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Chris Hedges: Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System

Posted originally on April 11, 2012 on truthdig.

Chris Hedges

A nation that destroys its systems of education, degrades its public information, guts its public libraries and turns its airwaves into vehicles for cheap, mindless amusement becomes deaf, dumb and blind. It prizes test scores above critical thinking and literacy. It celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state. It funnels them into a caste system of drones and systems managers. It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs.

Teachers, their unions under attack, are becoming as replaceable as minimum-wage employees at Burger King. We spurn real teachers—those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential—and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests. These instructors obey. They teach children to obey. And that is the point. The No Child Left Behind program, modeled on the “Texas Miracle,” is a fraud. It worked no better than our deregulated financial system. But when you shut out debate these dead ideas are self-perpetuating.

Passing bubble tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence. This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system. These tests produce men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs. The tests elevate those with the financial means to prepare for them. They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts—those who march to the beat of their own drum—are weeded out.

“Imagine,” said a public school teacher in New York City, who asked that I not use his name, “going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job. Up until very recently, the principal of a school was something like the conductor of an orchestra: a person who had deep experience and knowledge of the part and place of every member and every instrument. In the past 10 years we’ve had the emergence of both [Mayor] Mike Bloomberg’s Leadership Academy and Eli Broad’s Superintendents Academy, both created exclusively to produce instant principals and superintendents who model themselves after CEOs. How is this kind of thing even legal? How are such ‘academies’ accredited? What quality of leader needs a ‘leadership academy’? What kind of society would allow such people to run their children’s schools? The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.”

Teachers, under assault from every direction, are fleeing the profession. Even before the “reform” blitzkrieg we were losing half of all teachers within five years after they started work—and these were people who spent years in school and many thousands of dollars to become teachers. How does the country expect to retain dignified, trained professionals under the hostility of current conditions? I suspect that the hedge fund managers behind our charter schools system—whose primary concern is certainly not with education—are delighted to replace real teachers with nonunionized, poorly trained instructors. To truly teach is to instill the values and knowledge which promote the common good and protect a society from the folly of historical amnesia. The utilitarian, corporate ideology embraced by the system of standardized tests and leadership academies has no time for the nuances and moral ambiguities inherent in a liberal arts education. Corporatism is about the cult of the self. It is about personal enrichment and profit as the sole aim of human existence. And those who do not conform are pushed aside.

“It is extremely dispiriting to realize that you are in effect lying to these kids by insinuating that this diet of corporate reading programs and standardized tests are preparing them for anything,” said this teacher, who feared he would suffer reprisals from school administrators if they knew he was speaking out. “It is even more dispiriting to know that your livelihood depends increasingly on maintaining this lie. You have to ask yourself why are hedge fund managers suddenly so interested in the education of the urban poor? The main purpose of the testing craze is not to grade the students but to grade the teacher.”

“I cannot say for certain—not with the certainty of a Bill Gates or a Mike Bloomberg who pontificate with utter certainty over a field in which they know absolutely nothing—but more and more I suspect that a major goal of the reform campaign is to make the work of a teacher so degrading and insulting that the dignified and the truly educated teachers will simply leave while they still retain a modicum of self-respect,” he added. “In less than a decade we been stripped of autonomy and are increasingly micromanaged. Students have been given the power to fire us by failing their tests. Teachers have been likened to pigs at a trough and blamed for the economic collapse of the United States. In New York, principals have been given every incentive, both financial and in terms of control, to replace experienced teachers with 22-year-old untenured rookies. They cost less. They know nothing. They are malleable and they are vulnerable to termination.”

To read this post in full, go to Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System.

Dora Taylor

8 comments on “Chris Hedges: Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System

  1. T Barich
    April 19, 2013

    The people making decisions about public education haven’t been in a 5th grade classroom since they were ten years old. These people are clueless, from Gates to Bloomberg to Duncan, as to what life is like on a daily basis in an elementary classroom. And yes, these people really do send their own children to private schools that have small class sizes and current technology products.

    I’ve been an elementary school teacher since 1980, four years in a private school, all the rest in public schools, grades, K – 6. Every year I invite elected officials to spend a day in my classroom, only one county council woman has accepted my invitation. And that was back in 1998. I’ve attended countless workshops about the “newest next best thing” on instruction strategies conjured up by consultant$ to improve test scores, including ludicrous tutoring schedules that end up pulling students out of reading classes for math tutoring and then pulling students out of math classes for reading tutoring.

    The burn-out levels for teachers, students, and parents is running high with test score pressures off the charts. Cheating’s not the answer, however, I completely understand why some school districts “adjust” test answers. With jobs and salaries dependent on test scores that are determined by life’s inconsistencies, people can be driven by survival instincts.

    Life’s inconsistencies in a10 year-old’s life: New baby brother/sister. Relocating from one school/town to another. Family disfunction. Divorce. A loose tooth falls out during a test. Uncertainty about when a visit with a distant parent will happen. Celebrity stupidity on t.v. Nose bleeds. Kickball drama at recess. A family vacation to Disneyland. Kids are kids.

    Some U.S. test scores might be lower than other countries, however, there has NEVER been a world-wide longing to go to school in Finland. In every profession there are less than efficient practitioners. Most teachers ARE doing their best despite political decisions that are trying to break us down every single day.
    President Obama has to get rid of Arne Duncan and get a real-live teacher to be the Secretary of Education.

    While not everyone needs or wants higher education, public elementary, middle, and high schools still provide the best step for most people to help them on their way.
    I sign off with continued support for public education.

  2. kevin walsh
    March 18, 2013

    look into why most school districts don’t have chinese classes. chinese is, afterall, the world’s most used language.
    i live in illinois. earned my BA in chinese and then lived in china for a decade. come back and teach in the US? seemingly impossible. my decade in the classroom counts for naught. need to earn a degree in education. two years minimum. and also need state certification in chinese. two more years. the only two places to get such are in chicago. very few folks can afford to give over an ADDITIONAL four years on top of a Bachelors degree and incur another pile of debt for the vague promise of a job that doesn’t exist yet. the loop is broken. all the while, the children and the state fall further behind. but hey, they get Pulaski day off!

  3. invictus2
    March 16, 2013

    Children and workers are not widgets, and education is not a business. Corporations and their leaders are despotic tyrants. The truth is, they create very little, but ,mainly extract and extort. They are kleptocrats. We need to reign them in.

    We have a corporate hegemony crisis.

    Proposed Ammendment XXVIII

    Well regulated and diverse commerce, being necessary
    to the security and liberty, of a free state, the rights of
    corporations shall not include any rights enumerated
    for individuals, which corporations are not.

  4. tskware
    March 12, 2013

    Exactly.

  5. oldhomesoflosangeles
    April 25, 2012

    “We spurn real teachers—those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential—and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests.”
    …Any example of that? What we see are unions denying parents/administrators the ability to get rid of failing teachers.
    Like this: NYC Can’t fire this $100K teacher
    or this:
    Teacher Can’t be fired–even as he fails English Fluency Test Twice

    “Teachers, under assault from every direction, are fleeing the profession. Even before the “reform” blitzkrieg we were losing half of all teachers within five years after they started work—and these were people who spent years in school and many thousands of dollars to become teachers.”
    Hey, Chris–most ALL people who went to college “spent years in school and many thousands of dollars”. Maybe the “reform” blitzkrieg as you call it was done to figure out a way to keep better teachers in the profession, instead of checking out due to the union rules of “seniority, not merit”.

    If public schools continue to head downhill, expect to see more changes.

    • seattleducation2011
      April 25, 2012

      An example of teaching to a narrowed focus would be any teacher who feels the pressure of being fired if their students do not do well on a standardized test and for most of us, that is not what education is.

      Your example that you note in the NY Post I must say is an extreme example. In the state of Washington and elsewhere, there are legal protections for children in terms of abuse. Also, there are protections on both sides in terms of a teacher being terminated due to poor performance. In fact, in the state of Washington there is a four tier system that OSPI and the teachers union have been developing to support teachers who are not meeting their full potential.

      A test score does not fully describe the ability of a teacher to inspire and to motivate.

      If you don’t want to see schools go further “downhill”, are you willing to spend the money to ensure that they don’t? Until schools are fully funded again, until we decide that education should truly be a priority and not just in words, then schools will continue to struggle.

      Dora

    • JimCap
      April 29, 2012

      I would recommend that if “oldhomesoflosangeles” wants to be taken seriously, he shouldn’t provide links from two right-wing publications that focus on bizarre, aberrational incidents that do not represent more than a handful of cases in a system of thousands.

      It would be similar to citing the “National Enquirer” and arguing that its story on “5 Year Old Has Baby!” represents the norm among girls of that age.

      Would it be fair to look at Bernie Madoff and cite him as “proof” that “investment analysts can’t be trusted”?

      Would it make sense to use the example of the very small number of priests who abused young boys and then argue that “Priests are child molesters?”

      Most people would say such obtuse, myopic stereotyping, based on a few high-profile, sensational examples, are unfair to the overwhelming majority of people in each of those areas.

      You seem jaded and cynical about our public schools. Does that explain your statement “Any example of that?” in response to Hedges’ writing, “We spurn real teachers—those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential—and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests.”

      Yes. There indeed ARE examples of that. Many of them. In my own experience, I’ll cite my outstanding 1st, 4th, and 5th grade teachers, my 7th grade science teacher, my 8th grade English and Geography teachers, several high school teachers, and many college professors. All of them fit the definition above.

      What is wrong with you anyway? Do you just hate the concept of a public school or the right of workers to organize? Or were you someone who never had a decent teacher? (For some conservatives, our schools, and the people who teach in them are objects of deep hatred, given these two features that they absolutely detest.)

      Or maybe your problems were of your own making? And does that bad attitude continue to hold you back today?

      Perhaps the educational “reform” movement (privatization agenda) needed to figure out a way to confuse and mislead people about teachers in an effort to downgrade their public image, thus making it easier to eliminate their jobs, destroy their ability to organize and resist, and smooth the path to a complete takeover of our schools by private, for-profit businesses posing as “schools”.

      If you actually think that billionaires are focused on our schools because they’re simply “nice, caring people”, I have a bridge I’d like to sell you…real cheap. I promise.

      Meanwhile, maybe you can tell us why these same billionaires, without exception, send their own kids to private schools that are the exact opposite, pedagogically and structurally, of the “Reform Education Model” that they so passionately advocate for everyone else?

    • Burzghash
      March 26, 2013

      Except, your ability to point at one or two teachers doesn’t deal with the reality of the situation, is that by and large the vast majority of teachers are getting paid substantially less. The vast majority of our education costs are mired in the administration and superintendents. There is a dedicated and focused attack on teachers in this country, calling them ‘lazy’, and of ‘poor quality’ – but it is a feint. It’s an effort to denigrate teachers so as to convince the public at large that they’re only worth the meager starting salaries they receive. And it’s dangerous, because it causes teachers to directly question – ‘Gee, I’m an educated professional with a specialized skill set – I could go off and do something specialized and make good money, or teach and make $25k a year! (sometimes less)’

      It’s not exactly a hard choice – somehow, people are utterly SHOCKED that if you pay teachers completely crap pay, that you’re only going to get crap teachers.

      It’s a dedicated, very focused attack on education in this country by the right. And the motives are the same as they always were – to try to privatize education, so that only the rich and affluent can get a decent education, while the vast majority of society gets only what they can afford. And like all privatization efforts by the right in this country, the outcome will only favor the business, and not the consumer. The same way our internet service providers charge far more money than most developed countries for far inferior service, or the way our medical system costs are completely outrageous for inferior service. Privatization will only seek to find ways to make the most possible money, and usually by depriving the consumer of service.

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