Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why Education Reformers Remind Me of Robert Moses

I spent a lot of my time last summer immersing myself in the history of New York City. Part of this is because I am wanting to relate trends in history to episodes in New York to make the material more relevant to my students, but mostly because it's just so damned interesting. One subject that I find endlessly fascinating is the transformation (some would say disfigurement) of New York City at the hands of Robert Moses. As part of my further education, I recently read Joe Flood's recent, highly engaging The Fires, and am currently burning by way through Robert Caro's classic Moses biography The Power Broker.

Both show the horrible damage that can be done under the banner of reform, especially when unaccountable power is given to someone as ruthlessly autocratic as Moses. Essentially, from the 1920s to the 1960s, he tried to remake the city in the image of the automobile. This meant building freeways by bulldozing entire neighborhoods with almost zero input from their residents. Organic communities that had flourished, despite the challenges of poverty, were now having their hearts ripped out. These moves, of course, massively privileged the suburbs and helped drain the city of revenue.

In addition, Moses supported the postwar trends in "slum clearance" and concentrated public housing, which meant tearing people out of their neighborhoods and stacking them like blocks in alienating high rise complexes. A pattern emerges whereby poor people of color are labeled a "problem," and then have all kinds of misbegotten experiments performed upon them without their input.

Flood's book examines the famous epidemic of fires in the Bronx, parts of Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side in the 1960s and 1970s. He finds that much of the problem had to do with the upheavals caused by Moses' reconfiguration, along with a failed attempt by the city to do fire fighting on the cheap. In a move that ought to sound familiar to those of us in education, the city decided to deal with its shrinking revenue by asking the fire department to "do more with less." They ended up doing a a lot less with less, despite the pleas from the firefighters' union for more men and more stations. In another familiar phrase, their proposal was met with the old saw "you can't just throw money at the problem."

Many of today's supposed education "reformers" exhibit a similar arrogance and willful ignorance of the people they are inflicting their ideas upon. They often come in from outside, with experience in the corporate world (think of Bill Gates), and little understanding of the educational system that they want to upend. They claim the current system is inefficient and costly, and boast that they can do more with less. Without consulting the teachers (who they always call "unions"), they propose destructive solutions like ending tenure, heavily relying on standardized testing for evaluating students and teachers and ending collective bargaining.

Coincidentally enough, the "failed schools" they rail against are always poor, and heavily attended by people of color. In the educational equivalent of bulldozing, they don't bat an eye at closing down schools or firing all the teachers, all the while refusing to address the underlying problems of poverty. Like the public housing officials who thought that park space and modern kitchens alone would somehow cause poor people to lead much improved lives, they believe the myth that the right teacher can somehow cancel out the effects of endemic social inequality. When the people being experimented on revolt against their treatment, as happened in Washington DC when Michelle Rhee (our modern day Robert Moses) was ousted by the public, parents are blamed for their short-sightedness, and simply not listened to.

I see a similar dynamic in higher education as well. Hollow-headed pols like Rick Perry make much fanfare about "breakthrough solutions" that amount to dousing the university system in gasoline and setting it ablaze. They propose doing away with the current system without having consulted the people who live and work inside of it. In fact, he has been actively pressuring universities to adopt his ideas against their will and better judgement. I would be the first person to say that higher ed faces major problems, but one of the primary issues is constantly being asked to "do more with less," since that's what's been done for thirty years and we're just about at the breaking point.

Many of the self-styled reformers of education exhibit the willful ignorance, authoritarian tendencies, and magical thinking I associate with technocratic reformers from the past like Robert Moses, and another Robert, by the name of McNamara. Like the US military in Vietnam, Rhee, Perry, and Bill Gates will do a lot of damage in the course of their failed experiment.

1 comment:

Helen Bushnell said...

All of this makes me so mad. All of the teachers were fired at an elementary school in Denver that is majority African-American, some of whom has been teaching there for years or who were from the community, and replaced with white kids just out of college. Most of the replacements do not have education degrees. It should be stated that this is not a poor community.

The local board of education seems to feel that it not possible for a majority African-American community to be healthy.