I wish a flying, unbelievably strong extraterrestrial humanoid who could huff and puff with hurricane force winds and shoot lasers out of his eyes would show up and say these very words: Public Education is controlled by Lex Luthor. In fact, that will be my wish with every shooting star; with every extinguished birthday candle; with every wishbone for the rest of my life. It would really help to sell the message if he would wear red underwear outside blue tights with a matching red cape. I will not hold my breath.
I do not have to see the movie ‘Waiting for Superman’ to know that I would give it a thumbs down. Because I know that it does not frame the education debate in a way that is meaningful to me. Because I think the debate was framed long ago, by the ancestors of Lex Luthor.
Old Lex, I guess, started out as an otherwise normal man with extraordinary genius—the mad scientist bent on world domination. In his first appearance in 1940, “Luthor” is attempting to start a world war from a city in the clouds. He is thwarted by Superman and, from there, it was on. Apparently, Lex Luthor’s iconic baldness is explained though an artist’s mistake. For his first year, the character had hair, until one day, in a newspaper strip, he did not. A 1960 origin story for Lex shows that he was a friend to Superboy in Smallville. A freak accident led to Lex going bald, among other injustices, and Superboy getting the blame. From there, it was on. In the 1980s, Lex Luthor was re-imagined as a corporate multinational executive.
I never really thought of Lex Luthor as the mad scientist-type until I looked up his history. I thought of him as the corporate villain. But that does not change my joke. I think Andrew Carnegie was really smart. I think Henry Ford was very intelligent. I am sure John D. Rockefeller was a sharp cookie. I am certain Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are exceptionally bright. Combined, these men have contributed billions upon billions to public education. Their foundations have driven and still drive education policy in this country. And you know what? If I were a multi-billionaire, I would do the same thing. However, I would not do it like they do.
Let me just say, for the record, that I love education. Knowledge is one of my true passions. However, knowledge, I have come to believe, is suffering—basically, the first tenet of Buddhism. On the one hand, the more I know, the more I realize I do not know. And, even more troubling, the more I know, the more I realize that I have been taught and told a great many things which are inaccurate, half-truths, or flat-out lies.
Maybe I am just dense in thinking that there is something wrong here. There is a clear economic component to education. I get it. Everyone wants to get ahead. Going to good schools accomplishes that. The statistics prove it. Somebody has to pay for it. Somebody has to come up with something to do about it. Someone has to decide that math and English testing and scoring is the ultimate determinant of success.
Thank goodness British creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson (and Ed Nerd Hero) thinks it is important. In a speech he gave on changing education paradigms, he says that, except for Jesuit training, there were no systems of public education prior to the middle of the nineteenth century. “The current system of education was designed and conceived,” he says, “in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment and the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution.” The Enlightenment gave us the ideal that possessing academic knowledge—the classics and deductive reasoning—meant smart. Non-academic meant not smart. Too many brilliant people go about their lives thinking they are not smart because they are judged against this false dichotomy.
“We have a system that is modeled on the interests of industrialization and in the image of it,” says Robinson. The separate facilities and separate specializations and ringing bells mimic a factory setting. Robinson wonders why children are educated in batches, as if the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture. “If you’re interested in the model of learning,” Robinson asserts, “you don’t start with this production line mentality.” Education increasingly becomes about standardization and conformity. He says we need to go 180 degrees away from standardization and conformity in education. This is what he means by changing paradigms.
Instead, we have a system paid for and operated by business leaders—who send their own kids to private schools. They are looking to break the teacher unions and turn any low performing school into a charter school. In a story from the New York Times in May, one hedge fund manager knows exactly what teacher unions are up to by opposing charter schools: “To protect their own self-interest, often at the expense of children.”
The money managers are drawn to the businesslike way in which many charter schools are run; their focus on results, primarily measured by test scores; and, not least, their union-free work environments, which give administrators flexibility to require longer days and a longer academic year.
I cannot see altruism and philanthropy here because I read this story, also from May, published in the New York Daily News. The New Markets Tax Credit—strangely, unmentioned in the Times’ article—allows an investor to back construction of things like a charter school and then “almost double his money in seven years.” This, I think, is the real reason that hedge fund managers are so high on charter schools.
And, in case you were not sure, here is an idea of what a good charter school looks like:
At Williamsburg Collegiate, whose middle school students annually outscore the district and city averages on state tests, Jason Skeeter stood before his math students the other day as tightly coiled as a drill sergeant. He issued instructions in a loud, slightly fearsome voice, without an extra word or gesture. “Five minutes on the clock,” he told the 26 fifth graders, as they began a “Do Now” review sheet on least common denominators.
On the whiteboard, an agenda told students precisely what to expect for the 60-minute period. Mr. Skeeter placed his digital Teach Timer on an overhead projector so the countdown was visible to all. When the buzzer sounded, he announced, “Hold ’em up,” and students raised their pencils.
“Clap if you’re with me,” he said, clapping twice to snap students to attention. The class responded with a ritual double-stomp of the feet and a hand clap.
Mr. Skeeter, 30, a stocky man in a dark blue shirt and tie, moved swiftly to a second timed exercise, the “Mad Minute,” 60 multiplication problems in 60 seconds.
“Pencils down,” he ordered after the minute was up. “Switch papers with your partner.”
The teacher read aloud the 60 answers. “Hands on your head when you’re done counting” correct answers, he told students. He started the timer again as he called students’ names — DeAndre, Alejandro, Nakeri, Lyric — typing their scores into a laptop. He announced the class average: 37.86.
“Brian Leventer,” he said, making what the school calls a cold call to one student rather than looking for a raised hand, “what does it round to?”
“Thirty-eight is correct,” Mr. Skeeter said. The class had fallen two points shy of fifth graders in a rival class. “Close, close, close,” the teacher said.
This is what “results” look like because Williamsburg Collegiate’s students are outscoring other students. This is academic achievement for what are mostly poor black and Hispanic students. Let us assume that the academic achievement of one of these poor black or Hispanic students were exactly the same as one of these hedge fund private school offspring. Who is ahead?
I sure hope there is a big red “S” underneath Sir Ken Robinson’s tweed jacket. Please save us! Save us from Lex Luthor!