“I support our teachers, but my daughter was traumatized by an unfirable 1st grade teacher,” so read a tweet I received after expressing concern that Vergara v. California decision – which declared K-12 teacher tenure unconstitutional for violating the civil rights of students – had nothing to do with civil rights, little to do with students, and everything to do with the continued efforts to privatize public education. If you publicly critiqued the Vergara verdict, you no doubt received a similar reply, which I’ve described by the following equation, dubbed VAM [Vergara Attack Method]:
Compliment of teachers in general [“I love teachers”]
– [BUT] there are “bad teachers”
+ vague and/or extreme personal anecdote about “bad teacher”
= you must be a “bad teacher” and hate children if you support tenure or any other rights for teachers. Also, you are against civil rights, likely a socialist, and most definitely are destroying the economy.
Rhetorically, it’s almost impossible to respond to VAM – Who can disagree that there are “bad teachers?” Who wants a child to be subjected to such a horrible person? Who wants a child to be traumatized?
VAM works especially well when coupled with civil rights rhetoric, as I wrote about in my last essay “A Tale of Two Vergaras: Of Stardom and the End of Teacher Tenure.” Who could be against civil rights? And so, in a masterful rhetorical twist, if you’re for tenure, you’re also against helping impoverished minority children – you’re standing in the way of equality. In more advanced versions of VAM, civil rights rhetoric is seamlessly connected with fixing the sagging economy as we see in an op-ed in USA Today claiming “There is no war on teachers.” The author assures us that there is “no such war,” and that if anything, the focus is on firing just a “very small minority of teachers” who are not just harming children, but according to his calculations, would actually fix our current financial crisis:
The gains according to historical economic patterns would be measured in trillions of dollars and would be sufficient to solve our national fiscal problems as well as the vexing income distribution issues currently being debated.
Yes, that’s right – firing this “small minority of bad teachers” will ultimately create trillions of dollars for the economy, along with solving civil rights. It’s a magic bullet – one that just needs be fired in right direction, towards “bad teachers.”
In short, VAM rhetorically checkmates those who are critical of the Vergara decision. This pervasive linguistic trick pins all of the nation’s problems not on teachers (who are wonderful), but on those “bad teachers,” who are destroying lives, destroying civil rights, and destroying the economy. No wonder, in the exact same issue of USA Today, a shocking ad illustrates a teacher throwing a child into a garbage can – and this doesn’t seem an act of war, given the current zeitgeist. After all, it’s only about “bad teachers” – not you. You’re a good teacher – that is, unless you think tenure is acceptable. In which case, what do you have to hide? Who are you protecting?
Outside of the outlandish, ill-supported leaps in logic which are now in the realm of “common sense”, the biggest problem VAM, though, is the impossibly vague term “bad teacher,” or the slightly more technical sounding, but equally meaningless “grossly ineffective teacher,” which Judge Treu used in his decision. Since the propaganda documentary Waiting for Superman, the “bad teacher boogeyman” has been in heavy linguistic circulation, which I noted in my 2010 essay “The Myth of the Bad Teacher:”
The Bad Teacher is no one specific, but rather, a sort of free-floating, ill-defined stereotype: he is an inept, uncaring, self-interested bureaucrat waiting for his pension, not only disinterested in students, but actively engaged in standing in the way of student achievement, rather than encouraging it. I imagine the Bad Teacher as slovenly dressed, with stains on his shirt, showing up to class late, and once there, reading the newspaper while his students throw paper airplanes at each other. He looks up at the clock occasionally, waiting for his time to be up in order get out of school as fast as possible, so he can get home and watch “Glee” on his plump, faux-leather couch. Or he could be a really “Bad Teacher,” such as the one soon to be depicted in a 2011 movie of the same name, which is focused on a “foul-mouthed, junior high teacher who, after being dumped by her sugar daddy, begins to woo a colleague – a move that pits her against a well-loved teacher.”
In essence, the “bad teacher” is a not just a basic strawman, but a hologram, an insubstantial projection of whoever you want him to be, whatever you – or your child – perceives him to be. He could be lazy; he could only lecture (or only use group work); he could be physically abusive; he could not know his content; he could take controversial positions; he could be a hard grader (or too easy of a grader). Indeed, at the college level (where I teach), high teacher ratings are highly correlated with teachers that give less work and higher grades, according to a recent study. In some cases – such as assigning “too much homework”, being called a “bad teacher” would be a compliment, in that the educator might actually being doing her job.
“In hundreds of classrooms, I have never seen a ‘grossly ineffective’ teacher,” Dr. David Berliner says in a must-read Slate article, an expert whose testimony was primary evidence in Judge Treu’s decision. “I don’t know anybody who knows what that means.”
And this is a professor who has spent his career exploring teacher quality, and was asked to testify on the other VAM – Value-Added-Measures, a statistical measure which uses standardized test scores to rate teachers. VAM gives the comforting illusion of objectivity so cherished by education reformers. But this method, also, has major limitations – the American Statistical Association cautioned use of this measure. Further, even if these metrics work very well at showing growth in a particular area of learning in a particular subject, they don’t show a lot of the attributes that educators – and lay-people – would associate with “good” teacher. Berliner observes (as paraphrased by reporter Jordan Weissman) “low test scores [don’t] qualify somebody as a bad teacher. They might do other things well in the classroom that don’t show up on an exam, like teach social skills, or inspire their students to love reading or math.” Indeed, a teacher can have great test scores – but could have earned them through abusive methods, ones which make the student great at test taking, but not learn anything about the subject, and hate it to boot.
Thus, a “grossly ineffective teacher” could be inspiring, could be challenging, could be wonderful. In short, this “bad teacher” could be any of us – especially those of us who believe that the current set of reforms that are focused on standardized testing and curriculum are harmful to students. Indeed, our very best teachers – those who stand up to the intense pressure from parents and students to be “easy,” those who refuse to submit their students to the testing regime that kills the love of learning – could be labeled as our very worst. As a case in point: one of the teachers accused of being a “bad teacher” in the Vergara case was Pasadena Teacher of the Year, and received numerous teaching awards.
What message is Vergara sending to committed, competent educators, those who love children, and who hate what NCLB and Race to the Top is doing to those children?
Now, don’t get it twisted: this is not a defense of child-molesters or otherwise horrible people; it’s not a defense of poor practices, such as giving worksheets to students every day (which is encouraged under the standardized testing regime). Nor is it a defense of the “status quo” – which, need I remind readers, is No Child Left Behind, which most teachers abhor. To defend tenure – due process in a highly-politicized workplace – is not to defend whatever horrible projection of “bad teacher” the reader has conjured.
Please, don’t VAM this essay.
And please, as the post-Vergara dust settles, as we’ve gotten our rants out of the system, let’s retire the “bad teacher” – in all its euphemistic forms. Rather, let’s work to foster constructive, explicit discussions about what it means to be an excellent educator – not just in terms of outcomes (which are framed in the most limited, unimaginative way under the current regime), but in terms of the actual practices that happen in the classroom, and as critically, the environment in which our teachers teach and students learn. Keep in mind, California is first in poverty (and in billionaires) in the nation – and discussions of “bad teachers” allow us to avoid substantial conversations about the impact of inequality on our children.
In letting the “bad teacher” go, we’ll find educators and the public – which are one in the same, remember – have shared interests and goals, despite the best efforts of corporate reformers to undermine public confidence, and put us in conflict with each other. In this fashion, we will repair the damage done by Vergara, and more broadly by the corporate reform movement, which has used VAM (both of them) to disrupt and destabilize the public commons to maintain the real status quo – of massive economic inequality and top-down elite control, which is the primary cause of the civil rights and economic emergency in our schools.
Originally published as a guest essay on Anthony Cody’s “Living in Dialogue” blog at Education Week.
This School is a Musical Masterpiece: The “Four Rs” to Reclaim Public Education from Corporate Colonialism
This is Karran Harper Royal, a real parent of a teenager in the New Orleans public school system, whom I interviewed for the second part of the Disaster Capitalism Curriculum (with graphic journalist Dan Archer for Truthout), about the “New Orleans Miracle,” as its been dubbed by corporate education reformers who believe Hurricane Katrina, which killed nearly 2,000, and displaced 400,000, was “The best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans” (And yes, that’s a real quote from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan). In 2012, amidst the polarized presidential election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, New Orleans was solid ground: they both argued that the free-market, privatized model that Royal has seen replace the public school system represents a model for the country. For Royal, a prominent, nationally recognized public education activist, the “New Orleans Miracle,” also represents a model for American education – a bankrupt one, a well-funded “fairy tale” that purports to be about empowering kids, but is really about unleashing the market to dismantle the “government monopoly on education.”
While Royal speaks with unrivaled passion, hard evidence, and personal connection to the community, her voice is largely marginalized. Royal’s experience is not an isolated one, as those who are closest to children – the parents, the teachers, and especially the children themselves – have the smallest voice in education reform debate, which has been colonized by the language, ideologies, and policies of outsiders – politicians, think-tankers, Wall Street funded non-profits, and CEOs who have no direct connection or personal interest in the communities they seek to mold in their image.
Previously, I’ve dubbed this phenomenon the Gates Paradox: the power of your voice in the education reform debate is proportional to the distance from the classroom multiplied by the amount of money you earn. Of course, each additional media outlet owned increases the influence by a factor of ten. Or, expressed in the native language of the refomers, the Gates Paradox is: VαDsv*$ [MSNBC/]10 = INFLUENCE]
Indeed, the corporate colonists control the education debate, imposing the terms and language of the discussion, as they largely control the medium in which the debate takes place: it doesn’t take a complex algorithm to demonstrate that corporate media favors corporate education policy, especially when the media channel is funded by the same billionaire also funding the education policy (as is the case with Gates and both NBC and PBS).
How does a parent like Royal fight against this corporate colonialism, which floods in her hometown of New Orleans, displacing local schools, dismantling local communities, and imposing foreign values and policies? How do we get Royal – and other real parents, children, and educators – heard over the “fairy tale” of reform?
How do we overcome the Gates Paradox?
By going back to basics: The Four Rs – Recognize, Resist, Reframe, and Reclaim.
RECOGNIZE: Education reform is trending right now in popular culture – and not towards a progressive, grassroots vision. While the agit-prop documentary Waiting for Superman started the pop culture assault on public schools, there is a cottage reform media industry devoted to putting out stories which support the reform vision of education, pumped out of the big screen, the TV, the radio, the newspaper, and underwritten by reform friendly billionaires like Gates, who have spent millions on messaging. This propaganda arm of the reform movement propagates stories like the “New Orleans Miracle,” that float about in the public consciousness, supporting these policies throughout the nation.
Less obviously and more perniciously, these reform “fairy tales” provide a language for discussing education that reinforces this worldview: phrases like “failing schools” and the “cradle to career pipeline” are normalized, and in doing so, unconsciously frame the issue for a reader or speaker, as I observe in my comic with graphic journalist Josh Neufeld “This School is Not a Pipe.” (for Truthout.org). Thus, the first step towards reclaiming public education is in seeing through the propaganda, in even recognizing the stories and language of reform.
RESIST: It’s not enough just to see that the propaganda of reform doesn’t fit the reality of schools that most children, parents, and educators experience. Indeed, I became passionate about advocating for public education upon seeing such an astonishing chasm between what the media said about my profession, and what I saw every day as a teacher in a community college. Thus, I began to call out these false stories – much like Royal has (and of course, Diane Ravitch), to expose both the “fairy tales” of reform and the drum-beat of public school failure.
But this is not enough: further, it’s important to resist not just the reform stories, but the reform language itself, which is drawn largely from the lexicon of the business world, and not education. Once starting a conversation around “failing schools,” the debate is already lost; this term implies an entire worldview, one suggesting that public schools themselves are solely responsible for the struggles they face, much like a failing business. Logically, the “failing school” should be shuttered – much like failing business, with old management and employees fired, and new ones installed to secure “success”. In this way, there is a clear, unwavering line from a single phrase to an entire ideology, and specific policies, such as school closures. Thus, we must not just avoid exposing the stories of the colonists, but their misleading language – which reinforces these stories, and favors the underlying corporate ideology.
REFRAME: For the first few years of writing about education, I primarily focused on these first two steps – on pointing out the astonishing flaws of the reform propaganda. But this, too, is not enough: indeed, reformers rightly point out that while many of us decry their agenda, we don’t as readily point to our own vision. I know that I’ve been guilty on this count – even as I’m working in my own college to develop new methods of teaching, and new programs to serve students. Thus, instead of just pointing out the flaws in the corporate agenda, we must fill in the gap – to share our own stories, and our own language, through traditional media channels, and moreso, through social media.
“Public education is like producing a musical masterpiece,” Royal told me, in providing her own vision of an ideal public school system, one that would improve upon the privatized, two-tiered system that has taken over her hometown. “[You need to provide] each instrument with the right sheet music to get the best performance from that particular instrument. Each instrument is different and can not be standardized, but with the right music, each can reach its highest heights. When children are given the kind of educational support they need based on who they are, they can produce beautiful music,” she concludes, reframing schooling with a fresh metaphor, a new language, a new vocabulary of reform, one that highlights the inherent humanity and individuality of children, while still imagining a harmonious, yet diverse community.
Imagine: What kind of policies would our politicians produce if they imagined the classroom as a musical masterpiece rather than a business, or even worse, a pipeline? What kind of classroom experience would children have immersed in metaphors of music, rather than spreadsheets and oil?
RECLAIM: To reclaim the promise of public education, to develop policies that are more musical than monotonous, we must reclaim the conversation from the educational colonists. We must find ways to mitigate the Gates Paradox, to render this algorithm of inequity obsolete, to tell the stories of what we see, in the language that we use, and get the public to hear it.
This is easier blogged than done.
However, as I attend the Network for Public Education Conference March 1 and 2nd in Austin, TX, (along with Karran Harper Royal, Diane Ravitch, and many others) we will not just resist, but work proactively and collectively towards a more humane, democratic, truly public school system.
The music has just begun…
 See my essay at Truthout: “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42” for an extensive discussion on the technicalization of education – and its dissidents.
 For extensive evidence on reform propaganda see Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.
 For documentation, see my essay at The Daily Censored: “Ms. Reform: Education Reform as Starlet of NetFlix’s “House of Cards”
“School ™ is not so bad now, like back when my grandparents were kids, when the schools were run by the government, which sounds completely like, Nazi, to have the government running the schools?”
So proclaims what sounds like a Twitter tirade by angry, futuristic teenage reincarnation of Milton Friedman. Rather, it is Titus, the wired teen protagonist M.T. Anderson’s prophetic 2002 Young Adult (YA) novel Feed, who lives in a world in which Friedman’s neo-liberal economic philosophies have been taken to their dystopian extreme: America’s environment is so spoiled by consumption that everyone must live in hermetically-sealed bubbles, in which the public commons have been so privatized, that even the clouds are trademarked. Titus – and most Americans – also live in a hermetically-sealed bubble of their mind, each plugged into the “feed” – a chip which connects his brain to a corporate controlled internet, which is constantly bombarding him with marketing, even in dreams.
While many have commented on how accurate the 11-year old Feed is in its predictions of social networking and mobile technology, its dire predictions on the corporatization of education are no less accurate – and certainly, no less frightening. Published in the same year as the No Child Left Behind was implemented, Feed takes Friedman’s anti-government belief on education to its logical conclusion: that of a corporate monopoly on our children’s minds.
In Titus’ description of his “feed” – which is no utterly normal to him, beyond the point of question – we hear echoes of corporate reformers and technological utopians, who say our public, government run-school system is outdated, in need of “disruptive innovation” – or, to put it more plainly, corporate management and products. In Titus’ future America, the “feed” is the ultimate disruptive invention for education, putting online education, MOOCs, and teaching machines to shame:
People were really excited when they first came out with feeds. It was all da da da, this big educational thing, da da da, your child will have the advantage, encyclopedias at their fingertips, closer than their fingertips, etc. That’s one of the great things about the feed – that you can be supersmart without ever working. Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit.
While Titus may say that the feed makes everyone “supersmart,” he can’t read, he isn’t informed on any world events, and uses the feed primarily to m-chat (mind chat), watch TV programs, and most of all, to buy the latest things – things that, somehow, the corporate-run feed knows before he does – a marketing strategy we now call “predictive analytics”:
But the braggest thing about the feed, the thing that made it really big, is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are. Everything we think and feel is taken in by the corporations, mainly by data ones like Feedlink and On Feed and American Feedware, and they make a special profile, one that’s keyed just to you…so all you have to do is want something and there’s a chance it will be yours.
Again, sound familiar?
School ™ is perfectly designed for the “feed” – for the constant consumerism required of the hermetically-sealed corporate state he lives in. Indeed, School ™ is essential in training children for how to use to feed, to make sure its hardwired not just in their minds, but their spirits:
Now that School ™ is run by the corporations, it’s pretty brag because it teaches us how the world can be used, like mainly how to use our feeds… now we do stuff in classes about how to work technology and how to find bargains and what’s the best way to get a job and how to decorate our bedroom.
Ultimately, just as schools in a fascist nation are indoctrination sites, critical investments by the ruling class to ensure its continued rule, School ™ cultivates loyalty to corporate bubble in which Titus lives:
Also, it’s good because that way we know that the big corps are made up of real human beings, and not just jerks out for money, because taking care of children, they care about America’s future. It’s an investment in tomorrow (Emphasis added).
In shockingly accurate parallels to post-NCLB corporate media narratives, Titus sees the public school system as a “failure,” its bad teachers destroying the moral fiber of the youth, and his corporate masters as philanthropists, providing his salvation:
When no one was going to pay for the public schools anymore and they were all like filled with guns and drugs and English teachers who were really pimps and stuff, some of the big media congloms got together and gave all this money and bought the schools so all of them could have computers and pizza for lunch and stuff.
And while Titus might be swayed by free pizza, faux-philanthropy, and discounts for the Watts Riot inspired pants from Weatherbee and Crotch, he still knows something is wrong, something worse than pimp English teachers:
Of course, everyone is like, da da da, evil corporations, oh they’re so bad, we all say that, and we all know they control everything. I mean, it’s not great, because who knows what evil shit they’re up to. Everyone feels bad about that.
But for Titus, the corporate takeover has happened – generations ago. His life is “normal,” and beyond normal, it’s pleasant. Most of all, it’s the only way Titus knows how to live, as School ™, his parents, his friends – everyone, really – tell him the feed is all there is and should be:
But [corporations] are the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not. Plus, they keep like everyone in the world employed, so it’s not like we could do without them. And it’s really great to know everything about everything whenever we want, to have it just like, in our brain, just sitting there.
Titus’ tale, his resignation to the blind pleasures of consumerism on which he was raised and schooled, could be many of my students – heck, Titus probably was me at some point in time, or any of us who grew up in the hermetically-sealed suburbs of post-modern America Feed so poignantly reflects. Our public school system – while increasingly consumed by corporate America – still presents education as an economic service, part of the “cradle-to-career pipeline,” or worse yet, a consumable product, like a pair of Kent State inspired jackets from Weatherbee and Crotch.
Thankfully, though, Titus has hope, in the form of an unlikely flower growing in their dead world: Violet. And hopefully, she teaches Titus – and all of us, working and learning at School ™ – to “Resist the Feed. Buy an Oxcart.”