Saturday, May 23, 2015

Evaluate Thyself

Albuquerque kindergarten teacher Linnea Montoya burns her state issued "evaluation." (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal photo)

Albuquerque public school teachers were out in front of the uptown administration building Thursday burning their official “evaluations” issued by New Mexico as part of Republican governor Susana Martinez’ education reforms.

Although the young woman pictured setting alight her evaluation form, and many with her, hadn’t been born when Americans were burning their draft cards in the 1960s to protest the Vietnam War and the Anti War Movement was bringing about an almost 180 degree shift in public opinion about that war, I don't believe the similarity is exactly coincidental, but for sure, though, a massive turnaround in thinking is also what’s needed now, as most all of us have bought the idea that somebody should be evaluating teachers.

The idea of teacher evaluation, and the education reform movement it’s a part of, came about, if you'll recall, when Americans suddenly realized their education system was severely lacking. Remember that moment?

We’re talking about the education system, of course, that I and millions of other Americans came up under, that despite its dire need of reform was somehow sufficient to propel the United States into being the number one country in the world, whose well educated and highly skilled working class had achieved the highest standard of living in history. An education system that produced the technology, the research, the math and physics, the educated citizenry that put men on the moon, put a color TV in every house, raised life expectancy to unheard of levels, ushered in the computer age. And was suddenly in need of reform?

No one was complaining about teachers or passing laws to have state governments evaluate them, or require students to take standardized tests, while the US was rising to its supreme position in the world, so how did the education system that was one of the keys to the US achieving its envied number one position in the world come to be in dire need of reform?

The answer is that it didn’t. You've been bamboozled, folks. You’ve bought into pure bs. There was nothing wrong with our teachers or our education system, which was already fully set up to train teachers and correct any deficiencies in them, and it’s ridiculous to think that it could have produced the results it did otherwise.

Remember that “education reform” is a conservative project, that many Democrats have simply bought into, and is part of the conservative thrust in this nation that’s been ongoing since Ronald Reagan.

Before it set in, before our education system was suddenly and mysteriously found in need of reform, and our teachers found to be greatly lacking in skills, the ruling class was paying about 35 percent of the bill for government, which includes education, the safety net, infrastructure, military and so on. That share is now down to 10 percent.

What happened was that a great political transformation occurred. It didn't originate with Reagan but he was its salesman and he began to fully implement it, and its essence is that rich people, and the corporate CEOs and political class who represent their interests, came up with a way to change the political discourse, a package of ways actually that’s a story in and of itself. Academics usually refer to the process as Neoliberalism, and if you use the search box to the right you’ll come up with some posts in which I’ve explained more fully what it is.

Under it, what was wrong with education, and what needed to be changed, was that teachers were unionized, had good benefits and job security, and this was cutting into profits, and what was wrong was that access to a good education — which was essentially available to anyone who desired one — was one of the great economic levelers any working class had ever managed to have implemented. The problem was that the ruling class was having to send a tidy share of its profits off to the government to help pay for all of it. 

This is where politicians like Susana Martinez come in, whose centerpiece has been her “education reform” and who has been criticized for not having an economic plan during a time when New Mexico was sinking to the bottom in the western region by almost all measures. She has an economic plan alright, but it simply calls for lowering taxes on corporations even further, and nothing else. Taken together those two things make her a perfect practitioner of Neoliberalism. Likewise with Albuquerque's Republican mayor Marion Berry who dwaddles and flits about congratulating himself over insignificant cosmetic changes while quality of life measures in the city erode. The idea is to do nothing to impede corporate profit and obstruct anyone or anything that might.

The ruling class, of course, is probably the greatest beneficiary of all the thinking skills and professional training the American workforce acquires in primary schools and colleges, as it is of the publicly funded research conducted at colleges and the technologies developed there. But the profits they were making by the late 1970s just weren’t enough for them and they made the decision that it would be better for them if the US had a less well educated, and more importantly lower paid, workforce, and so coinciding with the attacks on public education were the attacks on unions, the existence of which had had the effect of raising wages and benefits across the entire workforce. That attack was initiated by Ronald Reagan with his attack on, and eventual destruction of, PATCO, the air traffic controllers union.

By way of the attacks on public education the ruling class and their representatives in business and politics have made great inroads into ending public education as we once knew it — by attacking teachers, by getting us to believe they are somehow deficient, and that we need all these mostly under-performing charter schools run mostly by for profit companies that undermine the public school system, most of which don't hire unionized teachers, coincidentally. And not least by shifting most of the burden for college onto the students themselves.

If you noticed the placards some of those Albuquerque teachers were holding, some of them get this larger picture, but in their public statements they don't emphasize the broader economic, i.e. class based, dimensions of their problem, and don’t talk about the context in which their evaluations have been imposed, and it's easy to see why. The public won’t make any sense of it. They have no idea. We’ve been bamboozled, folks.

The public, we, have all bought into most of the central tenets of Neoliberal propaganda, that schools needed reform, that corporations will go someplace else if we don't give them another tax break, that giving free money to rich people somehow creates jobs, and that "there's just no money" to fund government, health care, schools, scholarships, grants, affordable tuition and all the rest of it.

Democrats have become like the teachers. If, like Bernie Sanders, they do talk about it, they’re written off in the media as some kind of cooks or outliers. The rest have all made a devil's bargain with the ruling class — they accept the basic arguments of Reaganomics and won’t refute them— and have taken the quick and easy way to public office, and this includes all of New Mexico's elected officials. None use the podium they've been given to inform and educate the public about the political transformation that's taken place in the US, if they're even aware of it themselves. True, within the constraints they find themselves in now, which are of their own making, some occasionally do some outstanding things, but they’re all just wasting their time, and our money, as our education system becomes eroded, and we continue down this path we’re on of permanent economic stagnation, this near zero growth that results when a people can no longer afford to be the kind of consumers who were once the engines of the 4 and 5 percent per year growth rates we saw between World War II and the 1970s when Reaganomics began.

Meanwhile we argue about teacher evaluations. Are they good evaluations? Are they bad ones? How do we get those bad teachers out of there, because that's surely what's holding up the economy, right? Wrong. We have for a long time had a tremendous public education system in this country but we’re letting it be torn apart by letting teachers be blamed for problems that never existed, but which of course do exist now.

It’s a problem the political class is no position to do anything about, and you can’t point to a single sign that shows they are. As I say, they're just wasting their time and our money, even those with good intentions, until there's a more aware, more engaged public that's become consciously aware of the propaganda it's being fed by politicians, corporations and the media.

Only mass movement from below can change things, a mass uprising brought about by a thorough shift in the thinking and public discourse of the people, as happened during Vietnam. This has always been the case. No significant transformation is ever achieved without it. The politicians might be the ones in the signing ceremony photos, but mass movements, like the Civil Rights and Women’s movements of the 1960s and the Labor Movement of the early 20th century, had risen and done their agitating and their transformative work long before those pictures were snapped.

There are always things bubbling, people meeting and talking, organizing, most of it outside the narrow focus of the corporate media, and there are always some promising developments. Right now they are among young Black people in the US and the ones who were in on Occupy, and among people involved in some collective economic endeavors in places like Spain and Brazil, where news ways of organizing are being worked out in which the organizations themselves reflect the kind of change that has to be brought about structurally in the larger culture. Something, or a combination of some things, will eventually take hold, grab peoples’ imaginations on a large scale, and take off.

Meanwhile, though, we’re in for a rough ride, a lot more disappointment, and a lot more disillusionment with our so called leaders. But it was nice to see the teachers out there setting something on fire.


  1. The public educational system was the key to American success in the 20th century. It was also the key to success for lower and middle income Americans. Their avenue out of poverty. The Republicans with their religious allies have been undermining the system for a long time. The two may have slightly different motives, but their collaboration to destroy the public educational system is working.

    Their strategy is to "drown the baby in the bathtub while pretending to be giving it a bath". They complain about it and then refuse to fund it properly then use the excuse that it is not working and defund it some more. This strategy is employed and works at a local, city, state and national levels. The pulpit is a great place to preach the anti public school message.

    Republicans can usually afford to send their children to private schools and the religious institutions are more than willing to fill the gap for the believers with tax free dollars as it keeps their coffers full.

    If you want to see this in action travel any of the roads, in a west to east mode on a weekend, that lead to the New Mexican communities of Angel Fire, Eagle Nest, Red River, Cloudcroft and even some points further north in Colorado. You will see hundreds of school busses associated with churches in Texas headed into the New Mexico and Colorado mountains for educational purposes. These busloads being paid for with tax free dollars which everyone, believer or nor, fund.

    I am not kidding about the numbers of buses. In Otero County a significant portion of the property is owned by churches for several camps for use by the membership of the group. In Northern NM that is not so much the case anymore but the leader was in the north, the old Glorieta Baptist Conference Center just outside of Santa Fe.

    And to top it off they are very verbal of their success to their members. Those who are not members will never hear the boasts. There are several publications published by the churches for their members that illustrate their goals and successes. We were in Amarillo earlier in the year and found several of these publications in antique shops and thrift stores in the area.

    One example, just one, of the several we found was a 1/4 inch 8 and 1/2 X 11 inch glossy covered was titled "Volume I, The History, Glorieta And Northern New Mexico Discovery Tours" written by Dale and Betty Danielson. On the back of this volume it advertised Volume II, the tours around Glorieta, Volume III the tours around Taos and Volume IV the tours available around Albuquerque

    1. Holy cow. Thanks for the comment, NM. Very interesting your "drown the baby in the bathtub..." analysis, and insightful.

    2. I just came across this, used on Amazon:

    3. And this:

  2. I agree with everything that you wrote in this essay, but one thing that you left out is how the 1960s left dumbed down the schools. I attended Monte Vista Elementary School and I was one of the U.N.M. College of Education's guinea pigs for the Open Classroom experiment. This experiment consisted of having 100 students in three classrooms with three teachers and no desks or lesson plans. It was play day everyday. We learned anti-war songs and had group therapy after lunch in "magic circle". We got to make films and go bowling at the U.N.M. Sub. There wasn't any tests or homework. Whenever I run into former students from this experiment we talk about how we missed a couple of years of our education and what were the adults thinking. Thankfully that experiment failed.
    Then as a part of the antiwar movement the liberals decided that taking civics was no longer needed, so I didn't have to take American civics when I was in the 9th grade like my sisters did at Jefferson. When my generation was in high school we weren't required to take four years of math, science, english, etc.. Instead students could take basket weaving electives such as back packing. U.N.M. has open admissions where all you needed to do was fill out your application and pay the admissions fee.
    I didn't take the hippie find your self courses in high school, because I was growing up during the 1970's recession and I faced high unemployment when I graduated high school in 1980 and I knew that getting college education was more important than "finding myself" as the 1960s generation had the luxury to do.
    The baby boom that were the 1960's generation screwed up my generation's education with their reforms too. Yes I didn't vote for Reagan but lots my generation supported Reagan because we were sick of the 1960's Woodstock generation selfishness.

    1. Thanks for commenting and taking the time to write about your experiences.

      They do seem problematic, but I must point out that you work them into a critique of the "Woodstock Generation" that simply goes from one generalization to another. Yes, innovations have been tried. Some worked, some didn't. That happens in any field. It's the story of human progress. As for the "Woodstock Generation" ones, my nephew Bryan attended a Montisorri School, which, says Wikipedia, puts "an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child’s natural psychological, physical, and social development." My Mom related to me the other night that Bryan, an investment banker now, had told her, "Grandma, I didn't know you could make so much money."

      But for some students those learning environments didn't work. An article about "Open Classroom" experiments in British Columbia says they weren't working well until they were cleaned up by teachers -- those reviled people who know something about how children learn.

      The article says the Open Classroom model is being revived, but by business minded people, because it requires cheaper classroom construction.

      There were some statistics going around for awhile that said the US wasn't doing well at math compared to Japan, but statements like "Then as a part of the antiwar movement the liberals decided that taking civics was no longer needed" display some lack of awareness of how the processes of educational research, educating teachers, running a school system, and implementing education theory in the classroom work, although they do display a passing knowledge of right wing talk show jabber by people who have little clue about education and are pushing conservatism any way they can think of, which because they attended good schools is quite a few.

      I based my assertions on generalizations, too. Two basic things but which to me seem self evident. One was that there's a political agenda behind the attacks on education, and the other was the US was doing alright on the global stage with the education system it had, and I also pointed out the rise in our living standards under it.

      Your generation, educated in a system that included innovations like open classroom and Montisorri, continued making achievements. In the 1980s it was personal computers, camcorders, portable phones and cell phones, cable, fax machines, graphical user interfaces.

      In the 1990s there was the human genome project, the worldwide web, the Hubble Space Telescope, probes landed on other planets with cameras and little labs on them. Innovations like those encapsulate many smaller ones, like the batteries and efficiency in vehicle design.

      I could go on. Now we have cell phones that come with mega pixel cameras and internet access and GPS routing. We have WiFi at McDonald's, hybrid cars, and many other innovations pumped out by kids raised and educated by slovenly stinky hippies, as you right wingers like to characterize and think about that generation, some of whom were actively engaged in anti war protests but most of whom were like you and me, just going to pretty good schools and trying to figure out how to achieve the American Dream.

      Sadly, that part, the living standards part, is starting to be out of reach for more and more Americans due to Reaganomics and the conservative wave that has moved both parties to the right, and gotten both to buy into the attacks on public education. Obama pushes teacher testing and charter schools, and both parties compete to see who can reduce the budget deficit most, and as a result teachers are burning their evaluations and we are back to wealth and income inequality worse than the 1920s "Gilded Age" and it's really endangering our economic future, as the IMF is now warning, and as many economists have already warned.