What price democracy?

There’s an old joke about a man who asks a woman to sleep with him for $1 million. She agrees, whereupon he asks her to sleep with him for $1. “What kind of a girl do you think I am?” asks the woman indignantly. “We’ve settled that,” replies the man, “We’re just arguing about the price.”

This came to mind in response to this story about the price of the Broad Foundation’s generosity to the schools of New Jersey. A recent Broad Foundation grant stipulates that it will be available only as long as Chris Christie remains governor.

I’ve often argued that private philanthropy in education (and other areas) is at best a mixed blessing, because it reflects approval of the notion that public assets should be run according to private preferences. But I never imagined any philanthropy would go this far, offering its generosity only on condition that the public sacrifice its right to choose its own leaders. The question isn’t whether or not Chris Christie is a good governor; the question is whether the Broad Foundation—as opposed to the voters of New Jersey—should get to decide that.

Sure, you can say that no voter is likely to sacrifice his or her rights for a grant of $430,000, but then we’re just arguing about the price. And sure, in form, the voters of New Jersey still hold the power, but the Broad Foundation grant gives them to understand that the cost of exercising their power is losing a lot of money—or, put another way, that the cost of the money is their democratic rights. By comparison, “the vig” (excessive interest rates) charged by organized crime look like a bargain.

Not content with specifying the outcome of an election, the grant’s terms also exempt from disclosure anything having to do with the grant, purporting to provide it with immunity from application of the Federal Freedom of Information Act. Perhaps this was intended to minimize the impact of the grant on voters: What they don’t know can’t influence them. But when the subject of the grant is the most public of concerns—the education of the next generation—a commendable motive doesn’t excuse unacceptable means. Voters need to know on what basis decisions are being made about their schools so that they can change the decision-makers if they disagree. The grant terms are an effort to protect the foundation and its direct beneficiary, the current Republican government of New Jersey, from that straightforward democratic notion.

Defenders of charter schools and other forms of privatization of public schools argue that such restructuring attracts private philanthropy that would not otherwise be available to those schools. That’s probably true, but is that a cost or a benefit? It’s a slippery slope, from good-willed private philanthropy in support of public goals to a system in which private goals predominate—specifically the private goal of eliminating public input (or even public knowledge) from the governance of the public schools.

We could argue about whether the loss of public input would be worth it if the donation were $430 million. But under the current circumstances, just what kind of girl is New Jersey?

A cheap date, apparently.

Comments

  1. SamChevre says

    And sure, in form, the voters of New Jersey still hold the power, but the Broad Foundation grant gives them to understand that the cost of exercising their power is losing a lot of money

    This is different than a Federal grant how?

    • tacitus says

      I didn’t realize that federal grants were typically awarded only for as long as specific governors remained in power.

      • SamChevre says

        They aren’t–rather, they are awarded only as long as particular (democratically unpopular) policies are followed. I don’t see the two as very different.

    • MobiusKlein says

      Because the the identity of the governor is not germane to the problem – another person could very well have the same exact policy choices, but NJ would lose the money.
      It’s because we aspire to be a nation of laws, not men.

  2. Ohio Mom says

    Thank you for this post. I think it hits on an essential point about the school “deform” movement that is often overlooked in all the talk of charters, vouchers, high-stakes testing, merit pay, ending tenure, deunionizing teachers, etc.

    Public school districts are a form of local government, with a specific geographical area over which they have jurisdiction — known as the school district — and usually, a democratically-elected governing board — known as the school board (some cities have gone to a mayoral control which is obviously a much less direct form of having democratically-elected governance).

    Because it is a type of government, school districts are required to treat everyone equally under the law (this is the basis for special education) and they must provide for open meetings and records (with exceptions to protect the privacy of individual students).

    When schools are privatized, this level and form of local government just plain vanishes, and there is a little less democracy in our lives. To me, this is frightening, that a government be replaced with a private entity. I think there may even be a word for that…

    In Diane Ravitch’s blog today (and her blog is an absolute must for anyone interested in what is happening to public schools across the entire country), one of the posts explains that “Courts have repeatedly ruled that charter schools are not public schools. These rulings have been sought not by charter critics, but by the charters themselves, to enable them to avoid complying with state laws.” (http://dianeravitch.net/2013/01/04/courts-and-nlrb-charters-are-not-public-schools/).

    If you are particularly interested in the Broad Foundation’s efforts in shaping eduction, you should know that if you click on “Blog Topics” on the top of Dr. Ravtich’s page, there is a “Broad Foundation” tag.

    • SamChevre says

      Public school districts are a form of local government, with a specific geographical area over which they have jurisdiction — known as the school district — and usually, a democratically-elected governing board — known as the school board

      This was true 70 years ago; I cannot think of even one school district in the US of which it is true today that both all the money is raised from one specific geographical area AND the school board for that geographical area has control over how that money is spent (including subjects of instruction, qualifications of teachers, aand qualification of students.)

      • Ken Rhodes says

        Sam, you sorta jumped the shark there, dintcha? You quoted a sentence that Ohio Mom wrote, then responded with a hypothetical she didn’t write, or imply in any way–that all the money is collected locally.

      • Ohio Mom says

        Yes, there will always be issues with the balance between local autonomy and state and federal mandates for public schools, though in the past, most mandates were probably hard to be against (well, unless you liked your schoools segregated). What’s the problem with requiring teachers to be mandated reporters, or for providing free/reduced lunches, or for limits on class sizes, or a minimum number of days of instruction, etc.? The new mandates for things like high-stakes testing are indeed very problematic.

        Needless to say, there are also huge issues with how we fund public schools. But the school deform movement, of which Broad is a leader, is not at all interested in local autonomy, or in repairing the inequities in school funding. What I understood the post to be about is whether or not public schools will continue to belong to the public in any meaningful sense. At least the federal and state mandates come out of a democratically-elected legislature, not a private entity.

        I know I am going to sound like a broken record here, but here is a post from Diane Ravitch’s blog on a handful of school districts that are in the vanguard of pushing back against a mandate they know will be harmful to schools:

        http://dianeravitch.net/2013/01/03/found-one-brave-superintendent-in-connecticut/

        From the link: “…Superintendent Scarice consulted with his school board, parents and the local community. He has shown leadership in responding to the state’s recently passed legislation about linking teacher evaluations to test scores.”

        I don’t want to get into a discussion on linking teacher ratings to their students’ standardized test scores. The point of this link is that shows that it is possible for school districts to take action in a democratic manner which is something privatized schools won’t.

      • Dan Staley says

        Let me guess, Sam: you gave some of your money to an experimental private school, no? Justifying your purchase?

        I’m with OHmom: school boards are where democracy still works. Many of our electeds start out there and move up. School boards and other boards at this level is where democracy will arise again when the plutocrats are finally tossed.

  3. says

    The joke has been attributed to George Bernard Shaw, who was capable of that sort of conversation.
    The second price has to be closer to the market rate; say $100. I do not write from personal knowledge.

  4. Ken Rhodes says

    I think this whole brouhaha is a tempest in a teapot created by overgeneralizing a very specific detail.

    The “grant” is a single payment, not an endowment with recurring payments. The funds will be used before the voters have anything to do with electing either Christie or anyone else. The condition had nothing to do with the voters of New Jersey. The money was, in a manner of speaking, a “golden handcuff” on Governor Christie. It was conditioned on Christie staying around (i.e., not resigning to run for President) to spend it.

    Perhaps you don’t like that Eli Broad said, in effect, “I trust Christie with this money, but I’m doing it with the understanding he’e going to be in charge while it’s spent.” OK, I can appeciate that seems a little petty. But gosh, let’s don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. And for sure, let’s don’t suggest this has anything to do with the voters of New Jersey.

    • Ohio Mom says

      Ken, I ask you to please set a kitchen timer for an hour, even 30 minutes, and spend that time at Diand Ravitch’s blog (there are many other blogs like hers but I find hers the most readable and comprehensive).

      When you are done you will see that this story isn’t overgeneralizing at all. It’s a case study of what’s happening right now in every state. Significant, far-reaching education policy is being set by private actors, actors who have NO background in education, child development or any other related field. Some, like Broad and Gates, seem motivated mostly by hubris but most others seem motivated by the promise of profit (a promise that is already being realized quite nicely in places). Their actions are without exception directed at weakening the public school system and dismantling/privatizing as much of it as possible.

      I admit I have a dog in this fight. I have a special needs kid. Now, he’s in his freshman year of high school so our race against the clock is almost over. But the movement to privatize public education bodes very, very badly for kids like him and had he been born this year rather than 15 years ago, I wouldn’t be confident that he’d get any sort of decent education. And his schooling has been critical in helping him habilitate his disability.

      It’s been long predicted that public schools will be shrunk in size and funding, and left with the children who are most difficult to educate. The idea is to make the words “public school” carry the same connotation as “public housing,” the substandard place for “those other people” you’ll do anything to avoid.

      Does this all sound like hyperbole? Is it hyperbole to say there is a ongoing effort to dismantle/privatize as much as the New Deal as possible?The school privatization effort just isn’t as well known, though it’s arguably meeting with more immediate success than Peter Peterson. That’s why I was excited to see this post.

      • Dan Staley says

        When you are done you will see that this story isn’t overgeneralizing at all. It’s a case study of what’s happening right now in every state. Significant, far-reaching education policy is being set by private actors, actors who have NO background in education, child development or any other related field

        We have better here. Don’t get me started with Douglas County School District, HQ’d in a town where I used to work. They recently tossed some board members and elected some Repubs and hired a lawyer and tried to get public funds to pay for private tuition in private schools. Great, you say. Well, all the private schools were church-based. The fundies signed up and got ‘er goin’ until a judge stepped in and said whoa. So now of course the lawyers are all over it and school programs continue to be cut and county funds pay for infrastructure for growth but not school infra. Glad I’m gone, as the county is the most R in the state.

    • curious says

      @ Ken Rhodes – Do you know anything more about the details of this grant than the linked NJ.com blog post or how Christie’s comings and goings might affect that? Is it paying someone’s salary? Paying the costs of some outsourced study or actual implementation of a policy? If it is paying for a study or a staffer’s salary, isn’t the larger questions what kind of leverage does half a million bucks provide if it effects tens of millions of dollars in public funding to implement the goals of the grant? Isn’t this a particularly instructive example of the 1% having yet another influence on governmental policies far from the bright lights shined on political contributions and out of all proportion to the actual financial benefit being received by the State of NJ? It is particularly hard to believe that a foundation (presumably a 501(c)(3)) can make a grant conditioned on one elected official remaining in office and not run afoul of the tax code.

  5. tacitus says

    Well, it certainly points to the grant’s purpose being more to do with the advancement of a specific political agenda than a sincere attempt to help the children of New Jersey.

    • Brett Bellmore says

      If one assumes that the grantees don’t believe the one has anything to do with the other…

  6. Kelly Kleiman says

    This is not a molehill–it’s a philanthropic practice that recurs with greater and greater frequency. In the middle of last month the Washington Post reported (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2012/12/14/probe-sought-into-private-influence-on-public-education-policy/)a grant by the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia whose “deliverables” included expanded charter schools and reduced public schools. Local government shouldn’t be for sale to the highest bidder.

  7. John G says

    What are the restrictions, if any, on registered charities engaging in partisan political activity? This certainly looks like just that kind of activity.

    And what power does a state governor have over education spending? Does the governor intervene in particular spending decisions to the degree that the Broad Foundation’s condition makes sense? I would assume that the state’s education budget is sufficiently stretched that existing programs and priorities would probably be able to absorb an extra half-million dollars without having to go to the highest state political authority to ask for policy direction (and would that authority be the executive rather than the legislature?)

    Or is it just a matter of wanting to keep the guy who sets the tone of the place in a way acceptable to the donor? Given the nature of that person’s selection, I would have thought it’s still pretty partisan, however effective.

  8. Ohio Mom says

    Here’s a related story for all of you who think this post is about an isolated event.

    In 2000, Bill Gates announced he knew the secret to making urban high schools successful. They needed to be shrunk into “small learning communities” of 400 or fewer students. His foundation gave away $2 billion in this attempt to boost achievement and graduation rates; 2,600 small high schools in 45 states were created.

    What research backed this assumption? Was there a small pilot project or two to test this idea before unleashing it on about a million guinea pigs/kids? No, because when you’re the world’s richest man, you know EVERYTHING.

    In 2005 Bill was at Davos, touting the success of his new great idea. By the end of 2008 however, he was admitting the small school idea had been a failure. Students in the small schools didn’t score better on math and reading tests, or leave high school better prepared for what came next than did their peers back in the traditionally-sized high schools.

    Well, to be fair, there were some small high schools in NYC that had students that did better than those in their neighboring schools. How did this handful of small schools do that? By limiting the number of special ed and English language-learners! Take away the students who are hardest to educate and guess what — you have a student body that’s easier to educate than it was before (of course, this is also the MO of many charters).

    Most of the above is from this Forbes article, written by, yes, Education historian Diane Ravitch, back in the days before her Damascus moment, when she was still affiliated with Hoover Institution. http://www.forbes.com/2008/11/18/gates-foundation-schools-oped-cx_dr_1119ravitch.html

    • Keith Humphreys says

      There is another reason why small schools are always atop the list of the best performing schools in America — small samples are more prone to extreme scores due to measurement error. What the small school champions overlooked is that at the end of those lists of performing schools were OTHER small schools. The best AND worst tend to be small, because small samples are prone to extreme scores due to measurement error.

      • Ohio Mom says

        I’d guess that there are two main types of naturally-ocurring small schools: exclusive private ones and ones way out in the sticks. I’d also guess that the exclusive private ones are going to be on the high-scoring end, and that the rural ones tend to have barer-bone offerings, with more limited electives, advanced classes and extra-curricular activities than their urban and suburban counterparts. Throw in the schools in Gates’ experiment and it’s apples, oranges and bananas.

        • Ohio Mom says

          Let me ammend this by noting there are also many small, store-front charters. I don’t think of them as “naturally occuring” but they do exist in large numbers. So make that apples, oranges, bananas and grapes. Meaningful comparisons must take into account the wide differences in each type of school’s student bodies.

    • Brett Bellmore says

      “By the end of 2008 however, he was admitting the small school idea had been a failure.”

      See, this is where the private sector tends to be better than the government sector: Not in generating good ideas, but in eventually admitting an idea didn’t work out.

      • Cranky Observer says

        = = = See, this is where the private sector tends to be better than the government sector: Not in generating good ideas, but in eventually admitting an idea didn’t work out. = = =

        Funny how universal public schooling worked quite well in the US from 1680-1980, until the hard Radical Right decided to “improve” it with magic-market “principles”.

        Cranky

        • SamChevre says

          I think you mean, universal public schooling with local control and democratic oversight worked quite well in the US until 1960′s, when the radical Left decided that all that self-government stuff left the schools outside their control.

          • Cranky Observer says


            = = = SamChevre @ 8:41 am

            I think you mean, universal public schooling with local control and democratic oversight worked quite well in the US until 1960′s, when the radical Left decided that all that self-government stuff left the schools outside their control.
            = = =

            Feel free to project whatever you want into your own mirror, SamChevre, but for the record: no, that’s not what I meant. As good as our public schools were (and for the most part still are), which is some cases (NYC, Chicago, others) was very very good, by 1960 it was clear that many of them were engaging in unacceptable practices including immoral discrimination (primarily against black people, but also against anyone who was not Atlantic European), warehousing of special needs children, etc. As well as grossly underpaying their teachers and using oppressive employment/management practices. So the reforms of the 1955-1985 period were needed and just, and most school districts turned out the better for them.

            Cranky

      • curious says

        Even if Gates admitted that small schools weren’t working as early as 2008, the damage seems to have done at least in the second largest public school district in the country. Since then LA Unified has been transforming all of its comprehensive high schools into “small learning communities” based on themes. Coincidentally the current superintendent has some prior affiliation with the Broad Foundation. Gates and Broad can move onto their next brilliant idea for the educational establishment but the repercussions of the seed money they spend now will remain as an influence on educational policy long after – and out of all proportion to the actual financial support they initially provided.

        • Cranky Observer says

          Children in the K-6 range form deep bonds with their classmates and teachers, often developing incredible levels of trust for that teacher. And often to their school as well. Ripping them out of a school, yanking them from here to there as the winds of the market and the profit levels and “ROI” of the for-profit schooling business dictates, is cruel beyond belief.

          Also, generally what happens when these private school ventures collapse (e.g. the Imagine fiasco in St. Louis) is that the children are dumped back onto what remains of the old public school system – now badly damaged, but legally (and morally) unable to turn them away.

          This is clearly part of a long-term Republican plan to destroy public schooling and damage children who aren’t members of the top 5% or so; why supposed Democrats (e.g. Obama) buy into it is either baffling or terrifying.

          Cranky

          • CharlesWT says

            “Ripping them out of a school, yanking them from here to there…is cruel beyond belief.”

            And not so different from what happen all over the country when federal law and the courts yanked kids out of their neighborhood schools and bused them all over creation to satisfy some kind of proper student mix.

    • NCG says

      Ohio Mom, I heart your posts here!!!

      Just a quibble. It seems to me that being a student in a smaller environment, even if it’s within a big urban one, might be subjectively nicer in lots of ways that don’t show up on a test.

      And, we never had a vote here and agreed that test scores were the be-all.

      So while I agree that we shouldn’t be letting donors, rich or small, distort the public interest unduly — and personally, I’m ready to pull the plug on having any more charters, though I’d let the good ones stay — in this one small area there may have been a grain of positivity.

      • CharlesWT says

        “…I’m ready to pull the plug on having any more charters, …”

        Charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public schools are very likely well pass the tipping point. New Orleans has almost and plans to have 100% charter schools. Los Angeles has over 75,000 students in charter schools. Most states have either started or are looking at changes to the way K-12 schooling is done.

        • NCG says

          Well, or they might have outlived their usefulness. IIRC, the idea was that they were going to revolutionize education. This didn’t happen. What did happen is some very fine schools, plus a lot more not as good ones, were created. But there’s no silver bullet or secret sauce, and I think they’re a distraction at best.

      • Ohio Mom says

        Sorry it took me so long to get back here, real life intervened. You make an interesting point NCG. The one positive piece of data I read about Gates’ small schools is that they had better attendence rates, which says to me the students were probably more enthusiastic about showing up every day than their peers at larger but otherwise similar schools.

        Could this have payoffs later on in life, even if these students weren’t immediately any more ready for college — I don’t think we’ll ever know because it doesn’t look like Gates was interested in that sort of long-term follow-up. At any rate, it sounds like the quality of their lives while in high school was higher, and that is something.

        I only did a little bit of googling on the small schools experiment and I can’t say that the articles I came up with had any depth, but one of them quoted a student who recalled happily that he kept the same English teacher throughout his high school years and that doing so was a big help to him.

        That’s called “looping” and my kid’s high school, which has about 1,600 students, also has some looping, in their case, in the special ed department. “Mainstreamed” students keep the same special ed teacher for multiple years; this teacher, who provides extra tutoring and support, really gets to know her students and build a strong relationships with them (and her partners in the students’ education, their parents).

        So it looks like one possible lesson of the small school experiment, that looping helps students feel more comfortable, could be applied to a traditionally-sized school — even if only in a few critical classes like English and math. I’m guessing that the small schools also had smaller classes and that’s something else that could be applied to any traditionally-sized school, IF they were given adequate funding.

        Finally, a couple of issues with small schools I think worth noting (Ravitch touches on these briefly in the link). One is that the students in the small schools were poor and nothing about the size of a school changes the challenges that brings: if a student can’t concentrate because he’s not getting enough sleep because his family is homeless, he’s not going to be any more alert if the overall student body is smaller. If the school had a social worker on staff, that could help but again, any sized school could with enough funding.

        Two, a smaller school will probably have less in the way of electives and after-school activites and these “extras” are often where a student finds his passion, as well as a peer group to belong to. It seems a shame to deny innercity kids, who already have limited exposure to all kinds of things, the opportunities electives and extracurricular activities bring. Maybe a student isn’t particularly interested in academics but has a flair for graphic design; if the school doesn’t have art electives, he may never find out about that hidden talent.

  9. KLG says

    Eli Broad (rhymes with “road”) is behind the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, which is doing interesting and important work. I guess the original $200 million donation deal didn’t specify that one of the Broad Foundations would get the money back if Larry Summers got canned, because Mr. and Mrs. Broad permanently endowed the Broad Institute with $400 million in 2008. Wonder what conditions did come with the money? Certainly neither Harvard nor MIT would agree to any such thing! Perish the thought.

    Diane Ravitch? Finally had a “Greenspan Moment” somewhere along the way. I’m impressed.

    • curious says

      Larry Summers is not an elected official nor do MIT and Harvard purport to be democratically governed by their students or faculty, and the schools are not federal, state or local institutions. I hardly see the analogy to a grant to the State of NJ.

  10. Ebenezer Scrooge says

    I’d be a bit careful about the word “democracy” here. Local school boards may represent democracy, but that is not necessarily a good thing. It’s the old Madison #10 all over again. Local levels tend to be more corrupt, and more responsive to the more powerful of their constituents. These powerful constituents might be concerned parents, or might be contractors. In poor areas, it is likely the latter. School board members can be PTA activist concerned parent types, but can also be jv politicians looking to broaden their base with their spending power. In poor areas, it is likely the latter. Also, voters tend to have much less information and effective oversight on their school boards, which often have regular elections on February 30, or some similar time. This is especially true in poor areas.

    This doesn’t mean that all local control is bad. I grew up in rich goo-goo Montgomery County Maryland, which could freak out on a 13 cent discrepancy on a voucher and had an excellent system. I now live in Newark, NJ. There’s a big difference, even though Newark is not nearly as bad as billed. (Well, parts of it are . . .)

    All this being said, I’m not crazy about the privatization trend, for all the reasons mentioned upthread. State (or even much county/city) politics are less corrupt than local school board politics, and would be a far superior alternative. Of course, you can’t let that happen–such schools might actually desegregate! The privatization trend, even if you support it, is at most a second-best policy that relies on virtuous plutocrats pressuring skeevy pols in order to improve de facto segregated schools. That’s a pretty crappy second-best, especially since the pols are far more sophisticated in this sphere than the plutocrats.

    • Ohio Mom says

      It might be said of local school boards that they are the worst way to govern public schools than all the rest. Maybe state or county control would be better. That is an interesting question. But it isn’t the choice at the moment. The choice is defending the flawed but public system we have or letting the reformers continue to dismantle and privatize the public school, an institution that took 200 years to evolve.

      We didn’t start out with universal education for all; for one small example, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that the civil right of children with disabilities to a public education was recognized. Before that, in a lot of places, they simply didn’t go to school.

      As long and arduous a process developing the public school was, it is now in danger of very quickly shrunk down to bathtub-drowning proportions. If and when the privatizers succeed, there will be NO going back.

      This won’t be like when my city privatized garbage collection. If the private company starts spilling trash all over the place or skipping streets, and my city government appears to be doing nothing in response, my neighbors and I have a range of options, ranging from angry letters to the editor and petitions, to throwing the bums out and electing a different city council — one that might even expand the public work department to take back garbage collection.

      What is happening to the schools isn’t mere contracting out. In charters and other privatized schools, parents, let alone other citizens, have little or no say or recourse (in fact, trouble makers are often “counseled out” of charters). And I say “other citizens” because it is important to remember that the public school belongs to all of us, whether or not we have school-aged children.

      This post looked at Broad but most of the reform movement is not motivated by the urge to do good, it is motivated by the fact that education is a huge sector and they see big opportunities for big profits. A lot of cashing in is already in process.

      • Ebenezer Scrooge says

        Ohio Mom has a very important point to bear in mind. The Broads and Gateses and Zuckerpeople may be virtuous (if perhaps misinformed) plutocrats. But much of privatization is about making a buck. The smarter charter districts are aware of this, but not all are smart. And even the smart ones inherently can’t be as nimble as entrepreneurial types. The entrepreneurs have figured out how to make a profit from nonprofit entities, so mere nonprofit status is only limited protection.

        Another problem with charter-ization–one I’ve seen in Newark–is that it tends to lead to governance by highly-credentialed 28-year olds. They can write perfectly lovely position papers, but public sector management is often completely beyond them. Cory Booker, in this view of the world, is the John V. Lindsey of the 21st century.

        • Cranky Observer says

          = = = But much of privatization is about making a buck. = = =

          With respect, I’ll disagree. Those who wish to make a buck are being encouraged and ultimately used by those whose ultimate goal is simply to destroy universal public education (or simply, public education of any type) in the United States. Useful idiots to be sure, but not the prime movers.

          Cranky

          • Ebenezer Scrooge says

            I agree that this is true of the Republicans: they want to destroy public education. But it’s not the goals of the Gateses. They just want to show that their gigabucks can do more good than tax dollars. And sometimes (as with vaccine cold chains), they’re even right.

        • curious says

          And the education “reform” movement is equal opportunity about making a buck – also happy to milk the public school system through textbook purchases and test preparation and administration services to consulting contracts to to implement the steady diet of new standards such schools must satisfy, with the current flavor of the month being the Common Core Standards which will divert countless dollars from public school districts nationwide, without changing one iota of student performance or outcomes. The private sector is committed to ensuring that public schools are always failing so that they can capture an ever increasing percentage of public school dollars for their products and services.

      • NCG says

        I am mostly a bystander in this debate, but one thing I’d be interested to see would be full disclosure of charter funding and costs, which it’s my impression they do not now need to provide here in Cali. Who’s giving money and how much, what are the administrators paid, what are the teachers paid, and so on. My guess is, sunshine might do its usual good. Charters seem to exist mostly by exploiting new/young teachers, who get sick of it and move on. So in the end, there’s really no good alternative to … a teacher’s union!!!!

  11. Brett Bellmore says

    So, exactly what is it that you want? For grants and other donations to be so devoid of conditions that they amount to nothing more than voluntarily paying extra taxes? “The Bill and Melinda Gates Write a Check to the Government Each Year Foundation” is your ideal here?

    They don’t just want to help, they have an idea of what would constitute helping, and they want to effectuate that, and not something else. This seems quite reasonable to me.

    • Cranky Observer says

      For years Bellmore has said ‘if you think taxes are too low you are free to donate more money’. Now that taxes are so low that deep damage is being done to our social fabric (e.g. the destruction of the concept of universal schooling) he pivots and says ‘that donation of my own free will? _Of course_ it came with strings attached’. But there’s not plan here, not malice. Just the honest desire of the hard Radical Right to make the United States a better place.

      Cranky

    • curious says

      Keep in mind that this is a grant in the amount of a bit more than half a million dollars yet it seems like it will be leveraged to produce an impact on public spending in the tens of millions of dollars. This is way out of proportion to the benefit to the public coffers that could otherwise be obtained with a broad tax-base and democratically elected local school board or state or federal educational policy. It may be shrewd grant-making but it is terrible public policy and very undemocratic.

  12. JMG says

    Strangely enough, the Costco magazine included this lengthy piece with a great guy:

    SAD PERFORMANCE statistics and the alarming number of high school dropouts and unemployed young people make it easy to feel despondent about the current state of affairs in education. Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation, brings much-needed inspiration to the subject. With wry humor and a sharp wit, he passionately argues not for reform, but for what he calls a revolution in education.

    Robinson, who grew up in Liverpool and is professor emeritus of education at the University of Warwick in the UK, believes we need to rethink education from the ground up. To this end, he works with governments in Europe, Asia and the U.S., and with international agencies, Fortune 500 companies and cultural organizations.

    In 1998, Robinson led a national commission on creativity, education and the economy for the UK government. His report, All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education, was published to wide acclaim in 1999. He was a key figure in developing a strategy for creative and economic development as part of the peace process in Northern Ireland, and has also advised the Singapore government. In 2003 he received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to the arts.

    Robinson’s ideas resonate with listeners and readers in all sectors. In 2006, he gave a speech, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” at a conference. The speech was posted on the Internet and has subsequently been seen by an estimated 300 million people. It’s peppered with standout quotes, such as “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original,” and “We run companies where we stigmatize mistakes.” His books The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (Penguin/Viking, 2009) and Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative (Capstone/Wiley, 2011) are popular. The Element is a New York Timesbest-seller and has been translated into 23 languages. He’s just written a new book, tentatively titled Finding Your Element, due out next year.

    The Costco Connection recently spoke with Robinson via telephone at his house in Los Angeles to discuss creativity, intelligence and education.

    The Costco Connection: In your lectures and books, you point out that, very often, young children believe they’re creative, but most adults don’t. What happens?

    Ken Robinson: Several things happen. One is that as children get older, they become more socially aware and consequently more self-conscious. It’s why very young children are happy to believe that there’s a Father Christmas, and 12-yearolds aren’t. They get hit by issues of plausibility at that point. Really? He takes presents to every house in the world? In one night? Are you serious? As we age, people also tend to become more self-critical. We begin doubting ourselves and our capabilities. So part of what happens is the ordinary process of maturation and getting older.

    But a big institutional reason that adults often believe they’re not creative is education. Being creative has all kinds of manifestations. It’s not just in the arts. It’s not just in music or dance or theater or writing or painting, though it is in all of those things. You can be creative at anything. You can be creative in business. You can be creative in technology and science—in anything that involves your intelligence. But being creative, which is about having original ideas, requires actual skills in the fields in which you’re working—and an openness of mind, a willingness to explore, a confidence in your imagination, a willingness to try things out and make mistakes and try again.

    What happens in education, too often and increasingly, I’m sorry to say, is that a dampening culture of standardization gets brought in. The curriculum tends to become very narrow. There are all kinds of opportunities that we could make available to kids that we don’t. So, if you happen to be a young Matt Groening [creator of The Simpsons] or Mick Fleetwood [drummer of the rock group Fleetwood Mac], and you happen to be interested in art or music, and the curriculum excludes these subjects, you may never discover that these are things that you could be good at.

    Conformity and standardization and sitting still and doing multiple-choice questions and being tested at the end—these features of education are inimical to the kind of original thinking and confident imaginations that underpin real innovation. I think as we get older our expectations shift and education tends to suppress some of the basic aptitudes and attitudes that underpin real creative work. The result is that adults end up thinking they’re not very creative.

    CC:So, if the current education system hampers creativity, which you’ve just explained is key to innovation in any field, then what needs to change?

    KR: The current systems of education were developed in the 19th century to meet the needs of the Industrial Revolution, and it shows itself in two ways. One is in the organizational culture of education, which for the most part is very regimented. It’s organized a bit like an assembly line. Children are divided into age groups, for example, as if the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. Why? We don’t do that in families or in the general community. It’s done in schools for reasons of organizational efficiency, not for effective education.

    We divide each day up into 40-minute periods, for the same reason. And then the day is divided into separate subjects. We have standardized testing at the end of it. It’s very much like an industrial process, and it’s not an accident, because our systems of mass education were developed in the 19th century to meet the needs of the new industrial economies and they were designed for efficiency, like other systems of mass production.

    Second, our education systems are overlaid with a particular intellectual culture, which is promoted by the needs of the universities. This culture gives a premium to certain types of academic work and tends to demean practical and vocational work as second-class options. But the fact is that aptitude takes many different forms, and we have a view of it in education that is far too narrow and wasteful. In all of these ways, the dominant culture of education is oriented toward the last century, not the present one.

    The challenges our children face now are quite different from the ones that people faced in the 19th century. The world is being transformed by digital technology. We have surging population growth. There are more and more demands on natural resources. The world’s becoming more interconnected, more complicated. The life cycles of jobs and occupations are getting shorter as innovation increases. If we’re being honest and serious about how we educate our kids, we need to look at the real lives that they’re leading now—the lives they’d like to lead. That calls for a different sort of education to the one that most of us came through. Employers everywhere say, for example, that they need people who are creative, who can work in teams, who can collaborate and innovate. Our current systems of education do almost exactly the opposite.

    CC: How well has the education system served those who are now in the workforce?

    KR: When I was working on The Element, many of the people I spoke with didn’t feel that they fitted in with the kind of education they were having. That was true of Matt Groening. He spent most of his time doodling and drawing and doing cartoons all over his books. He didn’t have a career plan in mind; it was just something he did compulsively. Mick Fleetwood said that he was always tapping and beating out rhythms on cushions, and again, he said it wasn’t a very clear signal that there was anything tremendously important going on; it was just something he compulsively did.

    A lot of people I know went through education feeling unconnected to it. And that’s really what The Elementtries to illustrate. But this isn’t just about the arts. My arguments apply to science, technology and all other areas of education too. The point is that there should not be a single measure of ability or interest. Human beings have a huge range of talents and interests, and we need to take that into account in education.

    CC:Can you define what you mean by finding one’s element for readers who haven’t read your bookThe Element?

    KR: The element is finding that point where talent meets passion. Both are important. If you’re in your element, you’re doing something for which you have a natural aptitude. You get it. I’m not suggesting that you have to be the best in the world or the best in history, but you get it and you have a natural feel for it.

    I know people for whom that’s true in every type of work. Aptitude takes many different forms. But being good at something is only part of this. To be in your element, you really have to love what you’re doing. If you love something that you’re good at you never “work” again. And you can tell. If you love something, time changes when you’re doing it. An hour feels like five minutes. But if you’re doing something that you don’t care for or doesn’t resonate with your own particular energy, then five minutes feels like an hour.

    My wife, Therese, is a great example of what I’m talking about. She recently wrote a novel, India’s Summer. It actually came out of work she did with me on The Element. She was doing some of the early interviews for the book and it reignited her own passion for writing and she set out to write this novel.

    Untold hours flew by when she was writing because she was so immersed in the story and the characters and the whole process of writing and creating an imagined world for them. The book’s now published and she’s working on the sequel and loves writing every day. For her it’s often the best part of the day.

    CC: What about people who have a huge passion for something but little or no aptitude for it?

    KR: It’s hard to overestimate the importance of passion. There are people in all kinds of fields who would consider themselves—rightly or wrongly—to be only modestly talented in a particular area, but they’ve gone on to do well in it, or thoroughly enjoy it, because they have such a strong passion for it. Equally, I know people who might be highly gifted in a particular activity who have no real interest in it. I think passion is the great driving force here, and passion is the right word for it because it is about loving something. If you’re attracted to something, then you get energized by doing it.

    CC:Do you see examples of schools that are doing a good job of teaching children the skills they’ll need to succeed in today’s world?

    KR: I do, and in my book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, I describe in detail the kinds of changes I believe we have to make and give examples of how they work.

    The fact is that there are great schools everywhere, but there is no single model or type of school that should be adopted everywhere. This is one of the ways in which we have to think differently about education. Schools need to be customized to the needs of the students who go to them and to the nature of the communities that they are serving. Although there’s no single model, there are some common principles and approaches that I believe all schools should adopt.

    To begin with, education has to be personalized to every student. If anyone reading this has two or more children, I’ll bet you that they are completely different from each other. If you’re a parent, you’re never confused by which of your children you’re talking to. The reason is that we’re all unique. We all have our own talents, passions, motivations and interests.

    Education has to address us all as individuals. Sometimes I hear people say that we can’t afford to create personalized education for everyone. The fact is that we can’t afford not to. In the United States, something like 30 percent of students don’t finish high school. It’s a much higher figure in some parts of the country. That’s a massive waste of talent and ability and a huge drain on the national economy.

    Many kids drop out because they don’t see the point in school and don’t feel it’s about them at all. The best way to improve education is to reengage them personally.

    CC:How do you go about addressing students as individuals in education?

    KR: What does it mean to personalize education? It means, first, that schools have to have a broad curriculum that allows all students to discover their real strengths and the areas in which they flourish.

    Second, teaching has to take account of how different children actually learn. Not all kids learn best sitting still for hours absorbing verbal information. Some children respond best to visual information; some need to move and express themselves physically.

    “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.”

    Third, the schedule of the school needs to be more flexible to allow learning across age groups and between disciplines.

    And fourth, assessment has to be more descriptive of what students have done and rely less on single numbers and grades, which give very little information and tend to turn the whole process of education into a kind of standardized obstacle course.

    The good news is that we can do all of these things now and some of the most successful schools in the country are doing them.

    CC: How are the successful schools you see doing these things?

    KR: New digital technologies make it perfectly possible to personalize the curriculum and the schedule, and the tools and applications that are now available make it easier than ever to change the nature of teaching and learning. I don’t mean that technology is the answer to everything. I argue in all my talks and books that it is not. But it is a game changer for why we’re educating our children and for how we can do it.

    The big change, I believe, has to be from seeing education as a mechanical or industrial process to seeing it much more as a human and organic one. Gardeners know that they can’t make plants grow. Plants grow themselves. Gardeners provide the right conditions for that to happen. Good gardeners understand those conditions. Running a school or teaching a class or raising a family is much more like gardening than [like] engineering. It’s about providing the best conditions for growth and development. And if we get that right we’ll see an abundant harvest of talent, commitment, imagination and creativity in all of our children and in all of our schools.

    There have always been schools that have been practicing the sorts of principles I’ve been talking about. There aren’t enough of them yet, but encouraging schools to personalize and customize education to real children is where the revolution [in education] will come from. I’m not waiting for some shaft of enlightenment to emerge from our government buildings. Real change almost always happens from the ground up. Part of my mission is to encourage more and more people to make changes in the work they do. If enough people do it, that’s a movement. As Gandhi once said, we should all aim to be the change we want to see in the world