What’s with Cuomo and Others Advocating for a “Shock Doctrine” Shift to Online Education?

We need to figure out a way to open public schools in the fall.

Parents are going to need to go back to work, and children need supervision, routine, intellectual stimulation and the socialization that comes with going to school.  And, as we have been observing during these recent months, for millions of children, the public school is the only institution positioned to provide opportunities that may be unavailable at home.

A lot of what I am reading about reopening schools and childcare centers, however, addresses some important needs of adults without carefully considering the developmental needs of the children who will be served.  And some of what is being promoted addresses the priorities of the promoters themselves without considering what is needed for the students.

The agenda of Jeb Bush, Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates falls in that last category.  Back in 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Naomi Klein published a book about promoters and philanthropists who took advantage of the New Orleans disaster by pushing desperate politicians to adopt public policies that would benefit the promoter’s ideological obsession or, in some cases, the promoter’s bottom line.  In The Shock Doctrine, Klein explains: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.'” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)   You will remember that the state’s seizure of New Orleans’ public schools and the eventual creation of an all-charter school district experiment was helped along by a big grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with grants from several other foundations.

This same sort of temptation to repurpose a catastrophe seems to have taken possession of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Last week he announced a plan to work with with Bill Gates to create a gigantic statewide experiment with online learning.  Announcing his plan to “reimagine” public education, Cuomo declared: “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state; all these buildings, all these physical classrooms… why, with all the technology you have?”

And it’s not only Andrew Cuomo who has fallen for the lure of technology. All month, Jeb Bush—Florida’s former governor and chair of the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education (a pro-privatization think tank that Jeb founded in 2008)— has been promoting a similar agenda. Despite that states are in desperate need of an infusion of federal support to keep teachers employed and class size reasonable, Jeb warns that just using the money to get schools back up and running will be a wasted opportunity: “There will be no end to ways to spend the money: Education is expensive, and there will be plenty of claims on the money. Teacher pensions are depleted. School workers—bus drivers, support staff, administrators—all will want CARES funds to fill gaps in their budges. Then there are public colleges that have lost out on tuition dollars. Trying to spread the money among all these causes would mean not accomplishing much on any of them… (W)ith this pot of money, it is far better to try to make a lasting impact on one big initiative. Governors should entertain what I call ‘long runway’ ideas—areas where the investment will pay off over a long period of time. Think about what has the best payoff: patching a lot of potholes, or rebuilding a major bridge?”

Jeb Bush has four “long-runway ideas” and the first, of course, is digital learning—eliminating the digital divide. Bush expands on this idea: “The digital divide is real. Only two-thirds of rural homes have broadband; low-income families typically lack access to Internet-enabled devices beyond smartphones. But stopping distance learning over equity concerns is a false choice. Many school districts, state leaders and others have figured out how to keep instruction going. Some opened access to virtual schools. Some, supported by private donations, have given laptops and tablets to students who need them… It’s time to learn the lessons from these heroic efforts and plan for a future in which public education can continue without access to classrooms—not just because of a pandemic but because that’s the future of learning… Longer term, all K-12 schools need to adapt to distance learning. Already, one third of college students take courses online.”

Naomi Klein herself reminds us that her “Shock Doctrine” theory is becoming operational in the midst of the current pandemic crisis.  Klein reports that New York’s Governor Cuomo has been seeking guidance not merely from Bill Gates, but also from Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google. While Cuomo asked Gates to lead the effort to “reimagine” New York’s schools, he followed up by inviting Schmidt to lead “a blue-ribbon commission to “reimagine” New York state’s post-Covid reality—with an emphasis on permanently integrating technology into every aspect of civic life. Klein quotes Schmidt: “The first priorities of what we’re trying to do… are focused on telehealth, remote learning, and broadband… We need to look for solutions that can be presented now, and accelerated, and use technology to make things better.”

Klein concludes” “It has taken some time to gel, but something resembling a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine is beginning to emerge. Call it the ‘Screen New Deal.’  Far more high-tech than anything we have seen during previous disasters, the future that is being rushed into being as the bodies still pile up treats our past weeks of physical isolation not as a painful necessity to save lives, but as a living laboratory for a permanent—and highly profitable—no-touch future.”

The Nonprofit Quarterly‘s Martin Levine is aghast: “Cuomo saw a crisis too good to waste… His framework for change is to fully harness the marvels of technology and create a public education system highly reliant on a new and untested form of education… He didn’t choose to take on problems known to plague public education, making sure that New York’s schools are properly funded, fully staffed, and well equipped. Nor did he choose to address the critical impact of racism and wealth inequality on student success. Instead, he seeks a magic-bullet cure in technology.  Following the path taken by the foundations and mega-philanthropists… he seems willing to try one more experiment out on his state’s children.”

Levine quotes a statement from Andy Pallotta, the president of the New York State United Teachers, in response to Governor Cuomo’s choice of Bill Gates to lead a “reimagining education” initiative. Cuomo put only two schoolteachers on his practitioners’ panel to help “reimagine” education in New York.  Pallotta represents the state’s teachers who are much closer not only to the needs of children and families but also to the realities of daily life in a public school: “New York State United Teachers believes in the education of the whole child. Remote learning, in any form, will never replace the important personal connection between teachers and their students that is built in the classroom and is a critical part of the teaching and learning process — which is why we’ve seen educators work so hard during this pandemic to maintain those connections through video chats, phone calls and socially distant in-person meetings. If we want to reimagine education, let’s start with addressing the need for social workers, mental health counselors, school nurses, enriching arts courses, advanced courses and smaller class sizes in school districts across the state. Let’s secure the federal funding and new state revenues through taxes on the ultrawealthy that can go toward addressing these needs. And let’s recognize educators as the experts they are by including them in these discussions about improving our public education system for every student.”  What is striking in Pallotta’s recommendations is a plea for the kind of human connectedness that defines traditional public schools and is so essential for the health and development of children.

I give Governor Cuomo credit for wanting to improve online learning and to ameliorate the alarming digital divide among wealthy and poor New York families. Presumably he wants to ensure that the city is better prepared should a second wave of Covid-19 illnesses require a second shutdown.  But his rhetoric—“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom, and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state; all these buildings, all these physical classrooms… why, with all the technology you have?”—tells a bizarre and very different story. Does Cuomo imagine New York’s children sitting quietly, locked in their apartments with their tablets or at their computers while their parents are at work?  Does he believe a machine can keep Kindergartners engaged and on task? Does he believe such a life is desirable for a five-year-old?  Will computer connections online keep kids company and keep them fed? And what about adolescents—young people capable of doing more sophisticated work online and even research—but also known to lack good judgement. Wouldn’t the streets and subways fill up with kids wandering the city on their own?

Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen believes our society is capable of preparing to open public schools next fall if we collectively undertake to make it happen safely. Allen defines the problem not as a technological challenge but instead as political: “There is still time to build testing and contact-tracing programs throughout the country to try to decelerate the spread of COVIC-19 and drive the disease to low enough levels that schools can open safely…  We need schools to be open so that student learning doesn’t suffer further….  We need schools to open so that parents can go back to work fully….  We need schools to be open so that routine provision of food and health resources to needy students… can resume fully….  We need colleges and universities… to be open in the fall so that the many vulnerable institutions among them don’t fail and wipe out a key pillar of our civil society and intellectual infrastructure….  Brown University and the University of California San Diego have begun building infrastructures to conduct routine testing and to run contact-tracing programs on their campuses.  It is not enough, however, that some schools may be able to run programs on their own.”

Allen concludes: “Achieving security in the face of this pathogen should… be a public, not private, endeavor.  Before the start of the school year, we have time to build broad public testing and contact tracing to follow chains of transmission, finding every COVID case, and supporting people in voluntary isolation…. Let’s not waste the rest of the time we have.  If we do, our political institutions will have flunked a basic requirement of governance.”

Mike Rose: How “School Failure” Narrative of “A Nation at Risk” Has Undermined Public Schools

I can’t bring myself to think of Naomi Klein in the same category as Mike Rose, one of my favorite education writers. They are important but very different writers.  There is one similarity, however.  In 2007, Klein responded to Hurricane Katrina and other natural catastrophes around the world with the publication of a blockbuster, thesis-driven social science analysis, The Shock Doctrine, in which she highlighted the swift takeover of New Orleans’ public schools after the hurricane as the very definition of her idea that a crisis from a natural disaster will often be grabbed as an opportunity by business interests looking for a profit. And this week, Rose explains in a new blog post, that his extraordinary book, Possible Lives, was his own response to a “shock doctrine” crisis created by the inflammatory language of the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk.

Klein explains “the shock doctrine” in the context of what can happen to a public school system when the interests of privatization are pitched as the best response to a catastrophe: “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ schools system took place with military speed and precision. Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools. Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4.  Before the storm, there had been 7 charter schools in the city; now there were 31. New Orleans’ teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired.”  (The Shock Doctrine, p. 5)

One person who absolutely absorbed the capitalist possibilities of Hurricane Katrina was a prominent policy maker, who had by, 2010 when he spoke out about it, become our U.S. Education Technocrat-in-Chief, Arne Duncan: “I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, and this is a tough thing to say, but let me be really honest. I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community….” A crisis. A disaster. A time ripe for throwing it all away and trying something new.

In his new blog post—to mark the 35th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, Mike Rose explains that he undertook Possible Lives as a response to A Nation at Risk—to the exaggerated, urgent, fevered language in the Reagan era report’s introduction: “Our schools are mediocre and getting worse, and their sorry state is resulting in an erosion of our economic and technological preeminence. The opening sentences build momentum toward an existential threat, the equivalent of a military attack—brought on by ourselves, by our educational failures.”  Rose continues: “(O)ne hard lesson learned from A Nation at Risk is that the way problems are represented has major consequences.  This issue of language and representation sometimes gets lost in debates about the benefits or harm resulting from specific education reforms, but I think it is centrally important. It was one of the concerns that drove Possible Lives, published twelve years downstream from A Nation at Risk.”

Rose pulls out from the opening two paragraphs of A Nation at Risk the language he describes as framed precisely to generate a sense of educational catastrophe.  He quotes from the opening paragraphs::

“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world… The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people… If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves… We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”

What has followed for 35 years now Rose describes as a response to an existential education crisis created entirely by language carefully chosen and narratively framed to motivate our society to do something radical.  Our response? Test and punish via No Child Left Behind. Grading schools and teachers by their students’ aggregate test scores, including A-F grades imposed by states on their school districts and individual schools. Closing so-called failing schools. And all sorts of school privatization via charter schools, and virtual schools and vouchers and tuition tax credit vouchers and education savings account neo-vouchers—all to give children an escape from their so-called “failing” public schools.

Rose responded to A Nation at Risk‘s manipulation of language and public opinion—intended to create the impression that U.S. public schools were in crisis—by traveling the country for four years, visiting America’s best classrooms, and narrating the promising story of America’s public schools and their teachers. Possible Lives was first published in 1995 and reprinted in 2006. It is one of the most inspiring books ever written about what actually happens inside our public school classrooms.  The fact that classrooms are places most of the public never visits likely contributes to people’s manipulation through crisis-driven rhetoric. While A Nation at Risk turned the public attention to an obsessive examination of outcomes based on standardized test scores and technocratic fixes—stuff that can be easily reported and statistically processed, Rose takes readers right into classrooms to watch how teachers respond to children, how they challenge adolescents to puzzle out and reason, how they design projects that fascinate students and pique their imaginations.

Looking back at A Nation at Risk, Rose summarizes the difference between the language of its introduction—designed to terrify us all if we don’t do something quick—and the rest of the report: “So there it is. 1983 and we are doomed if we don’t do something fast and decisively. Erosion. Decline. Los of Power. Assault. An act of war—against ourselves. Interestingly, throughout the rest of the report, there is little of this apocalyptic language. While the authors continue to make some questionable aims and offer some debatable solutions, there are also calls to boost the teaching profession, to increase school funding, to promote ‘life-long learning,’ and to assure ‘a solid high-school education’ for all.  But few people read the full report.  What was picked up was the dire language of the opening; and—this is hugely important—that language not only took on a life of its own, it also distorted the way many reform-minded folk implemented the (more promising) recommendations of the report.”

Rose references a recent A Nation of Risk 35th anniversary story by Anya Kamenetz on National Public Radio: “Kamentz interviewed several of the authors of A Nation at Risk and found that they did not set out to conduct an objective investigation of the state of American education, but came to the task convinced that schools were in serious decline as global competition was heating up, and therefore their job was to sound the alarm and, as one author put it, get education ‘on the front page.’ They succeeded big time.”

Rose pulls out his own warning from Possible Lives about this kind of language: “It blinds us to the complex lives lived out in the classroom. It pre-empts careful analysis of one of the nation’s most significant democratic projects. And it engenders a mood of cynicism and retrenchment, preparing the public mind for extreme responses: increased layers of testing and control, denial of new resources—even the assertion that money doesn’t affect a school’s performance—and the curative effects of free market forces via vouchers and privatization. What has been seen historically as a grand republican venture (our institution of public education) is beginning to be characterized as a failed social experiment, noble in intention but moribund now, perhaps headed toward extinction.  So, increasing numbers of people who can afford to don’t even consider public schools as an option for their children, and increasingly we speak, all of us, about the schools as being in decline. This is what is happening to our public discussion of education, to our collective vision of the schools….”  Prophetic words from a book written in 1995 and reprinted in 2006.

Rose concludes his recent blog post with this warning: “One of the big challenges we have in front of us is how to maintain momentum in addressing the inequities in our education system but to do so in a way that is analytically and linguistically precise. How can we, to the best of our ability, keep focus on the vulnerable and underserved and do so with a mix of urgency and accuracy?”

I’ll add that in Possible Lives and the rest of his fine books, Rose has not only used language with precision, but also with a sense of compassion and human understanding. He shows us what happens at school—for children and adolescents and their teachers—without emphasizing the preoccupation of the school reformers—the technocratic measures and incentives and ratings that permeate our society and that always situate our schools in perpetual data-driven competition.

Please read Mike Rose’s new blog post.  And consider adding Possible Lives to your reading this summer.

Even If NCLB Is Reauthorized, States Push On with Punitive School Policies and Privatization

In an important piece last week for the Education Opportunity Network, Jeff Bryant looks at the way the dynamics are shifting in punitive education “reform.”  Even if Congress reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to take away No Child Left Behind’s federally prescribed turnarounds for schools in the lowest scoring 5 percent across the states, the punitive culture has been absorbed into the states themselves.  Reform that emphasizes sanctions, rather than state investment in education for equity, is particularly appealing to legislators in these times of tax cuts and austerity budgeting.  After all, more than half the states are not yet even investing as much as they were in public education prior to the Great Recession in 2008. Test-and-punish for the lowest-scoring schools is a popular strategy, because people outside the communities where it is imposed don’t feel the pain.  The flavor of the day as far as test-and-punish goes, according to Bryant is the state “Recovery School District,” as it is sometimes called, or state “Achievement School District.”

Bryant comments, “(T)here is a danger punitive ‘accountability’ policies from the federal government are about to pivot to even more unreasonable measures from states.  The danger, in particular, comes in the form of new policies being taken up by an increasing number of states to create special agencies—usually made up of non-elected officials—with the power to swoop into communities, take over local school governance, and turn schools over to private management groups often associated with large charter chains.  These appointed boards often take on the guise of a shining knight—using names like Recovery School District or Achievement School District.  But they are anything but gallant soldiers coming to the rescue.”

Recovery School District.  Achievement School District. They are the very same thing.  Though Bryant’s review of this trend doesn’t go back ten years, the latest wave of state school takeovers began in the winter after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.  Naomi Klein describes the birth of the Louisiana Recovery School District in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine:  “In sharp contrast to the glacial pace with which the levees were repaired and the electricity grid was brought back online, the auctioning off of New Orleans’ school system took place with military speed and precision.  Within nineteen months, with most of the city’s poor residents still in exile, New Orleans’ public school system had been almost completely replaced by privately run charter schools.  Before Hurricane Katrina, the school board had run 123 public schools; now it ran just 4… New Orleans teachers used to be represented by a strong union; now the union’s contract had been shredded, and its forty-seven hundred members had all been fired… New Orleans was now, according to the New York Times, ‘the nation’s preeminent laboratory for the widespread use of charter schools’…. I call these orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities, ‘disaster capitalism.’” (The Shock Doctrine, pp. 5-6)

Today’s school takeovers through Recovery School Districts or Achievement School Districts do not follow hurricanes or floods or earthquakes.  Instead the sense of catastrophe that is believed to create the need for takeover and the private school management through charters that inevitably follows is the clustering of low standardized test scores in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities—a clustering that has been correlated again and again with growing economic segregation overlaid on segregation by race.   The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which has since 2002 mandated annual standardized testing for all children and disaggregated and reported the test scores, has created the sense of crisis by persistently labeling the poorest performing schools and school districts.  And in our poorest city neighborhoods there is a crisis for the children and for their schools that, as institutions operating in communities of devastating poverty, almost inevitably become overwhelmed.  Politicians realize something must be done, and a Recovery School District for other people’s children is not as politically painful as equalizing school finance, for example.

As Bryant explains, Recovery School Districts and Achievement School Districts—empowered by state law to take over the worst scoring schools or school districts, bring in emergency managers with the power to close schools, abrogate union contracts and even turn whole school districts over to Charter Management Organizations—are an increasingly popular “answer” to our problem of “failing” schools and school districts. In Tennessee, the legislature created an Achievement School District (ASD), giving “appointed officials the power to override local governance and take control of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in the state.”  Operating first in Nashville and later adding Memphis, “ASD required districts to enforce, for their lowest performing schools, either or both of the following measures: fire school staff or hand the school over to a charter school management organization.  Conveniently, the ASD is also a charter authorizer, so it can designate any of its schools for charter takeover, and indeed it has done so numerous times.  In fact, the outgoing superintendent of the ASD, Chris Barbic, is the founder and ex-CEO of the Yes Prep chain of charter schools.”  Barbic resigned recently from the Tennessee Achievement School District when it became apparent that reading scores had dropped instead of improving as promised.

Bryant also sums up the story of the failed Michigan Education Achievement Authority, established in 2011 under Governor Rick Snyder.  Michigan’s recovery school district has been plagued with corruption and unable to raise test scores in Detroit.   Neither have Snyder’s state-apppointed emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park school districts successfully turned around student achievement.  In fact the Charter Management Organizations brought in by emergency managers in Muskegon Heights and Highland Park—Mosaica and the Leona Group, both for-profits—have both quit, unable to turn a profit, despite their unprecedented power to close schools, fire teachers, and ignore contractual agreements with the unions.

Bryant reports that other states seeking to launch such “Recovery” or “Achievement” districts are Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Arkansas, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin, where there is a move afoot to take over the Milwaukee Public Schools.  Even, “In New York, the state Education Department recently put 144 ‘persistently struggling’ schools under a new program that threatens them with ‘outside receivership.'”

Ohio instituted such a program in the last week of June.  The legislation was rushed through within 24 hours and without any opponent testimony permitted in the legislature.  The Plain Dealer editorialized on Sunday about the danger of this sort of legislation: “School reform is difficult.  It requires consensus, lots of public debate and no small amount of trust.  But the stealthy legislative steamrolling of the Youngstown Academic Distress Commission shamefully proves that’s not how many Republican members of the Ohio General Assembly or Ohio Superintendent of Public Instruction Richard Ross see it… The stealth provisions effectively abolish local control of schools after three years’ of failing grades and impose draconian changes that allow a single person appointed by a new commission established by the state to determine policies on pay, hiring, firing and charter schools, bypassing local school boards, administrators and unions… Abolishing local control in the dark of the night is not the right way to achieve strong school reform statewide.  And the new measure affects all public school districts in the future that earn failing grades for three consecutive years.”

If a Congressional conference committee can come to some agreement about reauthorizing the law we now call No Child Left Behind (and that may not be possible due to huge differences between House and Senate versions of the reauthorization bill), it is possible that Congress will lighten the heavy hand of federal test-and-punish.  But after a decade-and-a-half of everybody’s somehow swallowing the idea that we can punish schools into raising test scores—a period when Race to the Top dangled money in front of states that jumped to adopt punitive education policy into state law as the condition for getting a federal grant—we seem to lack the vision to see what needs to happen to improve the schools that serve our society’s very poorest children.