Asking the right questions, getting the wrong anwers

May the herd stay safe from the likes of these.

“Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheepʼs clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matt. 7:15)

The current wolves-in-sheeps-clothing I’ve got my eye on are the privatizing “education reformers” who ask such correct questions in the public space that no one in his or her right mind could possibly question their questions.

They look at the large portion of local property taxes going to schools and righteously ask, “What are we getting for our money?” They cannot believe the headlines: “Look at that dropout rate. Why are so many kids not getting their civil right to high quality public education? Why are so many still being “left behind”?

These are great questions. If only our legislators and elected officials would insist on a real search for sufficient answers. Instead they settle for solutions that just happen to be provided by their friends in corporations. They settle for an Industrial Age, proven business model, one that has created enormous capital wealth. It is a model that operates against rigorous quality standards maintained through constant testing and measuring. It is, of course, the factory model, which functions so well because all required materials are put in one place, ready to be expertly assembled by trained specialists. Uncontrolled variables like weather and chaos are kept out of the process.

The factory, machine of machines, is surely one of the splendors of civilization’s achievement. The way productive effort is concerted and maximized on an assembly line is truly remarkable.

Each stage of production is monitored, and error-proofing devices assure uniform high quality output. Its efficiency and potential for endless quality enhancement is breathtaking. When it is well-supplied and managed, a factory provides an ever-improving stream of valuable output.  

If you apply an assembly-line analysis to public schooling, our regular high-stakes tests and controlled curricula geared to national standards are necessary. Testing has been the portal through which the wolves have entered the educational fold. How could our shepherding leaders have suspected the helpful Educational Testing Service or the College Board of ill portent? The wolves have accustomed us to looking at schools through a business model lens with technological prism. In the last two decades, they have used this same rational-seeming analysis to sell or lease public responsibilities to private firms (à là the military and prisons). The wolves’ common-sensical conclusion is that if they were run by business-minded people, schools would better serve the public.

But public schools are more like hospitals than factories–they do not control the number or illness of their patients who come through their doors. A set standard of wellness that “left no patient behind” would be foolish for hospital admins to push. Each patient gets an individualized treatment plan, and most people accept that sometimes the outcome wont’ be what one hopes. If a high number of deaths or recurring illness is recorded by one hospital, there are scientific easons found, no one seeks to automatically “turning around” the hospital by firing every one on the medical staff.

Like a public school, this hospital takes in all who come.

Like hospitals, public schools are full of professionals dedicated to the welfare of some very broken clients. Like the best nurses and doctors, teachers and staff live to nurture the healthy growth of the public’s children. But how much growth can they guarantee when fully a quarter of the children coming to them may be already damaged or challenged by poverty? ( 25% of the Kindergartners entering school in 2011 come from impoverished backgrounds.)

The wolves observe the way property taxes are disproportionately siphoned to schools, albeit insufficiently and unequally. At the same time, they note the relatively poor performance by US schools versus Singapore, and they say, “Our schools should be number one. We are failing!” While keeping school problems before the public (through slick propaganda like this), the wolves use their money to influence tax-averse legislatures to keep public schools on life-support. Then they say, Why are we putting up with this disgrace? Let our chosen business-run charters take over the schools. We’ll give parents a new ‘choice’ by firing everyone from the over-paid teachers and principals to the lunch ladies and security guards (thank you, Arne Duncan, for those business-like school “turnarounds). We’re bound to do better. I mean, we certainly couldn’t do any worse, could we?”

If it were to address the individual child, public education would provide each American kid an individualized educational program that allowed for room for as much or as little development as possible.  Our Declaration states that “all men are created equal,” but any school teacher knows from day one that the children come from an unequal array of homes, with widely varying levels of nurturance. How pointless to expect uniform results. The same stupidity can be seen in the way the Department of Ed under Barack Obama (I’m talking about you, Mr. Hurry-up, Race-Faster-to-the Top Arne Duncan,) has prioritized equality of school disciplinary actions. Is it expedience or a lack of information that pushes our leaders to ignore the context of social problems? Their lack of response so far suggests the former.

Put in terms a gardener would understand, you do not expect equal growth from plants bedded and raised in widely different soils. And yet this is song of the wolves-in-sheeps’-clothing. This is what the current reformers loudly demand from our nation’s schools.

Until US society gets serious about providing a baseline of support for all its families and children, any talk of getting higher quality educational results from its school system is both disingenuous and misleading. When you read of the “corrupt nexus of privatization and patrongage that is undermining government,” and notice how Pearson Ed, not even a US corporation, has now got its profiteering hands on the short hairs of America’s Ed schools and accredidation, it’s a little frightening to those of us who want a more just and humane US society, something that a system of public schools could foster.

wolf image from; plant image from; hospital in HOrningey, GB from

2 responses to “Asking the right questions, getting the wrong anwers”

  1. I like the comparison to hospitals. I hope the day comes when allowing a child to be damned to a life of poverty is considered as sick and immoral and allowing them to die of neglect and poor care in a hospital bed. Perhaps we need malpractice laws for education.


  2. I'm glad you got the morality of it, Mike. People don't see the importance of experience on children, since it won't show up for many years. Yet for good or ill, we adults create the quality of their experience through schools, family outreach, and social programs. So why pay much money or attention now? And because kids seem so different from grown-ups, it's easy to objectify and discount their needs. Yet in doing so we ignore how what we do “unto the least of these” is what we're actually doing to ourselves. I'm hopeful that perceptive American like you will keep this conversation going. If enough of us speak up, we'll be noticed.


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