This season’s version of education reform has hit some speed bumps, what with the resignation of the Washington, D.C., schools chief and the report that students in the City of Oz version of school — the Harlem Children’s Zone — did not do as well as expected on state tests.
"Superman and Wonder Woman Meet Kryptonite" was the headline to these stories suggested by Paul Tractenberg, the Rutgers Law School professor who has, for decades, championed education reform done the hard way — by paying for, and persistently pursuing, it.
He refers to the superhero status given to Michelle Rhee, an advocate of merit pay and soon to be ex-superintendent, and Geoffrey Canada, the well-paid CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone charter schools, by the movie "Waiting for Superman" and Oprah Winfrey.
Winfrey urged Gov. Chris Christie to hire Rhee as Newark’s superintendent and dubbed Canada "superman" of education. That was all on the same show that billionaire Mark Zuckerberg — a graduate of a prep school that charges $40,000 annually — pledged $100 million in Facebook stock over five years to reform Newark schools that cost nearly $1 billion a year to run.
How that reform will occur, we don’t yet know, but responsibility will be given to Cory Booker, called the "rock star mayor of Newark" by Winfrey. Booker, once details are settled, will be an informal educational adviser to the governor, a sort of Robin to Christie’s Batman.
One development is certain, according to someone studying school reform for decades: This latest wave of hyped reform won’t be the last. Joseph DePierro, the dean of Seton Hall’s College of Education and Human Services, says the nation witnesses highly touted, New Dawn, we’re-finally-going-to-fix-it-now demands for change every generation.
"The question is what good they do, or how much harm," says DePierro.
The university dean is concerned because, he says, this one is accompanied by an unprecedented attack on public schools and their employees and is at least as motivated by reducing spending as it is by improving education.
"It’s very different from past reform efforts,’’ he says. He cites calls for change that followed "A Nation at Risk," a presidential report that warned the damage done to schools by neglect and underfunding was like an "act of war" committed against us by a foreign country.
"That report recommended raising teacher salaries, improving their benefits, enhancing their security, all with the aim of attracting bright young people to the profession," says DePierro, who started his own career as a public school teacher.
"We did that, but now we’re taking it all away — at a time when the state and the nation need to hire those young bright people. We’re also showing public scorn for teachers by emphasizing the idea many should be replaced, or just dismissed."
One of the planks of the governor’s education reform platform is a plan to dismiss poor-performing teachers and use the savings to fund merit pay. He also wants to expand charter schools.
DiPierro’s theory might explain why, in every generation, education smashes into a crisis, real or manufactured, and the crisis is wrestled to the floor by the latest great plan for reform.
A generation before "A Nation at Risk," schools endured the Sputnik scare after the Soviet Union put a beeping, metal basketball in orbit that, according to some, threatened our nation. It led to enhanced spending for math and science education.
Fueled by fear of Reds and willing to spend the bucks, the United States — little more than a decade later — landed the first man on the moon; unfortunately, Neil Armstrong blew his lines stepping onto the lunar dust.
Ideology and economic circumstances play roles in shaping cyclical reform. The "A Nation at Risk" era was the flush, spare-no-expense years of Ronald Reagan’s "Morning in America." A Republican governor, Thomas Kean — not the New Jersey Education Association — led the fight for increasing teacher’ salaries here and sent public school costs skyrocketing.
But spending money on teachers is just so yesterday. Now, politics and economic circumstances call for cutting public spending, weakening unions, privatizing as much of government as can be sold to profit-making enterprises.
DePierro says he worries about the long-term impact of this newest round of reform.
"I don’t think it will kill public education," he says. "But it already has maimed it."
That must be the rebuttal to all the "manifestos" Klein and Company publish in the papers or spew on TV.
This education reform movement isn't about improving education.
It's about reducing spending, especially for teacher salaries and infrastructure.
Klein himself has told us that.
He envisions a future where one teacher in Sri Lanka teaches 100 students here in NYC, perhaps home on their computers, perhaps in some "education center" somewhere with a para-professional or two to watch over them while they "do their work."
That's what "online education" is all about - saving money on salaries and buildings.
That is what this latest education reform movement is about.
Sure Obama has increased education spending since he took over - but little to none of that money goes to classroom use.
Certainly it doesn't go to teacher salaries (even as he says he has helped raise teacher salaries.)
Rather the money goes to no-bid contracts for standardized tests, it goes to build "data systems" to track the scores from those tests, and it goes to central administration "accountability experts" to fire people based on the scores they're tracking.
That's not spending more on education.
That's spending more on administration.
Meanwhile teachers are threatened with layoffs here in NYC, many teachers have been let go across the country and many more may get pink slips before the year is out.
But take a look at how many charter schools are hiring - especially for management and administration.
Somebody's getting the money that used to go to education.
But it certainly isn't public school children or public school teachers.