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April 2009

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni

When it Comes to Education, Democrats Hate Democracy

Late last month, Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan came out swinging against elected school boards:

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that mayors should take control of big-city school districts where academic performance is suffering.

Duncan said mayoral control provides the strong leadership and stability needed to overhaul urban schools.
He acknowledged Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso, asking how many superintendents the city had in the past 10 years. The answer was seven.

"And you wonder why school systems are struggling," Duncan said. "What business would run that way?"

After the forum, Duncan told The Associated Press that urban schools need someone who is accountable to voters and driving all of a city's resources behind children.

"Part of the reason urban education has struggled historically is you haven't had that leadership from the top," he said.

Arne Duncan Renaissance 2010In a sense, I can understand his motivation: as head of Chicago Public Schools, he was a direct recipient of abrogated school board power. The democratic, decentralized, and much-lauded Local School Council system in Chicago (which was created in the late 80s through tireless grassroots community organizing against the very bureaucracy Duncan would end up running) was systematically gutted and ignored under his tenure. It also isn't surprising that his main line of attack is that institutions of learning and governance aren't run enough like businesses. Duncan's Renaissance 2010 program was written and handed to him by the big business players in Chicago and elsewhere.

Now the Center for American Progress, through its panoply of blogs, is pushing the idea with some help with Mayor Bloomberg. Both CAP's Wonk Room and Matthew Yglesias blogs talked up the idea that really, having fewer elected officials means more democracy. Tom Vander Ark at the Huffington Post called what little democratic control we have over our schools to be a "strange historical remnant." Yglesias took the idea and ran with it, all the way to its monarchical end:

I think this is part of a larger issue about getting democracy right in the United States. There was an assumption, at one time, that you could make government more democratic and accountable by, in essence, multiplying the number of elected officials.

In retrospect, I think this was based on flawed logic and faulty assumptions that forgot to account for the fact that people have a limited amount of time they’re realistically going to spend monitoring public officials.
I think part of the answer is that states should probably adopt unicameral legislatures and consider cutting down on the number of independently elected statewide officials. But cutting down on the quantity and influence of hyper-local electeds and putting responsibility in the hands of visible figures like the mayor and city council is crucial.

Apparently Bloomberg did an interview for ThinkProgress, part of which featured him extoling the virtues of dictatorial control over schools, teachers, and students, with the help of bogus, cooked numbers:

My favorite part is near the end, when he says: “...you could literally end democracy as we know it here in this country… without an educated public. And when you have these school boards that are fundamentally controlled by special interests, the truth of the matter is that students come last, if at all.” Fewer elected officials = more democracy! It all makes perfect sense now!

Thankfully, regular readers largely countered and ridiculed such a position:

The flipside of Matt’s point is that when a single local elected executive is responsible for EVERYTHING, it’s pretty hard to hold him or her accountable for any specific thing. If you like what Bloomberg’s doing with, say, public safety and housing but don’t like his education policies, how do you hold him accountable? You can’t cast half a vote. On the other hand, a school board subject to being voted out of office can be held accountable.

And one of the commenters actually mentions what progressive reform of our school systems would look like:

The other kind of reform that is possible is to empower parents and teachers, but in order to do that you don’t need to gather power into the office of the mayor- you need to distribute power into the neighborhoods, families, and classrooms.

Another tip-off is the exaggerated concern about the “special interests”. Matt isn’t talking here about the textbook publishers and computer sellers- a mayor who doesn’t know anything about education isn’t going to tangle with those “experts”. And he isn’t talking about the real estate industry that wants to keep school taxes low- no mayor is going to try to trim the horns of the real estate barons.

No, when Matt is talking about “special interests” he’s referring to teachers and parents. Transfer the powers of the school board to the mayor’s office and those “special interests” will have just as much influence as the rest of us in an election- which is to say, none.

Authoritarian, bureaucratic schools are a bipartisan affair in politics - which means it's going to take a lot more than mere elections to reclaim our country's educational systems.

Young America's Foundation and Young Americans for Freedom

A Tale of Two YAFs

Young Americans for Freedom was founded in 1960 as a far-right anti-communist league. Young America's Foundation was founded at Vanderbilt University in 1969, apparently springing out of an ad hoc group within YAFreedom. YAFreedom is a 501(c)4, and YAFoundation is a 501(c)3 - donations to 501(c)4 groups are not deductible against taxes, unlike donations to a 501(c)3 organisation. 

Young America's Foundation, along with the American Conservative Union, founded the annual CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) - at which, in 2009, saw the official launch of Youth for Western Civilization.

The Shallowness of Techno-Libertarian Education

A good portion of the online tech community* has always had a strange kind of schizophrenic politics - when it comes to their online doings, they act like libertarian socialists. When it comes to the "real world," they act like libertarian capitalists. Contributing to an open source project, seeding a torrent, helping out on troubleshooting forums, uploading cam versions of newly-released films, giving away serial numbers for Microsoft Word: these are all actions entirely antithetical - and harmful - to market relations. Using the term loosely, they're essentially acting communistically. Yet ask many of the same people about their political views and you're more likely to hear about Ron Paul or Milton Friedman than Noam Chomsky or Karl Marx.

Case in point: here we have a university professor who aims to further commodify education by using open source projects (which tend to undermine commodity relations). Deseret News:

Universities will be 'irrelevant' by 2020, Y. professor says

PROVO — Last fall, David Wiley stood in front of a room full of professors and university administrators and delivered a prediction that made them squirm: "Your institutions will be irrelevant by 2020."

Wiley is one part Nostradamus and nine parts revolutionary, an educational evangelist who preaches about a world where students listen to lectures on iPods, and those lectures are also available online to everyone anywhere for free. Course materials are shared between universities, science labs are virtual, and digital textbooks are free.

Institutions that don't adapt, he says, risk losing students to institutions that do. The warning applies to community colleges and ivy-covered universities, says Wiley, who is a professor of psychology and instructional technology at Brigham Young University.

America's colleges and universities, says Wiley, have been acting as if what they offer — access to educational materials, a venue for socializing, the awarding of a credential — can't be obtained anywhere else. By and large, campus-based universities haven't been innovative, he says, because they've been a monopoly.
In the world according to Wiley, universities would still make money, though, because they have a marketable commodity: to get college credits and a diploma, you'd have to be a paying customer. [Click to read the rest]

Wiley is pursuing some noble goals: for example, creating free, open-source, peer-reviewed textbooks. He's rightly criticizing the extortion scheme that is the academic publishing industry. At Utah State University he allowed open enrollment into his online courses - people as far away as Brazil and Italy participated for free.

But he's also got an incredibly warped view of the institution that cuts him a paycheck. He couches his critique of higher ed in market language - that higher ed is a "monopoly," that their only "marketable commodity" is the diploma, etc. The article continues: "Many of today's students, he says, aren't satisfied with the old model that expects them to go to a lecture hall at a prescribed time and sit still while a professor talks for an hour." Okay, fair enough - I think he's spot on with this assessment.

But his solution isn't to make classes more flexible, interesting, and engaging. His solution makes the underlying problem (student disengagement, detachment, boredom) even worse - forcing students to watch pre-recorded lectures on the web or their iPods. Just from my personal experience, you'd have to be a really fucking charismatic lecturer to keep my attention on a web video for any decent length of time, let alone prod my brain into actually synthesizing what you're saying. His description of the current university classroom is also likely more illustrative of his personal pedagogical style than anything else, and when he labels colleges as "tethered, isolated, generic, and closed," that sounds a lot more like Utah universities than the rest of higher ed.

His utopia also bodes ominously for those who call university teaching their career - which includes, funnily enough, himself. David Noble, who is probably the best radical chronicler of this trend, says it better than I could in his prescient 1997 essay, "Digital Diploma Mills":

Once faculty put their course material online, moreover, the knowledge and course design skill embodied in that material is taken out of their possession, transferred to the machinery and placed in the hands of the administration. The administration is now in a position to hire less skilled, and hence cheaper, workers to deliver the technologically prepackaged course.
Most important, once the faculty converts its courses to courseware, their services are in the long run no longer required. They become redundant, and when they leave, their work remains behind. In Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Player Piano the ace machinist Rudy Hertz is flattered by the automation engineers who tell him his genius will be immortalized. They buy him a beer. They capture his skills on tape. Then they fire him. Today faculty are falling for the same tired line, that their brilliance will be broadcast online to millions. Perhaps, but without their further participation

Wiley and his colleagues are using 21st century technology to resurrect 19th century educational theory. He is a champion of online programs (or "virtual learning environments") like the University of Phoenix, and of slicing curriculum to ever more basic, self-contained parts, into what he calls "learning objects." Since to him education is little more than pouring information into the brain, Wiley likens himself to a chemist: able to break down the teaching of knowledge into fundamental building blocks, and to then rearrange and reorder them depending on the needs of the course. "Nope, sorry, no time to hear about your crazy theories of 'multiple intelligences' and 'different learning styles.' Can't you see I'm busy pouring? Go watch your podcasts!" Methinks he's been watching the kung fu scene from The Matrix (where Neo learns years' worth of martial arts knowledge with a few clicked buttons and fluttered eyelids) one too many times.

What has a century of empirical and anecdotal data taught us? Education does not equal information. And as long as our bodies are using brains and not RAM, that distinction is terribly important.

But unfortunately education has to equal information for Wiley. He founded the Center for Open and Sustainable Learning, which asserts that "free and open access to educational opportunity is a basic human right." A nice goal to work for, right? If he takes a set of social relationships (a school, a classroom, the teacher-student dynamic, etc.) and commodifies it, all of a sudden the task of guaranteeing those things to everyone in the world is a pretty straightforward problem to tackle. It simply becomes a question of mobilizing enough resources and personnel. However, if he were to accept that something as intangible as "learning" cannot be turned into a quantifiable object at all, then the task at hand all of a sudden becomes a lot hairier, and confronts him with a lot of uncomfortable realizations about how our society is currently arranged. He certainly can't stand for that, especially at a place like Brigham Young University.

So while Wiley & co. are busy reinventing the Scan-Tron bubble, we'll be outside in the sun, playing, learning, and facing those uncomfortable realizations head-on.


*which for current purposes I'll include the open source software community, bittorrent aficionados, Slashdot commenters, hackers, online gamers, and commentators (both internal and external to the community). Obviously I'm painting with very broad brushstrokes - one has to in order to say anything at all about online behavior.

Obama's Education Policy is "giving George W. Bush a third term"

Obama hearts Bush on Education Policy!I just ran across a great article from Education Week looking at the striking similarities between Obama's Department of Education and George W. Bush's.

The writer also interviews the always-awesome Alfie Kohn, teacher union officials, and some right wing policy people (Bush Administration, AEI, etc.). It's one of the best mainstream analyses of Obama's education priorities that I've seen in awhile.

The money quote is pretty early on in the article:

"He is operating almost in a straight line from President Bush," said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University, who co-writes a blog for edweek.org. She has criticized core elements of Mr. Obama’s K-12 agenda, such as his enthusiasm for the charter sector and what she worries is an overreliance on standardized testing to judge schools and teachers.

"Obama is, in effect, giving George W. Bush a third term in education," said Ms. Ravitch, who served as an assistant secretary of education under the first President Bush.

 The article is behind a barrier at edweek, so I've reposted it below the fold:

New School Occupation Redux: Summaries and Analysis

The New School Free Press has a nice timeline of events up, as does NYC Indymedia; the ever-reactionary NYULocal has a few photos from the short-lived occupation, as well as a piece prodding the NYU Administration to expel the NYU students involved. The New York Post interviews New School President Bob Kerrey, who idiotically laid out the terms of his own resignation:

This is the second student protest to unseat Kerrey in five months, but the former Senator from Nebraska said he is resolved to keep his seat, "unless the quality of my life deteriorates."

Below is a good short essay by New School student Dave Shukla that places the latest occupation in the larger struggle to reclaim the New School. When he writes "imagine what we could do," that's exactly what he wants us to do.

What Are You For?
by Dave Shukla

Yet another occupation. The entire center of campus around Fifth Avenue cordoned off by NYPD. Videos of cops beating up students on YouTube. What next?

Let’s be clear. It is a mistake to fixate solely on Kerrey. Among the pressures on the New School over the past eight years, he is simply a vector. He has position, mass, velocity, and direction. The question is, which?

Since December, there have been grudging concessions. Under scrutiny by the Trustees, the administration has been forced to act on some basic concerns – student space, a functioning student senate, tuition and financial aid relief, graduate student work compensation, socially responsible investment. While the administration expends great effort in trying to constrain student input or decision-making, these reforms nonetheless provide an entering wedge into shifting the structure of power in the university. Along with changes in the Faculty Senate, Deans’ Council, and especially the Provost’s Office, there is momentum that belies the argument that “nothing can fundamentally change until Kerrey is gone”.

This latest student action on Good Friday forces some difficult questions: How much closer are we to Kerrey’s resignation or removal? How much closer are we to rewriting his job description, or that of Murtha, Millard, Moskowitz, Gartner, Adams, Reimer or any of the rest of the administration that actually design and run the current business model of the university? How much closer is the New School to replacing these people, and repairing the damage they have done to the New School over the past eight years? How effective has student organizing and activism been over the past four months? Are we living our values, and is doing so yielding tangible results? What are we learning from?

Imagine that Kerrey is on his way out. Imagine that Murtha, Millard, all the rest are on their way out too. With them, the intense corporatization of the New School over the past eight years is at an end, and socially responsible financial practices provide us with long-term stability. Imagine what we could do.

Do you want a say in what student space is created in the new building at 65 Fifth Ave, or do you want another mess like the 16th St. building? Do you want a Starbucks on campus, or do you want work-study jobs to run a food co-op that serves healthy low-priced food? Do you want some of the most expensive dorms in the city, or do you want the costs cut in half by creating cooperative student housing? Do you want more tuition relief and financial aid? Do you want student representatives on the Board of Trustees? Do you want them to have the voting power that forces them to be taken seriously when fighting for student concerns? Is all of this news to you? If so, would you want a newspaper that was funded and staffed sufficiently to come out every week and cover every division?

In short, we all know what we are against. But what are we for?

New School Students Re-Occupy 65 5th Ave

Reports started flooding in early this morning, as a large group of New School students occupied and locked down the campus building at 65 5th Avenue. This action has seemingly come out of the blue, and it's hard to nail down a lot of specifics about what's going on. Whereas just the cafeteria in the building was taken last December, this occupation is aiming to control the entire building. The occupying students aren't affiliating themselves with either rival New School radical student group (Radical Student Union and New School in Exile), but I think it's safe to say there's a ton of overlap.

Cops are on the scene, and there are conflicting reports as to whether they've gotten inside the building at this point. The occupiers have a blog going:


There's also a FAQ, and a communique that was read by megaphone from on the roof, which from the text of it makes me think the occupation is primarily grad school students.

Keep an eye on NYC Indymedia too.

From NY1:

UPDATE: The occupiers are reporting both teargas released inside and four supporters arrested outside. I'm hearing that New School President Bob Kerrey told the NYPD they could do whatever they deemed necessary in removing the occupiers.

UPDATE: Aaaaand, it's over. All the remaining occupiers (19 in all) have been arrested and taken to the 6th Precinct. A call for people to rally there has been put out. Via a CBS affiliate.

Students Defy Right Wing Politician and Screen Porn Flick at UMD

University of Maryland screening of Pirates II Stagnetti's Revenge - featuring Senator Andy Harris and the Student Power

Student organizers with the Student Power Party screened a portion of the high-budget porn/satire "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge" last night, after a panel discussion on censorship and free speech.

The film was originally to be screened last week in the theater of the student union in conjunction with a talk about safe sex - but once Maryland state legislators in heard about it, conservative lawmakers headed by State Senator Andrew Harris threatened to pull all $400+ million of state funding to the school if it went ahead with the screening. UMD Administration was all too happy to comply, all the while insisting that they did it of their own accord.Baltimore Sun:

Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs at Maryland, said the decision to cancel the film was her own and based on a variety of factors.

"I think people were concerned about portrayal of women, concerned about violence, concerned about our students and decision-making processes," she said. "We were losing sight of the educational value that might come from some kind of exercise like this, so it just seemed like the best thing to do."

Clement said it was appropriate for state lawmakers to be debating what films a university shows on campus. "I think state legislators have the right to weigh in on many, many issues regarding state agencies," she said.

As Marc Fisher of the Washington Post put it, "At the University of Maryland yesterday, the school's top brass faced a classic test of their allegiance to the ideals of open inquiry, freedom of speech and academic independence. They flunked big time."

While the UMD bureaucrats were scrambling to kiss rings in Annapolis, student organizers seized on the moment to give everyone an object lesson in freedom of speech and student power. Members of the Student Power Party reserved a large room and screened the first half hour of Pirates II, after a rousing panel discussion by UMD professors and a lawyer for the ACLU.

This was certainly a victory for student power and direct action - "you won't screen the film? Then we will!" And this was also a great example of the Streisand Effect: that is, attempts to censor something often only result in many more people hearing about and seeing it. Student organizers also did a wonderful job with messaging and media strategy. If Student Power Party members win the UMD student government elections going on today and tomorrow, this may be a hint of what an energized, aggressive SGA will look like.

State Sen. Harris, who despite his best efforts is left with egg on his face, is now arguing that the Regents should come up with a policy regarding pornographic movie screenings on campus. Of course, he's clear as to what he wants that policy to be. As the Washington Post reported, "Harris said the university pornography policy should require that 'you can't have university-sponsored XXX entertainment on campus.'" Thankfully as a Republican he doesn't have a lot of legislative clout in the legislature, and everyone involved knows that University funding isn't in jeopardy. It's telling, however, that the group of people most aware of this fact, the Administration, were also the first to abandon free expression on campus. And from the start that's what this controversy has always been about: it hasn't been about pornography itself (which I'm sure most everyone has strong opinions regarding), but about how deep into campus affairs government officials can reach and meddle.