Monday, November 26, 2012

Twilight of the EdReformers

I just finished reading MSNBC host and Nation contributor Chris Hayes' new book: Twilight of the Elites.  In the book, he highlights how America's version of meritocracy has spiraled out of control into a small group of elites who make decisions and govern with little to no accountability, who feel entitled to take an ever growing chunk of the wealth this country produces, and who remain so far removed from the reality of our grossly unequal society that they rarely see the consequences of their greed.

Hayes chronicles how the wealthy elites are so deep into their meritocratic story of worth--being the "best and the brightest", being the smartest people on the planet and therefore the only ones capable of making decisions--that they are immune to outside criticism or blame for mistakes.  And our elites have made many many mistakes.  Hayes picks the example of the disaster following Hurricane Katrina where the elites were so far removed from the reality of the people living in the Ninth Ward--such as the lack of access to a car, the lack of money (especially at the end of the month for those living on a fixed income), the sickness and immobility that comes with a lack of access to health care--that they simply were not capable of planning appropriate evacuation procedures.  After all, telling people who cannot physically leave to leave and expecting them to somehow do so, is ridiculous.

Hayes also follows the grave mistakes leading up to the financial collapse of 2008. To this day, the elites have not had to pay for their mistakes.  Meanwhile, far away from the millionaire bankers and hedge fund managers, millions of average Americans' homes are being foreclosed on and families are falling into bankruptcy.  He also discusses how the elites in Washington allowed themselves to be duped into two long, expensive, and deadly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Hayes notes that almost none of the people making the decision to go to war would ever have to risk their own son, daughter, husband, wife, friend, or relative's life.  They make their poor decisions from a safe place far removed from the repercussions of those decisions.

When looking at the actions of the elite over the past decade, Hayes writes, "All the smart people fucked up, and no one seems willing to take responsibility" (Kindle location 230).

Also interesting is when Hayes mentions Karen Ho's book entitled Liquidated which looks into the dysfunction on Wall Street.  Ho talks about how the "elite educational institutions and Wall Street have fused into a sort of educational industrial complex." (Location 753).  She also calls those who believe the current status quo of privilege and elitism have
...A kind of neo-Calvinist logic by saying that those at the top, by virtue of their placement there, must be the most deserving.  [She] describes this "meritocratic feedback loop" as common on Wall Street, where the finance industry's "growing influence becomes further evidence that they are, in fact, "the smartest." (location 788)
These are the elites of today: uber-rich, unaccountable, greedy, self-righteous, drunk on power, and completely isolated from the vast majority of humanity and their suffering.

These elites-the wealthy, the powerful, the Wall Street tycoons, the members of the "educational industrial complex"-are the very same people pushing corporate education reform.  It is Wall Street and its hedge fund managers, the billionaires, the socialites, the wealthy politicians (for only truly wealthy individuals can afford to run for top offices anymore), and students and graduates from elite universities which make up the EdReform crowd. I want to make this very clear, the same people who callously crashed the economy with little personal consequence while sending millions into poverty and distress, the people who ignorantly and wantonly left thousands to suffer in the flood waters of Katrina, the people who call for tax breaks and corporates subsidies for themselves and their friends while social programs and education are gutted, the people who remorselessly sent young Americans into battle, trauma, and death on foreign soils, taking thousands of in-country civilian lives along the way, are the same people who are telling us how to reform education. 

The reformers, these elites, are so deep into their "meritocratic feedback loop," so very sure of themselves and their ideas, that they simply cannot hear dissent.  When teachers and parents tell heart-wrenching stories of the cruel consequences of Ed Reform, telling about beloved schools being shuttered, children treated like lifeless commodities, growing segregation, the spikes in youth violence in the midst of the chaos of opening and closing schools, Ed Reformers literally cannot accept that their actions might be wrong.  After all, the people in the trenches, families from low-income areas, teachers, communities groups all have not proved their worth by entering the elite upper-echelons.  Parents and teachers do not have "merit" in the EdReformer eyes.  Only the "Masters of the Universe", as demonstrated by accumulation of money and power, could possibly be smart enough to fix a problem as complicated and convoluted as education. The Billionaire Board of Education in Chicago is a prime example of the disconnected coldness of the elites and why the fight for an elected representative school board is so important to the parents and teachers of Chicago Public Schools. The board does not just seem distant, they actually are living on an entirely different social plane of existence.

Chicago's Board of Education, Graphic designed by CPS teacher
It is no accident that organizations like Teach for America have become so very popular in Education Reform circles.  TFA takes the "best and brightest", the top of the meritocracy, and puts them in the middle of the problem.  According to the elite, how could they NOT work miracles?  Never mind that they have no degrees in education, no experience working with children, and only five measly weeks of training, the hubris of the elite claims these novices know better than the seasoned professionals they are displacing. And throughout the TFA experience, TFA is careful to keep a clear social distance between members of their organization from traditional teachers and the communities where they serve.  They see themselves as TFA first, and part of a teaching community second, if at all.  And once members have put in their time with the ordinary, UN-meritorious masses, many TFAers jump quickly back into the far removed world of corporations, non-profits, high-profile education jobs, or political life--straight back into the safe space of the elites.

It is this social distance, which has grown exponentially in just the past few years, which allowed the space for the growth of horrible ideas being promoted by the elites: merit pay (naturally in a meritocracy), evaluations based on test scores (show your merit through bubble tests--getting ranked and sorted is oh so very meritorious), charters (the wealthy and elite can certainly figure out a better way to run a school than those working-class union thugs), and the end of tenure and LIFO (if you are still teaching after 20 years, you are clearly not competing hard enough), and of course Race to the Top (we'll give you money, but only if you prove your worth.)  Social distance allows reformers to make edicts from on high without ever having to hear the consequences of excessive testings, or school closures, or ruined careers, or lifeless, dull curriculum.  Neither they, nor their children, nor-importantly-their circle of friends will ever have first-hand knowledge of the bad policies being put in place.

To real educators, corporate education reform ideas are simply insane.  They don't work and we have research to prove they don't work.  But there was plenty of evidence that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, that sub-prime mortgages were dangerously precarious long before the housing bubble burst, and that the levees were not going to hold as Katrina rolled in.  But the "best and the brightest" refused to listen to anyone but themselves.  And the results were disastrous, just like we are seeing in education.

Hayes calls for a massive shift in our social order.  He recalls that meritocracies often go in cycles and that we are at the end of the current swing toward massive inequality and an elite class that is out of control. He contends that these elites are right now at their very worst.
The extreme inequality of the kind that we have produces its own particular kind of elite pathology: it make elites less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathetic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision-making. For this reason, extreme inequality produces elites who are less competent and more corrupt that those in a more egalitarian social order would.  This is the fundamental paradoxical outcome that several decades of failed meritocratic production has revealed: As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elites. (Location 2351)
Are these the types of people we want to entrust the lives of our children and the future of our schools with?  Hayes ends his book by asking us to direct the...
...frustration, anger, and alienation we all feel into building a trans-ideological coalition that can actually dislodge the power of the post-meritocratic elite.  One that marshals insurrectionist sentiments without succumbing to nihilism and manic, paranoid distrust.  One that avoids the dark seduction of everything-is-broken-ism.  One that leverages the deep skepticism of elites into a proactive, constructive vision of a moral, equitable, and connected social order. (Location 3482)
The only way forward is the creation of a more moral, equitable and connected society?  Sounds good to me....


  1. I nominate this a Post of the Week in the edu-twitter-facebook-discourse-policy sphere. Just picked up "Twilight of the Elites" and can't wait to dive it. And I bought it for the very same reasons you outlined--I could see the alliances. Flat-out brilliant post. Thanks, Katie.

    1. I agree with Nancy (flat-out brilliant). I'm about 50 pages into the book and can't wait to finish it.

  2. I'll be buying a copy. I've only heard a few plugs for Chris's book, none mentioned the EdReform crowd. To say they f-ed up is an understatement. This mistake, like Katrina and Wall Street will no doubt go unpunished. Hearings will never be held and billions wasted will never be repaid. Sadly, the brunt of this experiment; some 10 years in the making will just be written off as another fad and so what? - for many they can say: at least my kids weren't harmed. Truly troubling.

    1. He doesn't connect the dots to EdReform in the book, but the connections are pretty striking. I mean, why do people believe the hedge fund managers in Democrats for Education Reform, or Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Waltons or any of the other billionaire EdReformers over the opinions and ample research on the side of teachers, students, and communities most affected by EdReform? But I agree, it is truly, truly troubling.

  3. Led here by Chris Hayes and this really crystallizes a lot of my issues with ed reform. As someone who worked in a charter school, I can say there's a lot of truth to what you say.

    Great post

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  5. Just managed to delete a comment. Oh well. Anyway, yes. Very good. Especially on the subject of charter schools.

  6. I really wish someone would look into the connections among education "reformers" and usual progressives like Nick Kristof, Jonathan Alter, and even Stephen Colbert (much as I love him).

    They are all hip-deep in TFA, KIPP, and other parts of the reform movement, and no one seems to be paying any attention to it (except Diane Ravitch in her attempts to get Kristof to talk to her).

  7. I first came to full consciousness about the elites Hayes critiques some ten years ago. I was reading the final chapter of James Bowen's landmark History of Western Education, vol. 3 (1981) in which he predicts the very "reforms" we have been mired in starting in the '80s and reaching fruition in the early 21st century. Bowen refers to the elites as the "transnational capitalist class" and specifically identifies the Trilateral Commission in his expose. So unnerved by the global revolutions of the late '60s and early '70s were these elites that, according to Bowen, they sought to reverse the gains of global Left movements and return the world to an order in which their authority in all facets of life goes unquestioned. I can't say how eerie it is to see Bowen's take literally unfolding on schedule.

  8. He actually does have a page in the book where he connects ed reform to "meritocracy". Also, take a look at this interview with him:

  9. "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" by William Deresiewicz is also worth a read.

    This piece about MBAs, CEOs, and the "management culture" is very, very good, too.

  10. As an English primary school teacher it's interesting to read this stuff. You Americans are ahead of the game when it comes to corporate take-overs! Now even education itself is up for grabs. It is profoundly disturbing. People's lack of interest in this, apparently 'educated' people, only adds to the sense of unease...
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