Archive for January, 2015

Weaponizing Children

 It has been done before – weaponizing children. Of course in the US  we aren’t talking about explosive belts but about the use of children to undermine public education and further political ambition. The term “social conservative” is a case of contradiction – what is being conserved has not to do with society at large. What is being conserved and expanded is wealth for a relative few while the remainder of society is being disenfranchised and impoverished – slowly perhaps but inexorably. And the impoverishment goes beyond money as it destroys dignity and self-respect. Taking over public education is an instrument of impoverishment, a weapon directed against children with a larger and more important strategic goal down the road when they become adults – the social contract. Third grade retention is only one tactic of that strategy.

People don’t often think of the social contract per se even though it influences every aspect of their lives, much less do they link third grade retention to that contract. One can suppose this is similar to fish not being aware of the water they are immersed in. The water is there and taken for granted. We live in society, we interact with others and with social institutions to such an extent that their existence apart from us isn’t any more noticeable than the air we breathe. Who thinks about the double yellow line on the highway? You simply don’t pass cars ahead of you unless … and that “unless” is what we are concerned with here. Personal awareness becomes acute when the contract is violated as when a car passes you in a no-passing zone and is confronted by an oncoming vehicle with no place to retreat save to cut you off. The purpose of double yellow lines is made obvious and the anti-social aspect of the passing driver’s behavior immediate and personal.

A less obvious example is when politicians use pubic education to further anti-social agendas. Third grade retention as punishment for not learning to read at an arbitrary rate is a classic example. In no rational world is it writ that any child must learn to read by the time they are in third grade, by fourth grade, or for that matter, that they should be prohibited from reading in second grade. This “rule” exists for no reason other than as administrative convenience. Human beings exist as individuals  and each individual learns different skills at a rate particular to them. That is a fact and not amenable to politics. This truth may very well be inconvenient but is immutable. Some children warm to arithmetic at an early age but when older cannot learn algebra much less understand differential equations. Are we to consider someone who doesn’t understand differential equations less educated or less intelligent than someone who does? Of course not. After all, you don’t have to know or understand differential equations to be a brain surgeon. It isn’t that differential equations is as fundamental as learning to read but is illustrative of the broad variations in human intellect and understanding.

Having been educated as a mathematician and having known more than a few I do not believe mathematicians are necessarily more basically intelligent than biologists, chemists, philosophers or diesel mechanics. In fact I have known mechanics who were quite a bit more broadly intelligent than some math majors I’ve known. So what is it then with this crusade to punish kids for not being good readers by the end of third grade? In short it is politics and shameful politics at that. It is nothing but pandering and using children as weapons in the war to privatize yet another covenant of the social contract.

Educating children  is a matter of public interest, public concern, and most importantly public responsibility for the simple reason that an educated polity is of vital necessity to the survival of democracy. A society needs citizens who understand their role in governance more than it needs mathematicians. A society needs people who can think critically, ask good questions, and see their way through political rhetoric to a logical conclusion – in short a society depends on people with well developed crap detectors to survive. Corporatized education will produce, in its own best interests, non-thinkers who will also not read well in third grade but they will do what they are told and believe what they are told to believe. They will become de facto soldiers in the relentless war against democracy.

Susana’s Trojan Horse

Here we go again, more of the relentless pursuit of public education, public school teachers, and the future of New Mexico’s children. The Governor’s empty meme about ending social promotion is intended to appeal to an audience that knows nothing about teaching and learning. Holding kids back is not educating them — it is humiliating them and nothing more. Public humiliation of children is not and never was, a proper or true pedagogical method. Although devoid of valid educational content third grade retention is a useful Trojan Horse. And, like that legendary ruse it is hollow and full of danger. Grade retention creates more resentment than any positive educational outcome, it is simply antedeluvian, so why do it? If reading by third grade is some sort of holy grail, and there is no objective proof that it is, then the proper response is to determine why a kid isn’t learning and deal with that. Grade levels are arbitrary, they are merely inventions for administrative convenience. Everyone, including the Governor and her nominee for Secretary of Education, learns at her own rate – obviously a bit slowly in some cases perhaps but with proper pedagogy she can learn.

This war on education that has nothing to do with improving public schools. It has only one objective – privatization. No Child Left Behind, Common Core, charter schools, one Trojan Horse after another. Test this, test that, tests and more tests to no end but to prove public schools are failing. Failing what? Failing to put money in the pockets of the so-called reformers like Rupert Murdoch and the Koch boys. It is nothing less than creating a crisis and offering a solution to it; exactly like starting a fire, pretending to be putting it out, and attracting a lot of public attention. What better way to put wannabe presidential hopefuls into the public eye than to label them education reformers?

While it is true public education could stand thorough and thoughtful discussion, that doesn’t justify the perfidy expressed by today’s self-identifying Republican reformers. The motives, as separate from objectives, are first and foremost profit and secondly – self-promotion. The desired objective – social control by way of dumbing down the public. If you can create a population with few or weak critical thinking skills, they become easy to manipulate. How better to achieve this than by controlling public education and turning it into an assembly line producing the compliant “good” citizens you need. Does this seem totally paranoid to you? Think again. Fox “News” is a good example of this manipulation.

Certainly a well educated thoughtful citizenry would not be willing to go along easily with destroying social security, health care, public safety, safe food, and safe consumer products. A thoughtful activist population is anathema to the relentless quest for profit and accumulated wealth. Consider that the richest of the rich already pay little or no taxes while the middle-class bears the burden. Wealthy individuals and corporations can stash their wealth off-shore because they are “smarter” than the general public and they have the best tax advisors money can buy. In their view, only suckers pay taxes. And, if you can really dumb people down they won’t even notice they are being used as lackeys. Make sure they can buy (on credit) snowmobiles, motor homes, huge screen TVs, one new gadget after another that no one needs – keep them distracted, keep them entertained and they will be willing happy campers. Temporarily lower gasoline prices and people will run out to buy large gas-guzzling pick-up trucks. Stimulus and response. The drones will keep making their installment payments and the cash will flow into offshore accounts. If people can’t make their payments repossess the goodies and sell them to someone else. It’s all good.

Once the “reformers” have their tentacles wrapped firmly around whatever it is they want, the chances of the public regaining it are slim to none. That includes public education because the ultimate objective is privatization and nothing to do with educating children. While billionaires are drooling behind the curtains providing campaign funds, their shameless lackeys are out beating the drums and promoting themselves as educational reformers on the backs of children. It doesn’t take much really, a little vigorish here and there, a thousand here a thousand there, and soon it’s real money – but peanuts actually compared to the possible return-on-investment. Schools, teachers, national education organizations have been forced into a rear guard war against a monster machine that intends to roll over them in the endless quest for profit on the one hand and self-promotion on the other. Never mind the consequences for the American social contract. (Or what’s left of it.)

Public education is vulnerable. Governors and other politicians with presidential ambitions have put schools in a free-fire zone where nothing is logical or sacred. Politicians with no background or experience as educators use issues like third grade retention to draw attention to themselves. The Trojan Horses are being rolled through the gates. Stop them now or lose public education.

Looping Ms Skandera

In computer programming loops are repetitive iterations of the same operation used to carry out specific tasks. The computer having no brain and no sense of monotony simply repeats the script ad infinitum until a particular condition is satisfied. The New Mexico legislature seems to be in some kind of incarnation of the loop phenomenon. We have been running the Skandera loop for going on five years now, over and over again and with the same result. It’s an interesting question to ask about people who keep repeating the same action, using the same information, producing the same result, but thinking the next time the result will be different.

Skandera, after five years has yet to be confirmed by the Legislature as New Mexico’s Secretary of Education. What’s up with this? Who is getting what out of it? Five years ago this individual was presented to fill a crucial position for which she has no professional credentials. Here we are entering her fifth year holding the job of Secretary of Education without legislative confirmation but being paid on the order of $125,000.00 a year. How do things like this happen? Well, how about political ambition and political agendas? Skandera came to New Mexico following the first Gubernatorial election of Susana Martinez. It was noted at the time that Skandera was suggested by out-of-state donors to the Martinez campaign.

A professional political appointee and foot-soldier in the anti-public education movement, Skandera previously served former Florida governor Jeb Bush who fancied himself as a school reformer but who failed miserably at that task and only succeeded in alienating teachers. Skandera is a gift that keeps on giving who came to us courtesy of the current Governor’s billionaire campaign contributors including, in her first run, $10,000.00 directly from the Koch boys and $1.3 million from the Republican Governors Association which itself was gifted with $1 million also from the Kochs.

Isn’t it ironic that Skandera could not be hired as a classroom teacher in a New Mexico public school? The New Mexico requirements for a teaching certificate at the elementary level are:

1.  A Bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited college or university.

2.  30 to 60 semester hours in an Elementary Education program including student teaching.

3.  6 semester hours of credit in the teaching of reading if you entered college or university after 8/1/01.

4.  A minimum of 24 semester hours in one teaching field such as mathematics, language arts, reading, history, and so forth.

A starting teacher, having met the qualifications above makes on average $32,000.00. Skandera has not met these minimum qualifications and yet is paid 4 times what a qualified starting teacher is paid. Consider for a moment the inversion of values expressed in this distortion. Consider also how insulting and demoralizing it is to be evaluated by a political operative who is less qualified and less experienced than you are.

When I first wrote about this nomination nearly five years ago the issues were the same as today except that we now have a record of the disastrous consequences of Skandera’s tenure. That first article was in March 2011 and here we are in January 2015 with no resolution of this continuing travesty. Skandera’s damage to New Mexico’s public education from Gestapo-like raids on elementary schools to brazenly over-riding the PEC, validating charter schools championed by rent-seeking political hacks, and a lot of time on the public stage around the country, indeed even internationally, are her only achievements. Her beating the drums for privatizing public education are all a matter of record. I said then and I’ll say again, “Approving Ms. Skandera’s appointment will be a step backward.” Since then Ms. Skandera and the Governor have been thumbing their noses at the children, the public, educators, and legislators. What’s behind this?

For openers, public education is a soft target and there’s lots of money to made privatizing. Witness the many Republican governors across the country who are pursuing this same agenda.  And, that isn’t the only issue, 3rd grade retention is also merely a convenient non-issue a cudgel to pound on the public’s consciousness. The most important aspect of the entire 3rd grade retention business is to realize it has absolutely nothing to do with authentic teaching and learning. The ultimate pay-back is  privatizing public education. Privatization is the holy grail of the relentless Right-Wing jihad against teachers and public schools nationally.  Rupert Murdoch expresses his interest in public education by describing it as a $500 billion “opportunity”. The public needs to not forget it’s their tax money that created the public education system these sharks are salivating for.

Also in this equation and not to be discounted is Ms. Martinez having set her ambitions on national prominence and maybe even a place on the Republican presidential ticket, a fantasy that beggars the imagination. In this she is much like other deluded Republican wannabes who will do whatever it takes to be chosen. Since she has little else to brag about she has to win this Secretary of Education battle else she’ll be riding off into a sunset of well deserved irrelevance like Rick Santorum. The stakes are high in this game and the children be damned.

The NM Senate has an obligation to the public, to teachers, and to school children to not punt this time but to act bravely, with integrity, and regard for the people and children of New Mexico. The New Mexico State Constitution is on their side as it clearly and unequivocally states, the Secretary of Education must be a, “qualified, experienced educator.” Skandera is neither – case closed.

End of loop.

Emanuele Corso’s essays on politics, education, and the social contract have been published at  NMPolitics, Light of New Mexico, Grassroots Press, World News Trust, Nation of Change, New Mexico Mercury and his own – siteseven.net. He taught Schools and Society at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he took his PhD. His BS was in Mathematics. He is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force’s – Strategic Air Command where he served as a Combat Crew Officer. He has been a member of the Carpenters and Joiners labor union. He is presently working on a book: Belief Systems and the Social Contract. He can be reached at ecorso@earthlink.net


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