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A Chronicle of Echoes

“A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education”
A book by Mercedes K. Schneider

Like every American teacher working in the public school system over the past 10 years or so, I have both witnessed and experienced the relentless and reckless experiments performed upon my students, my profession and, indeed, the entire American public school system itself in the name of “education reform,” a phrase that has become synonymous with privatization. Ten years of massive upheaval and dislocations later, nothing has improved — much has worsened — and still the privatizing reforms go on. The reforms, we are told endlessly by the mass media, are desperately needed. American public schools are “broken.” American children are ill-equipped to compete with their international counterparts in the savage new global economy. Indeed, in March 2012, former New York City Chancellor of Education Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice released a report that stated that our schools are so wretched they now pose nothing less than a threat to national security.

The privatizers’ experiments share common characteristics. All strip classroom teachers of autonomy and some, like the deceitfully named and privately owned Common Core State Standards Initiative, move the power of the federal government straight into the classroom. All are punitive and have resulted in the firing of teachers and the closing of schools, which, in turn, have led to the proliferation of publicly funded charter schools, beloved by Wall Street. All reduce education and educators to data points (which in turn are linked to data mining), the better to hold the latter accountable for their “performance.” All are linked to high-stakes standardized tests which, in the one-dimensional thinking of the reformers, are the hallmark of teacher accountability, even as the reformers wouldn’t dream of subjecting their own children to such tests. Finally, almost all the reforms are the work of non-educators — and not only non-educators, but non-educators who look upon traditional educators with undisguised contempt. Those few reformers who did teach, like Michelle Rhee, Frederick Hess or the founders of the much ballyhooed KIPP charter schools, did so for only two or three years before, like the God of Genesis, they set out to remake American education in their own image and that of their billionaire backers.

As I write, they are succeeding. Consequently, the U.S. public school system, the backbone of American public life, could well be but a memory in another 10 years. The noble art of teaching, which has sustained civilization since the days of Socrates, could well be reduced to a temp job or, at best, a micromanaged performance both scripted and judged by an international corporation like Pearson — which has, over the past decade, evolved from publishing textbooks to producing curriculum, making and grading tests, and in some states is involved in teacher certification — or worse.

Who are these people? How did they amass such power over a “public” institution of such magnitude?

In “A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education,” Mercedes K. Schneider sets out to answer those questions. She does so with fierce intelligence, wit, an ocean of unearthed facts, and a vengeance. Schneider, who in very short order has established herself as one of the nation’s most profound and prolific education bloggers, has taught for 19 years in many grades in four states and is currently teaching high school English in St. Tammany Parish, La.

You can sense her pride in her profession in every word she writes, as well as her righteous rage toward those who would defile it. Schneider is also a Ph.D. in applied statistics and research methods, which, for people who like to bury information and obscure reality with numbers, makes her a force to be reckoned with.

Considering merely the breadth and depth with which Schneider covers the privatization campaign, “A Chronicle of Echoes” is, by any measure, an extraordinary achievement. That she does so in such detail and with so much illuminating evidence makes it that much more so. By telling the tales of its major players, Schneider reveals a kind of secret history of education reform. Along with Diane Ravitch’s “Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools” and Lois Weiner’s “The Future of Our Schools: Teacher Unions and Social Justice,” “A Chronicle of Echoes” is one of the three most important books yet written about the privatization campaign. It is essential reading for anyone wanting to know what is really happening in and to our school system and, indeed, in and to our political system, as the two are intrinsically linked.

The book is as much a modern day bestiary as a chronicle. With the exception of former TV anchorwoman Campbell Brown, recently catapulted to privatization super-stardom, Schneider misses no person and no organization of note. They are all there, all the names conscientious teachers have heard of but whose stories were rendered as hagiographies or remained hidden as a hedge fund. Until now. Here are the stories of economists like Eric Hanushek; the entrepreneurs David Coleman and Eva Moskowitz; the professional think tank thinkers like Chester Finn and Hess; the hedge fund manager messiahs Whitney Tilson and his Democrats for Education Reform (DFER); the “radicals” like Rhee and Wendy Kopp; and, above and beneath all, the limitless coffers of the Gates, Broad and Walton foundations. And, of course, the American Legislative Exchange Council. Schneider shows again and again how they are all linked. Brilliant at uncovering the incestuous forces fueling the entire privatization campaign, she discovers the same few names popping up all over the terrain.

Schneider chronicles the moneyed birth of non-educator Kopp’s Teach For America (TFA) and details the cynical morphing of an organization ostensibly created to find teachers (albeit temporary ones) for hard to staff impoverished schools into a stealthy if well greased fast track for “dynamic, impassioned, and entrepreneurial education leaders” and “change agents” whose real interest is not in teaching but in privatizing.More, Schneider shows how TFA then transformed into an international organization called Teach For All. “As of February 2013, Teach For All has a presence in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Chile, China, Colombia, Estonia, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lebanon, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Whether or not a country is more or less advanced, and whether or not its education system is more or less rigorous and stable, the teacher-churn produced by Teach For All can only introduce an education credentialing instability that serves no one but the recruits who would later assume the powerful, lucrative education leadership positions in similar fashion to the education leadership usurpation in the United States.”

On such people and such organizations, Schneider refreshingly minces no words. “Wendy Kopp is no visionary,” she writes. “She is a well-financed conduit for worldwide education destabilization designed to serve a privileged few.”

“A Chronicle of Echoes” is made of many stories, all variations on the same dark, interwoven and insidious theme. It is the story of people systemically changing rules and regulations — “deregulating the path to school leadership ” — in order to gain control of the system for themselves. It is the story of the vast slow motion con job that is the Common Core State Standards Initiative, an enormous and furtive project designed to be too big to fail, which is proving to be a spectacular failure. It is the story of charter schools, the type of entrepreneurial initiative that “electrifies” hedge fund managers like DFER’s Tilson, “founding member of Teach For America, and board member of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP).”

It is the story of people like Paul Vallas traveling like a CEO virus in human form, from Chicago to Philly to New Orleans to Bridgeport, Conn., leaving in his wake one ruined school system after another. It is the story of former Sunshine State Gov. Jeb Bush, crisscrossing the country to help shove his fraudulent toxic Florida Miracle down the throat of the entire nation. It is the story of one phony billionaire backed grass-roots organization after another — “Stand for Children,” “Students First,” “Parent Revolution,” whose very names are accusations against teachers — cynically manipulating parental fears and turning communities against one another. It is the story of an unprecedented attack on a vital public institution on which the future of our dying democracy rests.

“If you do not know your enemies nor yourself,” wrote 6th century BC sage Sun Tzu in “The Art of War,” “you will be imperiled in every single battle.” What was true then is true today. You cannot win a war against an enemy you do not know, particularly an enemy composed of some of the richest, most ruthless people on earth, aligned with and enabled by some of the most powerful political leaders in the land. And let us not mistake what this is: Whether we want to admit it or not, the American oligarchy is at war with the American people and their institutions, the public school system being but one of them.

The power of Schneider’s words comes not merely from facts but from a combination of moral clarity, a passion for her profession and a profound sense of the dignity of teaching. There is no better example of this power or this clarity than when Schneider writes of Stand for Children CEO Jonah Edelman, who was videotaped gloating over his attempt to “trap” the Chicago Teachers Union into accepting SB 7, which required 75 percent of the rank and file to vote for a strike. Edelman later apologized (sort of) after the tape went viral.

Writes Schneider: “Edelman is not sorry for S 7. He is not sorry for leveraging SFC against teachers. It is what he does. What Edelman and SFC’s actions reveal over and over again is that SFC is against the traditional classroom teacher. Mr. Edelman: No apology replaces your repeated behavior. I am a traditional classroom teacher and I know what you are.”

Indeed she is, and indeed she does.

Readers of “A Chronicle of Echoes” will know what these people are and what they stand for. They and their children will be better for it. Read this book.

Patrick Walsh teaches in a public school in Harlem in New York City. He is also a chapter leader for the United Federation of Teachers and a musician.

Patrick Walsh

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