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Jim Miller: Who Will Save Us from the Billionaire “Saviors”?

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Jim Miller, professor at the San Diego City College, has posed exactly the right question: Who will save us from “our billionaire saviors?” The question was inspired by Andrea Gabor’s excellent new book After the Education Wars, and by the possibility that billionaire Michael Bloomberg will run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020.

In New York City, we remember him as a data-driven, test-loving, top-down Reformer, who hired non-educator Joel Klein to terrorize teachers and principals and introduce choice and charters. The result was a public relations success and an education failure. Much boasting, vast disruption, constant reorganization. Change for the sake of change. Bloomberg is one of the billionaires identified in the NPE report about the super-rich who fund anti-public education candidates in state and local elections.

Miller writes:

After failing to prop-up Antonio Villaraigosa’s flagging gubernatorial campaign last June, Michael Bloomberg apparently spent the summer pondering whether it would be wiser for him to personally save the United States rather than waste his time trying to rescue California by proxy. Last week the New York Times reported that Bloomberg was mulling a run for the Presidency as a Democrat because that represented the most viable path to victory. As the Times story observed, while Bloomberg has engaged in some good work on guns and the environment, many of his other positions might not be very likely to win over the liberal base of the Democratic Party…

As Andrea Gabor, (ironically) the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College/CUNY, writes in her excellent new book After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform, Bloomberg’s reign in New York hardly represented a golden era for education: “to be an educator in Bloomberg’s New York was a little like being a Trotskyite in Bolshevik Russia—never fully trusted and ultimately sidelined…”

The business reformers came to the education table with their truths: a belief in market competition and quantitative measures. They came with their prejudices—favoring ideas and expertise forged in corporate boardrooms over knowledge and experience gleaned in the messy trenches of inner-city classrooms. They came with distrust of an education culture that values social justice over more practical considerations like wealth and position. They came with the arrogance that elevated polished, but often mediocre (or worse), technocrats over scruffy but knowledgeable educators. And most of all, they came with their suspicion—even their hatred—of organized labor and their contempt for ordinary public school teachers.

What this has resulted in, according to Gabor, is that the corporate reformers “adopted all the wrong lessons from American business.” Rather than innovating by harnessing “the energy and the knowledge of ordinary employees,” who are the most “knowledgeable about problems—and solutions” because they know the process, the billionaire boys club has favored a punitive, hierarchical, undemocratic, one-size fits all approach that has hurt students more than it has helped them.

Wedded to a factory-style approach to education, corporate reformers “focused on a Taylorite effort to standardize teaching so that teachers can be easily substituted like widgets on an assembly line. This despite the fact that, on average, ‘unions have a positive effect on student achievement’ and the best charter schools are often the independent charters that give teachers voice, often via union contracts.” All of this reflects the fact, Gabor reminds us, that “the corporate education-reform movement has deeply undemocratic roots.”

What this movement has brought us is not pretty. We have systematically devalued the “art” of teaching in favor of a dumbed-down, accountability regimen that prefers standardization and over-testing to empowering educators and students to think more creatively and independently. It has assailed teachers and attacked educational culture to such a degree that it should be no surprise that our society has become increasingly anti-intellectual and hostile to fact-based analysis. As Gabor observes of the Trump era:

[T]he election of this larger-than-life Chucky demagogue, with his multiple bankruptcies and divorces, his sexual predations and business malfeasance, his hate-filled speeches and tweets, also represented a failure of corporate-style education reform as it has taken shape over more than twenty years. Among an electorate that often favors “ordinary” people they can identify with, Trump, the consummate philistine—unread and uninterested, crude, unthinking, and disdainful of facts and any attempt at rational truth—holds up a dystopian mirror of the electorate…

It may not have been the intended outcome of those who simply wished to produce a more useful workforce, but it does show the profound limits of their debased instrumentalism. Hence Gabor again observes: “Corporate education reformers cannot be directly blamed for the ascendance of Trump. However, over two decades of an ed-reform apparatus that has emphasized the production of math and ELA test scores over civics and learning for learning’s sake has helped produce an electorate that is ignorant of constitutional democracy and thus more vulnerable to demagoguery.”

Gabor’s thorough study does more than just criticize the failures of corporate education reform. She outlines how multiple examples of innovative educational practices across the country have defied the technocratic dictates of the well-heeled and focused instead on “bottom-up” strategies that have relied heavily on “a participative, collaborative, deeply democratic approach to continuous improvement, drawing on diverse constituencies—including students, teachers, and local business leaders—in their effort.”

Thus, there are some insights to be found in approaches that rely on “local democracy” that can help do right for our children and the society at large. Following these examples, rather than the lead of self-important billionaires, is where we can find hope for a better education system and a more democratic society.

As for Bloomberg, maybe he should just go away and let the people lead. We’ve had too much “reform” from self-declared rich saviors and philanthrocapitalists already. In fact, it’s long past time that we save ourselves from them.

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