"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, January 16, 2012

The trouble with Alexander Russo

The irony is that Russo suggests we critics have been successful because WE are coordinating ourselves! And the "reformers" ought to do the same! We are seeing the most coordinated, sustained and systematic campaign ever mounted in public education. Once again, if you have not done so yet, watch the video in which Stand For Children CEO Jonah Edelman drops the veil and reveals exactly how his group coordinated with other non-profits, with the Chamber of Commerce and major newspapers in Illinois to gain clout. But Russo slyly suggests that somehow those of us crying foul are the ones doing the coordinating. I think there is a term in magic for this - misdirection. — Anthony Cody

Photo courtesy of Last Stand for Children First: Education Blogger Wins Arthur Reynolds Award
Photo courtesy of LS4C1.
Over the holiday break Beltway insider Alexander Russo launched a broadside against activists, community members, and educators standing up to the corporate education reform juggernaut. His piece, Media: Reform Opponents Are Winning Online (For Now), was a heavy handed cheap shot in the guise of a compliment. Rather than dedicate too much space responding directly to Russo's piece, please see the following responses:

Russo's underhanded dig is followed up with his suggestion that billionaire funded astroturf groups like StudentsFirst, Stand For Children, and TeachPlus have the potential to correct what he perceives as an "imbalance." For Russo, the corporate education reform astroturf need to step up and post comments under articles, use twitter, blog, and avail themselves of social media. It simply isn't enough to be funded by the likes of the wealthiest one percent including names like Walton, DeVos, Broad, Bradley, Gates, Koch, Hastings, Dell, Powell-Jobs, Scaife, Tilson, et al. It's not enough to have the unwavering support of a bipartisan neoliberal consensus at every level of government including the most anti-public education administration and Department of Education of all time. It isn't sufficient to have the unquestioning editorial support of every mainstream media outlet—not to mention Rupert Murdoch's vast propaganda empire—all of which spew a nonstop stream of privatization propaganda with nary a dissenting note. This last point is of paramount importance, since it's often forgotten that outside the realm of privilege that has regular access to the Internet, there's a majority that obtains their information from more traditional sources.

This means that there are broad swaths of society that are only exposed to what Professor Diane Ravitch calls "the dominant narrative" in regards to education policy. Bearing testament to the sage philosophers who declared "the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas," we see this one-sided dominant narrative played out both everywhere and in the absurd. This is why Oprah can declare child abuser Michelle Rhee a "Warrior Woman" despite Rhee's abject failures in D.C. It's how the reactionary Jim Newton, Editor-at-large of the dubious Los Angeles Times can:

cast an all African American CUSD Board as "civil rights villains" and then speak of the wealthy white Ben Austin, and his right wing charter school trade association as heroes for hoodwinking parents into handing a community school over to the vile Vielka McFarlane

without batting an eyelash. It's how supposed liberal darling Davis Guggenheim had no qualms taking money from both arch-reactionary Philip Anschutz and right leaning libertarian Bill Gates [1] to fabricate a privatization propaganda film so mendacious and malevolent that celebrated education historian Diane Ravitch called it a "a pernicious movie."

Indeed, this dominent narrative is so pervasive, that it's almost unconscionable that Russo would suggest that his fellow proponents of neoliberalism should see themselves as plucky Davids against a chimerical Goliath consisting of a ragtag group of educators, activists, and community organizers.

It would be easy to dismiss Russo's screed as mere bombast, but it goes much deeper than that. Russo, despite his churlish claim that he was "not taking sides" [2], has always served as a mouthpiece for the policies and ideas of the powerful. When I and several PESJA colleagues were a little more pointed in our criticisms of Russo on Twitter, he took exception. Speaking only for my interactions, Russo accused me of misplaced anger (there's anger, but it isn't misplaced). When I reminded him of his continual kowtowing to power he wrote "you obviously don't read my blog or know my views the labels dont fit." Russo's assertion (much to my chagrin) is patently false, not only do I occasionally read his blog, I periodically post comments there. I've also written about Russo before, but we'll get back to both of those things in a bit.

Anthony Cody makes a very important observation:

the online debate is rather meaningless if the real decisions about our schools continue to be made based on misinformation, bribery and political gamesmanship. I believe the online debate has been deliberately ignored by the corporate reform sector, as they see it as a battle they can well afford to lose, given the access to real power their funds buy them.

The Cody quote reminded me of when I was at a talk by author and activist Paul D'Amato and he made the following remark about the phrase speaking truth to power: "The problem is that power already knows the truth, they just don't care because they're power." That sums up much of the so-called education debate, but I want to mention one of the more insidious aspects of the concept that there's an actual "debate" over corporate education reform.

Russo and his ilk use the word "debate" to imply there are two sides possessing ideas of equal validity and equal promulgation, and that the best ideas will rise to the top, a rehash of the vacuous "marketplace of ideas" concept. As noted above, the corporate education reform behemoth has unlimited outlets to promote their ideas even when they know they're wrong. If recent history has shown us anything, it's that if you repeat a wrong idea enough, a sufficient amount of people will believe it. [3] The aforementioned quote from the The German Ideology reminds us that the ruling class will use every means at its disposal to ensure their ideas are the dominent ideas. Russo is right that there's an imbalance, but he is utterly duplicitous to suggest that it's in favor of public school advocates.

Couple the fact that the amplification of ruling class ideas is unmatched with the oft suggested concept that all ideas have equal validity. Even a cursory look at this proves it untrue. There's plenty of "ideas" propping up bigotry, racism, sexism and homophobia, but that doesn't make them valid or worth debate. If there really was a marketplace of ideas where ideas were judged solely on their merit, such ideas would have died long ago. Instead they persist because they serve the needs of the ruling class that in turn relentlessly perpetuates them. This is equally true of the ideas proffered by the corporate education reform industry and the nonprofit industrial complex pushing neoliberalism on the last of the public commons. Bad ideas are passed off as solutions and the shoddiest ideas are packaged up in policy papers and passed off as research and studies. While this topic deserves far more space, see my recent NCTQ essay for an example of how reformers publish information that can only charitably be called "biased and dishonest."

Ultimately Russo does a great disservice to suggest that not only do the reformers hold valid ideas, but that they are somehow not being heard, or that there's, in his words, an "imbalance." Why would Russo, who portrays himself as a neutral education blogger, side with the powerful?

Revenue for the second quarter was $685.3 million, up 3% from $667.9 million a year ago. Earnings per diluted share from continuing operations were $2.62, including one-time, mostly non-cash expenses of $0.21 per diluted share related to cost reduction actions. These results compared favorably to earnings per diluted share from continuing operations of $2.20 in the prior year period. Improved profits reflected higher sales of educational technology and services, children's books and ebooks, and classroom and supplemental educational materials. Consolidated earnings per diluted share were $2.60 in the quarter compared to $2.14 a year ago. [4]

The above quote is from Scholastic Inc., which is the huge corporation Russo writes for. Scholastic, like Pearson, McGraw Hill, Harcourt, and Kaplan, stands to profit far more from policies that corporate reformers push, especially the racket surrounding standardized testing and preparation thereof, but also scripted curriculums. [5] To be sure Russo would probably deny his writing is influenced or biased by his relationship with Scholastic. I'll leave it to the reader to determine that for themselves.

Getting back to my past interactions with Russo, let's start with Russo's recent book Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors. While I've only read excerpts, I wasn't impressed with the pro Green Dot narrative, although it's marginally less of a cheerleading job than Russo usually performs for the lucrative charter sector. Moreover, there's no mention in Russo's work of the possible payola scandal in which Locke principal Frank Wells was promised a well paying "consulting" job with Green Dot if he provided material assistance in the hostile takeover of the school. Russo is cloying and obsequious when discussing Green Dot, and his exaggerated reports of the supposed Locke "turnaround" leave out the fact that given the tremendous resources poured into the project, using the word turnaround is sardonic at best. I address this in Millionaires, Mendaciousness, and Miserable English Scores: the false Locke success story. I would also posit that, as in the case of Richard Whitmire's schoolboy-like crush on a thoroughly discredited D.C. Superintendent which turned into a lackluster book, Russo's book sales are tied into his maintaining that his subject has a modicum of credibility.

During the twitter skirmishes that follow his post, Russo took exception to the following tweet by PESJA:

"The preponderance of @alexanderrusso's writing finds him providing cover for privatization minded plutocrats, reactionaries, and profiteers."

Yet this is precisely what Russo does. A perfect example is his essay Philanthropy: The Myth Of The All-Powerful Billionaires which stakes out a stalwart defense of plutocracy that would make even the most servile sycophant to power blush. Here are a few quotes from his dubious work:

Nor do I really believe that the richest people in America have free rein to impose any extreme or cockamamie idea they feel like on American schoolchildren.

Most of all, I don't believe that there is something inherently sinister, or malicious, or even all that new about philanthropic involvement in public education -- or all that much better about public, for-profit, or nonprofit involvement. The fat cats are easy targets, convenient scapegoats, excellent distractions...

Near the end of his article Russo takes a nasty swipe at the distinguished Joanne Barkan, whose Got Dough? How Billionaires Rule Our Schools is perhaps the most cogent and well known work exploring how the plutocrat class operates in the education arena. Russo goes as far as to suggest that Barkin peddles "conspiracy theory" and that her denial of that is "disingenuous." This brazen assault on Barken's character comes from a man so thin-skinned that he responded PESJA's mild criticisms by saying: "obviously i was wrong to even bother engaging you with you. all you want to do is attack people. bye!"

In another Russo piece he tries to piggyback on Dana Goldstein wrongheaded Why Not Occupy The Schools? When time permits, I will dismantle Goldstein's subpar essay, especially the imbecilic turn of phrase "meritocratic innovation." [6] More importantly, both Goldstein and Russo, in their rush to try and draw a distinction between the one percent pushing school privatization policies and the Wall Street bail out recipients that tanked the world economy, forget that one of the key players in the former is also one of the latter. In a recent exchange with the derisive Lynne Varner I discussed who this is:

...Eli Broad who received hundreds of millions in TARP bailout funds for his preferred shares of AIG. As you must know, Broad's foundation is just a complicit in the privatization of public education as the Gates Foundation. In one of the most disturbing ironies of our time, Broad now uses those bailout funds to wage war on the remains of the public commons.

Fenwick English, in a manuscript endorsed by the National Council of Professors of Educational Administration (NCPEA) Publications, cited Eli Broad as the top neoliberal offender on his The ten most wanted list of enemies of public education leadership. [7] To pretend that there's any diference between the criminals that the Occupy Movements protest and the neoliberal cabal destroying public education is to create a false dichotomy and a false narrative. Indeed, they are one and the same. The ruling class certainly isn't entirely homogeneous, but they do have a committee managing their common affairs called the state, and they do tend to stick together when the perceive their interests are threatened.

OccupyLAUSD Now is the Time! Social justice author Robert D. Skeels protests with OccupyLAUSD at the Beaudry Building.Additionally, it's somewhat disingenuous for Russo and Goldstein to speak on behalf of the occupy movements. I can't speak for the entire movement either, but at the very least I was one of the organizers of OccupyLAUSD and spent several nights camping for education justice in front of the Beaudry LAUSD headquarters, not to mention being interviewed on the day OccupyLAUSD started as an offshoot of OccupyLA. I think I might have a little better idea of what occupy is about than apologists for neoliberal mechanizations in education. Russo's asinine statement "reform opponents need to make sure not to discredit themselves by trying to turn Democratic-funded philanthropies and well-intended nonprofit CMOs into Wall Street or heartless corporations" is as vapid and vacuous as it gets. They are Wall Street and heartless corporations!

Lastly I want to turn to an exchange I had with Russo in November of 2011. Russo had written a vicious diatribe against Professor Diane Ravitch so mean-spirited, it made my sharpest polemics look like eulogies. Even the title of Russo's piece, Diane Ravitch's Reform Vilification Industry, is offensive in the extreme. After a tangent dig at Michael Moore, Russo has the unmitigated gall to suggest:

Ravitch's description of NCLB's impact and destructiveness (closings, firings, charter conversions, etc.) is exaggerated and unsupported by data. She also vastly overestimates the power, coordination, and reach of all the reform groups, which suits her purposes in terms of creating a straw man but is also unsupported by the facts and does little to inform readers about what's really going on.

Each of these assertions are false, but it's interesting how Russo, adept like no other at devising straw men, projects that onto Dr. Ravitch. My response to Russo was:

How wonderfully reactionary and expected of you Mr. Russo. Are you sure you didn't mean to say "the world doesn't need another "it's-all-about-me" Michelle Rhee," or is anyone defending the working class from your plutocrat buddies a target for your biting invective.

You always rail against anyone standing up for public education, but you really outdo yourself when you lash out against the most celebrated experts on education of our era.

You make it a point to say Dr. Ravitch's various assertions are "unsupported" by "data" and "facts." How so? I write alongside and correspond with several of the top education researchers and experts in the world. None of the so-called reforms that you and the plutocrats you gush about favor, is supported by any legitimate peer reviewed research that I'm aware of. It is you sir, that is devoid of data and facts.

Professor Ravitch sent me a private note on twitter thanking me for standing up to Russo, and while I was honored, there's more at stake here than just defending individuals. All of us that have seen the brutal effects of neoliberalism (structural adjustments) played out in South and Central America via the International Money Fund and The World Bank at the behest of the Washington Consensus know that we are fighting for our very lives. Ask a Bolivian peasant or Oaxacan schoolteacher if our struggle against neoliberalism is a product of paranoia or conspiracy theory.

In an interesting irony, Russo commented back:

from ed sector's elena silver to regular contributor john thompson on the same subject:

"You can try to lump us all into one scary camp of accountability hawk reformers who are bent on launching an educational civil war, but you can't make it true. More importantly, I'm not sure how it helps the cause of improving public education to do so."


Dr. John Thompson is a common acquaintance of Russo's and mine, and we both feature Thompson's guest posts. My correspondence with Thompson started when I commented on one of his essays about the President's education policies and he didn't take exception to my sharp criticisms of the Administration. We've been corresponding ever since, and he even shared an email with me the other day he received from the late great Gerald Bracey on the day he passed. Thompson said it was Professor Jim Horn's recent repost of one of Bracey's works that prompted him to dig up the email. Thompson seems to get along well with Russo, so I'm sure he's not a bad guy in person. It's Russo's politics that I despise.

Back to the irony of Russo's response. I had already responded to Elena Silver's (as had Thompson) piece before I knew Russo had responded to me. My response to Silver works perfectly here:

Dr. Thompson is being far too kind.

Education Sector is widely known as a mouthpiece for the most reactionary anti-public education ideologies. Writing for them and then disavowing allegiance with the "camp of accountability hawk reformers" is disingenuous at best.

Working with a privatization minded right-wing think [tank], by definition, puts you precisely in the camp you claim you're not in, even if just by being there you give cover to the Chubbs, Hesses, and Hanusheks.

My admonishment of Elena Silver extends equally to Alexander Russo. If you provide cover for or are an apologist for the "scary camp of accountability hawk reformers," then you merit the dubious distinction of being "lumped" in with them.

The ascendancy of neoliberal corporate culture into every aspect of American life both consolidates economic power in the hands of the few and aggressively attempts to break the power of unions, decouple income from productivity, subordinate the needs of society to the market, and deem public services and goods an unconscionable luxury. But it does more. It thrives on a culture of cynicism, insecurity, and despair. [8] — Henry Giroux

[1] Both Anschutz and Gates donate money to the fringe right Discovery Institute. While Anschutz funds a host of other extremist organizations like the Institute for American Values, Gates is no slouch in this regard either, pouring cash into the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

[2] PURE's Julie Woestehoff's response to Russo on this gets to the heart of the matter. She says 'You can't claim you're "not taking sides" when you call one side of the debate "reform opponents" and "reform critics." Deb Meier correctly comments about your "reformy types" that "they have the daily regular media as their constant blog site."'

Confer Woestehoff with Paulo Freire's ‎"Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. "

[3] Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq.

[4] Scholastic Reports Fiscal 2012 Second Quarter Results see all of their lucrative income derived increasing from corporate reforms.

[5] Think also Common Core Curriculum.

[6] We've discussed Dana Goldstein here before in Dana Goldstein "Hearts" Yellow Unions and Company Crafted Contracts. In the piece I write "Goldstein, while not as deceptive or reactionary as Matt Ygelsias, nonetheless provides a progressive veneer to reactionary right wing education policies espoused by nefarious organizations like the billionaire funded Democrats for Education Reform and Communities for Teaching Excellence."

[7] English, Fenwick. The Ten Most Wanted Enemies of American Public Education's School Leadership. Connexions. 8 Nov. 2010 <http://cnx.org/content/m34684/1.4/>.

[8] Quoted in ibid. Giroux, Henry A. The Terror of Neoliberalism. Paradigm Publishers. 2004. (p. 105).


  1. Delasandro1:38 PM

    Impressive polemic, comrade Skeels. You've certainly drawn a clear line of demarcation between yourself and the right-opportunist, renegade Russo. Some may call it, a long, academic sounding, dogmatic screed (complete with 8 footnotes). But I say to hell with these critics. Push onward until you have cleared the decks of all conciliating bloggers, tweeters, and all their running dogs.

    1. How deliciously snarky of you Delasandro1. At any rate your anonymous comment shows all the "courage" of Russo when he is savaging public school defenders.