Early this week the Los Angeles press was awash with news trumpeting the findings of a report from an organization called the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). The report, entitled Teacher Quality Roadmap Improving Policies and Practices in LAUSD was heralded by the corporate education reform junta as a definitive report that contained all of the answers to Los Angeles Unified School District's (LAUSD) problems. Among the biggest cheerleaders of the report was the privatization minded Mayor Villaraigosa who said of the NCTQ "I look forward to turning their research into reality..." Other agents of the corporatization of public schools weighed in as well. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation employee and LAUSD board member Yolie Flores called the paper a "a powerful road map." LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, a former Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation employee and Broad Residency in Urban Education graduate, praised the report. One would think that amidst all of the press coverage and glowing endorsements that there would be more discussion on the background of the paper itself, the organization that created it, the organizations that ostensibly commissioned it, and ultimately who funded it and to what aim. That's what this essay intends to do.
What the report is
First, let's look at what it isn't. This is not a peer reviewed or refereed report from a university or even an unbiased source. The fact that it isn't peer reviewed is very important in that it means that no experts have been able to look at the data, assertions, and conclusions contained in the paper. How do we know it's not peer reviewed? I contacted NCTQ directly to verify. Their District Policy Director, Emily Cohen, responded to my inquiry by stating "No. It is a policy analysis." In fact, it isn't even a preliminary report, which are often published by other right wing think tanks and funding biased academics to generate media buzz, but will never be scrutinized by academics and others. The Walton Family Foundation often employs this latter technique, as seen with a recent preliminary report extolling the virtues of some other profitable corporate school reform. No, a policy analysis has all the academic authority of someone's strong opinion. In other words there are no academic credentials or even of shred of credibility behind NCTQ's findings.
Even the NCTQ press release reveals how biased and dishonest the report is. One the leading bullet points:
Only 52 percent of students graduate high-school on time; In contrast, 70 percent of students statewide graduate
Yes, let's use the phrase "on time" in order to create an intentionally woeful unbalanced comparison of percentages. As of 2009 LAUSD's graduation rate is 72.4 percent, which compares favorably to the statewide figure NCTQ and United Way's Elise Buik cite. Since they don't say how many of the 70 percent of students statewide are graduating on time, the obvious effect is duplicity and rhetorical trickery. Real investigative reporters should have picked that up right away and turned on a modicum of skepticism.
The organization that created the report
NCTQ is a right of center think tank immersed in neoliberal policy promotion. While not as reactionary or as far to the right as say The Heritage Foundation, The Cato Institute, or the Manhattan Institute, they are nevertheless ideologically charged and strongly biased. NCTQ releasing an unreviewed paper like the one on LAUSD has all the legitimacy of a policy analysis recommending the repeal of all civil rights legislation by The John Birch Society.
Dr. Kevin G. Welner of University of Colorado at Boulder School of Education recently published an important paper entitled Free-Market Think Tanks and the Marketing of Education Policy, warning of the dangers of organizations like NCTQ being able to publish non-peer reviewed papers. This quote speaks directly to so-called "reports" like Teacher Quality Roadmap Improving Policies and Practices in LAUSD:
Think tank reports have become widely influential for policymakers and the media. Their influence is due not to the superiority of their research but rather to the think tanks' proficiency at packaging and marketing their publications—many of which are of very weak quality. We have found that these advocacy reports have often attained greater prominence than the most rigorously reviewed articles addressing the same issues published in the most respected research journals. This should be a matter of concern. If all documents labeled "research" are indiscriminately received and reported as of equal worth, without review or critique by independent experts, their value is obviously not dependent on quality or rigor. These attributes are beside the point. Value is instead tightly linked to the ability of the researchers to gain attention and influence policy. Private think tanks, which produce their own in-house, non-refereed research, accordingly become sensible investments for individuals and groups hoping to advance their agendas.
The fact that none of the mainstream media are calling out the NCTQ's report as being non-peer reviewed speaks volumes to the point of the above Welner quote. It doesn't matter if the research is illegitimate. If it supports preconceived notions, the current dominant narrative, and political aims, then treat it as if it's true. The Los Angeles Times and the Daily News are quoting and discussing the report as if it was actual legitimate research. Now that's newsworthy.
NCTQ of course, is funded by the usual suspects. Prominent corporate education reform pushers the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation are front and center, as are fringe right benefactors like the Searle Freedom Trust. NCTQ's Board of Directors and staff are pretty scary, but the real eye opener is their Advisory Board chock full of reactionaries, profiteers, neoliberal darlings, and corporate education reform luminaries. Just a few names should suffice: fringe right American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess, billionaire Bloomberg's former hatchet man and New York City pariah Joel Klein, discredited and disgraced leader of the District of Columbia's "erasuregate" scandal Michelle Rhee, reactionary The Hoover Institution's Eric Hanushek, and so many more. Although there are one or two nominally liberal organizations thrown in for good measure, these advisors are by and large right wing think tanks, companies and individuals that make money off of education, anti-union advocacy groups, and a few foundation representatives like Stefanie Sanford of the, you guessed it, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
So now we know what the report is — a non-peer reviewed report, written by an highly biased organization funded by ideologically charged plutocrats that attempts to support a priori ideas already held by free market worshipping corporate education reform proponents. We also know about the organization that created it. The legitimacy and authority of the report and NCTQ should at this point be universally questioned with the highest degree of skepticism.
The organizations that ostensibly commissioned the report
NCTQ states that the United Way of Greater Los Angeles and "civil rights" groups commissioned the report. They also mention near the very end of the press release that "Funding for this study was provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation." Now let's bear in mind that Gates' funding of phony grassroots activity is so widespread and blatant, that even the school privatization friendly The New York Times recently published a piece entitled Behind Grass-Roots School Advocacy, Bill Gates. In this case, we will invariably see that nearly every group involved with this NCTQ "report" is also funded by Gates.
Far from the benign charity that many of us used to consider the United Way, United Way of Greater Los Angeles is a reactionary agent of the corporate agenda. They are essentially a front group for the political positions of their largest plutocrat funders. There was a time where they avoided outright public advocacy of right wing ideas, but these days they openly lobby. Recently they were at the LAUSD board meeting advocating to disenfranchise parents by taking away the modicum of input they had in an already antidemocratic measure entitled Public School Choice (PSC). PSC was the brainchild of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation employee Yolie Flores, a woman who used her tenure on the LAUSD board to enact wholesale privatization and further enrich her wealthy connections in the lucrative charter-voucher school sector. The advisory vote was the only part of the process in which communities, parents, and other stake-holders had a voice. Although the votes weren't binding, since all those concerned were voting against the corporate charters in droves, the privatization minded LAUSD board members needed to eliminate what was becoming a public relations nightmare every time they gave away public schools to private charter corporations. They created a motion to eschew the advisory votes.
On May 24, 2011 many parents and community members pleaded with the LAUSD board members to retain the advisory vote. The one entity that argued that we should lose our fundamental right to self determination? United Way of Greater Los Angeles. The move was so reactionary and overtly in service of their corporate benefactors, that Professor Ralph E. Shaffer wrote a scathing Op-Ed entitled United Way's school stance is mistake where he rightfully lambastes them and asks the cogent question:
By what logic does United Way engage in an activity that is shunned by all the other charities?
Of course, we know what logic. They're funded by the same folks that funded the NCTQ "report" and the NCTQ itself. It will take some hours pouring through 990 forms to figure out all of the United Way's income sources, but it's clear that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Edythe and Eli Broad Foundation are the impetus behind all of this. To say Bill Gates and his foundation has unprecedented sway over the United Way is to really understate the situation. The Gates family gives so much money to the United Way's Tocqueville Society, that they were awarded the 2007 United Way Tocqueville Society Award. The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation are no slouches, they are listed as members of the "Million Dollar Roundtable" of the Tocqueville Society.
United Way of Greater Los Angeles, their shameless president Elise Buik, and her staff have become in effect, unapologetic proxy spokespersons for the Gates/Broad agenda in Los Angeles. It's no wonder that they'd be championing a non-refereed policy report from a right wing think tank to further that agenda. Rather than "creating pathways out of poverty" United Way of Greater Los Angeles is creating pathways to privatization. Poverty pimps on the highest level.
United Way also boasts of their membership in the L.A. Compact along with the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce and Mayor Villaraigosa. Among L.A. Compact's near term "big focus?" From their website:
We will be working together to jointly advocate for state and federal funding, including federal i3 and Race to the Top funds. We will be very involved in supporting and assisting the "School Choice" resolution, providing help through LASDI to help groups submitting plans to operate new schools.
The L.A. Compact works to privatize public schools in order to vie for Secretary of Education Duncan's blackmail funds, and supports a Gates Foundation employee's LAUSD resolution that gives public schools away to private institutions.
The other supposed "civil rights" groups associated with the United Way are also of interest. In fact, some of them have a well established reputation in Los Angeles of being anything but supporters of civil rights. The claim was so specious that I contacted the NCTQ again with the following question: "NCTQ's introductionary overview page for the report lists Families in Schools, and Alliance for a Better Community, and Parent Organization Network as civil rights groups. Was that how the groups described themselves to NCTQ, or was that moniker attributed to them by NCTQ?" Their District Policy Director, Emily Cohen, wrote back:
That was how the groups and our partner organization, the United Way, asked to be described.
I wonder if I wrote NCTQ and asked to be described as the foremost education writer in the world, if they'd do that too? Let's take a brief look at these Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded groups claiming the mantle of civil rights. I've had many opportunities to write about Families in Schools (FIS), here's a quote from a recent article of mine:
Families in Schools (FIS) is a far right-wing school privatization advocacy group with deep ties to and ample funding by the lucrative charter-voucher school industry. They are outspoken advocates for former President George W. Bush's discredited and destructive No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation. As part of their campaign to eliminate all vestiges of public schools, they were one of the leading voices in the corporate din pushing LAUSD's Yolie Flores-Aguilar's corporate charter giveaway motion, deceptively named Public School Choice (PSC).
Rather than expend too much space here on FIS, I recommend reading the above quoted article.
Alliance for a Better Community (ABC) is another charter-voucher proxy group that has orchestrated vicious smear campaigns against our local teachers' union. Their former CEO, Veronica Melvin, was the recipient of the Coors 2009 Líderes Program Award. The Coors family, like the DeVos, Walton, and Koch families are notoriously racist, reactionary, and vehemently opposed to both public education and public sector unions (actually unions of any sort, for that matter).
Parent Organization Network is actually a component of the Los Angeles Multicultural Education Collaborative (LAMEC), which is funded by British Petroleum (BP). Lastly, Los Angeles Urban League (LAUL) takes money from Fox, Anschutz Entertainment Group, and Wal-Mart. LAUL's CEO Blair H. Taylor describes himself as an entrepreneur and often works with the Milken Institute — founded by junk bond felon Michael Milken — a right wing think tank that proudly boasts "For 20 years, the Milken Institute has used capital-market principles and financial innovations to address social and economic challenges."
A clear picture should be beginning to emerge. All of these so-called civil rights groups are right-leaning astroturf organizations funded by the same corporate backers of corporate school reform. School privatization propagandists pushing policy under the guise of civil rights is nothing new. The illustrious Brian Jones, of The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman fame, deals with this phenomenon in two powerful articles, Charter Schools and Civil Rights: What Kind of 'Movement' is This? and Using "civil rights" to sell charter schools.
What the report contains
It's really outside of the scope of this essay to discuss the entire contents of the "report," and would be overly ambitious to try to argue against each and every aspect of it. Pro-public education writers like Michael Dunn are already writing rebuttals to individual points in the report, and there's sure to be more to follow. That said, the report is rife with inane opinions, outright speculation, and neoliberal conclusions. There were a few things that really stood out on first blush, that I'd like to mention in passing here.
NCTQ mentions "significant teacher layoffs and furloughs" (page 1) but doesn't question why teachers are being laid off in unprecedented numbers. They just decry policies like seniority, tenure, and such since younger teachers are cheaper teachers. Meanwhile the budget crisis in California is a direct result of the lack of political will to tax the wealthy and corporations. Obviously a neoliberal organization like NCTQ would recommend a frontal attack on working class people like teachers as a solution for a crisis created by many of the NCTQ's funders. Here's a novel idea for the NCTQ, instead of removing all protections for public school teachers in the name of retaining younger ones, lets stop slashing education budgets and we can keep all good teachers.
The report is chock full of corporate and business jargon, apropos to the real audience it was written for. For example, a teacher's educational background is referred to as "academic capital" (page 12). I know it's hard for those that look down at all working class people as a means to profitability as anything other than commodities, but human beings are not capital. Such language belies the real motives and intentions of the NCTQ and those that intend to use the report to wage a scorched earth policy against public schools in Los Angeles.
It shamelessly plugs the reactionary and elitist Teach For America (TFA) program (page 13). You'd think the smug well heeled Ivy League product Wendy Kopp was on NCTQ's Advisory Board... oh, wait, she is.
The report lauds the highly discredited LA Times Value Added Method (VAM) (page 19), only mentioning that it was controversial to publish the data online. The National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder (which publishes peer reviewed papers) effectively put the VAM issue to rest, but right wing ideas seem to keep surfacing no matter how many times they are disproved. Perhaps NCTQ is suggesting that we "teach the controversy" with VAM, which is about as absurd as some of the other ideas from the fringe right. Turns out the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds those folks too.
Better still the report constantly quotes other, non-peer reviewed studies, published by none other than the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (pages 23 and 31). Is that some form of right wing corporate think tank nepotism? Given the utter lack of academic rigor by the NCTQ this isn't too surprising, but is the concept of transparency that foreign to these people? Are they that obtuse?
On page 34 the report talks about a lack of selectivity in teacher recruitment, going as far as to provide a table of the United States versus what are considered better performing counties while making no mention that low pay and constant disrespect, like that generated by the report itself, play a preponderant role in not attracting the top students from the most prestigious universities. NCTQ's reports will go a long way towards ensuring that situation is exacerbated. Not surprisingly, Finland, featured at the top of NCTQ's table does the opposite of all of the NCTQ's recommendations.
The report makes the bold assertion that "Research concludes that graduate coursework does not make teachers more effective," (page 38) which has now become a major theme in the corporate mainstream media. However, in very tiny print below their so-called "meta analysis" we find a fact they probably wanted to omit altogether: "The few studies that have shown a positive correlation between a teacher's degree status and student achievement are when teachers complete a degree in the subject they teach; the finding is particularly striking for mathematics degrees." You can be sure that the corporate reformers and the press will ignore that with extreme prejudice. Hopefully someone will have time to research whether the studies they cite in their "meta analysis" are actual peer reviewed academic studies, or like the NCTQ report, are just more propagandistic sensationalism.
Funding and aims
A recent Los Angeles piece on the NCTQ "report" said:
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa strongly backs suggestions in the report, whose research was paid for largely with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In a word, that statement sums up the entire situation — this will get complicated, but here goes:
A report is commissioned by both the United Way, who is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and several other school privatization groups posing as civil rights champions, who also happen to be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The non-peer reviewed report on LAUSD is paid for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. NCTQ is the right of center think tank that created the report, and they are not only funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Director of US Program Policy and Advocacy Stefanie Sanford sits on the NCTQ's advisory board. The report's ultimate aim is to enable the LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy, a former executive with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to rationalize and justify an all out war on our public schools, the hard working teachers therein, and the working class organizations that provide them a modicum of protections. Do we see a pattern here? Could the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation be any more heavy handed?
Furthermore, we see Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine in its full glory here, with the neoliberal enemies of public education seizing on the manufactured budget crisis to destroy the last vestiges of the public commons. Note the timing on this "report," just before summer break, right before United Teachers of Los Angeles' contract renewal. The timing is the only thing more cynical than the specious and vapid report itself.
Despite all this, we that believe in public education must to continue to fight. Please spread the message of this essay far and wide, but remember that speaking truth to power alone will not save public schools. We have to organize on a community level to combat the overwhelming resources the privatizers bring to bear. Only through struggle can those of us that embrace social justice overcome the corporate yoke of neoliberalism. In the battle between communities versus corporations one must choose a side, like the prophet Paulo Freire said "Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral."