Archive for October, 2011

Undermining Public Education

Skandera takes steps to undermine public education

It’s no surprise that N.M. Education Secretary Designate Hanna Skandera is taking steps to undermine public education. The problem is that the educational model she and her backers pursue isn’t education at all. It’s operant conditioning.

Earlier this year I wrote about the questionable nomination of Hanna Skandera to the post of New Mexico secretary of public education – a job for which she is, on evidence, unqualified. Given her lack of a proper background and experience as an educator I wondered just what she was about.

As it turned out, Skandera failed to be confirmed for the secretary position during the 2011 regular session and so has held her office as “secretary designate.” Since holding this office, and without the mandate accorded by legislative approval, she has taken steps designed to undermine the authority of the Public Education Commission and the future of public education in the state.

Ms. Skandera came to New Mexico with a mission – to undertake the process of privatizing public education. She came here under the auspices and/or recommendations of various right-wing “foundations” and “institutes.” In some of them she had previously served as an officer.

Ms. Skandera and New Mexico are not alone in this scheme, as she has numerous counterparts across the country, all paid for by the same cabal of wealthy and influential individuals who underwrite the so-called “foundations” and “institutes” that finance their industrialized vision of public school reform. Here in New Mexico, Skandera has the backing of one of those so-called “foundations,” that being the Rio Grande Foundation and its chief executive Paul Gessing.

The majority of financial support for this “foundation” comes from out-of-state “foundations” and donors. Gessing’s donors include, among others, Donor’s Capital Fund of Virginia, State Policy Network of Virginia, Roe Foundation of South Carolina, Wal-Mart of Arizona and the Atlas Foundation of Washington DC.

A clear warning of an agenda

The obvious duplicity and fact-torturing employed by these so-called “foundations” and “institutes,” which are underwritten by some of the wealthiest people in the United States, ought to be a clear warning to all that they have an agenda. The shuck and jive surrounding their propaganda is patently transparent. What they are after is to defame, de-unionize, scrap and then privatize public education across the United States.

They are beginning with the founding and underwriting of variations on the charter-school theme. Charter schools, across the board, do not have a better academic record than their public school counterparts. What they do offer is that they are generally free of teachers’ unions, a holy grail for the sponsors on their path to privatization.

The efforts of these groups and their agents are sometimes clumsy and ham-handed but in so being they reveal the true nature of what they are up to. For example, Ms. Skandera just recently overruled the N.M. Public Education Commission’s (PEC) decision to not renew the credentials of three charter schools that utterly failed to meet required academic standards. To ensure she has legal cover for her actions, Skandera’s Public Education Department (PED) has now hired Patricia Matthews, who comes from the staff of a law firm that provides legal services to charter schools. The event was characterized by a member of the PEC as, “…hiring a fox to guard the hen house.”

Skandera also tailored the qualifications for a position within her department so she could hire the wife of the governor’s right-hand man. These antics are, to put it into the campaign rhetoric of our current governor, “Crony” hiring. So much for promised reform on that score.

Foot soldiers for the financially powerful

Why so blatant? Why the arrogance? Perhaps it arises from a sense of hubris gained by knowing you have the backing of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice that wants to become even more wealthy, and you can help.

Being a foot-soldier for the financially powerful has been known to confer delusions of elevated status to certain individuals. To get the picture, one has only to listen to Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who is doing his best to cut funding for public education at all levels in his state and disenfranchising teachers’ unions, speaking to someone he thought was one of the Koch brothers in this audio recording.

It is also worth noting that Governor Martinez’s campaign reports show that she took $10,000 directly from Koch Industries and $1.3 million from the Republican Governors’ Association. The RGA, for its part, took in at least $1 million from the Koch brothers and donated more than a million to the Republican Party of New Mexico, which heavily aided Martinez’s campaign.

The Koch brothers are businessmen – they expect a return on their investments, and you can rest assured they’ll have business in the Land of Enchantment.

Here is the agenda

Why do I object so strenuously and so strongly to all of the above? I do so because the industrialized education model being pursued by activists such as Skandera and her backers is an endless cycle of memorizing and regurgitating – no critical thinking, no creativity and, above all, no challenging of conventional wisdom or authority. The kind of training proposed by these people is not education – technically, it is operant conditioning.

Bill Gates, who invests heavily in this kind of educational reform through his own “foundation” once told an interviewer that any form of teaching and learning that could not be measured is useless. When was the last time you measured a beautiful sunset? How would you quantify the beauty of a Mahler symphony? Human beings have hearts and minds, Mr. Gates, not CPUs.

Conditioning of this kind is a dead end from which there is no exit. A better conception of the future will be impossible, because not only would the majority of children be unable to imagine such, they also wouldn’t know how to measure it. Children so conditioned would be left with no sense of authenticity or agency to shape their lives beyond low-paying, low-skill, treadmill jobs. Their lives and imaginations would be impoverished and, consequently, so too would be the world in which they would have to live.

People cannot have a better life or fashion a better world if they cannot imagine it, if they cannot imagine themselves creating it. Destroy imagination and you destroy tomorrow.

If people want more for their own children and if people who have no children want more for themselves, they must come to understand that today’s children will shape everyone’s future. We must all see our investment in public education today as an investment in our own futures, an investment in a civilized social contract, in a creative and thriving society.


scene from Fritz Lang's "Metropolis"

The moral of Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis” is that between head and hands there must be a heart. It is a heartless world imagined by those such as Skandera and her sponsors, those who would privatize and industrialize public education.

The More Things Change…

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose…

As I started to outline my thoughts for this essay, The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same, I recalled my first day in tech school at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas in 1961, learning how to maintain and launch an Atlas-F ICBM. I was a brand new 2nd Lieutenant in a group of about 20 officers ranging from “Brown Bars” like me to Lt. Colonels. The introduction was delivered by a young 1st Lt. who was enthusiastic to the point of delight about how modern warfare would never be the same because of these amazing ICBMs. The fellow rattled off dazzling statistic after dazzling statistic about range, targeting accuracy, response time, time to target and so on. The guy was absolutely glowing as he addressed the mixed group of newbies and old hands about the amazing capabilities of the Atlas F weapon system and a future of space travel, orbiting space stations, men on the moon and so on. For the time, it was all Buck Rogers whiz-bang.

At this point in the presentation there was a rather loud “Harrumph!!”. I looked back as a grizzled Captain, obviously recalled from retirement to active duty, growled loudly, “Aw, baloney! I’ll bet anybody anything that the day they land a man on the moon there’ll be a Goon in the pattern with fresh fruit and vegetables.”

(C-47 a WWII era cargo aircraft affectionately known in the AF as the “Gooney Bird” in which the author flew  when he was first on active duty in 1961.)

Of course the class broke into gales of laughter – you had to be there I suppose – everyone enjoyed the counter-point. This guy had flown very many combat missions, had been shot at on numerous occasions and wasn’t terribly impressed with the idea of sitting in an underground bunker waiting to launch a missile at someone half-way around the planet he couldn’t see.

When I read the front page story in the Sunday, September 4th, New York Times, In Classrooms of Future, Stagnant Scores, I heard myself say, “Aw Baloney!” and I felt much the same way the Captain must have. The article cited details the introduction and use of high tech devices in a school system in Chandler, Arizona. This community has so far spent 33 million dollars to acquire the latest and greatest educational whiz-bang gadgets to outfit their schoolrooms. The article goes on to report that, “… schools are spending billions on technology, even as they lay off teachers, with little or no proof that this approach is improving basic learning.” The Chandler story is being repeated across the country as schools acquire the latest gadgets and get rid of teachers.

Frankly, I think we have slipped our intellectual and moral anchors and are now rapidly drifting off into an ocean of gullibility and hidden agendas. School officials are behaving much like Pacific island cargo cults waiting for that magical ship to sail over the horizon bearing all the answers to successful standardized test scores so they can beat the No Child Left Behind rap. They are bereft of good ideas of their own and are desperate. How did we come to this and what other ideas are possible?


The “real deal” isn’t gadgets, it isn’t holding back and it certainly isn’t social promotion either. It isn’t bogus programs like No Child Left Behind. Those lame ideas have been and are being proven wrong over and over again – ad nauseum. Some things actually do work however and we need to ask, what is it that the successful charter schools do that regular public schools don’t? Are the technos ready for this brain-exploding revelation? 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 …… They spend more time with kids!Eeeeeek! More time? That means more teachers and tutors. That means more mentoring. We don’t want to pay for more humans but …. maybe there’s a machine we can buy that will do the job.” There is more to the “Eeeeeek!” factor, however, and we’ll get to that later.

In contrast to the Chandler experience, in Houston, Texas the Schools Superintendent is experimenting with – are you ready for this?  Here it comes !!!! ….. More time, More teachers, More tutors, More mentoring. And, as a result, the educational/instructional outcomes are improving. Troubled Schools Try Mimicking the Charters

There were five policies identified by the fellow who consulted with the Houston school system that he deemed “common to the successful charters” and these were:

  • Longer school days and years.
  • More rigorous and selective hiring of principals and teachers.
  • Frequent quizzes to determine what needs to be retaught – and “high dosage tutoring”.
  • A “no excuses” culture.

To this end, the Houston school cited in the story hired 50 full-time math tutors. More teachers, more tutors, more of the most essential ingredient in successful teaching and learning – one-on-one contact between teachers and learners. The tutors come from various backgrounds and the one cited in the story was formerly an engineer who easily illustrated how “negative 7 and positive 7 have the same absolute value” to a struggling student by drawing a number line for her. This is not unlike a master carpenter showing an apprentice how to square a layout – this is teaching as it has been done for as long as adults have been passing knowledge to young people.

Machines do not understand when a child is “struggling”, machines cannot interpret a puzzled look on a child’s face, machines cannot sense emotion and allay fear and uncertainty with a pat on the back or an encouraging word as can an adult who knows the child. These are the strong and irrefutable reasons why caring humans are the first and best teachers of other humans. And, it should go without saying that there have to be enough teachers, tutors and mentors to go around.

I am not at all opposed to the use of technology in classrooms as such. In these 21st Century times marvelous devices can be employed to extend the reach of teachers but, it must always be understood, machines cannot replace human teachers. Why? Because we are not talking about assembly lines and robots we are talking about schools and children. My values embrace personal achievement as opposed to standardized test scores and advocacy for children as distinct from advocacy for social promotion and holding back. Teaching a kid with the object of passing the NCLB test is not by any stretch of the imagination education. My advocacy is also a position with moral dimensions: we unquestionably devalue humanity by assigning to machines what is the essentially human task of people teaching people and when we demean a child with the humiliation of being held back. We have only to ask: What human values are transmitted to a child by a machine? What values are transmitted by humiliation? Who, in these circumstances is the ultimate beneficiary?

We must question why remedies are being proposed which are essentially punitive and not educative as to subject matter. We are justified in asking what other agendas might underlie policies that are essentially more political than educational. As a public policy, holding children back in grade is not about education but more a manipulation of public perception. The proposed policy of ending social promotion is no more than a Trojan Horse laying the ground work for selling out public education to the lowest bidder. This is the “Eeeeeek!” factor I alluded to earlier, this is the hidden agenda we must be alert to.

If we wish to promote a humane society, the teaching learning enterprise must then always be humane and human. In the final analysis there must always be teachers in the pattern, caring human teachers doing what teachers have been doing for eons – teaching children, passing on our collective knowledge and our collective societal values, which values include recognizing and respecting each other’s humanity – it cannot be about profit. Morally, the responsibility and execution of public education must always remain public. There is no other way to create and maintain a humane, just and civilized society except as a public enterprise.

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