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A Warning Sign for the Charter School Movement

Charter SchoolCREDO report co-author Kenneth Surratt and Bob Peterson, founding editor of Rethinking Schools and 5th grade teacher, talked on Democracy Now! about CREDO's latest report on charter schools. The report that found that, on average, students in charter schools were not faring as well as students in traditional public schools - particularly black and latin@ students.

Augusta Chronicle:

 Independent studies of charter schools show that they might not be quite the silver bullet people think they are.

A report just released by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University analyzed data from more than 2,400 charter schools in 16 states, including Georgia. The CREDO report found that students in charter schools, as a whole, are "not faring as well as students in traditional public schools."

Only one in six charter schools - 17 percent - had academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools, while 37 percent of charter schools showed gains that were worse than their public school counterparts. Nearly half of the charter schools - 46 percent - showed no significant difference between the performance of their students and public school students.


Other studies have shown similar results for charter school performance.

An analysis of test data by the U.S. Education Department during the administration of George W. Bush showed that charter school students generally did not perform as well as those in regular public schools. The federal study said charter students scored significantly lower than regular public school students in math, while in reading there was no statistically significant difference.

 Part 1:

 Part 2:


Tufts University Union-Busts, is then Labeled a "Charismatic Organization"


The scene is Tufts University, 2002. Graduate employees have been working tirelessly to unionize in the face of a hostile administration. Tufts Daily reports in February:

ASET UAW Tufts unionASET sought collective bargaining rights through the United Automobile Workers (UAW), and filed a petition with the Boston office of the NLRB on Dec. 7. The group also created a website to argue their case.

In the Feinleib Lecture Hall yesterday, [University President Larry] Bacow led Tufts' faculty in a discussion about the unionization process. Saying that he was "not anti-union," Bacow insisted that this is not an issue of ideology but rather a question of "whether or not the UAW representing our graduate students here at Tufts will strengthen the graduate program."

Bacow was not weighing in on the debate for the first time. On the Tufts' website, he wrote that "I believe it would be a mistake for graduate students to unionize. The relationship between faculty member to graduate student is not one of employer to employee."

The NLRB's First Region office certifies on March 29th that an election can go ahead. Students finally get a chance to fill out their ballots and vote whether or not to form a union on April 24-25. Tufts immediately orders the ballots impounded while the administration files an appeal against the original NLRB ruling, contesting that the grad students are not protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Conveniently, by the time the case winds its way to the National Board (July 2004), it has swung far to the right thanks to Bush appointees, and it rules that graduate employees are primarily students and therefore ineligible to unionize. The ballots are destroyed. ASET, the Association of Student Employees at Tufts, releases a statement:

It’s deplorable that the Labor Board, after a more than 2-year delay in coming to a decision, should issue such a clearly political decision in the middle of summer, when most graduate employees affected are away from campus. Now, thanks to Tufts’ appeal—which impounded the ballots of our union election back in April, 2002—we join hundreds of thousands of other workers in this country whose rights are being whittled away and denied by the Bush appointed Labor Board.


The Charismatic Organization by Shirley Sagawa and Deborah JospinFast forward to 2008. Deborah Jospin, with co-author Shirley Sagawa, release a fluffy non-profit management book entitled "The Charismatic Organization: Eight Ways to Grow a Nonprofit that Builds Buzz, Delights Donors, and Energizes Employees." Jospin is intimately involved in the running of Tufts University, so naturally it was one of the "charismatic" non-profit organizations profiled. A 1980 Tufts grad, she has been a board member of its University College of Citizenship and Public Service since its founding in 1999 (and became chair of that board in 2007). She's also been a member of Tufts' board of trustees since 2002.

The center-left thinktank Center for American Progress held a talk and book signing for "The Charismatic Organization" this past April (Sagawa is a visiting Fellow there). I had a chance afterward to question Jospin about the union-busting that happened on her watch, and whether she took a public or private stand on the issue. Unbelievably, all she could do was plead ignorance of the entire affair, despite the massive publicity surrounding the debacle and prominent mention of the union fight in the Boston Globe.

In the book, she writes glowingly of President Bacow, who first took reins in 2001. The graduate student union issue was one of his first major tests in office, yet Jospin makes no mention of it. Jospin writes (p.51):

When Lawrence Bacow became the president of Tufts University in 2001, he inherited three campuses, seven schools, an affiliated teaching hospital, ten boards of overseers at various levels of sophistication, and a board of trustees bruised by numerous internal fights. He found a university in which "nothing was broken but nothing was optimized."


According to Bacow, "The only two things that really matter in a university are great students and great faculty." For this reason, he defined Tufts' main job as "attracting, retaining, nurturing and supporting great students and great faculty."


By "departing from the tradition of egalitarian salaries," taking investment risks, and raising the standards for tenure and promotion, Tufts successfully competed for leading scholars from around the world.

Well we can certainly see he's no fan of egalitarian salaries! Bacow's dogged pursuit of every possible way to foil his graduate employees from unionizing must be on the whole a positive mark in Jospin and Sagawa's eyes. They simply don't see any conflict between the second and third paragraphs I quoted above: that "departing from the tradition of egalitarian salaries" (which without exception means tons of money for hard science and business/econ and an ever-whittling away at humanities) might be in fact the opposite of "nurturing and supporting."

This "progressive" whitewashing of the horribly anti-worker, anti-democratic splotch on Tufts' reputation speaks volumes about Jospin and Sagawa, and by implication the Center for American Progress.



Surprise, surprise! Tufts is now mobilizing against the unionizing efforts of its 1,200-strong staff employees:

Tufts University president Lawrence Bacow has issued a preemptive strike against a growing movement to unionize the school's 1,200 administrative, technical, and clerical employees, calling the efforts unnecessary.

The Tufts Employee Association, modeled after Harvard University's two-decades-old union for 5,000 clerical and technical workers, has vigorously tried to recruit members in recent months. But Bacow says the union is not sanctioned by the university, which currently only recognizes unions for its police and facilities staff.

"To say that we could work with the union should not imply that I think unionization . . . is a good idea. Far from it," Bacow wrote in an e-mail Thursday to Tufts employees. "I don't believe the formal process mandated by collective bargaining would help us address together the very real challenges Tufts faces in this economy."


In his e-mail to employees, Bacow stressed that his stance did not reflect a personal bias against unions.

Mmm... smell that charisma.

Certified Student Leader Program: Colossal Waste of Time and Money

Certified Student Leader ProgramMany schools' student governments are right now in the beginning stages of planning events for the fall. Let me heartily recommend they stay away from one in particular: The Certified Student Leader Program.

CSL is the product of the National Conference on Student Leadership (which is a division of glossy college magazine factory Magna Publications). It's presented as either a stand-alone conference or as a tack-on to its larger tri-annual NCSL.

It's the ultimate resume-padder: shell out a hundred dollars per person, take several workshops and presentations over a weekend, complete a written multiple-choice exam, and this is what you get:

  • official CSL certificate
  • parliamentary procedure packet, including useful reference tools
  • award folder for displaying the CSL certificate
  • press release that can be sent to college and hometown newspapers
  • CSL portfolio
  • CSL pin

Future bureaucrats of america, rejoice! We now have a certification process for determining who is and isn't a student leader!

As someone who went through the CSL program several years ago (at least I enjoyed Vegas!) with two of his fellow student government officials, let me tell you: it's a terrible, horrible waste of time. We were sent there to evaluate the program to see if we should bring it to our campus so more students could go through it, and all three of us gave overwhelmingly negative reviews. The curriculum is depressingly simplistic, with much of it tired physical metaphors that are then painfully shoehorned into whatever topic we were discussing (for example, in one session we spent the better part of 45 minutes partnered up, with one person blindfolded and the other person only able to tell the first how to navigate an impromptu obstacle course in the room - then the facilitator waxed poeting for a further 15 minutes on how it was an analogy for problems we encounter communicating to others).

And of course there was detailed coverage of Robert's Rules of Order, one of the most disempowering and stratifying decisionmaking processes ever devised. But this wasn't your average Robert's Rules overview: it was a scripted "comedy" performed by audience members dressed up as various Looney Tunes members.

Now I understand that not everyone is on board with student power, or trying to increase democracy on campus, but even for those firmly entrenched in the status quo and chummy with administrators, this can't have been a productive "conference."

Like a lot of these high-gloss, low-content conferences and associations (ASGA comes to mind), it's entirely a money-making scheme.

So, what's a good student conference?

I can think of several off the top of my head:

What other student conferences aren't good? (I'll be posting more about these later on)

  • Anything put on by ASGA - it's entirely corporate and bureaucratic in conception and emphasis (in many ways it's the right-wing version of USSA).
  • The AntiConference - As their site says, "Work with a team who uses the real world Business Approach to Student Leadership".

Jim Cramer Makes a Good Point About For-Profit Universities

(h/t to Campus Progress)

Thus spake Jim Cramer:

And just like the drug companies that spend three times more on advertising than R&D, the for-profit schools spend much of their revenue... coming from the price you pay for their services on advertising -- 53% on average.
73% of the tuition at the four largest publicly-traded schools is coming from the Feds, in the form of government grants and student loans. Essentially, we're subsidizing the advertising campaigns of for-profit universities, lettting the industry rake in a plump 27% operating margin.
If [Obama] has to wreck another industry, I don't think I'd shed a tear for most of these for-profit schools. I'd say what they're spending our money on -- buying students to beat the street's earnings-per-share estimates -- is scandalous, if not reprehensible.

Investing in for-profit higher ed isn't just a bad political and social decision, it's also a bad financial decision.

Marcus Epstein Karate Chops His Way to Racist Superstardom

Oh, Marcus. Washington Independent:

On July 7, 2007, Marcus Epstein had too much to drink and stumbled onto Georgetown’s scenic, shop-lined M Street, walking in no particular direction. At 7:15 p.m., he bumped into a black woman, called her a “nigger,” and struck her in the head with an open hand. An off-duty Secret Service agent was watching. Epstein “jogged away,” according to the agent’s affidavit, and when Epstein was finally chased down, he “continued to flail his arms while being taken into custody.”

And that wasn't just any strike - the U.S. Attorney's office called it a "karate chop." He's scheduled to be sentenced on July 8 (OnePeople'sProject has a slew of scanned court documents). He was originally charged with a hate crime, but pled it down to assault. SPLC's Hatewatch lays out what Epstein has coming:

He faces a maximum punishment of 180 days in jail and a $1000 fine. He’s under a restraining order to stay away from the couple involved, has agreed to seek mental health treatment, complete an alcohol treatment program, write a letter of apology to the victim and donate $1000 to the United Negro College Fund.

Marcus Epstein, racist karate chopper for Tom Tancredo and Pat Buchanan$1000 to UNCF? That's got to sting. How many times will you have to mow David Duke's lawn to make that back?

So who is Marcus Epstein, anyway? Oh, where to begin...

Dubbed "the man who seems to be vying for the World's Second Darkest White Supremacist" by OnePeople'sProject, Epstein is a frequent writer for far-right outlets like Human Events, The American Conservative, The Washington Examiner, the anti-semitic Taki's Mag, and racist/anti-immigrant sites like VDARE. He's also linked with the founding of the white nationalist Youth for Western Civilization (started by his good friend Kevin DeAnna).

He also does his fair share of legwork for the far right: Epstein founded the Washington DC Robert Taft Club (yes, the Taft of Taft-Hartley infamy) which often features white supremacist speakers, is the executive director of Tom Tancredo's Team America PAC, and runs Pat and Bay Buchanan's The American Cause.

Memorable Epstein quotes:

"Diversity can be good in moderation — if what is being brought in is desirable. Most Americans don't mind a little ethnic food, some Asian math whizzes, or a few Mariachi dancers — as long as these trends do not overwhelm the dominant culture." [source]

"A number of Miami's boosters, including Time Magazine, have dubbed it 'The Capital of Latin America.'

But why are Americans supposed to like this?

Even the Cuban immigrants, still preponderantly white, law-abiding, Republican-voting, affable people are not desirable if they don't assimilate. Perhaps a few Little Havanas are manageable in a huge country, just as many Americans may see a few isolated Chinatowns as an exotic novelty. The problem is when the Little Havanas become Big Havanas and the Chinatowns become Chinacities or even Chinastates." [source]

Looking at a tapestry in Ethiopia:

"It's no Sistine Chapel, but you know what Samuel Johnson said about a Dog walking on it's hind legs." [source]

Here's what Samuel Johnson said: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Not so tough when not on the interbutts, are you Marcus? When you attack people of color in real life, your internet buddies and Stormfront trolls aren't there to back you up. I'm glad more and more people linked with Youth for Western Civilization are pulling out their fasces for all to see.

UPDATE: I don't know how I missed this; looks like UVA Law un-accepted him. Well, there's always Liberty University Law, right?

Liberty University Bars College Democrats, Democrats to Apologize

Liberty University Campus Democrats were bannedEarlier this month, the late Jerry Falwell's Liberty University decided to decertify its chapter of the Campus Democrats club. This means the group cannot use Liberty University's name on any of its materials, can't advertise events on campus, and can't use any university funds. Why? Because its parent organization, the national Democratic Party, "supports abortion, federal funding of abortion, advocates repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, promotes the 'LGBT' agenda, Hate Crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc".

Rachel Maddow goes into more detail:

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

These idiots are going to be sued, have their tax exempt status revoked, or both. Americans United for Separation of Church and State laid out a pretty solid case as to why what Liberty did was illegal, and has filed a formal complaint to the IRS. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), however, states that it's entirely within Liberty's rights as a private university to do so - once again, property rights discourse trumps all other legal arguments with them.

Reaction to the decision has been almost universally condemned. Young Democrats of America has set up a petition you can sign here.

Today the club members met with Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. to negotiate how the club may be recognized again. And one of the conditions Liberty is setting is a public apology:

After meeting with Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. today, members of Liberty University’s Campus Democrats club said they are developing a proposal that would let the club regain officially recognized status while promoting a pro-life agenda.

The club also is drafting an apology to the school and a retraction of some statements it made to the news media last week after the university revoked the club’s official recognition.

Maria Childress, the club’s staff adviser, said Falwell and other administrators criticized the club for its comments to the news media. A meeting of club representatives and university administrators lasted almost two hours today.

And the Administration has made it clear that they aren't budging when it comes to funding - which is likely to be the crux of any court case against them. Those clever Dems! They must know that classic maxim, "power concedes nothing without groveling apologies."

I've included the entire "cease and desist" letter the club got from the Liberty administration:

The University and the Doomsday Left

"Don't mourn; critique!"
- Joe Hill, had he been a Ph.D.

As I was doing research for my book on student power, I dug through a seemingly endless stack of books, essays, and articles by various scholars of the left, bemoaning the current state of higher education.

  • Some took the "corporatization" angle - showing how powerful private interests had hijacked both the operations and fundamental principles of most universities and colleges, while killing tenure positions, raising tuition, and using undergrad and grad students as labor pools to break wages of non-student school employees.
  • Others took the "militarization" angle - describing the insidious and deadly relationship between the military-industrial complex and the academy (what Henry A. Giroux creatively appends the "military-industrial-academic complex"); hard research and propaganda, funded by the Pentagon, has been integrated into the academy since World War II and facilitates our empire abroad and oppression at home.
  • Still others took the "conservatization" angle - chronicling the various well-funded attempts to tilt university curricula in a more socially, culturally, and economically right wing direction (e.g. David Horowitz, YAF, think-tank-funded "centers" for "liberty" or "western values," etc.).

The more ambitious writers tried to tackle all three in the same text. And, for the most part, these are all entirely valid ways of looking at the current sad state of "higher" education. While a great deal of ink has been spilled formulating a good way of weaving all these assaults together into a larger narrative, there's one common factor between them all that's blindingly obvious: they're all incredibly depressing, disempowering narratives.

I must confess boredom as I reached the end of the fourth ominously-titled book describing how far downhill the American University has gone, how the noble institution of yore has been degraded and vulgarized, and how there's little more than doom and gloom as far as the eye can see.

I get a sense that the writers themselves know how dreadful this genre is to read in any quantity - that's why they devote an inordinate amount of their titles to hopeful add-ons, usually a form of " - and how to take it back" or " - and what we can do about it". But crack open any of them and you'll find what should be the most rigorous and energizing part of the piece turns out to be in the case of a book, half of the final chapter, and in the case of an essay, one or two obligatory paragraphs at the end.

And of that, it's mostly vague paeans to "speaking out" or "organizing" - or, most nauseating of all, "voting." The better ones bring up faculty unionization (rare), and the best ones also bring up student unionization (just about nonexistent).* I've also noticed a worrying tendency to look back to some ethereal "good ol' days" of higher education. The implicit assumption is made that there was some magical era, decades ago, when Universities actually lived up to their mission statements: when they were truly communities of learning; when outside influences were unheard of; when students and professors, hand in hand, boldly pushed the limits of human knowledge and understanding; when the education given prepared one for active participation in democratic society.

As far as I can tell, nothing close to that has ever existed in America. Obedience to the agendas of powerful, outside institutions is embedded firmly in the DNA of higher ed in this country - its pedigree is that of Rockefellers, the Church, and Congress. All had agendas, and made very sure that their schools carried them out.

To be fair, at least they're saying something can be done about the problems in higher education, even if their answers are unsatisfying. Much of what passes for liberal commentary on higher education has the dank air of inevitability, of submission to administrative excuses like "the state of the economy" or the "job market," excuses which are laughably used often word for word in both economic booms and busts.

This is symptomatic of a larger problem with the left: 95% of our output is in the form of describing and assessing what exactly is wrong - with 2% offering concrete solutions and 3% warning why that 2% is all horrible ideas that will lead to disaster. While Michael Albert and his comrades at ZNet are often the ones who say it most loudly, the sentiment has been around for a long time: mere critiques aren't enough. We need to think of, write about, and create alternatives that embody our values.

Often, the dire rhetoric coming out of the left is but a hair's breadth from the power relations described by conspiracy theorists: an enemy so huge, so powerful, and so pervasive that we are always - and will always be - complicit in its continued functioning, and the implication that anything we could muster in opposition would be minuscule and wiped out in an instant. Part of this might come from a desire for attention - the modus operandi of the left publishing industry seems to be: if there's a book out called "Capitalism is Bad But Defeatable," then come out with "Capitalism is Really Bad and Undefeatable."

Thankfully, those on the ground doing actual organizing in education don't wring their hands the way most of that sector's writers do - probably because their hands are busy locking down occupations, knocking on dorm doors, holding megaphones, and signing union cards. Yes, our foes are formidable, but as G.K. Chesterton reminds us, even dragons can be beaten.

When we defend our universities from David Horowitz, or Monsanto, or Lockheed Martin, or the Pentagon, we aren't defending the university as it is. We're defending the university's potential - its potential to live up to our dreams of a liberatory, democratic, and engaged community of learning. And when we do so through the framework of prefigurative politics, we're showing the world that such a school is both possible and worth fighting for.


*One writer who bucks the trend is Marc Bousquet, whose book How the University Works and eponymous blog do a great job not only dissecting the bad, but actively supporting and contributing to those who are fighting for a more just university.

The Shadow of Kent

Today marks the 39th anniversary of the massacre at Kent State University.

There are some great posts about it this year:

Angus Johnston has a good recap over at studentactivism.net, and reminds us of the racial context that protest was situated in:

In early 1968 police had fired on anti-segregation activists at South Carolina State University, killing three. And it would not be the last — nine days after Kent State, two students at Jackson State College in Mississippi were killed in circumstances similar to those of the South Carolina shootings.
But unlike in South Carolina and Mississippi, the students killed at Kent State were white.

DailyKos blogger kainah has a very detailed - and very personal - retelling of the day's events and aftermath:

You see, that's not just any picture of the crowd. See the girl towards the back of the crowd in the red shirt and blue jeans? That's Sandy Scheuer. And right over her right shoulder, see the girl with the tan jacket and her hair pulled up in a modified pony tail? Allison Krause. And to Sandy's right, the boy in the distinctive orange bell-bottoms? Bill Schroeder. Within half an hour, they will all be dead or dying.

As they do every year, Kent State staff and students will be holding a ceremony at the memorial - this year will feature "May 4 eyewitness Mary Ann Vecchio; Pulitzer-prize winner photographer John Filo; Laurel Krause, sister of Allison Krause; 1969 Ann Arbor White Panther leader Pun Plamundon; May 4 casualty Alan Canfora; 1970 eyewitness Steve Drucker; May 4 eyewitness Chic Canfora & other speakers & musicians." There will also be a two-day "Symposium on Democracy" starting today, featuring among others Friend of the Blog Ted Morgan.

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.

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.

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