreign governments and occupy foreign countries, anyone who gets in the way basically. By having the Federal Reserve Bank supply unlimited credit at 0% interest to the largest banks, so they can lend it back to the US Government at interest to be collected from the people by the IRS, by supplying credit only to the largest, most favored corporations, and all this done at the expense of every citizen's private savings. By establishing a federal police-state type of organization (Homeland Security) with the right to spy on (warrantless wiretapping), or question anyone at any time (federal agents with self-written warrants), or detain people indefinitely without trial (anyone can be accused of being a terrorist; proof need not be disclosed), no judicial authorization required. An American Gestapo. And, they are getting it.

We are now engaged in three wars the public do not want (counting Libya), and the average American isn't complaining much, or I should say, he doesn't really understand real politics or economics (as opposed to high school history textbooks) well enough to complain, and he doesn't understand politics well enough to complain effectively. He/she is mostly reduced to being a spectator, expects someone to "do something" and is easily led by the nose. Every crisis is used by our leaders to justify leading us farther along the road to fascism. All that is needed in the near future to complete the descent of the US into fascism is a crisis big enough to spawn a dictator, someone to declare that U.S. problems are so severe that only a "strong leader" can save us. To at least one well-known public figure the picture I paint is not the future, but the present.

In Germany before Hitler, the crisis was economic failure, hyperinflation of the currency. In the US today, we are also on the verge of hyperinflation and an even greater collapse of the domestic US economy than we had from 2007-2009. The Federal Reserve has trebled the monetary base in about 2 1/2 years. China, Japan, and Pimco are all selling U.S. Treasuries. The dollar is falling in value. Hyperinflation is a real possibility, soon. If we do get hyperinflation, power will almost certainly centralize even more in the U.S.

What will happen to public education? Well, without a healthy economy and a Government committed to the "socialist" ideal of public education as a public good, a good education will become a privilege of the rich and the poor will get the military-corporate model education, where students are trained to perform tasks that require obedience to direction above all else.

To some extent, we already have that now, but it can get much, much worse.