Endangered Species Watch: Louisiana’s Public Schools Going Extinct

It’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. At the time, the devastation was so overwhelming that it was impossible to zero in on any one aspect of the destruction and hold it in focus. Certainly, I gave little thought to the effect Katrina would have on Louisiana’s public schools. Not for a moment could I imagine that by 2010, a mere five years later, a Democrat-appointed Secretary of Education could call Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

That Arne Duncan quote is old news now. But the wholesale destruction of public resources in Louisiana remains very much on the agenda. On June 1, The New York Times reported that the state is bidding to privatize its public schools and “preparing to shift tens of millions in tax dollars out of the public schools to pay private industry, businesses owners and church pastors to educate children.” Public funding, The Times reported, will be offered to some schools that teach “bible-based math” and others that refuse to teach evolutionary theory because “all those things…might confuse our children.”

What does any of this have to do with ecosystems? Only two years after a disastrous, British Petroleum-funded oil spill ravaged the physical and economic well-being of the Gulf Coast’s poor and working-class, it’s hard to take seriously the idea that private companies are better suited than public schools to care for children. More than that though, many of the religious institutions that would receive government funding under the Louisiana plan have declared war on science itself— a frightening prospect for anyone interested in sustainable environmental policies. The Times described conditions and curricula at various schools eligible for funding under the privatization plan:

“The Upperroom Bible Church Academy in New Orleans, a bunker-like building with no windows or playground, also has plenty of slots open. It seeks to bring in 214 voucher students, worth up to $1.8 million in state funding.

At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake…first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains ‘what God made’ on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution… 

Other schools approved for state-funded vouchers use social studies texts warning that liberals threaten global prosperity; Bible-based math books that don’t cover modern concepts such as set theory; and biology texts built around refuting evolution.”

As I read these descriptions, I was struck by how miserable these school environments sounded: students sitting at cubicles or in “bunker-like” buildings without windows. For all of their rhetoric about standards and innovation, is this the future that corporate-minded education reformers envision for public schools? (If the connection with corporate-style reform seems like a stretch, keep in mind that Michelle Rhee and her StudentsFirst organization have been working with Republican governors around the country to promote school voucher and privatization plans.)

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, Adolph Reed wrote a brilliant piece in The Nation that described the roots of the Katrina disaster. Reed wrote:

“We have to be clear that what happened in New Orleans is an extreme and criminally tragic coming home to roost of the con that cutting public spending makes for a better society. It is a shocking foretaste of a future that many more of us will experience less dramatically, often quietly as individuals, as we lose pensions, union protection, access to healthcare and public education…and as we are called upon to feed an endless war machine. ”

Seven years later, as Louisiana’s government sends the state’s poorest children to study bible-based math in windowless barracks, Reed’s words seem prophetic.

Unnatural Selection: Darwin and the Business Model

I’ve been thinking about natural selection lately. If schools are ecosystems and students are the species occupying those ecosystems, these student species must be constantly adapting to meet the demands of their environments. Eventually, some of these adaptations must harden into character traits, and these character traits, developed in response to school environments, must form some part of a student’s adult identity.

In a school based on our ecosystems model, we would hope to create an environment where successful adaptations might include taking intellectual risks, supporting one’s peers, pursuing long-term projects, and contributing to the school community outside the classroom. In the end, such adaptations would help students develop into adults who are well rounded, thoughtful, open to new experiences, and compassionate towards others.

Unfortunately, our schools are led by reformers who believe that a corporate model, rather than an ecosystems model, will produce the healthiest adults. What sorts of values do these reformers promote? As The New York Times recently reported, David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core Standards, articulated the business reformers’ values quite clearly last year:

“In progressive education circles, Mr. Coleman is often criticized for his emphasis on ‘informational texts’ over fiction, and his push for students to write fewer personal and opinion pieces. Last year, he gave a speech making that point in strong terms, asserting that it would be rare, in the working world, for someone to say, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday, but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.'”

Under the corporate model, an account of one’s childhood is superfluous fluff, while a market analysis is a text of value. Let’s look at the skills required to produce these two types of texts.

To write a “compelling” account of one’s childhood, a writer must first engage in thoughtful, critical reflection. The writer must identify themes that run like threads throughout the events of their childhood, and must convey these themes to the reader. Using imagery, metaphor, and a variety of other literary devices, the writer must evoke the world of their childhood for the reader, allowing the reader to visualize, empathize, and ultimately experience that world vicariously. Finally, the writer must edit and proofread vigorously, with an eye for both minute detail and broader meaning. The writer’s goal is to share an experience with the reader, to guide the reader through that experience, and to help the reader learn from that experience.

Now, I’ve never written a market analysis, so I did a bit of research to find out what that process requires. Apparently, a market analysis is a text of such complexity and sophistication that it’s written every time someone has a proposal for a new business. Thankfully, unlike with compelling memoirs, the folks at about.com were able to break down the process of writing a market analysis step by step. Here’s are the highlights:

“To define your target market, you need to ask the specific questions that are directly related to your products or services. For instance, if you plan to sell computer-related services, you need to know things such as how many computers your prospective customer owns. If you plan on selling garden furniture and accessories, you need to know what kinds of garden furniture or accessories your potential customers have bought in the past, and how often…

You’ll write the Market Analysis in the form of several short paragraphs. Use appropriate headings for each paragraph. If you have several target markets, you may want to number each.

Remember to properly cite your sources of information within the body of your Market Analysis as you write it. You and other readers of your business plan will need to know the sources of the statistics or opinions that you’ve gathered from others.”

In other words, a market analysis involves doing research on what sort of things different types of people like to buy, putting that information into paragraphs (which you may or may not label with numbers), and citing your sources. Oh, and the purpose of this text? To convince investors to give the writer money.

To be honest, I think Coleman’s crazy for preferring this type of reading to a good memoir. Then again, the business model is a bit crazy. Literally. As The Week reported a few months ago, the business world is “full of psychopaths.” Specifically, according to the CFA Institute (“a global association of investment professionals that sets the standard for professional excellence), one out of every ten Wall Street employees “is a clinical psychopath…compared with one out of 100 people in the general population.” The CFA report describes these “financial psychopaths” as people who “generally lack empathy and interest in what other people feel or think,” and who possess an “unparalleled capacity for lying, fabrication, and manipulation.”

What does all this have to do with our students? Well, when folks like Coleman argue that schools should be promoting the skills and values of the corporate world, they’re talking about a world that’s disproportionately composed of psychopaths. Instead of healthy participants in sustainable communities, reformers like Coleman want schools to produce adults who are incapable of empathy, but skilled at writing market analyses.

Am I being too harsh on the business reformers? Here’s Mayor Bloomberg, champion of the business model, describing the methods he used to achieve success (I’ve added the bold):

“Among old McDonald’s hamburger wrappings and mouse droppings, we dragged wires from our computers to the keyboards and screens we were putting in place, stuffed the cables through holes we drilled in other people’s furniture—all without permission, violating every fire law, building code, and union regulation on the books. It’s amazing we didn’t burn some office or electrocute ourselves.”

You can judge for yourselves, but running electrical cables through a firetrap littered with rat feces in violation of health, safety, and legal regulations for the sake of personal financial gain sounds pretty nuts to me.

In a school system run by people who hold these values, students who display kindness, generosity, or any of the other fluffy virtues that generally fall under the umbrella of “goodness” will be failing to reach the standards. As our schools fall increasingly under the sway of these corporate reformers, is it any wonder that cheating scandals are on the rise? Students, teachers, and administrators are simply adapting to their values of their new, corporate-minded environments. It’s unnatural selection: survival of the sickest.