With the economy and foreign policy in such sharp focus this campaign season, the importance of national education policy has been obscured. This lack of attention should be of concern not only for parents and students, but for anyone worried about our nation’s ability to remain competitive.
There is no doubt that the performance of U.S. students against their international counterparts continues to disappoint. But since the reasons for this are so difficult to pin down, a parade of self-proclaimed experts and “reformers” has emerged in recent years, touting the urgency of their proposed solutions – never mind if they require redirecting streams of taxpayer dollars into the pockets of their friends.
News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch is among the more-recognizable faces of this movement, having purchased education technology firm Wireless Generation for $360 million in November 2010.
“When it comes to K-12 education,” Murdoch said at the time, “we see a $500 billion sector in the U.S. alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed by big breakthroughs that extend the reach of great teaching.”
Murdoch’s ranks were recently bolstered by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who was tapped to lead Amplify, the new edu-products division of News Corp.
Klein also serves on the board of the New York branch of Students First, the Orwellian-named national lobbying PAC founded by former Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee. Given that Rhee has vowed to raise $1 billion in private donations for Students First, one might wonder whether Murdoch is backing her organization – but the group isn’t required to disclose its donors to the Federal Election Commission, and Rhee won’t confirm or deny any of her sponsors.
As star of the documentary film “Waiting for Superman,” Rhee’s celebrity and perceived credibility far exceed what one might expect from someone who taught for only three years and has no experience as a principal or superintendent.
Rhee’s plan to reform D.C. schools resembled Klein’s in many ways, with its goals of increasing the number of charter schools in the city and instituting a teacher-evaluation system based on standardized testing.
The notion that a teacher’s effectiveness should be gauged by how effectively their students memorize and regurgitate multiple-choice minutiae is not only of dubious validity, it’s also buck-passing that takes responsibility off the shoulders of students and parents and sticks it entirely on teachers — in the name of “accountability.”
Worse yet, these tests inevitably end up as case studies in Campbell’s Law, the adage of social scientist Donald T. Campbell, who observed that over-reliance on a quantifiable social indicator – such as standardized testing – only incentivizes the corruption of such measures.
This turned out to be the case during Rhee’s tenure as D.C. schools chancellor, where three USA Today reporters last year uncovered widespread evidence of doctored test scores. At the Rhee-touted Noyes Education Campus, answer sheets contained an average of 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures, compared to a citywide average of less than one per student. Statisticians contacted by the USA Today said the odds of having so many wrong-to-right erasures by random chance were 1 in 100 billion.
Rhee initially lashed out at the report, calling it “an insult” and blaming it on her “enemies,” but later conceding in the face of public pressure that further investigation was warranted. But while Rhee’s track record as an educator leaves much to be desired, her doctrinaire insistence on ideologically-driven solutions makes her an effective shill for for-profit companies such as Academica LLC, a Florida-based charter school management firm with some $158 million in annual revenue.
Academica CEO Fernando Zulueta – whose brother-in-law, state Rep. Erik Fresen, received a $5,000 donation from Rhee’s PAC – has profited handsomely by leasing his real estate to tax-exempt public charter schools; nine of Academica’s 60 schools pay over 20 percent of their annual revenue in rent payments, according to the Miami Herald. And charters, which divert resources away from traditional public schools, received 15 of the 31 “F” grades given statewide in a state review last year, despite comprising just 11 percent of all Florida public schools.
But the bilking of taxpayers, parents and students should come as no surprise to those familiar with the rise of for-profit colleges over the past two decades. These schools – owned by large, publicly-traded corporations – rely federal financial aid for over 80 percent of their revenue, according to a report released in July by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
His two-year investigation found that while students of for-profit colleges make up just 13 percent of nationwide college enrollment, they account for 47 percent of loan defaults. The average cost for a degree from these schools is four times that of a public university degree, but this fact is carefully omitted from the aggressive sales pitch of their “academic counselors” – who receive bonuses based on the number of students enrolled.
These companies may be profitable, but they are only entrepreneurs and innovators insofar as they’ve found innovative ways to suckle from the taxpayer teat. Entrepreneurs thrive by selling a product consumers need at a price they can afford, not by brazen raids on the state and federal treasuries. To allow our education system to be auctioned off to such politically connected shysters is a recipe for national catastrophe.
JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at 432-1000, ext. 216 or email@example.com.