Nice Work If You Can Get It: Educational Entrepreneurs Serving the .1%

“Our major universities are now stuck with an army of pedestrian, toadying careerists, Fifties types who wave around Sixties banners to conceal their record of ruthless, beaver-like tunneling to the top.”

–Camille Paglia

There’s serious money to be made in public education.

If you’re not an educator.

Sure, in Massachusetts, a lot of teachers make a decent living, enjoy good benefits, and look forward to a reasonably good retirement, if they last that long. A school superintendent can to make up to twice as much as the best paid teacher. But the real money, and the real future is in the private sector.

Don’t believe me? Check out these salaries.

How do you get on board this gravy train? The easiest way is to graduate from an Ivy League college. Like everything else, it’s easier to get to the top if you start there. The next step is either creating your own educational foundation or  working for Teach for America. Jonah Edelman (Yale) started a foundation seeking donations from well-heeled philanthrocapitalists. It certainly helps to have well-known parents like Peter Edelman and Marian Wright Edelman. Jonah pays himself a relatively modest salary, but I’m guessing  that like the rest of these edu-preneurs, he hits the speaker circuit (all of the people above are listed with different agencies that provide speakers) and collects some hefty sums talking about your accomplishments.

Teach for America, which has, at the moment, 170 teachers to Massachusetts, is the farm system for these folks. Wendy Kopp (Princeton) founded TFA. See her salary above and what looks like a bold-faced lie below). Her husband Richard Barth (Harvard) of KIPP, America’s favorite charter school CEO, started out as a teacher for TFA. Michelle Rhee (Cornell, Harvard), the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. public started with TFA, and when she got the boot from D.C., went on to start Students First. It’s not clear who exactly has donated to Rhee’s organization, but Rupert Murdoch has been rumored to have given her $50 million. The CEO of Amplify, Murdoch’s education technology company, is Joel Klein, who is on Students First’s board. He was the CEO of the New York City public schools.

Making education a business means treating it like a business. Check out their websites and you’ll find they talk about increasing test scores like fund managers brag about making a profit. And this is where the problem Like Moody’s 2007 rating of a hedge fund, what these edu-preneurs claims about their success may not be completely accurate. For example, Michelle Rhee, according to Michelle Rhee, was phenomenal as a teacher. In her three years in the classroom, her

students had national standardized test scores that were initially at the 13th percentile but at the end of two years, the class was at grade level, with some students performing at the 90th percentile.[6] Earlier she had said on her resume that 90 percent of her students had attained scores at the 90th percentile.[11] In 2010, a retired math teacher unearthed test score data on Rhee’s Baltimore school which indicated that her students’ scores went up during the 2nd and 3rd years, but that the percentile gains were less than half what Rhee claimed:[11] In Math her scores went from 22 percentile to 52 percentile, an average increase of 15 percentile annually.[9] In reading, her scores went from 14 percentile to 48 percentile, an average increase of 17 percentile annually.[9] Rhee claimed that the discrepancies between the official test scores and the ones she claimed on her resume were because her principal at the time had informed her of the gains but those results may not have been the official state tests that were preserved.[11]

A slight exaggeration to advance her career? Maybe. It’s possible for lightning to strike twice in the same place. As it did when Rhee’s tenure as education chancellor in Washington, DC, she was dogged by allegations of cheating in schools allegedly showing great progress::

Investigations have questioned some of Rhee’s accomplishments in increasing test scores in D.C. schools.[39] In 2008 the Office of the State Superintendent of Education discovered that 103 schools, over half of DC schools, were flagged by third parties for suspiciously high wrong-to-right answer changes. These include 8 of the 10 campuses where Rhee handed out TEAM awards “to recognize, reward and retain high-performing educators and support staff.”

At Phoebe Hearst Elementary, Winston Education Campus, and Aiton Elementary, 85% or more of classrooms were identified as having high erasure rates in 2008. At four other schools, the percentage of classrooms in that category ranged from 17% to 58%. In return for increased test scores in D.C. schools, Rhee gave performance awards and increased compensation to the teachers and administrators totaling over $1.5 million.

During Rhee’s tenure, CTB/McGraw-Hill informed her office of abnormally high rates of answer changes at Noyes Elementary. Answers were consistently changed from wrong to right. The gains in test scores made at Noyes Elementary School earned the school recognition as a Blue Ribbon School. Rhee promoted the school as a model for her education reform movement.[40]

Statisticians, including Professor Emeritus Thomas Haladyna, stated to USA Today that “the odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance.” Haladyna suggested that the answer sheets had been tampered with and that an investigation was needed.

Rhee, unfortunately, isn’t alone in playing fast and loose with the truth. More recently, Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America, was caught in a similar lie exaggeration. In an interview with the Huffington Post, she claimed “On average, our corps members stay in the classroom for eight years.” This statement contradicts everything she has said in the past as well as independent research. Bear in mind, 50% of all new teachers leave the profession in the first five years of teaching. Skepticism abounds among  the knowledgeable. In Education Week, sort of the newspaper of record in education, blogger Andy Cody asked TFA to provide the study or data to support this claim. He was told that Kopp’s “estimate” was drawn from a TFA survey its alumni. You know those surveys. The ones most people don’t fill out because they’re too busy. They don’t qualify as research any more than those surveys the local news puts up for its bored audience.

Anyway, it’s a great racket. You’re not really accountable to your donors, and you’re carrying out their .1% agenda. They don’t care about research. They’re too busy recrafting education in their own image. As the Artful Dodger sang in Oliver!, “If you don’t mind having to deal with Fagin, it’s a fine life!” And nice work if you can get it.


6 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. I wouldn't be too hard on TFA.

    They are providing a great service getting young teachers where they are needed.

    I was in the DC area when Michelle Rhee was Chancellor. She apparently thought firing a bunch of teachers in October was a swell idea. I can’t imagine they were all so bad it was worth the inevitable disruption of an already commenced school year.

    • Not really

      Usually the districts lay off teachers when the TFAers show up, so it’s just replacing experienced teachers with inexperienced ones, who often have no more than a 5 week training under their belt.

    • If TFA's mission was to providing

      service to places where they are needed, they might be okay. I’m sure many of the volunteers are well-intentioned kids, but TFA has an expansive political agenda and a their recruits probably take work away from people who will invest their lives in teaching. All you have to be is a young graduate from a prestigious college, and callow enough to think you can make a difference. TFA, with the $1 billion it’s collected over the last five years, then sets out to prove that poverty isn’t really a problem, unionized teachers are. Theirs is a .1% agenda, and the best that their recruits can be are dupes for an illiberal agenda.

  2. Good post, important topic

    Years ago I assumed these ed reformers were fighting the good fight. But listening to people who know better (ie, teachers and scholars) has revealed them to be a paternalistic, anti-teacher, and increasingly profit-driven movement. It’s hard to break through their successful PR machinery, though. Their messaging is relentlessly deceptive, and much of the Democratic establishment and the pseudo-liberal press is along for the ride. My opinion first changed while following Bob Somerby’s consistent exposure of the vacuous and unsupported praise for TFA on editorial pages by supposed liberals, at The Daily Howler. I now try to learn from experts like Diane Ravitch. I also like the local blogger Edushyster, who offers hilarious satire along with surprising facts.

    PS, I think the Camille Paglia quote is misplaced; her target is lefty professors, who have their flaws, but supporting corporate Ed Reform is not one of them.

    • "reformer" = privatizer

      I think the great cautionary tale is Diane Ravitch. As long as she advocating for moving money from schools to private businesses via the test-and-punish route, she was a hero. When she started going to the research, which finds that this method has zero impact on student learning (results have stagnated despite the shift), she disappeared off editorial pages and think-tank confab programs.

      Once a reformer says that improving schools may not mean pushing money toward well-connected moguls, they’re no longer a reformer.

      sabutai   @   Fri 14 Dec 6:27 PM

« Blue Mass Group Front Page

Add Your Comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Thu 30 Mar 8:37 PM