Monday, November 28, 2016

Heroes Who Never Fight: U. S. Secretaries of Education (Betsy DeVos Edition)

Back in 2011, when I first started this blog, I complained about school reformers who talked and talked about leading a battle to fix the nation’s schools but didn’t ever seem to do any of the actual fighting.

Now, with Betsy DeVos the latest choice to lead the U. S. Department of Education I can almost recycle the article whole.

(I have also blogged about bicycling across the United States to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.)


It's a beautiful country. Get out there and see it.
(Grand Teton National Park.)



Anyway, here’s what I said six years ago. Almost every syllable still applies:

I TAUGHT FOR 33 YEARS, SO I INTEND TO USE MY BLOG to defend good public school teachers whenever possible. 

Still, you’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to know there are bad teachers. We used to joke of a colleague at my school that you could replace him with a cardboard cutout and students wouldn’t notice a difference. 

So, yeah, we need to do more to weed the dandelions in the classroom. 

When I started researching a book about education, however, I was stunned to find how little time our nation’s “leading” school reformers have devoted to the classroom. On November 30, 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Shirley Hufstedler first United States Secretary of Education. It was the start of a bizarre trend.  

Hufstedler was charged with saving U.S. education. But in 1979, starting my fifth year in a classroom, I had more experience than the Secretary of Education. I had her beat by four years, two months. Hufstedler never taught a minute. She probably knew as much about teaching as I did about driving a car at the Indianapolis Speedway or playing concert piano with the London Symphony. 

Mr. Carter plucked her from the federal bench. 

Terrel Bell, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, came next. Bell was actually tasked with dismantling the Department of Education, an idea most teachers might support today. Bell, at least, had tried his hand at teaching. He later became a principal and a superintendent in the Idaho and Utah public schools. 

William Bennett, Reagan’s second appointee and third to hold the position of Education Czar was another teaching virgin. Big Bill didn’t come out of any classroom. He came striding out of a think tank and started lecturing teachers about their failings. Later he wrote a thick book about “virtue” for adults.

Then he wrote a thinner volume: The Children’s Book of Virtues.  

Last but not least, he admitted a serious gambling addiction and blowing eight million dollars in Las Vegas. 

Lauro Cavazos Jr. was fourth in line, coming to the Department of Education straight from the university level, having never spent a day in his life working with K-12 students. He didn’t last long either. Cavazos was forced to resign after an investigation into misuse of frequent flier miles. 

Lamar Alexander was fifth. His first taste of Washington, D. C. life had not come working in a public school—of course not—but as legislative assistant to Senator Howard Baker. Alexander did meet his wife during a softball game for Senate staffers. So that was kind of cool. Later, as governor of Tennessee, he won fame and got his face on a Time magazine cover for “reforming” that state’s schools.

Naturally, none of the reforming was done by his hand. Lamar was just another virgin. Based on “his” success in Tennessee, however, Alexander was elevated to the cabinet post by President George H. W. Bush.  

President Clinton had the next crack at the problem and reached deep down into the classroom …no, no, no, we’re joking! He chose Governor Richard Riley of South Carolina as his U. S. Secretary of Education. Riley’s time in a classroom: 0 years, 0 months, 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes. 

0.

George W. Bush had two chances to get it right and blew them both, turning first to Rod Paige and later Margaret Spellings. Paige, at least, taught and coached at the college level; but his real claim to fame was the “Houston Miracle” which supposedly occurred while he was in charge of that city’s public schools...In no time at all, Paige had inner-city high schools whipped into shape and principals were reporting zero dropouts. Mr. Paige was a genius and President Bush tapped him to work his magic as Secretary of Education. 

Unfortunately, real teachers know that in real classrooms miracles are in short supply; and the “Houston Miracle” turned out to be completely bogus. Reporters discovered that one Houston high school had reduced dropouts to zero by classifying all 462 students who left school during the year as “transfers.” 

Where they might have “transferred” to, whether another high school, or a nunnery, or another planet, was a mystery. 

Meanwhile, Secretary Paige huffed and puffed and couldn’t make No Child Left Behind work. True: states initially reported stunning test-score gains. On closer examination almost all the gains proved to have been achieved through sleight of hand. Most states simply made their standardized tests easier to insure higher passing rates and avoid penalties under new federal regulations. 

Paige eventually gave way to Margaret Spellings, who came to understand the processes of education not by working in a classroom but by serving on an education reform commission down in Texas. 

Spellings did her fighting for children from the safe distance of the rear. She fought for kids in spirit, you could say. 

By 2009, if you were a real teacher—and by that, I mean a good one—it seemed hard to believe education policy could get worse. When President Obama took office you could hope wisdom might prevail. 

Instead, we found ourselves saddled with Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Duncan was the hero who “reformed” the Chicago Public Schools, a man who once taught...no, ha, ha, just joking again…who got his start in education in administration and kept clambering up the bureaucratic ladder.

So you figure he learned everything there was to know about the challenges faced by real teachers.

Back in 2011, I made fun of several other “leaders” in the field of school reform. 
I will skip that part.

This will bring us up to date:


President Obama had a second chance to get it right, selecting John B. King Jr. to serve as tenth Secretary of Education. Mr. King did teach three years, two in a charter school, and did serve as charter school administrator for five more. So he wasn’t devoid of firsthand knowledge. Sadly, as New York State Education Commissioner, he pushed several misguided policies and was politely asked to leave. King wanted to link teacher pay to standardized test scores—ironically, on tests that later proved so badly flawed they were discontinued. He also pushed hard for Common Core despite the fact New York parents by the tens of thousands started opting out of all the tests.

In the meantime, Congress was supposed to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, but failed to do so for eight long years, also failing to remedy flaws in the legislation. Duncan pushed a Race to the Top  initiative but his plan seemed to lead the children nowhere. Front line educators rightly came to suspect that  neither Mr. Duncan nor their representatives in Congress knew what they were doing.

Eventually, No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Child Succeeds Act, which, for all we know, may be replaced by the Make Every Child Great Again Act under President Donald J. Trump.

If Betsy DeVos passes Senate muster, we will be adding a woman with zero teaching experience—with zero experience as a school administrator—who never went to public schools—who never sent her children to public schools—appointed by a man who went to private schools—a man who sent his children to private schools—and Mrs. DeVos will “lead” us to battle. I suspect she knows what most men and women who have held the post of Secretary of Education have known about working with America’s children. 

Next to nothing.

What she does understand perfectly is how to collect great wads of cash and then donate same to wily politicians. DeVos knows how to block laws she and her husband don’t want passed by skillful lobbying. She’s rich because her father-in-law founded Amway and her husband runs the company. 

In other words, everything in education is going to be great!! 


And, if the next set of “school reforms” proves as misguided as the last, or the last before that, or before that, or even before that, maybe this time schools can at least stock up on Amway soaps and cleaning products.

Because DeVos might not know kids; but she really, really knows her Amway.

Heroes Who Don't Fight: America's School Reformers (Betsy DeVos Edition)

Back in 2011, when I first began working on this blog, I complained about school reformers who talked and talked about leading a battle to fix the nation’s schools but never seemed to join the actual fight.

Now, with Betsy DeVos the latest choice to lead the U. S. Department of Education, I can almost recycle the article. 

In fact, the may end up being the worst choice yet. And when it comes to ineptitude in the field of education, she has some stiff competition to beat.


***

(I also blog about bicycling across the United States to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.)

This is a beautiful country; get out there and see it.

Anyway, here’s what I said six years ago. Almost every syllable still applies:


I TAUGHT FOR 33 YEARS, SO I INTEND TO USE MY BLOG to defend good public school teachers whenever possible. 

Still, you’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to know there are bad teachers. We used to joke of a colleague at my school that you could replace him with a cardboard cutout and students wouldn’t notice a difference. 

We need to do more to weed the dandelions in our classrooms. 

When I started researching a book about education, however, I was stunned to find how little time our nation’s “leading” reformers have spent in the classroom. On November 30, 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Shirley Hufstedler first United States Secretary of Education. It was the start of a bizarre trend.  

Hufstedler was charged with saving U. S. education. But in 1979, starting my fifth year in a classroom, I had more teaching experience than the Secretary of Education. In fact, I had her beat by four years, two months. Hufstedler never taught a minute. She probably knew as much about teaching as the average American did about driving a car at the Indianapolis Speedway or playing concert piano with the Chicago Symphony. 

Mr. Carter plucked her from the federal bench. 

Terrel Bell, appointed by President Ronald Reagan, was next. Bell was actually tasked with dismantling the Department of Education, an idea most teachers might now support. Bell, at least, had tried his hand at teaching and had been a principal and superintendent in the Idaho public schools. 

So: Go Terrel Bell!!

William Bennett, Reagan’s second appointee and third to hold the position of Education Czar was another teaching virgin. Big Bill didn’t come out of any classroom. He came striding out of a think tank and immediately started lecturing teachers about their many egregious failings. Later he wrote a thick book about “virtue” for adults.

Then he wrote a thinner volume: The Children’s Book of Virtues.  

Later still, he admitted a serious gambling addiction and blowing eight million dollars in Las Vegas. 

Lauro Cavazos Jr. was fourth in line, coming to the Department of Education straight from the university level, having never spent a day in his life working with K-12 level students. He didn’t last long either. Cavazos was forced to resign after an investigation into misuse of frequent flier miles. 

Lamar Alexander was fifth. His first taste of Washington, D. C. life had not come working in a public school—of course not—but as legislative assistant to Senator Howard Baker. Alexander did meet his wife during a softball game for Senate staffers. So that was kind of cool. Later, as governor of Tennessee, he won fame and got his face on a Time magazine cover for “reforming” his state’s schools.

Naturally, none of the reforming was done by his hand. Lamar was just another K-12 virgin. Based on “his” success in Tennessee, however, Alexander was elevated to the cabinet post by President George H. W. Bush.  

President Clinton had the next crack at the problem and reached deep down into the classroom …no, no, no, we’re joking! He chose Governor Richard Riley of South Carolina as his U. S. Secretary of Education. Riley’s time in a classroom: 0 years, 0 months, 0 days, 0 hours, 0 minutes. 

0.

George W. Bush had two chances to get it right and blew them both, turning first to Rod Paige and later Margaret Spellings. Paige, at least, taught and coached at the college level; but his real claim to fame was the “Houston Miracle” which supposedly occurred while he was in charge of that city’s public schools...In no time at all, Paige had inner-city high schools whipped into shape and principals were reporting zerodropouts. Clearly, Mr. Paige was a genius. President Bush tapped him to be Secretary of Education. 

Unfortunately, real teachers know that in real classrooms miracles are in short supply. The “Houston Miracle” turned out to be completely bogus. Reporters discovered that one Houston high school reduced dropouts to zero simply by classifying all 462 students who left school during the year as “transfers.” 

Where they might have “transferred” to, whether another high school, or a nunnery, or Pluto, was a mystery. 

Meanwhile, Secretary Paige huffed and puffed and couldn’t make No Child Left Behind work. True: states initially reported stunning test-score gains. On closer examination almost all the gains proved to have been achieved through sleight of hand. Most states simply made their standardized tests easier—to insure higher passing rates and avoid penalties under new federal regulations. 

Paige eventually gave way to Margaret Spellings, who came to understand the processes of education not by working in a classroom but by serving on an education reform commission down in Texas. 

Spellings did her fighting for children from the safe distance of the rear. She fought for kids in spirit, you might say. 

By 2009, if you were a real teacher—and by that, I mean a good one—it seemed hard to imagine education policy could get worse. When President Obama took office you could only hope wisdom might prevail. 

Instead, we found ourselves saddled with Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. Duncan was the hero who “reformed” the Chicago Public Schools, a man who once taught...no, ha, ha, just kidding…who got his start in education in administration and kept clambering up the bureaucratic ladder.

So you figure he learned everything there was to know about the challenges faced by real teachers.
Back in 2011, I made fun of several other “leaders” in the field of school reform. 
I will skip that part.

This will bring us up to date:


President Obama had a second chance to get it right, selecting John B. King Jr. to serve as tenth Secretary of Education. Mr. King did teach three years, two in a charter school, and did serve as charter school administrator for five more. So he wasn’t devoid of firsthand knowledge. 

Sadly, as New York State Education Commissioner he pushed several misguided policies and was politely asked to 
leave. King wanted to link teacher pay to standardized test scores—ironically, on tests that soon proved so badly flawed they were discontinued—and pushed hard for Common Core despite the fact New York parents by tens of thousands started opting out of testing.

In the meantime, Congress was supposed to reauthorize No Child Left Behind, but failed to do so for eight long years and failed to remedy flaws in the legislation. Secretary Duncan had pushed a Race to the Top”  initiative, but that plan seemed to lead children nowhere. Front line educators rightly came to suspect that  neither Mr. Duncan nor Mr. King nor lawmakers in Congress knew what they were actually doing.

Congress, for various reasons, saw its approval rating fall below 30% in August 2009 and stay there. 
Congress dropped below the 20% mark in December 2011 and remains there to this day. (Look it up if you don’t believe me.)

Eventually, No Child Left Behind was replaced by the Every Child Succeeds Act, which, for all we know, may be replaced by the Make Every Child Great Again Act under President Donald J. Trump.

After a rocky confirmation hearing, Ms. DeVos was confirmed by the Senate only after Vice President Mike Pence broke a rare 50-50 tie. What we were left with, then, was a woman with zero teaching experience. She had zero experience as a school administrator. She never went to public schools when she was young. She never sent her children to public schools either. She was appointed by a man who went to private schools—a man who sent his children to private schools—and Mrs. DeVos was going to “lead” us all in battle. I suspect she knows about what most men and women who have held the post of U. S. Secretary of Education have known about working with America’s children. 

Next to nothing.

What she does understand perfectly is how to collect great wads of cash and donate same to wily politicians. DeVos knows how to block laws she and her husband don’t want passed by skillful lobbying. She’s rich because her father-in-law founded Amway and her husband runs the company. 

In other words, everything in education is going to be great!! 


If the next four years of “school reforms” prove as misguided as the last four decades maybe this time schools can at least stock up on Amway cleaning products.

Ms. DeVos might not know anything about the challenges public schools face or the lives of public school kids.

She does, however, know her Amway soaps.
 


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Betsy DeVos: The Amway Secretary of Education

I’M A LIFELONG LIBERAL and a classroom teacher. But I’m beginning to agree when conservatives insist it’s time to do blow up, metaphorically, the U.S. Department of Education. At least then real educators wouldn’t have to take orders from clueless out-of-touch, arrogant school reformers.

Beginning in January the battle to improve the nation’s schools will be led by Betsy DeVos, wife of a billionaire, a woman who attended private schools when young, who kept tradition alive by sending her children to private schools, who never taught a day in her life, who never spent an hour as a school administrator, and never served a season on a local school board, either. DeVos made a name by touting school vouchers and—more importantly—raising stacks of cash for politicians.

In 2014, for example, DeVos and her husband Dick donated $1.45 million to Michigan lawmakers to defeat a bill that would have increased scrutiny of publicly-funded, for-profit charter schools.

Stephen Henderson, writing for the Detroit Free Press last June, minced no words in his response. This was nothing less than an effort by a fabulously rich, politically connected family to buy the votes of legislators, regardless of damage that might be done to children. “We really ought to round up the lawmakers who took money to protect and perpetuate the failing charter-school experiment in Detroit,” he fumed, “sew them into burlap sacks with rabid animals, and toss them into the Straits of Mackinac.”

Sarcastic, yes—but an idea not devoid of merit.

As Forbes magazine made clear five years ago, the dangers of the for-profit education model are plain to see. The shady dealings of big for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix fill the headlines and clog the internet. Many for-profits are “diploma mills” (one website warns students to steer clear of 300 fake online colleges) offering courses of little merit.[1] Their only goal is keeping students on the books till their last dime and dollar are exhausted. For-profits tricked students into signing high-interest loans, inflated claims of job placement success and preyed on veterans.

And yet, Forbes explained, at the K-12 level: “Four out of five charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit corporations. Let that sink in a minute. This should be deeply, deeply troubling for anyone thinking about their child’s future education, or the future of this country.”

The question then is why? Why would Mr. and Mrs. DeVos spend a million plus to defeat a bill favored—until the cash explosion—even by most Republican lawmakers?

Faith in unfettered free enterprise, I suppose. Get ready for the Amway model, writ large in education!

(We’re all going to be rich!)

For those who know nothing about Mrs. DeVos, a dose of helpful background. Richard DeVos, her father-in-law, helped found Amway in 1959, a direct sales operation originally specializing in home cleaning products. The company thrived and spread like herpes. By 2014 Forbes could list Richard as the 83rd richest individual in the world, worth $6 billion. His son, Betsy’s husband, went to work for Amway in 1974, rose through the ranks, and helped spread the brand to fifty countries. In 1993 he was chosen president. Seven years later he led a corporate restructuring that created a new parent company, Alticor.

Now: To be fair, the family has done some excellent charitable work, often going through Christian groups to help the homeless, even providing grants to aid the Grand Rapids Public Schools in cutting student absenteeism. 

Unfortunately, the family has also spent lavishly to buy up politicians.

As an added bonus, in 2004, Betsy DeVos insisted that her home state of Michigan was losing jobs because wages were too high. This kind of conservative thinking can be boiled down to two steps, equally harmful to ordinary Americans. 

First, workers in Michigan demand high pay and companies move to low-wage states like Texas. Boo, says Betsy! Bad workers! 

Bad!!!

Second, workers in Texas demand high pay and companies move to low-wage countries like China. 

Oops, says Betsy!

Even worse, if you keep searching, are the countless stories that cast a pall over the entire Amway model. In my case, years ago, my wife and I were approached by friends who urged us to join them in the “Amway family.” We would get rich together they claimed. Listening to their pitch, it sounded like a pyramid scheme. My wife and I would set ourselves up as independent business owners (IBO’s). We would make money selling products directly. And we would make even more, heaping piles of dough, by enlisting family, friends and others to sell more Amway products, earning a percentage of their sales and a percentage of the sales of those they recruited, and so on to infinity. This is called a multi-level-marketing approach (MLM).

Well, what has happened since that fateful day when my wife and passed on a chance to start stacking up dollars?

AMWAY HAS REPEATEDLY been forced to beat back legal challenges. On narrow grounds the company has stayed alive, and prospered, often with the timely aid of powerful politicians who have been granted fat campaign contributions. But in fundamental ways Amway has been losing all along. In legal actions filed by the State of Wisconsin in 1982, a report by Dr. Jon M. Taylor, an economist, found: “MLM as a business model—with its endless chain of recruitment of participants as primary customers—is flawed, unfair, and deceptive.” Taylor summarized: “less than 1% of MLM participants profit. MLM makes even gambling look like a safe bet in comparison.”

Yet, every year, tens of thousands of fresh recruits fell for the Amway pitch—kept dreaming—kept losing.

All the while, Betsy DeVos continued to raise money for the politicians. Even President George W. Bush noticed. In 2001 he appointed a former Amway lawyer, Timothy Muris, to head the Federal Trade Commission. Eight years later Muris, having returned to private practice, helped convince the FTC not to impose strict disclosure rules on MLM marketers—like Herbalife—and Amway.[2]

Three years passed. NBC aired an undercover expose (by 2004 Amway was operating under the name of Quixtar). A recruiter told an NBC producer, posing as someone interested in becoming an IBO: “If you’re somewhat serious, all I mean by somewhat serious —if you invest maybe, say, 10 to 15 hours a week in your business. This is your own business—you could generate in the next 12 to 18 months, an extra quarter of a million.”

The prospective “IBO” expressed surprise.

True, the recruiter admitted, there were motivational books to buy in order to learn to banish “negativity” and sell, sell, sell—oh, $60 monthly. And there were seminars to attend—um, maybe $50 monthly. And no new IBO would dare miss the “Spring Leadership Weekend” down in Florida. That would mean several hundred dollars more invested. Eventually, reporters found themselves surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd of 15,000 attendees at the gathering, each and every one ready to spend 10 or 15 hours weekly in pursuit of his or her extra quarter million dollars.


How many made that kind of money?

NBC found plenty who didn’t. One said he worked day and night to make a success of the Quixtar/Amway model. In his best year he earned $34,000. Even that didn’t last. He ended up “destitute.” Reporters heard the same tale “again and again.” Vicky and Lindy Mack didn’t make an extra quarter million. They lost $35,000. Bo Short did make serious money, recruiting friends and family to join the company, coaxing them to recruit others, selling tapes and motivational books and conference packages. He quit eventually when “he began to realize he was part of a mass deception.”

How much did the average Quixtar distributor make? It was right there in the fine print. 

Approximately $1,400 annually.

So the years rolled by, and new recruits signed up and mostly ended up disappointed. The company changed its name. There was growth around the world. In 2007 Britain shut down Amway, calling it an illegal pyramid scheme, after a judge found 99.7% of 33,000 IBO’s in that country lost money. The company agreed to drastic changes and barely managed to remain legal in Britain.

In 2010, in response to fresh court challenges, Amway admitted 54% of IBO’s who had ever signed up were currently inactive. Gross income for the rest averaged a paltry $202 monthly. One expert estimated that the average IBO lost $1,176 annually. In light of such statistics the company settled a class action lawsuit, returned $55 million to former distributors and made changes in practices that cost another $100 million.

At the top of the Amway food chain, however, the DeVos family continued to pile up the billions. In 2012 this allowed Mr. DeVos to donate heavily to and lead a successful push to make Michigan a right-to-work state. “Freedom-to-work is pro-workers and pro-Michigan,” he proclaimed. Union leaders were thugs with “an almost pathological obsession with power.”

Besides, wages were too high anyway.

On to Texas!

Then China!

In fact, if you kept digging you turned up shady operators on both sides of Betsy DeVos’ holiday table. Her father, Edgar Prince, co-founded the Family Research Council, an organization opposed to gay rights. That organization, which supports gay-conversion therapy, suffered a serious black eye in 2011 when George Alan Rekers, another co-founder, was shown to have traveled to Europe with a male escort contacted through a website, Rentboy.com. Rekers was a story himself, with a Ph. D. in psychology, and a creepy interest in spanking children to get the gay out.

Betsy’s brother, Erik Prince, founded Blackwater, a security firm which operated as a para-military force during some of the deadliest days after 9/11. Four Blackwater guards were eventually convicted in the murder of seventeen Iraqi civilians. The company has also been accused of defrauding the U.S. government, creating false billings, even passing off the cost of keeping a prostitute on the payroll in Afghanistan.

So, you might be wondering, what’s the final moral of the story?

We all know Mr. Trump has promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington. What few of his supporters could have dreamed was how many crocodiles he planned to hire to do the job of draining. 

According to Open Secrets, Amway has made $21.3 million in political donations since 1990, and since 1998, spent just short of $5 million more on lobbying. The DeVos family in all its permutations has donated tens of millions more to right-wing causes.

And so you see.

These are exactly the kind of leaders we need to stand up in the name of millions and millions of America’s children.

Amway, baby!

Billionaires will save the children!
P. S. Remember Trump University!!


John J. Viall is also the author of the critically acclaimed:


Front cover.

Available on Amazon.com

Back cover.




[1] Corinthian College, to cite one of the worst examples, was ordered by the federal courts to pay off $530 million in student loans fraudulently arranged. The fly in the legal ointment is clear. Corinthian has since gone bankrupt. Taxpayers are likely to foot the bill for Corinthian College’s business sins.
[2] In a court settlement in July, Herbalife agreed to restructure its marketing and pay a fine of $200 million.