Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Michael Fiorillo Challenges David Brooks

In this post to ICE-mail, Michael Fiorillo (Chapter Leader at Newcomers HS in Queens) takes a crack at today's op ed ("The Biggest Issue") by NY Times columnist David Brooks, who channels the corporate ed reform agenda when he addresses education reform issues. Ed Notes criticized Brooks back in June when he wrote a ridiculous piece supporting the Klein/Sharpton/Rhee vision of ed reform, as did NYC Educator.

Michael ties economic forces to educational ones and ties up the concept of runaway corporations who avoid taxes and high labor costs.

I would add the irony of the Brookses and other ed reformers pointing to teacher union contracts and tenure as the culprit.

Yes, close the achievement gap by all means, but make sure jobs in teaching and other sectors are as low paid as possible by shutting down unions' ability to fight for their members.

I don't have the exact numbers but I remember hearing that only 27% of the jobs in the next decade will require a college degree. The corporate world is rushing to support the market forces ed reform movement to close the achievement gap just enough to provide workers who can operate a cash register.

Thus, when the achievement gap is closed - of course, only when every school is a KIPP school and we rotate a new teacher corps through TFA every 2 years - we will have, as Michael points out, a nation of educated cab drivers.

I can see the day when American college grads are driving cabs - in bangladesh.

Hello All,

This op-ed by Brooks is a well-condensed example of the ideological points that are driving corporate school "reform." According to this model, education drives economic development, and apparently there is no relationship between investment and economic conditions. I would suggest that anyone who believes that education is the primary factor in economic development take a few taxi rides in NYC and get into a conversation with their driver. Ask them about their backgrounds, and you will be astonished at how many highly educated people - engineers, architects,doctors etc. - are driving cabs. However, they still had to immigrate here: why? According to Brooks and his ilk, they and the nations they come from should be prospering. But they're not; they're driving cabs in NYC.

The reason is that, while their levels of educational achievement may be high, in their countries there has been no corresponding level of investment that would supply them with gainful employment. This is what the corporate reform crowd refuses to acknowledge: ironically, these "business model" characters refuse to admit to the relationship between supply (educated workers) and demand (investment in industries and jobs that pay middle-class wages or better). These folks believe - or at least the more ignorant/gullible/opportunistic among them - that education magically translates into improved living standards. Obviously, it's an important factor, and as a teacher I won't let these characters trap me into contending that it isn't. However, we're fooling ourselves if we think that investment patterns - among other factors - are not a major factor influencing economic conditions.

For the past generation-and-a-half, the US has been de-industrializing, allowing domestic production in some industries - basic steel, for example - to collapse, shipping others - auto - overseas or to non-union environments in the US. Along with this de-industrialization has gone the extreme income polarization we experience now. It's entirely predictable, since Bureau of Labor Statistics show the country increasingly polarized between high paying jobs in FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) and poverty-level jobs in services such as retail, restaurants, etc. For a generation, these have essentially been the only two sectors where jobs have grown.

Not so long ago, it was possible to lead a relatively secure life with a high-school diploma and a unionized job in manufacturing or transportation. Those jobs are gone now, and even the income premium that college grads have enjoyed is now declining. As teachers fighting the privatization of the schools, we must throw this back in the faces of these sons-of-bitches. They have the audacity to simultaneously ship the productive capacity of this country overseas- literally in many cases, where they disassemble entire factories and send them to China, Vietnam, etc. - and then blame teachers for the resulting decline in living standards.

I personally think that, with the accelerating collapse of the neoliberal economic model, we will have a opening to make this argument. Let's be ready.

Michael Fiorillo

Sean Ahern added this comment:
Well said! remember the Coleman report? There was a time, before Ravitch et al brokered the Nation At Risk, when the economic condition of students and their families was broadly acknowledged to be the singe most determining factor in student achievement. That said some accounting should be made: How have we fallen so far? and How may the people regroup? How may we as teachers contribute to this in our schools in conjunction with the students, parents and communities we serve?


  1. David Brooks states in his column, "The Biggest Issue"..
    "America’s edge boosted productivity and growth. But the "happy era" ended around 1970 when America’s educational progress slowed to a crawl". He also states the main reason as being.."family environments, which have deteriorated over the past 40 years".
    But Brooks fails to state how these two events occurred and what is the solution?
    He leaves us in a state of, as he calls it, "relentlessly shifting tectonic plates". What is your solution bloggers?

  2. Brooks has no clue. I worked in schools since 1967 and believe me for urban poor kids of color it was always a crawl. And since family environments deteriorated why does Brooks think the Klein/Rhee/Sharpton etc. platform which tells us to ignore family issues as an obstacle will be successful unless we somehow address that issue?

    Solutions? Let's spend the Iraq war/bailout equivalent to attack the problem at the root. Go after kids at the earliest age but also attack poverty at its root. Families have a better chance when the tensions of poverty are addressed.

  3. This family stuff can be overblown, too. Yes, the family is important as a locus of education, upbringing. But let's not be simplistic. The American middle-class family paradigm as Greater Vehicle for education success opposing the single-parent poverty family as Lesser Vehicle for educational failure does not quite conform to reality, either. Some of those midddle class families produce immoral drug addicts, or even killers. Some families in poverty produce winners,stars. I have to agree with Shawn and Michael that a brighter economic future is essential for a climate of true educational reform. I mean a brigher future in the broad sense of rising living standards over a 10 to twenty-year time frame. This means we need some kind of a national policy or strategy which will facilitate this outcome. In the meantime, the education "doctors" like Brooks will continue to kill as many patients as they save.

  4. You can NEVER say that Norm or Michael Fiorello are being "simplistic." They've been evaluating the totality of the system for a long time now, from angles most teachers don't even think about.

    Sure, middle class families produce those addicts and killers, but I don't think many of them are unable to read.

    We're talking whole populations that are not functioning very well academically, and to solve that particular problem, it takes more than high standards and superstar teachers. It means that the political will has to start moving in a totally different direction.


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