Tag Archives: Propaganda

The Propaganda of Small Schools

Don't go beyond that blue wall. That's not your school.

I have never heard of the MDRC until few days ago. It is a think tank with the motto “Building Knowledge to Improve Social Policy.” However, it is tough to see what type of knowledge it is building by publishing a mindlessly laudatory study of New York City’s small high schools entitled “Sustained Positive Effects on Graduation Rates Produced by New York City’s Small Public High Schools of Choice”. The single most important sentence in the 12-page study can be found towards the bottom of page 11: “This policy brief and the study upon which it is based are funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”

There you go. The fix was in from the start.

Closing New York City’s large comprehensive public high schools in order to replace them with several small schools has been a cornerstone of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s brand of education reform. It states in the introductory paragraph of the study: “Between fall 2002 and fall 2008, the school district closed 23 large failing high schools (with graduation rates below 45 percent), [and] opened 216 new small high schools (with different missions, structures, and student selection criteria)…” Rather than just stating facts, the authors use language (like “large failing high schools”) to soften up the reader to accept the study’s ultimate conclusion: “In summary, the present findings provide highly credible evidence that in a relatively short period of time, with sufficient organization and resources, an existing school district can implement a complex high school reform that markedly improves graduation rates for a large population of low-income, disadvantaged students of color.”

Of course, we did not need a 12-page study printed on glossy paper to tell us that graduation rates in New York City have increased under Bloomberg. What the study does do, amazingly, is attribute these rising rates to the great education provided by the small high schools: “In a large sample, like that used for the MDRC study, lottery winners and lottery losers are the same, on average, in all ways before they enter high school. Consequently, it is valid to attribute any differences in their future academic outcomes to their access to an SSC (“Small Schools of Choice”). Because students who lose an SSC lottery attend over 200 high schools that vary widely in their size, age, structure, academic programs, and effectiveness, the MDRC report judged SSCs against the overall effectiveness of a diverse group of other high schools. The results released in 2010 indicated that, on average, the 105 SSCs studied increased student progress toward graduation during their first three years of high school and increased students’ four-year graduation rates.”

Only a bunch of policy wonks, isolated from any reality of what goes on in New York City schools, would say something like all students who apply to the small schools of choice “are the same, on average, in all ways before they enter high school.” I am sure this is news to the parents of these students, who remember giving birth to their children instead of buying them off an assembly line.

But if you can contend that all students are the same, then you can pretend that you have controlled for the human elements of different learning styles, socioeconomic background and home life. If you can pretend in good conscience that you have controlled for these factors, then you can give your flimsy findings an air of scientific respectability.

So what does it do to the validity of this study when Bloomberg’s own sock puppet school Chancellor Dennis Walcott admits that these small schools have not taken in their fair share of students with learning problems and English Language Learners? What does it do to the validity of the study when a man like Walcott, who faithfully toes Bloomberg’s corporate line, pretty much admits that the non-small high schools (i.e. the type that this study would consider “failing”) against which these small schools were compared have been weighed down by a disproportionate number of the most difficult students to educate?

I would have gladly taken the filthy money of the Gates Foundation to conduct my own study on the issue. Since they have not yet offered to avail themselves of my services, I will be the bigger man and publish my study for free. I do not even need 12 pages of glossy paper on which to write it. All I need is this little black space and white font that I pay for out of my own pocket.

Graduation rates are up because standards are down. When you chop one large high school into 5 smaller schools, you must hire 4 new principals. That means a much higher principal-to-teacher ratio than ever before. In short, they are better able to lean on their teachers. Since the careers of these principals depend on the school’s yearly report card, and that report card is heavily contingent upon graduation rates, principals around the city have made it very clear to their teachers that students better pass no matter what. A student did not show up for class all year? No problem. Give them online credit recovery, where they can take basket-weaving 101 and pretend it is a science credit. It does not matter if kids learn anything. All that matters is that the data looks good. If the MDRC was really serious about measuring student success, they would have mentioned that most NYC public high school graduates that go on to college do not make it past their sophomore year. If this is what success looks like, I would hate to see abject failure.

But are not more and more public high school students passing the state Regents exams? Sure they are. That is because of the rampant growth of grade inflation. The biggest blow to Bloomberg’s legacy as the “education mayor” has been the statement of this obvious truth by the people who administer the Regents exams statewide.

To top it all off, as I have pointed out on this blog millions of times, the small high schools are too small to provide art, music, sports, debate, clubs and whole host of enrichment activities only made possible by pooling the resources of a large number of diverse people working cooperatively under the same roof. Instead of bringing the community together, the small schools tear it asunder. Bloomberg has replaced cooperation with competition and the children have suffered because of it.

This MDRC study is just more proof that ideas are up for sale in our day and age. Instead of “Building Knowledge to Improve Social Policy”, their motto should be “Selling Social Policy to the Highest Bidder”.

Renaissance Charter High School Requires Their Students To Shill For Governor Cuomo

9th and 10th graders at Renaissance Charter High School made the following video as an assignment. They did such a good job that it received a mention in the New York Times.

I suppose this is an example of the innovative teaching that goes on in charter schools. Of course, it is easy for students to make something like this when the school has proper video equipment. As you watch the video, ask yourself what the students might have actually learned from this project. Yes, maybe they got experience being in front of a camera. They also probably got a taste for what it means to be behind the camera. Finally, they most likely used editing equipment to take all of their raw footage and weave it into a comprehensive piece.

Public school children are perfectly capable of doing the same thing; all they need is the equipment. Of course, in the age of budget cuts that starve public schools, it is unlikely many of them would even have this equipment.

The students did a good job on the video. It is not their fault that their teachers required them to shill for Governor Cuomo. While some teachers might be impressed with something like this, I do not see the educational value at all. The only thing the students of Renaissance Charter High School learned from this video is how propaganda works.

The media does the same thing as the students in the video. They take the words of someone in authority, like a governor or tycoon, and broadcast it far and wide. If Cuomo says he is a lobbyist for students, then the media reports him as being a lobbyist for students. If President Bush says Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, then the media will replay that line over and over until 300 million Americans believe it.

The teachers who gave this assignment were obviously not interested in developing critical thinking in their students. That would entail the students doing some investigative work, like why Andrew Cuomo would say such a thing in his State of the State speech (did they even learn what the State of the State is? Do they know what a lobbyist is?) Maybe it has something to do with being bankrolled by Rupert Murdoch. Or perhaps it has something to do with an opportunistic politician who wants to ride the wave of teacher bashing that pervades the country. Whatever it is, the kids at Renaissance will never know.

And this is why the public should not buy this claptrap that charter schools are somehow innovative laboratories of pedagogy. As far as this assignment was concerned, it was a net loss for the students. Sure, they might have gotten some experience in making a video. Yet, they carried out an exercise in media propaganda without knowing it. They will now think that all it takes to be on television is to become a mouthpiece for the rich and powerful. They have learned that political rhetoric is fact and the media’s job is to parrot this rhetoric far and wide.

Welcome to the world of education reform, where students are taught not to question the world around them. Welcome to Renaissance Charter High School, where students are given a top-flight education in shilling.

What I wonder is, does the staff at Renaissance see anything wrong with requiring students to mindlessly repeat what essentially amounts to a political stance? Do they see anything wrong with making an issue that has more than one side seem as if there is only one side?

Probably not. Something tells me that the teachers there are young and underpaid, without the skill or the knowledge to create activities that require actual thought on the part of their students.

Education Deform as Farce

The Nazis used to say something to the effect of propaganda being an apparent diversity masking an actual uniformity. For example, during World War I, the federal government paid writers, actors and teachers to publicly support the war effort in their lines of work. This gave the appearance of widespread and broad-based public support for America’s war effort. The idea was to saturate the country with jingoism to the point where it formed the backdrop of all public discourse. Few people knew that it was all coordinated centrally.

This tactic is so powerful that it has the ability to make lies true. When President Bush accused Iraq of having weapons of mass destruction, the major media outlets parroted the accusation far and wide. People from all political camps beat the drums of war. Iraq’s WMD arsenal became conventional wisdom, despite the fact that it was a lie.

Now those drums are beating in the current war against teachers. All of the drummers, despite their apparent disagreements, share common assumptions. The first is that the teacher quality is the single greatest factor in the quality of education. The second is that low quality teachers should be fired. Reform groups and school districts, union leaders and public school activists all agree on these things. Debate between these groups takes place on the periphery over how to evaluate teachers and how to fire them.

This debate is a farce. There have been literally thousands of studies done on teacher effectiveness. All of them evaluate teachers based upon the exam scores of their students. The only major study that claimed to measure impacts outside of test scores was published a few weeks ago in the New York Times, before the study was even peer reviewed. Standardized testing, when measured against itself, is a massive failure, with 38% of schools nationwide labeled as failing by 2011. The meme of the effective and ineffective teacher as presented in the media is a lie. It is an unproven idea that has been given credence by every publication of record, whether it is Time Magazine or the New York Times.

Because of this lie, leaders like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo or Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are able to push for new teacher evaluations based upon exam scores. Those evaluations will determine which teachers get terminated and which do not. Yet, assuming that teachers are the deciding factor in quality of education and quality can be measured by exams, it still does not follow that lowest performing teachers should be fired. It could mean that they need more training, more materials or fewer students. In fact, the implications are endless. For some reason, however, the education reform never steps outside the bounds of looking for someone to fire.

These are the core ideas agreed upon by every vested interest in education reform. Whether it is a wealthy philanthropist like Bill Gates or the head of a teacher’s union, they all work with the same lexicon: “effectiveness”, “outcomes” and “value added”. This is why Michael Mulgrew, head of the United Federation of Teachers, can be found rubbing shoulders with education deformers like Joel Klein on panels that support more charter schools, the preferred vehicle of education deform.

In truth, there is no diversity in the debate over public education. The contours of the debate have already been determined centrally. Instead of the state, which was the central source of Nazi propaganda, the central source of education reform is a class of super-elites. Bill Gates especially, but Eli Broad, the Waltons and the Koch Brothers as well, give the marching orders. Through grant funding and contributions to school districts, they ensure that everyone toes their line. The uniformity of funding leads to a uniformity in the discourse, leading to overwhelming support of corporate education reform. The lie becomes true.

This is why defenders of public education cannot be compromisers. The deck is stacked so heavily in favor of corporate reform, in terms of both money and support, that compromise invariably leaves one locked into the terms of the debate handed down by the deformers themselves. In short, real public school advocates must be radicals. Like all other radicals, they must question the consensus. Anything less ensures that the pre-fabbed handles, conjured up in billion-dollar think tanks and questionable studies, will never be overcome. This is the same thing as saying that education deform itself will never be overcome.

Anyone short of a radical defender of public school children and the teaching profession is a shill. Anyone who assumes the premises of the Big Lie of education reform is having their strings pulled.