Sunday, April 27, 2014

Trouble in River City: The Manufactured Crisis in Education

Perhaps you remember Professor Harold Hill, the charming con man from The Music Man, the Tony Award winning musical and popular film. In this story, set in the early 1900s, Phony Professor Hill hatches a scheme to convince the community to buy band instruments and uniforms for the school children from him, promising to shape the children into a marching band. Of course, Professor Hill knows nothing about music or bands and intends to skip town with his ill-gotten gains. 

In order to make this scheme work, Hill invokes the time-tested strategy of the shyster, the manufactured crisis. Hill convinces the good people of River City that their children are going to hell in a handbasket because they don't have an after school activity. In this more innocent time, hell was represented as a pool hall, where bored children would idle away there time and be influenced by the nefarious characters that lurk there. This is a musical, remember, so Professor Hill sings the song "Ya Got Trouble."

I say ya got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital "T"
And that rhymes with "P"
And that stands for Pool.


Hill makes his financial killing, but because this is a happy story, he admits the error of his ways, shows he really does have a heart and marries Marian, the town's librarian.

Let's move this story ahead a few decades. The modern day Professor Hill and Marian the librarian have 2 children about to enter college. The family needs money and the old schemes won't work. Many schools have done away with their music programs in the recent budget crunch. Marian's library has been closed down because River City council said they couldn't support it anymore.

Professor Hill needs a new manufactured crisis. Then he finds his inspiration: The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international test that compares student progress across many countries. When he notes that River City students lag behind in test scores, he sees an opening he can sell. He has his manufactured crisis. The schools themselves are going to hell in a handbasket. And he sings:

I say ya got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital "T"
And that rhymes with "P"
And that stands for PISA!

Never mind that River City has never done well on the PISA tests. Never mind that these tests indicate little about River City's ability to compete in the world at the highest level. Never mind that River City is doing very well on these tests when they are controlled for the overwhelming amount of poverty in River City. Professor Hill has a crisis he can sell and along the way, he can take down public education and turn it into a profit generator.

To sell his scheme, Professor Hill needs a scapegoat. Instead of the pool hall, he decides who better to blame than the teachers? They are relatively powerless, vulnerable to appeals to do the right things by kids and they don't have much money. A perfect target. If River City scores are low it must be the teachers' fault. So let's follow up our manufactured crisis, with a false narrative of bad teachers. And then we can cast the teacher's unions as villains for only wanting to protect bad teaches. Unions are out of favor with many these days. They are an easy target. 

But you can't make any money just by criticizing teachers and bashing unions, so Professor Hill needs to talk about bad schools and he needs to convince River City leaders that we have bad schools. If we have bad schools, we need to close those schools and we need to open charter schools, free from the restraints of public school teacher job protections and unions. Now we are really talking, because we can turn these charter schools into private entities funded with public money, run them on the cheap and begin to rake in the dough.

Hill discovers he has hit on a gold mine. Private companies/Public money - a match made in educational reform con man heaven. Why stop at charter schools? Let's get into the testing business. If our kids aren't doing well on PISA, maybe we can sell the idea that they are not "college and career ready." People have heard enough stories about remedial classes in college. This is an easy sell. 

What we need, leaders of River City, are new standards tied to new tests. We can use those standards to write those tests, to identify bad teachers, to close down schools, to open more charters, to make more money. Beautiful. And did I mention, that right over here I have a testing company all ready to sell you that test, and all the supporting curriculum materials you want for a price. And Professor Hill here will be the "chief architect" of those standards and then take over the "college and career ready" testing company as the money keeps rolling in.

Back downtown in River City, however, the picture is not so bright. Public schools, drained of financial resources by charter schools, are struggling to maintain a basic level of education for students. Schools are in disrepair. Lay-offs are rampant. Charter schools skim off the high scoring students, while finding ways to insure troubled students, students with learning diasabilities and English language learners stay off their rolls. Music programs are gone. Art programs are gone. Librarians are gone. Counsellors are gone. Nurses are gone. Public education is in crisis.

But, hey, Professor Hill and his education reform con men are doing very well, thank you. They have turned their manufactured crisis into a profit making machine. And instead of being unmasked, they are lauded as saviors. And if you don't believe that, I have some used band uniforms to sell you.