Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Who Are Those Guys?

On rare occasions, I put aside the GBN News parodies to do a serious piece like the following, because as much as they try, those DOE types just can’t be funny all the time.

As a NY City public school parent, I frequently find myself pondering the ongoing attacks on public school education and what really lies behind them. I can’t help feeling like we’re Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, relentlessly pursued by a mysterious posse with seemingly limitless resources, only in this case it’s the outlaws who are the posse. But the question we face is the same as the one Butch and Sundance kept asking: “Who are those guys?”

My interest in this question is both personal and professional. In her book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System”, Diane Ravitch does a masterful job covering the political and educational factors behind so-called education reform. But as a clinical social worker, I am interested in the personalities and motivations involved, as much as the politics. Who are these education “reformers”? Why do they do what they do, in the way that they do it? And what are the implications for our children and the entire educational system?

A graduate school professor of mine, a sociologist, used to teach us to look beyond the general roots of deviance, into why people deviate in the particular ways that they do. Well, the Kleins, Rhees and Bloombergs of the world can certainly be considered “educational deviants” – after all, they seem to have thrown away all of the educational field’s established norms of behavior. But why do these people deviate in this particular mean-spirited, arrogant way, compelling people to worship at the shrine of data, and creating a climate of fear and upheaval worthy of a totalitarian state?

Let’s look at some of the personalities of those we’re dealing with. Michelle Rhee, the Washington DC Schools Chancellor, frequently blasts critics who “put the interests of adults over that of children” – as if this is some sort of zero sum game in which one can only benefit if the other loses. But even in a generally laudatory article like last year’s Time Magazine profile, she herself comes across as incapable or uninterested in displaying any social skills with other adults. One has to wonder if her disdain for “adult interests” masks an inability to relate to anyone beyond high school age, a stunted social development.

Then there’s Joel Klein, Rhee’s soul mate in New York, who seems more comfortable commiserating with his Blackberry than with live human beings. Would he or anyone else tolerate a child or teenager who so rudely ignores a speaker by totally absorbing him or herself in an electronic device, as Klein frequently does during meetings? Is the man incapable of normal interpersonal communication?

Of course, too, there’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who went beyond even his own legendary disdain for the common folk, humiliating a disabled reporter whose cell phone accidentally went off during a press conference. And don’t forget his utterly insensitive dismissal of parents’ concern for their children’s safety traveling to and from school, when he famously insisted that parents only want their kids to bring cell phones to school so they can call and ask if they want chicken of fish for dinner.

If these characters were being interviewed for a job caring for young children, their personalities would set off so many alarms that they’d be rejected out of hand. But somehow they’ve managed to end up controlling entire big city educational systems and thereby caring for millions of children.

It seems that anyone so unable to appropriately relate to others should not be managing a system full of human beings, young ones at that. These folks are so much more enamored of data than of people that they can only measure test scores rather than look at the entire rich complexity of children’s education. They reduce our kids to bubbles on a form, and parents and teachers to annoyances that should be seen and not heard. And they try to dominate and control others rather than work respectfully with them.

Over-reliance on data, often of questionable validity, does seem to be permeating much of human services these days. I have been seeing more and more of it in my own field. But the way in which data is misused in education has gone to an extreme. It is ruining the education of our children, the careers of dedicated educators, and the existence of many of our neighborhood schools. It is, in fact, being used to destroy the public education system.

So who are those guys? Are they trying to remake education into a data-driven business and force it down our collective throats because that is all their narrow personalities allow them to do? After all, if the only thing you can manage is widgets, you can either manage a widget factory, or, like them, you can try to turn all of those you do manage into widgets. Or are other forces (hedge fund managers or large foundations with an economic and political agenda, perhaps?) just using these types of people to do their dirty work because it furthers their own aspirations?

Either way, “those guys” are the sort of folks who may succeed in the business world; a world where the likes of Jack Welch can parley “creative destruction” and firing the bottom ten per cent into a reputation for success. But for the good of our children and their future, they do not belong in the schools.


Leonie Haimson said...

This is a great piece Gary, and profound in many ways. So sad.

NYC Educator said...

I like this column very much. I'd only add that these people who supposedly worship at the shrine of data have a pronounced tendency to ignore or obfuscate any and all data that fails to reinforce their preconceived notions. I've been thinking a lot about Paul Simon's line, "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

I think this applies in abundance to all these so-called "reformers." Their real goal, I really believe, is to roll back that inconvenient 20th century. With rampant crap masquerading as news, they're doing a pretty fair job of it.

Shino said...

Fantastic, Gary!

Indeed they are trying to run our schools like a business but they should only look at the economy today to realize that ain't no magic bullet, either.

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful and astute assessment of the personalities of our current so called "reformers". Their behavior demonstrates a very rigid, antagonistic and ruthless mindset hell bent on following their own ideas on what an effective education looks like and demonizing anyone who doesn't share
or buy into their vision. The sad part is that had they been open to ideas from parents and educators they really might have been able to
make a very positive contribution to New York City schools given the extraordinary power they exercise.

The Perimeter Primate said...

Hi Gary,

I'm also fascinated in what makes these people tick. Here's my look at Whitney Tilson and his ilk.

Camille LoParrino said...

Wow! I have never heard a more accurate and eloguent analyis of the NYC DoE -- Bravo! You write so effectively I was totally enraptured -- Let us know when you're first book comes out!

Anonymous said...

Go, go, go! Keep on being unfunny as much as you want!

By the by, Ravitch just shredded, SHREDDED, Merriman on NY1. Though, perhaps, only intelligent and informed viewers noticed. Merriman came off as a duplicitous bonehead, IMHO.

Anonymous said...

Here's a link to the Ravitch vs Merriman NY1 debate on charter schools from last night:

gih said...


Perhaps you are right as what I have also observed today.

Anonymous said...

I would only add that many of "those guys", in my opinion, are either hired as hatchet/efficiency people or are, profoundly, wannabe hatchet/efficiency people, as opposed to visionaries, philanthropists, etc.
And, frankly, I think I'm being kind in leaving it at that.

Michael Fiorillo said...

As an admirer of your satire, I doubly appreciated this change of pace, and its insightful, psychoanalytic bent.

While I am convinced economic interests are the fundamental motivation behind corporate ed deform, that too plays out within the context of personality and character.

Greed and the will to power have many faces, and the constellation of personalities grouped around ed deform are notable for their arrogance and deceptiveness. How much of that includes self-deception I often wonder.

Anonymous said...

Keep going. Why does Gov Cuomo disdain educators? Who are David Coleman and the CCSS gang? What ed credentials do the state ed commisioners hold? Same for Mr. Duncan. Who's personally profiting from the ed deform wave?