How to Destroy Public Education — Lesson One

The Soft Boys – “I Wanna Destroy You” (click to listen or download)

One of the tactics employed by the  enemies of public education is to undermine confidence in our schools in order to weaken financial and other support and induce parents to look for non public options.  Some do this by pointing to real failures — like the achievement gaps between minority/non minority and poor/non poor students – and offering simplistic free market solutions (more on this approach in relation to the Madison Prep proposal very soon in a couple of posts I’m working on — #1 is done and up).

The Bradley, Gates, Walton….funded Fordham Institute puts a new twist on this strategy.  In a new report and the accompanying press materials they attempt to create a panic around research showing that our schools are doing exactly what they should be doing.

The report is called “Do High Flyers Maintain Their Altitude? Performance Trends of Top Students.”   The target audience is parents of high achieving students and policy makers obsessed with misapprehensions about global competitiveness.  The ostensible cause for panic is that over time students move in and out of the top decile on MAP tests; that some percentage of students who were near the top in 4th grade are not so near the top in later grades.  They don’t give much attention to the other part of this, that our schools take some kids from the lower percentiles and help them move to the top.  And although their sample  — not matched to the norm that defines the top 10%  — shows a net increase of “High Flyers,” they find a way to spin the data as a sign of failure (note that the miss-match between the sample and the norm group means that more than 10% of the students may be in the top 10%, but among the total universe of test takers and with real scores, 10% means 10% and there is no way that everyone can be in the top 10%, even in Lake Woebegon or Madison).

From the Press Release:

“If America is to remain internationally competitive, secure and prosperous,” said Chester E. Finn, Jr., Fordham’s president, “we need to maximize the potential of all our children, including those at the top of the class. Today’s policy debate largely ignores this ‘talented tenth.’ This study shows that we’re paying a heavy price for that neglect, as so many of our high flyers drift downward over the course of their academic careers.”

There is another subtext here of pitting the parents of mostly white and economically secure successful students against poor and minority families who tend to make up fewer of the top 10%.  With no apparent irony, above and  elsewhere they even borrow WEB DuBois phrase the “Talented Tenth” in the service of this divide and conquer maneuver:

The study raises troubling questions: Is our obsession with closing achievement gaps and “leaving no child behind” coming at the expense of our “talented tenth”—and America’s future international competitiveness?

No irony; no shame.

One more thing is that the assumption behind the spin is that mobility is bad and reproducing inequality is good.  In fact, that assumption is in one way or another behind their entire campaign against the public sector and the idea of the common good.

One last note:  The report itself has some very interesting and worthwhile data and analysis on achievement mobility, growth across the deciles, demographics in relation to these.  Skip the ideology and it is worth reading.

Thomas J. Mertz


Filed under Best Practices, education, Equity, Gimme Some Truth, National News, nclb, No Child Left Behind

6 responses to “How to Destroy Public Education — Lesson One

  1. My worry is that if Madison Prep and other charters based on the idea du jour, are not approved, SB-22 will be promoted even more. I can just imagine ads like “Call Senator Dale Schultz, tell him you want to decide how your children are educated! Support SB-22!” I really don’t think supporters of charters care that their communities will lose control over public education as long as they get what they want for their kid.

  2. @Laura — That’s why we have to fight on many fronts, local, state and federal.

  3. Another way to bring the top 10% down is to have a countrywide standardized curriculum.

  4. We are currently fighting to save public schools by supporting everyone in understanding the value in opting out of corporate education reform – the slam dunk is opting out of the state test. Join our facebook group page OPT OUT OF THE STATE TEST: The National Movement and our website to learn more. Also please feel free contact me at Peggy Robertson.

  5. Marcella

    “…they find a way to spin the data as a sign of failure…”
    Why do they do this? I would love thoughtful, reasoned theories. Please no, “they’re greedy pigs who just want to make money off our kids and turn them into ignorant robots for their Capitalist machine.” Maybe so, but in most cases, I doubt it. Bill Gates does not need more money. He does these things for other reasons. I think they believe in what they’re doing. But why? And why should he skew data or accept skewed data? That they do this has never made sense to me – it’s why the school debates make me feel like I’ve gone through the looking glass.

  6. Agree that the report does come off as ideological, but as you say there are some interesting statistics, especially about the inability of average grade 3 students to ever become high achievers. A more interesting finding I think, at least from the point of view of parents of young kids, then the main report findings.

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