Monthly Archives: March 2014

Ayn Rand/Paul Ryan: lazy poor people and education reform

Speaking about poverty in a radio interview last week, Ayn Rand super-fan Paul Ryan blurted out this gem of a statement:

We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work.

Ryan’s critics pounced quickly on the Representative’s remarks, labeling them as insensitive, ignorant, and racially-charged; and though Ryan later called his statement an “inarticulate” representation of his point, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which Ryan meant something other (or less offensive) than what he actually said.  To try to understand what Ryan was thinking when he made this comment, we need only look as far as the writings of his hero, Ayn Rand, who wrote extensively about poor people:

“Parasites, moochers, looters, brutes and thugs can be of no value to a human being–nor can he gain any benefit from living in a society geared to their needs, demands and protection, a society that treats him as a sacrificial animal and penalizes him for his virtues in order to reward them for their vices, which means: a society based on the ethics of altruism.”

Right.  Screw altruism!

But Rand also wrote extensively about America’s “disastrous” system of public education–another idea that Paul Ryan seems to embrace whole-heartedly.  Last July, I wrote about Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden as philosophical founders of lots of ed-reformy beliefs; the pair’s denunciations of the American education system—particularly the “disgracefully low level of education in America” that they observed in the 1960s—led them to conclude that education should be turned into a “profit-making private enterprise.” They decried the presence and function of unions, and instead advocated that free-market control of education would a panacea for many of society’s ills.

So let’s combine the ideas of poverty and education using Rand’s philosophies and Ryan’s current political platforms.  According to Paul Ryan, poverty plagues the inner cities because inner-city people (the “parasites” Rand referred to?) don’t know how to work hard. Obviously, if Ryan believes this, he’d extend this theory to explain why many inner-city students struggle academically. Right? After all, inner-city kids are part of the “generations” Ryan described.

And just what does Ryan believe is the best way to address the problems in our inner-city schools–which it seems he believes are populated with lazy poor people? The solution is…wait for it…to close neighborhood schools, open charters, fire experienced teachers, and bust unions. That’s logical, right?! (*Awkward pause*) Who cares! It’s the first step in turning education over to the free market. Ryan is so adamant about education reform that he even sided with Chicago’s Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel during the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike: “We will stand with education reform, we will champion bipartisan education reforms.” 

So if you’re like Paul Ryan and you believe that poor people are bringing our country down because they’re lazy, how can you take advantage of those poor people while simultaneously pretending to do something that’s in their best interest? Ask yourself this: What Would Ayn Rand Do??

In 1964, Rand and Branden published a collection of essays entitled The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism, in which they explored the term central to their collection’s title.  From

Selfishness — a virtue? Ayn Rand chose this book’s provocative title because she was on a mission to overcome centuries of demonization. “In popular usage,” Rand writes, “the word ‘selfishness’ is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends . . . and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word ‘selfishness’ is: concern with one’s own interests.

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

So Ayn Rand says selfishness is neither good nor bad; it’s simply “concern with one’s own interest.”  It’s the “task of ethics” to answer questions about the moral implications of people’s selfishness on a case-by-case basis. And given that Rand spent so much time complaining about “government schools” and advocating for selfishness and individual interests, it’s interesting to think about the ways in which those ideas are interrelated–especially considering the current state of educational affairs in America. (I’m not sure when “ethics” is going to show up and start labeling people as “good selfish” or “bad selfish,” so I’ll just do it myself.)

It’s becoming increasingly clear that education reform depends—even thrives—on the concurrence of two different types of selfishness: parents’ selfishness, which manifests itself as concern for their children’s interests (most would argue that within reason, this type of selfishness is good, understandable, necessary, and justifiable)–and the $elfishness of reformers who place their own political, financial, or social gains above the interests of children (what I’d describe as “evil”—although the capitalistic Rand, Branden, and Ryan would likely disagree with me)–and at the very same time, pretend they really know and want what’s best for kids.

Ayn Rand’s been dead since 1982, but if she were around today, I bet she’d be super excited that Paul Ryan helped boost sales of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged about the reformy push to eradicate “government schools” (she wouldn’t like the Common Core, though, because national standards are a no-no). Rand would probably be even more excited to know that current education “reforms” are forcing people to abandon the idea of working toward the “common good” and adopt an every-man-for-himself (selfish!) philosophy. Here’s how reformers do it:

Step 1: Convince people that “government schools” are, indeed, failing.  Use PISA and other standardized test scores to claim American children are dumb; ignore the glaring correlations between income and scores, the effects of disaggregating scores, rates of child poverty in the United States, etc.  Then, pay corporations lots of money to create and score ridiculous tests to further “prove” American children are dumb. Make sure that everyone takes those tests (except your own kids, if they’re in an exclusive private school), and predetermine the percentage of kids you’d like to see fail.  Then, call the media. Oh, and don’t give “government schools” any money to defray the cost of these tests, so many schools will have to cut staff, programs, and basic supplies to afford to administer these tests.

Step 2: Get rich ($elfish?!) people to help you open up lots of new schools with new (literally–read: cheap) teachers, and force those new teachers to teach to the tests you created in Step 1. *A great way to get people to inve$t in a new school is to remind them about the New Markets Tax Credit Program, which essentially opened the door for people to make lots of money on charter schools.

Step 3: Once the “government schools” are skeletons (fewer teachers, huge classes, no counselors, no nurses, no arts/vocational programs, no extracurricular activities, etc.) that have been starved by all the unfunded mandates you say are good for kids, appeal to parents’ sense of (justified) selfishness by telling them that the new teachers are better than the old teachers and that the new schools are better than the “government schools,” which are “failing”–and that they need to get their kids into a new school immediately.

Step 4: Deny admission to or get rid of any kids who don’t help your stats. ASAP. This includes kids with behavioral and/or psychological issues, kids who have no advocates at home, and special needs students. (Take a page from Cami Anderson’s One Newark manual and make sure all the self-contained special education classes are in the neighborhood schools so they don’t mess up the charter schools’ test scores.) Send those kids back to the “government schools” (which, not surprisingly, Rand says will still be available to children whose parents are too “poor” or uninvolved in their kids’ lives to seek other educational opportunities).

Step 5: Cite your misleading and skewed test scores as evidence of your “success.” (Because test scores are the best measure of learning!) Then count your (high-powered and very wealthy) friends, count your ca$h, and give yourself a hug and a high five.  You’ve just contributed to social stratification in America. Ayn Rand would be super proud of you!

If you feel like there’s something missing in all this Randian thinking (concern for the community as a whole?  concern for other people’s children? concern for the collective well-being of the future of our society?), you’re very perceptive.  But just look at it like Ayn Rand and Paul Ryan would look at it: we can’t force poor, lazy people to care about themselves–but we can provide a way for other people to get away from those poor, lazy inner-city dwellers: it’s called education reform.

Adding a disclaimer, because someone’s going to email to say his child is doing well in a charter school: Yes, I get that there are people involved with charter schools who truly care about children.  I get that there are some charter schools that serve their students well.  I’ve said this many times before. My problem is with the charter school expansion movement, which on the whole is crippling public schools and ruining public education.



Filed under Charters, Reform

Chris Cerf’s long list of “facts” that aren’t all actually facts

Upon hearing in mid-February of Chris Cerf’s impending resignation, many New Jersey educators speculated that the state’s Commissioner of Education would leave his post quietly—especially given the dark cloud of scandals hovering over Chris Christie, the disastrous situation for which State Superintendent Cami Anderson is responsible in Newark, and the serious questions about the ethics of Amplify’s dealings with New Jersey’s schools.

But on March 5th, a day when dozens of educators, parents, and union leaders testified in front of the State Board of Education about concerns with New Jersey’s educational reforms–and over 1,000 others submitted written testimony echoing the concerns of those who appeared in person–Cerf sent a scathing letter to the superintendents of the state in which he labeled the NJEA’s criticisms of the Common Core, PARCC tests, and new teacher evaluation system as “political antics” and “willful misrepresentations meant to mislead the public and their members.” (And surprise: Cerf’s letter is also posted on the Chiefs for Change website.)

Aside from Cerf’s offensive implication that teachers are incapable of evaluating for themselves the initiatives they’re tasked with implementing, his six-page condemnation of NJEA leadership is laced with the same flawed rhetoric to which so-called education “reformers” across the country are clinging–even as parents, children, legislators, and educators from across America join forces to demand ends to sweeping, top-down, unproven reforms that are categorically hurting the nation’s children.

Cerf’s tenure as commissioner lasted fewer than four years, and despite the fact that New Jersey’s public schools are consistently ranked among the very top in the nation, Cerf’s intention was to “dismantle, then rebuild, New Jersey’s education system.” He likened education reform to dangerous outdoor activities (“What draws me to this work is the same thing that draws me, I have to say, to wilderness canoeing. When you go to the head of a rapid and you’re trying to go downstream—it’s the rocks that make it fun.”), a comparison which suggests that it is the perils that make the business of education reform enjoyable.

So nobody should be shocked that Cerf is unfazed by parents’ and educators’ concerns that New Jersey’s education reforms are being implemented too hastily and without the proper and necessary adjustments.

In his letter to the state’s superintendents, Cerf presents seven statements made by NJEA leadership and then counters them with “facts”–many of which aren’t facts at all (or are irrelevant facts), and even more that simply talk around NJEA’s concerns without addressing them directly.

Sort of like Person A claiming the room is too hot, and Person B saying, “no–I drive a blue car.”

First, Cerf lists NJEA’s concerns with tying New Jersey’s flawed evaluation system to the “costly and unproven” PARCC tests; to disprove this claim, Cerf lists five “facts”– none of which actually addresses NJEA’s insistence that the evaluation system itself is flawed (see here) or that the PARCC is unproven (see here: “One of the primary problems with the PARCC test is the mystery and ambiguity of both the organization and its assessments. PARCC is an unproven standardized test created by a private consortium that has provided very little information or transparency on what their tests will look like.”).  Where is the research to support Cerf’s claims that the PARCC is a superior standardized test (if such a thing exists)? Just last year, more than 2/3 of NYC children failed this “much higher-quality” assessment; is that proof of the PARCC’s greatness?

And Cerf says the state is “engaged in a comprehensive effort to help districts upgrade the technology they use for instruction and also to deliver the new PARCC assessments,” but he provides no specifics.  Why, then, are districts filing lawsuits to appeal what they describe as “unfunded mandates”? (Cerf also lists NJEA’s concern that “districts are spending money they don’t have to implement they tests they don’t need”–and counters this claim with more  “facts,” which again do not directly address or respond to NJEA’s claim.)

Perhaps most evasive is Cerf’s list of “facts” to refute NJEA’s statement that students are forced to take tests “with no regard for whether they do anything to improve the actually quality of teaching and learning in their classroom.” Cerf makes no mention of the fact that teachers and students aren’t allowed to see the tests–or that traditionally, high-stakes test results aren’t returned until the end of a school year–and in many cases until students have moved on to new teachers. He makes no mention that there is very little, if any, transparency when it comes to the ways in which the tests were scored.  And he makes no mention of the countless other problems with standardized testing in general.

But never mind that; here’s my favorite Cerf Fact–#2 in response to the above charge: “I used to teach AP US History.”

Yes, he did, for a very short time: in a private, exclusive day school in Cincinnati. And not just AP US History: “modern European history, and one middle section (‘to keep me humble,’ he says)” (emphasis mine, for obvious reasons). I wonder how those students–even those in the “middle section” whom Cerf deigned to teach in order to keep his ego in check, did on standardized tests.

Cerf attempts to disprove more claims that high-stakes testing forces teachers to teach to a test, but in what appears to be an effort to deflect from the very issue he himself chose to list, he instead cites one research study which shows that “high standards lead to higher achievement.”  Okay; where’s the standardized test discussion?

And finally, Cerf presents NJEA’s concern that “every day, we are hearing new reports from our members across the state that the roll-out of the evaluation system is a chaotic and inconsistent mess”; he then evades the issue again, and instead lists a bunch of bullets which describe the implementation process and timeline in New Jersey. You know–the one that’s not working.  All good teachers know that lessons which look great in a lesson-plan template can fail miserably in practice; good teachers are the ones who make adjustments based on students’ needs; inferior teachers are those who are unable to recognize problems in their plans and make appropriate adjustments.

The bottom line is that while six pages of “facts” might look impressive on the surface, even a cursory study of the “facts” reveals that most of Cerf’s list is simply repackaged reform jargon that sounds reasonable but is, in practice, fundamentally flawed. In short, the reform lesson plan that Cerf is advocating, although parts of it were initially endorsed by NJEA, is failing–and it needs to be revised. To ignore the very real, specific, numerous, and documented concerns of thousands of educators who are tasked with implementing them is to do the children and families in New Jersey a great disservice. 

So really, the fundamental questions here are these:

Who is best equipped to make decisions about educating the children of New Jersey: Chris Cerf, an attorney whose teaching experience is extremely limited in scope, length of service, and diversity and who is leaving his post to pursue what promises to be a very lucrative career selling the very technology the reforms he is promoting require–or career educators who are actually in classrooms each day and who, along with parents, know better than profit-driven businesspeople what’s best for kids? And if Cerf is so confident that he knows best how to educate children, then why isn’t he educating children?

We thought he might go quietly.

But no—he stomped off, very loudly, into the amplified sunset.

Farewell, Ex-Commissioner Cerf.

–Ani McHugh

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