Friday, June 26, 2015

Gay Marriage Decision

As a former teacher (and now openly-liberal gentleman), I would like to comment on the U. S. Supreme Court decision today.

First, the Declaration of Independence is clear: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

It has taken much time to bring principle and practice into line—to end slavery in 1865, to determine that “men” includes both sexes and grant females the vote in 1920, and now to allow gays and lesbians to marry.

I think it was Justice Hugo Black who once explained his position in regard to the Bill of Rights this way: “Your rights end where the other person’s nose begins.” So: if gays and lesbians marry, my marriage is not harmed.

My nose is in no way bloodied.

As for Justice Thomas, one of the four members of the Supreme Court in the minority, I wonder that he did not recall a time in 1967, when his very own marriage (to a white woman) would have been illegal and criminal in many states.

(Anti-miscegenation laws were overturned that year, in Loving v. Virginia.)

Who, with even a rudimentary understanding of the U. S. Constitution, would uphold such laws today?

Nor is the decision today to be construed as an attack on freedom of religion, I don’t think. All good people of faith may still attend the churches of their choice. They may take communion as they wish. They may study the Bible, Koran or Torah as they please.

So should it be.

If some preacher wants to warn his congregation that the Sodomites are now irrevocably bound for Hell, that’s freedom of religion, too. If some ministers, priests or rabbis don’t want to marry gay couples, that is still a protected decision—and if it were ever to be taken as far as the U. S. Supreme Court, I would bet that the right to refuse would be protected by a 9-0 vote.

There are, however, limits to all rights, including freedom of religion. An old-fashioned Christian, Muslim or Jew, for example, could not say, “We claim the right the right to stone adulterers who belong to our church, temple or mosque.”

Freedom of religion and personal liberty do not always perfectly correspond.

That’s my thinking, anyway. And to all, I say, have a nice day.



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Essense of Corporate Education: Greed and more Greed

Some of America’s greatest “school reformers” today (and by that I mean arrogant *&%$# like Bill Gates) insist that if we turn over the schools to corporations everything will turn out just great.

Color me skeptical, I guess.

As I see it, “corporate” is to “education” as “cigarette manufacturer” is to “public health and well-being.”

Think that sounds harsh? Do a bit of digging and see what evidence you find. The latest comes from the June 15 edition of the Columbus Dispatch. Administrators at General Chappie James Leadership Academy, a pile-up-the-bucks charter school in Dayton, Ohio, are under investigation for inflating student attendance numbers to suck up taxpayers’ dollars.

State Auditor Dave Yost decided last spring that it might be wiseto check attendance numbers for charter schools and see what he could find.

Chappie James was reporting an enrollment of 459 students. So investigators started checking the details. One mother said her child couldn’t have been in attendance because said child had been incarcerated for the last two years. 

Okay: only 458 students to go. 

Another family said, no, our girl hasn’t been attending Chappie James, either. We’ve been living in Georgia for several years.

(Feel free to start singing: “Four hundred, fifty-seven students enrolled in a charter, four hundred fifty-seven enrolled….”)

Yost kept prying up rocks and looking underneath—and it turned out half of purported students had no enrollment documentation at all. Daily attendance at General Chappie James Leadership Academy averaged…um….well …roughly 30.

(Okay, that song went unexpectedly fast: “Thirty students actually, physically enrolled in a charter, thirty students enrolled….”)

In any case, the state auditor’s office did a little adding and subtracting and determined that Kecia Williams, former director of the school, probably owed the State of Ohio a cool $1.2 million.

In the wake of the auditor’s investigation the Department of Education moved to ban “Kids Count of Dayton,” the most ironically named corporate entity one could imagine—which sponsored the offending school—from opening up new facilities anywhere in Ohio.

It would be bad enough if this was an aberration. Sadly, it was not. Typically, charter schools receive $6,000 per pupil from the State of Ohio annually.

So, the more students you say you enroll, the more money you end up stuffing in your ample corporate pockets.

The Dispatch explains:

Last fall, an investigation by Yost’s office found significantly lower attendance in half [emphasis added] of the 30 schools where auditors conducted unannounced head counts than enrollment data the schools had reported to the state…Yost also has complained about a number of charter schools with such poorly-kept records that they cannot be audited.

In other words, with stunning regularity, corporate education boiled down to one simple word. And that word was: Greed.

Why is anyone really surprised?

Many of us have written, for example, about the giant cesspool that is the for-profit college industry. It’s a great gig, after all, when five top executives of Corinthian College can pull down $22 million in salary over a two-year stretch—at the same time saddling students with high-interest loans—providing low-quality course offerings—and finally going bankrupt this spring.

HoHowHow about the five top executives at K-12, Inc., a for-profit chain of elementary and secondary online schools? They divvied up a cool $35.4 million in salaries and bonuses in 2013 and 2014.

For fun, put that in kid-centric terms. 

Those five individuals took home enough cash to hire 354 teachers (at $50,000 each), for two years to actually work with kids in grades K-12.

Greed is good, isn’t that right?

We know that Pearson spent $8 million between 2009 and 2014 to lobby politicians, mainly to ensure that the company might keep selling billions of dollars’ worth of standardized tests every year.

We know, here in Ohio, that David Brennan, operator of White Hat Schools, donated $3.8 million dollars to politicians over the course of eight years—know, in turn, that Brennan rakes in tens of millions of dollars in state aid yearly for his for-profit K-12 chain.

We don’t know how much money sticks to Brennan’s hands, however, because White Hat Schools are a privately held corporation and salaries need not be disclosed.

We do know that many White Hat Schools have attendance rates less than half reported enrollment.

Don’t believe greed serves as foundation in the corporate education world? Google “charter school operator indicted” for fun.

You get Steven Ingersoll, an optometrist, who ran a chain of Michigan charter schools. His federal indictment says he “diverted $934,000…through several channels into his personal bank account.”

You get the Los Angeles charter operator indicted on more than two dozen felony charges. On expense accounts, he managed to bill his school for the $995 cost of a seminar on “how to limit your personal tax bill,” and another $12.99 for a Speedo swimsuit. Not to mention the fact he and his wife took out a ten-year lease on a building to house the school ($18,000 monthly) and then turned around and sublet the property to the charter for…$44,000 a month.

So much cash to grab! 

So little time!

You had the Chicago charter outfit charged with securities fraud.

You had the guilty plea involving a Cleveland, Ohio charter operation, involving $1.8 million in fraud, including $331,000 paid by the school for services rendered to a Dayton, Ohio bar owner.

And then you have my favorite story for now, which carries the headline: F.B.I Tracks Charter Schools.

Go ahead, Google away yourself. You’ll find endless examples to tickle your fancy. But let’s end with perhaps the biggest scam of all. Let’s hear it for the University of Phoenix, a money-making juggernaut, a company so successful at piling up $$$$ it was able to pay the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL $154.5 million for naming rights to their stadium! Good advertising? Sure! Too bad the school had to pay a fine of $67.5 million, plus $11 million in legal fees, for defrauding students! 

Too bad a U. S. Senate investigation showed the school spent a mere $892 per pupil each year to actually educate students.

Hey, not to worry! Company founder John G. Sperling raked in $263.5 million in a little less than a decade in salary, bonuses and stock sales. And his son, Peter, did better still: $574.3 million.

See?


We already know how corporate education is meant to work. We know, in the end, it boils down to greed.


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Corporate Education: What Did You Expect?

In a dark alley, somewhere, a recruiter from a for-profit college bends over the prostrate form of a homeless man. “Hey, want to earn a college diploma quick?” he says, nudging the sleepy form with his shoe.

“It won’t cost much. And you’ll end up with a high-paying job!”

If that sounds absurd, you underestimate the level to which for-profit colleges have sunk in recent years.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. There was a time when leading voices in school reform assured us bringing “business methods” to education could only lead to good.

How, in theory, would learning be enhanced once corporations took control? Corporations would bring “business efficiency” to operations. They would break teachers’ unions, which reformers insisted blocked their “great plans” to fix the schools. (School reformers never admit that the problem might not be unions. It might be their stupid plans.) Corporate schools would “chart data,” and use this “invaluable” info to prove what works in schools and what doesn’t, and what doesn’t would be ruthlessly stamped out. After all, businesses cared only to produce a “better product.” The chance to profit by supplying the demands for knowledge of happy consumers would drive “innovation” in education.

It was going to be….so….great! We simply had to place the fate of our imaginative kindergartners, excited elementary kids, questing teens, and dreaming college students in kindly money-making hands.

Only, it turned out that in the world of corporate education one word stood in the way of success for the children.

And that word was “Mammon.”

If you don’t realize what happened once corporations got their profit-making foot in the classroom door, the recent implosion of Corinthian Colleges provides a clear view of a grim reality.

Founded in 1995, Corinthian enjoyed phenomenal growth for the next fifteen years, as the for-profit model came into vogue. (I mean: what could go wrong with hedge fund managers starting up schools—and five top executives of K-12, Inc. dividing up $34 million in pay and bonuses in just the last two years!) Between 2001 and 2010, enrollment at schools like Corinthian, Kaplan, and the University of Phoenix ballooned. There were 550,000 students enrolled in 2001. By the end of the decade there were 1.8 million. Best of all, for those who ran for-profits, revenue multiplied like five loaves and two fishes. 

Only Jesus wasn’t around to make them share the food.

The schools were soon raking in $32 billion annually, most of that pile of cash coming from the 86% of undergraduates who had to borrow to pay tuition, often signing up for usurious high-interest loans.


Corinthian alone could boast $1.76 billion in revenue in 2010; $1.46 billion of that total paid for by federal loans.

Who gained in the process?

Stock prices for Corinthian (COCO) rose steadily between 1999 and 2004, hitting a high of $61.04 a share in May 2004.The stock then split; but a year later began to slide. A number of court judgements soon tarnished the Corinthian brand, with students claiming they were victims of fraud.

Still, business, as they say, was good. As late as 2010, Corinthian could boast a profit of $241 million.

That year, the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee opened an investigation into company practices, also looking at fourteen other leading for-profit institutions. The committee found that salaries for Corinthian executives were generous indeed:



 With the Senate turning over an assortment of large fiscal stones, and enrollment going into decline as a result, it soon seemed clear Corinthian’s recruiting practices (including targeting the homeless), false claims of job placement success, false assertions regarding graduates’ earnings, and other shady dealings, might not withstand scrutiny. In 2011, one financial advisor was already warning that Corinthian stock might fall to zero. It did indeed plunge: to 22¢ cents in July 2014, to a penny by spring 2015.

By then, top executives had cashed out and carted away wheelbarrows filled with money. In fact, even as the march to bankruptcy accelerated, five executives continued to pocket the dough. In July 2014, The New York Times could report that in 2011, 2012 and 2013, they divvied up $12.5 million in salary and bonuses between them.

In the end, it turned out Corinthian was led not by educators but greedy pirates whose commitment to learning involved dropping the “l,” and focusing on the remainder.

Well, then: What went wrong at schools like Corinthian? 

And why is anyone surprised?

First, the for-profits employed high-pressure tactics to recruit students, often sucking in single mothers anxious to provide better lives for their children, duping the down and out, pedaling a dream to the uneducated, of easy access to a college education and a high-paying job to come. Certainly, Corinthian didn’t mess around. The school employed 2,811 full-time recruiters, whose only job, it turned out, was to lure spiders into a green web.

On average, the Senate found, the fifteen publicly traded for-profits devoted almost one out of every four dollars in revenue to marketing and recruiting, what other kinds of businesses might call pimping. Corinthian methods were more or less typical, with “$3,969 per student [spent] on instruction in 2009, compared to $2,465 on marketing and $998 on profit.”

What made the situation worse was the fact many students were woefully prepared for college—the reality that for-profits weren’t all that worried about helping when they fell behind. So long as they paid their bills, usually taking out loans at obscene interest rates, the corporate folks were content.  

Of course, paying executives millions and hiring all those recruiters isn't cheap. So, Corinthian charged exorbitant fees. According to Senate investigators, Heald College, a Corinthian branch in Fresno, California, billed for $22,275 if a student enrolled in a program to earn a diploma as a “medical assistant.” Fresno City College, a public institution nearby, enrolled students in a similar program for $1,650.

Corinthian even shafted veterans. From 2009 to 2011, “Corinthian collected an average of $12,885 per veteran, compared to an average of $4,642 per veteran trained at a public college in the same period.”

Fortunately, state and federal investigators began pulling on loose threads and the whole tapestry began to unravel. The State of California reached a court settlement in 2007 with Corinthian, “after establishing evidence that the company deliberately and persistently misled prospective students about the schools’ placement rates.”

Every single program examined by officials inflated placement numbers, some by “as much as 37 percent. For most programs, only a third to a half of students [who graduated] obtained employment.”

(And only about a third graduated to begin.)

The situation at Everest College campuses in Texas might have been merely absurd, had the results not been tragic. The Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee report explained:
[Administrators]…falsified the employment records of 288 graduates over four years. Of those graduates, 176 allegedly worked for a business that had been created by a friend of the school’s career services director; this business did not have any actual employees. The other 119 graduates were said to be working for a company that only employed a total of seven Everest College students.

(In the same way, a report in the Prescott, Arizona Daily Courier, in April 2015, noted that Corinthian administrators reporting a student had found gainful employment in her chosen field of accounting, even though they knew she was still working at Taco Bell.)

With mounting evidence of fraud and abuse, the U. S. Department of Education began to crack down on for-profits. The percentage of funding that might come from federal sources was capped, for example. So the buccaneers of for-profit learning had to do some serious tap-dancing.

Corinthian now created a “Genesis loan program” and put $65 million worth of its own profit to work, charging new students “an average interest rate of 14.8 percent, with some…paying as much as 18 percent.”

A second loan plan called for an additional $450 million to be lent to students and carried interest rates between 11.9 and 17.9 percent.

All the while, students were dropping out at phenomenal rates, and defaulting on loans. But these loans, almost all backed by the federal government, could not be wiped out even if students filed for bankruptcy.

Knowing a government crackdown was growing ever more likely, Corinthian began hiring more people. But these new employees weren’t career counselors or professors. Their job was to contact students behind in their payments, but not yet in default. Thirty workers went door to door, contacting former students. One internal document, revealed during the Senate investigation, found that students in “late stages of delinquency” could be contacted up to 110 times per month.

One might to call it “for-profit harassment.”

Why were so many students defaulting? Part of the problem stemmed from the for-profit penchant for enrolling students unprepared to do college-level work. In 2014, an Everest College librarian abruptly resigned after she found herself trying to help a 37-year-old student, with big dreams of completing a program and going on to a career in law enforcement. The librarian, Laurie McConnell, could see no way he’d ever qualify for such a post.

He read at the third grade level.

A second problem, and a glaring one, was that so many courses Corinthian and others offered, in particular online classes, were of dubious quality to begin. According to a 2011 report released by the Government Accountability Office, standards at Corinthian and other for-profits were ridiculously weak. First, investigators posing as students found that twelve of fifteen commercial colleges, including the five biggest, accepted fake high school diplomas without bothering to check, including diplomas from high schools that had long since ceased to exist.  

The for-profits claimed their model allowed students to enroll in online classes and proceed at their own pace. GAO agents discovered that the commercial colleges were indeed highly accommodating when measuring pace and assessing work. Sometimes, the faux students purposely did the wrong assignments.

They passed with flying colors.

Let’s try turning in plagiarized material and see what happens, the GAO said. Hey, the agents got A’s. One investigator even included a link to the plagiarized article he used in his assignment.

Well, then, GAO investigators wondered, what would happen if we don’t turn in anything and don’t bother to log in and actually take the class? In a for-profit world the paying customer still received A’s. 

Maybe the for-profit educators were hoping to spur creativity! One “student” in a class called Learning Strategies and Techniques, required for an associate degree in business (too ironic to require comment), turned in pictures of political figures and celebrities in response to essay questions and ignored online chats that were part of the class. The creative scholar passed regardless.
 

At another college a student got an “A” on an assignment he never turned in (apparently he was taking a class called “Profit Magic 101”). 
 

In another egregious case a “professor” copied and pasted the same comments for multiple students submitting multiple assignments. And that feedback read:

Remember that you must response to entire of the main question as well as two responses to other people’s posts. As we learn from each other responses to the course material. Please let me know if there is any assistance I can provide to assist you in succeeding in the course next discussion.

Yeah, good stuff, professor. Good stuff!

It wasn’t just Corinthian, though, and the first for-profit chickens began coming home to roost. In 2005 six Oregon students sued for-profit Business Computer Training Institute (BCTI).

According to The Oregonian, “The lawsuits accused BCTI of fraud and unfair business practices, saying it lured students with inflated job-placement claims but failed to provide the education it promised.”

The case dragged on until 2009, with plaintiffs finally winning a $3.2 million judgment against the school.

But this wasn’t BCTI’s only trip to court. In 2007, after the school collapsed in the face of regulatory pressure, “insurers agreed to pay $13.25 million to settle claims of fraud by students in Washington State, where BCTI was based and operated five campuses. More than 1,300 former students received $8,000 [each] as part of that settlement…though that amount did not cover all outstanding loans.” 

Of course it didn’t. 

Still, what could defrauded students do? The bandits had absconded with the cash. So, people like Christy Jarvis, 28, were stuck with high-interest loans and worthless diplomas.

Or no diplomas at all. 

“I still owe more than $7,000 to [the] U.S. Department of Education,” Jarvis told a reporter at the time. “I’ve been paying for eight years.”

Across the nation, signs of trouble were multiplying. In 2008 a court settlement required the University of Phoenix, owned by the Apollo Group, to pay stockholders $280 million after misleading investors about its own high-pressure recruiting practices—paying counselors solely on the basis of students recruited, not students who succeeded in class.

Investigators charged that University of Phoenix had “created a boiler-room atmosphere, in which hitting an enrollment quota was [the] highest priority. Recruiters who failed to bring in enough students were put through disciplinary processes and sometimes terminated.” The company was forced to pay a $67.5 million judgment and $11 million in legal fees to settle a whistleblower suit, but profits still piled high.

This profitability probably had something to do with the fact the University of Phoenix devoted a mere $892 to instruction per pupil, per year—vs. $3,300 to $11,100 at comparable public institutions.

It might be true that the quality of education provided was suspect, but salaries of Apollo Group executives met the very highest standards of avarice. Vice Chairman Peter Sperling collected $574.3 million in salary, bonuses, and stock during a seven-year period. John G. Sperling, the company founder, received $263.5 million during that same time.

Leaders of other profits weren’t exactly hurting. Robert B. Knutson, for example, the head of Education Management Corporation (EDMC), banked a cool $132.4 million.

Defenders of this education model might have insisted that such compensation was good, because (for a time) stockholders did well. Yet, in their wake the for-profits stranded hundreds of thousands of students, left them without degrees, or holding worthless diplomas, stuck with huge loans.

Typically:
Jolene Daly, who lives in Turlock, California, borrowed $54,000 to pay for her bachelor’s degree from the University of Phoenix. She now works as a barista at a Starbucks Corp. coffee shop, making $8.94 an hour. Apollo should spend less on its executives and more on its instructors, who were poorly qualified and unprepared for courses, she said.
“It’s nice to know that that’s what I was paying for, because it certainly wasn’t the courses,” Daly said in a telephone interview. “It’s kind of infuriating.”

There were thousands of stories like these—each a tragedy in itself for some young man or woman. One victim was Brittany Prock, a Texas girl, who long dreamed of becoming a detective and saw the chance when she signed up for online classes at Everest College. False dreams, indeed! 

When Prock graduated in 2010 she had one job offer, from a janitorial service, no support whatsoever from the school in her job hunt, and $83,542 in federal loans.

Another victim was Hannah Benbow, a young woman saddled with $120,000 in high-interest tuition loans for classes at the Art Institute of Washington, in Arlington, Virginia, a branch of EDMC.

(EDMC is today the target of a whistleblower lawsuit filed by former school officers, who claim the company schemed to use “deceptive recruiting practices to target students who qualified for aid under the GI Bill.”)

At times it was like playing Whack-a-Mole with corrupt “educators.” Eventually, the U. S. Department of Education slapped Everest with $30 million in fines. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau opened an investigation into predatory loan practices at several for-profit institutions. Attorney generals from thirty-two states began considering legal actions of various types. But Daly’s and Prock’s and Benbow’s hopes of achieving the American Dream had been dashed.

And yet, at the opposite end of the pipeline the money still flowed. In 2010, Jonathan Grayer, CEO of Kaplan, another major player in the field, resigned after seventeen years at the helm. “It has been a wonderful journey with great people,” he assured all who would listen. A wonderful journey, for sure! 

Grayer was departing with a compensation package worth $76 million.  

Sadly, the journey for tens of thousands of students ended, not with a bang of bucks, but a whimper. Investigators found that 68% of students enrolled in Kaplan’s bachelor’s programs (combing two figures below) withdrew without a degree within two years of enrollment.


 The story was much like the one at Corinthian—except that Kaplan, today, remains solvent.  Kaplan-affiliated schools, too, charged students far more than they would have paid at non-profit institutions.


Yet, when Grayer stepped down, and Andrew S. Rosen took his place, Grayer could still insist: “I have no doubt he will continue to focus Kaplan’s culture on what matters most—successful futures for our students.”

But Kaplan didn’t focus on students. None of the for-profits did. They were corporations first, corporations second, corporations last.

Profit was their game.

Meanwhile, Bill Gates, who, in his own mind, believes he knows just what must be done to fix American education—starting with kindergarten and working his way up to the last level of PhD programs—offered a glowing portrait of the work Kaplan College was doing under Mr. Rosen’s charge.

And so it went. So it continues to this day. Only the worst abuses have been curbed under pressure from state and federal regulators and in the face of a well-earned onslaught of court filings.

The sorry saga has sad chapters yet to come, greed being timeless. In 2012, for example, Florida sued Keiser University (20,000 students across five campuses), forcing the school to offer free retraining to students who earned degrees from the school but found no useful employment opportunities.

Once the crackdown began, Keiser decided to flee the for-profit world, and—presto!—transform itself into a non-profit institution. So Keiser was sold to Everglades College, a “now you see it, now you don’t” kind of transaction. What made this cool was that the Keiser family, which founded the university, founded Everglades, too. And, what do you know: Dr. Arthur Keiser, as president of a brand new institution, would earn a whopping $856,000 annually, more than the president of Harvard ever saw in one year.

This new configuration offered fresh money-making possibilities. (Also: a chance to skirt new federal and state regulations!) Carl B. Barney trod the same path, selling several for-profits, including College California, to a Denver non-profit, Center for Excellence in Higher Education.

Cool name!

According to court documents, however, the Center had a staff of one: Chairman Carl B. Barney. Barney, too, worked out a sweet deal: loaning out $431 million, collecting $5.1 million in rent from the new school in 2013 alone.

After the State of Colorado sued, Barney responded like Dr. Seuss: “You cannot profit from a nonprofit,” he claimed.

The investigations and court battles continued, but students still ended up holding empty academic bags. In 2013 Career Education Corporation paid a $10 million fine to the State of New York related to false claims, including counting graduates as employed “if they were involved for a day at a community health fair.” 

The following year, ITT Educational Services, with 55,000 students online and on campuses in dozens of states missed a deadline to file documents with the U.S. Department of Education. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau sued ITT, alleging the school had pressured students into taking out high-interest, high-risk loans. 

In November 2014, the Government Accountability Office labeled Corinthian “one of fifteen for-profit colleges where recruiters encouraged students to commit fraud on financial aid applications.”

And in 2014, Mr. Rosen, who ran Kaplan, one of those schools, earned $4.9 million for his services.

As recently as April, last, the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit Court issued a ruling allowing a False Claims Act lawsuit lodged against Heritage College, which operates campuses across the country, to go forward. According to whistleblowers, the school had defrauded the U. S. government of $32.8 million between 2009 and 2012.

Currently, forty million young Americans carry student loans totaling $1.2 trillion, that total having doubled in the last ten years. Many, who attended schools like the University of Phoenix and Heritage have nothing to show for their investments but heartache; and you could argue that they’d have been better off it muggers had simply assaulted them in dark alleys and run off with their wallets.

Corporate education: What did you expect?


Students: The New Cash Crop.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

If You Write about Education, Shouldn't You Talk to Educators?

Sometimes, you wonder. Do people who write about education ever talk to educators? And do they even understand they should?

Those questions came to mind again this morning when I read “The Education Assassins,” an editorial in The New York Times.

The title was pretty slick, and got me interested. Luckily, no actual bullets flew, but it turns out there are those who want to eliminate the U. S. Department of Education.

Typically, the editorialist, Frank Bruni, mentioned Rick Perry. Common Core was also noted. Jeb Bush is for it. Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat made a cameo appearance. So did Lamar Alexander, former Secretary of Education, now, like Murray, interested in reducing the sway of the Department. Indeed, if Murray and Alexander have their way, new legislation might hamstring Mr. Duncan. 

“There’d be no federal say, for example, in how (or if) public schoolteachers are evaluated. If the bill passes—and it has significant bipartisan support—the department would be a shadow of itself,” Mr. Bruni warned.

Naturally, he also talked to several school reformers, none of whom ever taught. And what story about U. S. education would be complete without Joel I. Klein adding a bit of his folksy old-fashioned wisdom? Without federal involvement, the former chancellor of the New York City Schools says, Some states will do good stuff, but there will also be laggards and a lot of happy talk.”

I find myself thinking: “Who knows ‘happy talk’ better than Klein?” 

When Mr. Klein ran the NYC schools he routinely faulted teachers. He insisted “grading schools” was a key to improvement. He was all for charter schools, never realizing charter schools might drain off more capable students, leaving kids with disadvantages concentrated in the old neighborhood schools.

Of course, Klein never realized this might happen because Klein was a lawyer, hired by a billionaire mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg (who never taught) to run the schools. And Bloomberg’s attitude towards teachers was clear. He once said the problem in education was that we no longer hired teachers from the top of their college classes. They came from the bottom twenty percent, “and not of the best schools.”

At this point, I pondered one of the myriad problems every frontline educator can see. I thought back to poor Mike, who missed 106 days of class in one year, not because he was sick but because his mother allowed it, when I had him in seventh grade. I thought about how, while Klein and Bloomberg were spending their days bashing teachers and hatching plans to increase the weight of standardized test scores in determining teacher pay, they missed an obvious obstacle.

That is: 200,000 New York City students, roughly 1 in 5, missed a month or more of classes every year.

But I kept reading. I was praying Mr. Bruni might talk to some teacher or principal or school counselor. Several think tank reformers were mentioned. A politician called Duncan “a helpful voice” during the six years he has headed up the Department. 

Again, I am thinking: “Duncan? He hasn’t strung two sentences together in that time to indicate he has any idea what challenges frontline educators face.”

So what does Mr. Bruni miss in the end?

He misses what almost all writers about education now miss. No one asks educators who survived the slaughter at Sandy Hook how much “grading schools” would have helped on that sanguine day. 

No one talks to the principal at my wife’s old school about tying teacher pay to test scores, and how that might compare to being chased from her building by a knife-wielding, schizophrenic mother. 

No one offers suggestions for what frontline educators might do to aid the 6,000,000 children who are victims of abuse and neglect yearly in the United States. 

No one goes into a tough Chicago neighborhood, where Mr. Duncan once ran the schools, and asks teachers, “What help could you use in meeting the needs of teens who also happen to be gang members?”

I spent thirty-three years with the Loveland City Schools, a highly-regarded system not far from Cincinnati. And if the Department of Education ever did anything to help me or my peers or help our students, I am not aware of it. The bureaucrats, politicians and reformers talk blithely about what educators must do.

They never talk to educators.

They don’t talk to Chris Burke, now principal at Loveland Middle School, and an educator I’ve always respected, who says increased standardized testing has been detrimental, forcing his staff to spend nineteen days on test administration this year. “It’s all about compliance,” he tells me, with a hint of resignation. He mentions, to my surprise, that 35% of the seventh grade opted out this year.

Katie Rose and Jenn Ramage, two dedicated young teachers, join the conversation, calling the testing process “nuts.”

“Nineteen days,” Katie exclaims. “Can you believe it? And forget Reconstruction [which the curriculum says she should cover at year’s end]. I only had one day left to cover the Civil War.”

She offers a wan smile, but her disgust is clear.

I’ve been working on a book about teaching for some time, myself; and I keep asking every teacher or retired principal or counselor I meet what they think about the direction we’re headed. I try to pose one question in the most neutral tone possible: “Do you think all the testing and recent changes in education have enhanced learning, hurt learning, or had, basically, a kind of neutral effect?”

At a wedding in California a few weeks ago, I sat down beside a woman who turned out to be a retired elementary school principal. When I got to the word “hurt” in my usual query she interrupted. “HURT,” she said. “Does anyone say anything else?”

I laughed and said she had to let me finish. “But, to be honest, no,” I admitted. “They don’t.”

That’s what those who write about education might discover if they simply asked. The growing backlash against testing, the bitter disdain for Mr. Duncan (the NEA in 2014 called for his resignation), the willingness to close the U. S. Department of Education, these are not matters of mere politics.

These issues affect frontline educators and the children they deal with every day.

When I asked Jeane Weisbrod, my old friend, who retires this week after a career in Loveland, she tells me she hates the increased testing because it means “sacrifice of valuable instructional time.”

I am wandering among current staff members, and retirees, at the time, during a ceremony to honor Jeane and Diane Sullivan, a retiring art teacher, and Ora Sue Peabody, our fine school secretary, who is hanging up the phone for good in five weeks. 

Jane Barre, former Loveland Middle School principal, calls the metastasizing testing burden “lunacy” when I ask her opinion. Jane went on to serve as assistant superintendent for another local school district. When she began that job testing took up ten percent of her time. By 2009, testing ate up half her day, making it hard to accomplish anything else of substance. Diane chimes in to say she feels sorry for younger teachers who will have to deal with this mess for years to come. Like Diogenes, but stopping occasionally to sample the brownies, I am looking for anyone who feels our “leaders” know what they’re doing. Sue Lundy and Lauren Cripe, two of the best educators I ever saw in action (Sue retired; Lauren finishing her tenth year) say all the testing is terrible. 

Sue calls it “crazy.”

So, there you have it. That’s what Mr. Bruni missed. Those who work with children, or have worked with kids, believe Secretary Duncan and the politicians have led us in the wrong direction.

They believe learning has suffered great harm.

In fact, if we wanted to help children, here’s what we might wisely do, instead. Take some of the $70 billion spent annually by the Department of Education. Hire more counselors and school psychologists to work directly with young kids. Get creative, if you want to aid the nation’s youth. Take $20 billion and award $20,000 college scholarships to a million high school seniors every year.

Use another $20 billion to help 1.6 million children who experience homelessness, who suffer in all kinds of ways, both in and out of school. That would provide $12,500 in housing for each child.

I think real educators, those in the academic trenches, could come up with all kinds of ways to use money and manpower to improve the lives of children. Arne Duncan? Let him go into a classroom in an inner city Chicago school. Let him work with teens in gangs.

Joel I. Klein should have a chance to teach, too. He can work with kids who have been sexually abused at home and see how much “grading schools” matters.

If Mr. Bruni asked me what I thought about the Department of Education, I’d say, “Sure. Scrap it. And scrap all the standardized tests.”

Those tests cost $1.7 billion annually.

I’d tell him: “Take that money and divide it among 17,000,000 elementary school students. Let each child take $100 to the nearest book store. Let them buy books they like—and see if reading scores don’t go up ten times faster than they have with all the absurd focus on testing.”

If nothing else, if I was writing about education, I’d start by talking to people who actually do the educating. 

Spend more money on books. That might help students improve reading scores.