Carpetbaggers and Charlatans
Today, the New York Times published an article about the preponderance of inexperienced organizations competing for federal money intended to facilitate school turnaround efforts. The Department of Education is historically well-funded under the Obama administration, and the uptick in available funds– without a commensurate uptick in effective oversight– has apparently led to something of a feeding frenzy among those who have no experience in working with so-called failing schools. In the article, Center on Education Policy president Jack Jennings said that the companies “clearly just smell the money,” while former New York City schools chancellor Rudy Crew compared the current situation to “the aftermath of the Civil War, with all the carpetbaggers and charlatans” who moved south to exploit the situation for political and financial gain.
The only aspect of this situation that surprises me is the apparent surprise of government officials and reporters like those at the New York Times. Anyone who has ever worked in or closely observed low-performing schools and school districts knows that a stunning lack of firsthand experience in education has rarely stopped the truly motivated (or well-funded) from having undue influence in said schools.
The public has been consistently led to believe that the people who know the most about education and about these schools– the teachers and principals who have worked in them for years– are too inept to be trusted (“…Those who can’t, teach.”). The expertise that comes from direct experience doing this kind of work has been discredited because of the faulty assumption that these schools are “failing” because the people in them don’t know enough or care enough to do better. Whenever the government issues top-down mandates for what is supposed to happen in schools and classrooms, or offers teachers and students money and other external motivators to improve their performance, they send a clear message about their lack of confidence in true educational professionals.
So when the best-financed Secretary of Education in history then says,“We need everyone who cares about public education to get into the business of turning around our lowest-performing schools,” we shouldn’t be surprised when everyone–qualified or not– scrambles for their chance to get in on that business. We also shouldn’t be surprised when some of these people, faced with the kind of obstacles (poverty, violence, overcrowding, inadequate support, etc.) that stymie the real experts daily, fail miserably at great expense to all of us.