Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Sunday, September 28, 2014

How Are Schools Supposed To Work When Everything Else Around Them Is Broken?

Had a discussion with NY Daily News reporter Ben Chapman over the "disruption" that education reformers bring to the education system (and the money they make off of that "disruption") that went like this the other day:

To which Chapman replied

This is the education reformer "change" frame - sure, change is hard and sometimes it hurts, but given how bad things are now, significant change is needed no matter the cost.

But I don't buy that:

Chapman never replied to my Twitter pushback (and since it was the weekend, I'll assume he had something more fun to do than talk on Twitter with me), but this idea that schools are dysfunctional in isolation of the rest of society is something I want to hit on beyond my conversation with Ben.

Because it's bullshit.

Schools may look like sufficiently dysfunctional places to education reformers but they are no more so than other institutions in American life.

Let's start with the granddaddy of dysfunctional American institutions, the federal government.

In January, as President Obama was set to give his State of the Union address, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found this:

As President Barack Obama enters his sixth year in the White House, 68 percent of Americans say the country is either stagnant or worse off since he took office, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Just 31 percent say the country is better off, and a deep pessimism continues to fuel the public's mood. Most respondents used words like “divided,” “troubled,” and “deteriorating” to describe the current state of the nation.

On the eve of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, more than six-in-10 Americans believe that the nation is headed in the wrong direction and 70 percent are dissatisfied with the economy.

Displayed here are the words and phrases poll respondents most commonly associated with where the country is headed in 2014, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
It’s not just Obama under fire. A whopping 81 percent disapprove of Congress and twice as many Americans now hold negative views about the Republican Party as positive ones.

Democratic pollster Fred Yang, whose firm conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, compares these findings to the 1993 movie “Groundhog Day,” in which the protagonist finds himself living the same day over and over.

“It seems like we’ve been re-living the same basic dynamics -- a public that is anxious, dissatisfied and dismayed -- in a continuous loop,” he said.

That "continuous loop" of anxiety, dissatisfaction and dismay over the direction of the country and the economy was measured again in the latest WSJ/NBC News poll earlier this month:

The most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll says that a clear-cut majority is disgusted with the present political scene and retains little hope that future generations will fare as well as we have. As candidates get down and dirty in the lead-up to midterm elections, 60 percent say the country is in a general state of decline. A mere 19 percent of those polled have a favorable opinion of Republicans in Congress; their Democratic colleagues (or “colleagues”) poll at 31 percent. But the most remarkable number is 79: that’s the percentage of the politicized public that presently voices its discontent with the entire American political system as constituted; and fully half of the respondents said “very dissatisfied.”

79% of Americans polled express "discontent with the entire American political system as constituted," half say they are "very dissatisfied."

This is not a happy electorate, is it?

And one of the things they aren't happy with is the economy and how it seems to be rigged for the top 5%.

Which it certainly seems to be, as Neil Irwin showed in this recent report in the NY Times:

Every year, the Census Bureau delivers a sweeping set of numbers that give the richest annual picture of how much Americans are making, how many are living in poverty, and how many have access to health insurance. The numbers are backward-looking, covering conditions from a year ago. But the new numbers, released Tuesday, in many ways tell us more about how well the economy is serving — or failing — the mass of Americans than data that create hyperventilation in the financial markets.

The census numbers on what American families made last year are as mediocre as they are predictable. We now know that if your household brought in $51,939 in income last year, you were right at the 50th percentile, with half of households doing better and half doing worse. In inflation-adjusted terms, that is up a mere 0.3 percent from 2012. If you’re counting, that’s an extra $180 in annual real income for a middle-income American family. Don’t spend your extra $3.46 a week all in one place.

Going back a little further, the numbers are even gloomier. The 2013 median income remained a whopping 8 percent — about $4,500 per year — below where it was in 2007. The 2008 recession depressed wages for middle-income Americans, and they haven’t recovered in any meaningful way. And 2007 household incomes were actually below the 1999 peak.


This simple fact may be the most important thing to understand about today’s economy: Around 1999, growth in the United States economy stopped translating to growth in middle-class incomes. In the last 15 years, median income has been more or less flat while there was far sharper growth in, for example, per capita gross domestic product.

There are various potential reasons. Evolving technology favors those with the most advanced skills and allows companies to replace formerly middle-class workers with machines. Declining union power gives workers less power at the bargaining table over wages. Cultural norms have shifted such that top executives and financiers are paid much more compared with regular workers than they used to be.

But there really is no mystery as to why public opinion has been persistently down on the quality of the economy for years. You can’t eat G.D.P. You can’t live in a rising stock market. You can’t give your kids a better life because your company’s C.E.O. was able to give himself a big raise.
The rubber-meets-road measure of whether the economy is working for the mass of Americans is median real income and related measures of how much money is making its way into their pockets and what they can buy with that money.

And the newest census numbers show that the nation experienced virtually no progress on that frontier in 2013, and remains far behind where we were seven years ago. Americans feel disappointed by the economy; the new data show that they have good reason.

Now why aren't gains from GDP "trickling down" to the middle and working classes instead of squarely going to the top 5%?

Might it be because the economy is rigged in the favor of the top 5% and the regulatory bodies that are supposed to correct this kind of criminality are themselves rigged to favor the rich and powerful?

I think it might:

Secret audio recordings made in 2012 by a former Fed employee of conversations between high-level staffers inside the New York Federal Reserve, the branch that oversees Wall Street, show how the agency was afraid of offending powerful banks, most notably Goldman Sachs. The recordings, detailed in an explosive story on Friday by ProPublica and NPR, are a bombshell that sweeps back some of the veil of secrecy surrounding the Fed’s handling of the financial crisis to expose a culture of deference toward Wall Street, institutional paralysis and a culture averse to speaking up and challenging conventions.


Recordings reveal how Segarra tried to persuade higher-ups at the New York Fed that Goldman Sachs needed a firm policy regarding conflicts of interest, one of several negative conclusions she had come to about the bank. She was shot down. “Why do you have to say there’s no policy?” complains Segarra’s unidentified boss in one recording.

Another recording shows how the New York Fed caved to Goldman Sachs’s insistence that it complete a deal with Spanish bank Banco Santander, even though Fed staffer Michael Silva thought the deal was “window dressing” designed to make the Spanish bank appear healthier than it really was.

The recording also suggests how in the fall of 2008, Fed staffers were akin to a deer in the headlights. As Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and a large money market fund, where shares are never supposed to trade for less than one dollar, “broke the buck,” confusion and paralysis reigned. In one recording, Silva, a former chief of staff to then New York Fed President Timothy Geithner, vomited. Silva, according to the recordings, later felt disappointed when Goldman Sachs did not step in to help save Lehman, a hesitance that deterred other banks. 

“It was extraordinarily disappointing to me that they weren’t thinking as Americans,” Silva says in the recording.

Segarra sued the New York Fed last fall in Manhattan federal court over her firing. In the complaint, she says that Silva said during an unspecified meeting that the Fed “possessed information about Goldman that could cause Goldman to ‘explode.’” A federal judge dismissed her claims last April. Prior to the lawsuit’s filing, Goldman Sachs attempted to negotiate a settlement with Segarra for around $7 million, court papers show.

The Fed, which injected hundreds of billions of bailout dollars into Wall Street banks to avert a global financial collapse, and the Justice Department, which has been criticized for not putting any senior executives from banks or lenders in jail, are both increasingly seen as having been too soft on Wall Street.

We have a government that no longer functions (and when it does function, it's only to reward members of the government themselves as well as their corporate backers), an economy that no longer works for the vast majority of Americans (and hasn't for a long time now, though the nadir has been in the post-2008 recession period), a banking system that is rife with criminality and corruption and a regulatory system that is rigged to ignore it (or worse, help hide the criminality and corruption.)

Schools, dysfunctional though some may be, are not dysfunctional in isolation of the rest of America's major institutions.

To think that "significant changes" - Joel Klein's vaunted "disruption" - will fix whatever dysfunction exists in the American education system while the rest of American institutions, many of which have direct power through law and mandate over how school systems run or indirect power through lobbying of those who make the law and push the mandates, is wrong-headed.

What continued "disruption" will continually bring is more chaos, more dysfunction.

We see that already with all the changes wrought since No Child Left Behind, continued through Race to the Top - constant turmoil over the Endless Testing regime, teacher evaluation changes that tie ratings to test scores and cause ever more testing, school "turnarounds" that hand public schools over to private entities to run them as charters, the fights over school closings and co-locations, the fight over Common Core and standardized standards and curricula imposed from afar.

There have been significant disruptions to the American public education system since the Bush No Child Left Behind Era and like the rest of American institutions, public schools have suffered in the esteem of the American public as measured by the latest PDK/Gall-Up Poll on education, with 80% expressing disapproval of the nation's public schools at large even as a majority said they thought highly of the schools in their neighborhoods.

Americans may see schools at large as dysfunctional (though interestingly, not their own neighborhood schools), but no more so than they see the rest of America's institutions.

And the reality is, bringing "significant changes" and "disruption" to the school system developed by the same people who run the dysfunctional government or own banks and/or corporations that wreak dysfunction in society isn't going to fix whatever dysfunction exists in the school system.

Instead it will bring about more dysfunction.

The cynic in me thinks that's exactly what education reform is meant to bring - ever-changing mandates that breed more dysfunction, more chaos, and eventually drive the public school system to dissolution, allowing it to be privatized and owned by the very institutions that cause so much dysfunction and chaos themselves - the banks and the corporations.

It's nice to think that schools can fix themselves when the rest of America's institutions are broken, but it's a fairy tale, no less mythic than the jive we still tell ourselves about having a government "Of the people, By the People, For the people" or an economy in which anybody can succeed through hard work and sweat alone.


  1. Brilliant analysis RBE! All the honor!

  2. Thank you for continuing to shine a consistent and caring light over a corrupt sea rift with waves of deformation by corporate and political greed.