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This is a little different from the usual stuff we do here: a close friend of mine who works under the aegis of education reform (though as part of an organization that focuses on fixing the administrative part of the equation, rather than any sort of Rheeist teacher-bashing sort of business) who reads the blog got in touch and wanted to contribute an informed view of her little corner of this particular area. Since this is often generalized about as a subject, I agreed. Below are her thoughts.

My non-profit occupies a strange place that is both part of and also transcends what everyone knows as the “education reform” movement. My personal idea of education reform is increasing the number of schools, the number of teachers, the prestige and support of the profession, and the power of unions. The orthodox “education reform” movement does not share these characteristics. I find myself working for a politically neutral organization allied simultaneously with organizations that have diametrically opposing objectives. We work with some of the hardest struggling public school districts in the nation along with some of the most odious, billionaire-funded organizations seeking to eliminate public schools. We supply the people, you figure out the ideology.

Working here has provided unusual insight into the world of K-12 education, its organization as an economic sector, and the education reform movement. When I started, I didn’t realize “education reform” was a specific term referring to the overhaul of public education, usually implying replacing public schools with portfolio districts or charter schools. I naively interpreted it as a general term meant to achieve substantive equality and improve the unfortunate conditions of so many low-income schools. This movement has much more diversity, intelligence, sweat, heart, and sincerity than I ever imagined, and much more than is typically included in public discourse. The unique experiences I have gained from nearly one year in this world have introduced me to some of the most intelligent and passionate people I’ve ever known and the increasingly depressing revelation that so little of it actually matters.

My first surprise relates to diversity. Most popular media outlets and even some of the more thoughtful, long-form journalistic publications characterize education reform as an enterprise of wealthy white people attempting to side-step the meaningful problems of inequality by feel-good, “boot straps” mentality solutions that reinforce the status quo. Or even worse, they increase their own advantage by making education more corporate.  I’ve seen a good amount of this attitude in some of our more undesirable associated organizations, people who think education should just “work better” as if people were machines and the complicated social and historical fabric of our lives could be so easily changed. While there is an incredible amount of truth to these claims, publications about the education reform movement almost inevitably ignore the people staffing these organizations, working for the billionaires or, in my case, working for a former teacher who passionately believes great people will make education great too. In my organization these people are often high-achievers who are passionate about inequality, some from ivy league institutions, some from the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country, some from other countries, and many from poverty. My organization’s serious commitment to diversity in its staff as well as its recruits means that we have an eclectic group of fascinating people, and I’ve encountered others in related education organizations with equally diverse backgrounds. While they may be statistical minorities in many different ways, my coworkers’ presence in this movement matters and their experiences and motivations matter. Similar people working underneath the billionaires and their organizations have more diversity and integrity than typically appear in survey articles about education nonprofits.

The second surprise that probably should not have blindsided me as much as it did is the role of consultants. Consultants are everywhere. Especially for small non-profits that cannot afford to hire full time staff members but who desire expertise to achieve their goals in the best way possible, consultants appear to be an attractive solution to these difficult problems. Consultants are also ridiculously expensive. My own organization spends too much money on them. Some former employees of my organization have become consultants themselves, advising similar education non-profits with a desire to change the world in the best practices of non-profit management and business necessities. They are making money hand over fist, all of which could be going into classrooms. The role and utility of consultants is complicated; if you want to create a non-profit to supplement and assist the education establishment that lacks the resources to perform the services your organization provides, it absolutely makes sense that you want that organization to run the best possible way. If you don’t have personal expertise in organization management, or even if you do and want to push yourself to do better, hiring consultants makes sense. There are thousands of crucial, mundane tasks necessary to make an organization run (administrative work, technology maintenance, managing the office space, etc.). Behind what appear to be extravagant wastes in overhead – not just consultants, but also staff retreats and team building activities – are mostly people trying to do the best they can with a single-minded focus on making the best possible contribution they can. Time isn’t free, and people find it logical that the best consultants charge the highest fees. Everyone pockets the money with clear eyes and full hearts, convinced they’re playing a crucial role in saving the future for children.

Sincerity is the third surprise I’ve encountered in the trenches of education reform. The staff people working in these organizations absolutely care. Sharing difficult personal histories in a public setting is a cultural mainstay of many education reform institutions, and you’ll hear stories of harrowing struggle and deep commitment to learning, to knowledge, and to passing those hard-fought opportunities along to others. One colleague of mine absolutely believes that abolishing public education is the best way to improve the spread of knowledge and increase opportunity. She devours literature on child development, successful anti-poverty programs, pedagogy, and education trends. Her sincere beliefs sound like the cynical marketing ploys of billionaires who want to eliminate the “problem” students that struggle in public education as we know it. While a small minority of people I’ve encountered in this world are condescending children of privilege that don’t understand why poor people won’t just “work harder,” most are breathless with idealism and certain that they’re changing lives.

After the diverse staff members of these education reform organizations share their heart-wrenching struggles of overcoming barriers to get their educations, after they do all of the mundane necessary things that need to happen to keep an organization afloat, after they pay the consultants and collect their own paychecks, and after they return from a day or week of team-building activities meant to increase their job satisfaction to keep them in the fold, not much changes. All of these brilliant, ivy-league graduates working as consultants or doing “entrepreneurial” education work in the name of social justice could be in classrooms. They could be in the trenches engaged in the business of educating children instead of the larger business of the education industry. Instead, many feel contempt for teachers for not fixing these broken children who do not perform tests on command or transcend difficult circumstances on their own, with inadequate support. Smart people with a sincere desire to help, many of whom have left the classroom or don’t see it as the place for them, are making a living for themselves and soothing their consciences and working long hours doing the same business-like cubicle work they could do anywhere in the name of education. In my naivety, my largest surprise has been how little of a difference it actually makes.

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Lev filed this under: ,  

Probably worse than Hitler, but he had a better moustache…

I’ve been reading a lot about Russian history over the past few months. I’ve long been interested in the culture, but recently I’ve felt like there is something there that can be instructive to me intellectually somehow. Right now, I’m smack dab in the middle of Edvard Radzinsky’s Stalin, which I couldn’t recommend more, though it’s certainly a thick book it’s very approachable. And it’s taught me that so much of the received wisdom about Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, et al. couldn’t be more wrong.

Unlike Hitler, who ultimately lives down to the generalizations made about him, Stalin doesn’t. What I’ve found most surprising is just how smart he was. He was not an intellectual, but of all the smart people in the Bolshevik Party, he was the smartest of them all. He out-thought everyone else, both within the country and without. And while most authoritarian regimes still operate under constraints and involve various degrees of delegated power and often have multiple power centers, Stalin was able–really to an unheard of degree–to hold absolute power without any real constraints or any meaningful opposition for decades, due to his intelligence and his near-inhuman capacity for work. This is a unique accomplishment.

Stalin wasn’t paranoid or psychotic. Stalin didn’t have many friends but did have some, and was apparently capable of performing in that role (though it wouldn’t stop him from killing those people when he felt he needed to). His killings were done with a minimal amount of drama or equivocation. In fact, Stalin seemed to be entirely at peace with himself, which to me makes him much scarier than Hitler. To be able to throw lives away, even the lives of friends and loyal supporters that he did care about (and would mourn) without any real intervention from conscience is terrifying when you think about it. His faith in the bright Soviet future that would come after all of it was steady and sure, one which absolved him of any wrongs. Not that it’s difficult to find people around today with the same lack of scruples, though he was much more effective at it than almost anyone else.

It is also interesting to learn how many of the myths about him were simply wrong. Stalin never trusted Hitler, nor vice versa. Stalin was in fact planning to strike Hitler first and closely watched a lot of obscure German economic indicators–like the prices of complimentary products to sheepskin, the Reich’s preferred winterwear–which to him showed that Hitler was not planning an attack. His analysis was logically impeccable, but Hitler mounted an insane attack that took Stalin quite by surprise, and marked one of his rare mistakes in reading people. And so much of his relationships with the early Bolsheviks gets it wrong: Lenin did wind up as his opponent, though only because Stalin undercut his authority and built a power base for himself without Lenin’s knowing. Lots of people (George Orwell apparently included) liked to think that Trotsky was better than Stalin, but between the three of them, the only disagreements they had were over power. Trotsky was an intellectual unlike Stalin and lost in the internal power struggles, but he was on board for the greatest atrocities of Stalin’s reign–agricultural collectivization, the “liquidation” of the Kulaks–as was Lenin. Would either one have committed to the purges as Stalin did? Maybe, maybe not, though all approved of the means of terror to keep the people in line. Stalin was the Bolshevik ideals taken to their most logical conclusions, but the germs of those were just as present in Lenin and Trotsky.

Oh, and he was probably going to start World War III, except that he was murdered just in time to stop it from happening. Not out of some cinematic confrontation by one of his allies who worried about what his plans would bring–his top guys were a largely pathetic bunch, there just to carry out his orders. But rather out of self-interest from likely future purge victims. I find there to be some poetic justice in that.

For whatever reason, I kept imagining Bryan Cox’s take on Hannibal Lecter from Manhunter while reading about Stalin. Obviously brilliant, talented, and utterly missing any recognizable form of conscience. It was good to have all of the myths corrected, though one wonders why so much of the received wisdom is so off. Probably some combination of discomfort and inscrutability is my guess. That he just wasn’t troubled by any of it. That he could mourn some of the people he sent to death with apparent sincerity. Obviously there are others like him, though few as smooth or successful.

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And not too many people seem to feel all that bad about its completion.

The biggest takeaway is: this is great news for John Boehner. Without Cantor, the anti-Boehner forces lose their most plausible alternate Speaker. They might not feel the need to try to take the king right after getting the queen, you take down one leader and it’s a rout, you take out too many and it’s chaos. And many of the next level of ambitious Republicans are going to be so busy with the races for House Majority Leader and Whip that trying to eliminate Boehner couldn’t be further from their minds.

The next biggest takeaway is: this is great news for Democrats. The Tea Party is essentially a self-created virus taking away ever-increasing amounts of know-how and ability and leaving in its wake obvious grifters like Ted Cruz. This is not a bad thing from my viewpoint.

Today in our failed media experiment, a bizarre, crankish lower court ruling becomes a major media event. I almost don’t know what to say about the ruling, which seems like something that will be easily overturned on appeal, and seems to invent a right to have a good teacher while also making it less possible that it will happen:

Los Angeles County superior court judge Rolf Treu cited the historic case of Brown v Board of Education in ruling that all students are entitled to equal education and said the current situation discriminates against minority and low-income students in placing ineffective teachers in their schools.

“Plaintiffs claim that the challenged statutes result in grossly ineffective teachers obtaining and retaining permanent employment, and that these teachers are disproportionately situated in schools serving predominantly low-income and minority students,” the decision said.

I am, most certainly, not a lawyer. But this seems deeply problematic. Inventing a right to equally of outcome in education as a judicial principle isn’t going to actually make it so, figuring out what actually makes a good teacher is an open question, there are state contracts that would have to be broken were this upheld, etc. This is, like, dumb social justice combined with dumb judicial activism, every bit as activist and overreaching as conservatives of the time claimed Brown v. Board to be. So maybe the comparison deserves to be drawn, unfavorably. The more articles one reads about this judge and the ruling, one imagines the guy imaging himself on movie screens years from now delivering this ruling, when in reality just decreeing that everyone should have good teachers will not make more talented people sign up for a profession that is frequently criticized by pundits and elites, constantly turned more mechanical through standardized testing and now Common Core, doesn’t pay well for people with postgraduate education and would lack even the mitigating factor of job security.

The thing that I really don’t get here is this: most prominent education reformers are business types. So one would think they understand concepts like incentives quite well. Removing job security means removing an incentive to join the teaching profession. Without adding others, how do we get the sorts of superteachers this judge thinks we all deserve? I guess the theory is we just churn through, Wal-Mart style, until we get a better pool?

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us_drones_no_waterboarding_we_only_kill_them_cartoonHow in Jeebus’ name can you write an article that refers to drone strikes and completely fail to mention civilian casualties??

The CIA is believed to have conducted more than 350 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, killing hundreds of al-Qaida-aligned fighters. [......]

Well, heck, nothing wrong with killing all those scary brown terrorists…  Nothing to see here…

For those of you who are actually interested in the full picture, instead of a sanitized passing reference that protects military leaders from (gasp) getting the vapors:

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued a pair of reports in October fiercely criticizing the secrecy that shrouds the administration’s drone program, and calling for investigations into the deaths of drone victims with no apparent connection to terrorism. In Pakistan alone, [The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a U.K.-based non-profit,] estimates, between 416 and 951 civilians, including 168 to 200 children, have been killed.

But it’s ok, because Obama is totally, seriously, put out of sorts by all those pesky civilians getting killed:

Barack Obama

This is my “disturbed” face.

Obama recently told The New Yorker that he “wrestle[s]” with civilian casualties. But, he said, he has “a solemn duty and responsibility to keep the American people safe. That’s my most important obligation as President and Commander-in-Chief. And there are individuals and groups out there that are intent on killing Americans — killing American civilians, killing American children, blowing up American planes.”

So… The message is “we’re just doing the same evil shit that they do, so it’s ok”…?
Oh, and Obama also gets  ever-so-”disturbed” when told about the hellfire we accidentally rain down on children.

Five years ago, on January 23 2009, a CIA drone flattened a house in Pakistan’s tribal regions.  … Reports of civilian casualties began to emerge. As later reports revealed, the strike was far from a success. At least nine civilians died, most of them from one family. There was one survivor, 14-year-old Fahim Qureshi, but with horrific injuries including shrapnel wounds in his stomach, a fractured skull and a lost eye, he was as much a victim as his dead relatives.

Later that day, the CIA attacked again – and levelled another house. It proved another mistake, this time one that killed between five and ten people, all civilians.

Obama was briefed on the civilian casualties almost immediately and was ‘understandably disturbed’.


But don’t worry, if you’re a nice, pleasant, white, Christian, real American, you’re totally safe.  Pinky swear.

In April 2013 a leaked Department of Justice memo outlined the administration’s legal justification for such killings: the US has the right to kill US citizens if they pose an imminent threat, it said. It added that determining a citizen poses an imminent threat ‘does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future’. Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union described the memo as a ‘chilling document’.

U – S – A !!

“By the time I’m getting out of prison, hopefully, you’ll be done with the presidency. And guess what? I’m gonna make another shitty movie about you again. That’s my business. That’s what I do.” – Dinesh D’Souza


I really think that the tradeoff for a Clinton presidency has to be considered this way. On the one hand, having a successor to Obama that consolidates his health and environment reforms rather than one who dismantles them is invaluable. FDR and Reagan both burnished their legacies by having their successors installed in the presidency, who in turn protected their legacies, and while LBJ did not get his preferred successor Nixon was uninterested in domestic policy, so the Great Society reforms generally stood. On the other hand, the real gains of the Clinton years vanished when G.W. Bush “won” the presidency, though he kept many of the worst parts of the Clinton years, to everyone’s detriment. Also, the de-conservativation of the courts would be nearly complete under eight years of Clinton II. It would ensure that the great bulk of Reagan and Bush I judges are replaced by Democratic appointees, including on SCOTUS. Hell, after sixteen consecutive years of Democratic presidents, we might even be able to claim a majority on the Eighth Circuit. (I’d probably give that 50/50 odds.) And while it’s naive to think that Republicans will substantially moderate by 2016, being out of power for sixteen years could make that process inevitable.  All this would be more than enough to justify a HRC Administration, in spite of the inevitable humanitarian interventions of whichever less powerful and poorer countries Secretary of State Samantha Power and Defense Secretary Susan Rice decide must be subjected to Freedom Bombs so that they can feel better about themselves.

The danger, I think, is more long-term. Having another president committed to liberal interventionism poses a real threat as this cause commands almost no support among the public, and foreign policy interventionism in general is in decline. Outside of some wealthy donors there’s no real support for this kind of stuff among the Democratic base. Politically, one can see Republicans using this to weaken a Clinton Administration in much the same way they have weakened the Obama Administration, by entrapping a chief executive who does care about hawkish pundits and elites into getting involved in no-win scenarios on foreign policy. Obama has been blindsided by this more than once (he still, after all, wants to believe that Republicans care about country first and that there is common ground to be found), and given Clinton’s record I suspect she would be vulnerable to this as well. The danger, in other words, is in having yet another Democratic Party leader who came of age politically during an era where Republicans had 2-to-1 polling advantages on foreign policy, and where Democrats were widely believed to be weak and feckless on the subject, requiring ambitious pols to make sure everyone knew they were “tough” like Reagan. And in general, the need to, Newland Archer-like, continue to respect and respond to a conventional wisdom and a social context that has stopped existing everywhere except for that person’s head is the most frightening prospect of a second Clinton presidency. It’s easy to imagine her as Lyndon Johnson in more ways than one I think.

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I’m not sure which is the bigger tipoff that Duck Dynasty is done: the mountains of Duck Dynasty crap I see at the local dollar store when I visit it for cheap laundry detergent, or that Sarah Palin thinks the head Duck would make a good president.

Relatedly, I don’t think even she knows when she’s trolling anymore.

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