An Interview with Joel Spring: Are We Racing to the Top or Sinking to the Bottom?

Apr 15, 2013 by

Joel Spring, a professor at Queens College

Joel Spring, a professor at Queens College

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

    1. Joel, some of our readers may not be familiar with your work. Could you briefly tell about some of your books and some of your endeavors?

Joel Spring, a professor at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, has published over twenty books on American and global school policies, including Political Agendas for Education: From Change We Can Believed in to Putting America First (2010), Globalization of Education: An Introduction (2009), A New Paradigm for Global School Systems: Education for a Long and Happy Life (2007), Wheels in the Head: Educational Philosophies of Authority, Freedom, and Culture from Confucianism to Human Rights Third Edition (2008), Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of the Education of Dominated Cultures in the United States Sixth Edition (2010) and American Education Fourteenth Edition (2010). His most recent books are Education Networks:

Power, Wealth, Cyberspace and the Digital Mind (2012); with Anthony Picciano, The Great American Education-Industrial Complex: Ideology, Technology, and Profit; and Corporatism, Social Control, and Cultural Domination in Education: From the Radical Right To Globalization: The Selected Works of Joel Spring, World Library of Educationists (New York: Routledge, 2013).

He lived for many summers on an island off the coast of Sitka, Alaska. His novel, Alaskan Visions, reflects these Alaskan experiences. His novel, An All-American Family, about racism among Native Americans is currently in production. He is an enrolled member of the Choctaw tribe and his grandfather was a district chief and his great-great grandfather principal chief of the Choctaw Nation.

2. Now, let’s go back to 2005 – Democrats for Education Reform- who headed that and what were they trying to accomplish?

The founders of Democrats for Education Reform are investment bankers who are anti-union, including teachers unions, who met with then Senator Barack Obama in New York City in 2005 to discuss future education policy. This meeting resulted in the group having a major influence over Race to the Top policies. After Arne Duncan’s appointment as U.S. Secretary of Education, the Democrats for Education Reform supplied him with policy papers which provided the main parts of Race to the Top.

The Democrats for Education Reform backed Arnie Duncan as U. S. Secretary of Education despite the fact the Duncan had little background in public education except for his rapid rise to be CEO of Chicago schools. Duncan was educated at a private school, graduated with a B.A. from Harvard in sociology, and was a professional basketball player. At Harvard, Duncan co-captained the varsity basketball team and from 1987 to 1991 played professional basketball in Australia.

In 1992, childhood friend and investment banker John W. Rogers, Jr. appointed Duncan director of the Ariel Education Initiative, a mentoring program for children inner-city children. After the school closed in 1996, Duncan and Rogers were instrumental in re-opening it as the Ariel Community Academy, a charter school. In 1999, Duncan was appointed Deputy Chief of Staff for Chicago Public Schools and in 2001 became Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools. He held this position until being appointed Secretary of Education in 2008. In other words, he would not even qualify as a tenured teacher in New York State because he lacks, besides never receiving any formal teacher training, any graduate degree in education. With only a B.A. and no education or experience as a school administrator, it would have required a special state waiver to head a school system in most states.

The three major founders of the Democrats to Education for Education reform are:

John Petry, a partner at Gotham Capital Management, chairs the board of Education Reform Now. Petry’s Gotham Capital LLC, founded in 1985 with $7 million from junk-bond king Michael Milken, is a privately owned hedge fund that manages investments for wealthy clients, investing in equities as well as spin-offs, restructuring and takeovers.

Whitney Tilson-Managing Partner, T2 Partners LLC and Tilson Mutual Funds; Board member of KIPP-NYC, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Council of Urban Professionals; Co-Founder of the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City and Rewarding Achievement (REACH).

The third co-founder Boykin Curry – Eagle Capital; Co-Founder of Public Prep. It was at Curry’s apartment that the Democrats for Education Reform met with Senator Barack Obama in 2005 to discuss education policy.

      1. Your perspective on alternative certification- good thing, bad thing, or just an economically necessary move given the current state of education?

The leaders of the current “reform’ movement, including the Democrats for Education Reform, have primarily graduated from elite universities and consider attendance at colleges of education or other traditional teacher training programs a form of intellectual slumming.

Also, many in the current reform movement are alumnus of Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America which shunned teacher education programs for short training session based on the belief that the “best” students from the “best” colleges could be more effective in schools than graduates of teacher training programs. This assumption seems to be contradicted by Michelle Rhee’s 2013 autobiography Radical: Fighting to Put Students First. Rhee entered Teach For America after graduating from Cornell and, as described earlier, before entering Harvard. In 1992, she received training during the summer at California State University at Northridge before being sent to Baltimore to teach second grade in a neighborhood she described as “very downtrodden, dangerous neighborhood.” Of course, the short training period, in fact, did not provide adequate preparation for teaching. “My class,” she wrote, “was infamous at a school that had experienced its share of violence and misbehavior . . . ‘That’s Rhee’s class,’ the other teachers would say, with palpable distaste.”

After returning from a Christmas visit with her parents during her first year, she admitted her lack of training and wrote about the period: “My new strategy was to throw spaghetti against the wall, hoping something would stick. I tried everything . . . If one system didn’t work, I’d introduce another a few days later. The constant changes weren’t good for the kids, but I was a woman possessed. I was bent on figuring out a way to be successful.” She saw another teacher’s room as “a model of organization and preparation.” Her recounting of the first year teaching is not an endorsement for Wendy Kopp’s belief that low-income kids could be saved by, after a short training period, putting the best college students from the best schools.

Rhee taught for three years before leaving and heading for Harvard. In 1997, when Wendy Kopp asked her to organize The New Teacher Project, Rhee had only three years of teaching experience. Rhee with three years of teaching experience, ten years directing The New Teacher Project, and no experience in school administration, was appointed Chancellor of the Washington, D.C. schools in 2007.

The report that has influenced “reformers” regarding alternative pathways to certification is 2006 Brooking Institute’s Hamilton project report Identifying Effective Teachers: Using Performance on the Job. The Hamilton Project report dismissed traditional methods of teacher credentialing involving simply taking a specified set of college courses and passing a test. The report cited studies that showed there was little difference in quality between credentialed and non-credentialed teachers. As a result, the report advocated increasing alternative routes to teaching.

Recommendation 1: Reduce the barriers to entry into teaching for those without traditional teacher certification. The evidence suggests that there is no reason to limit initial entrance into teaching to those who have completed traditional certification programs or are willing to take such courses in their first years on the job.”

The citation for the claim by this report of no statistical difference between certified and noncertified teachers is an unpublished paper. This unpublished paper is limited to two cohorts of elementary school teachers hired by the Los Angeles school district in the 1995-96 and1996-97 school year when many uncertified teachers were being hired because of a teacher shortage.

The authors’ conclusion uses the word “suggesting” and not “proof” in comparing teacher effectiveness: “The absence of any impact on student achievement is consistent with our cross-sectional results, suggesting certified teachers were no more effective than the uncertified [author’s emphasis].” Student test scores were used to evaluate teacher effectiveness. However, they eliminate from the study students who switched teachers during the course of a year, students with disabilities, and students in “classrooms with extraordinarily large (more than 36) or extraordinarily small (less than 10).”

      1. Who are these people that think “technology and data will solve the problems of the school “. And is this reasonable, feasible, viable?

Every aspect of Race to the Top opens the door for for-profit companies selling software, curricula packages, technology, testing and scoring products, and consulting services for the Common Core State Curriculum, data collection, and teacher and student evaluations.

While Pearson is a major player, one investment firm lists Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp’s division Amplify as the best investment opportunity. For instance, in 2011, when the Council of Chief State School Officers gave a contract to Wireless Generation, now a part of Rupert Murdoch’s Amplify, to develop the initial data framework. At the time, Wireless Generation was listed on the Shared Learning Collaborative website as a supporting organization and partner. The work of the Shared Learning Collaborative was eventually housed in the non-profit inBloom.

As described on inBloom’s website, the Shared Learning Collaborative: “custom-built all the inBloom software components and has worked with education technology companies and developers to encourage the development of inBloom-compatible applications [author’s emphasis].”

Centralizing the nation’s student data to help, in part, for-profit companies raises issues of privacy. InBloom skirts a thin line between protecting the privacy of student data while offering it to for-profits. On the one hand, inBloom states as one of its guiding principles: “We recognize the sensitivity of storing student data and place the utmost importance on the privacy and security of that data.” On the other hand, inBloom states another guiding principle: “We ensure availability of and access to inBloom services by creating cost-effective technology services for states and districts of all sizes, and partnering with companies ranging from start-ups to established education technology leaders.” More specifically, inBloom describes its vision as: “Partners with education technology companies, content providers and developers to support the creation of products compatible with this infrastructure.” As envisioned by inBloom, for-profit technology companies will create applications that utilize the database to create personalized learning.

InBloom’s creation was announced at the same time that Amplify, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, which built inBloom’s infrastructure introduced its tablet at the March 4-7, 2013 SXSWedu Conference in Austin, Texas. Reaping profit from the database, Amplify sponsored the SXSWedu Conference and was listed as:


Amplify is a new organization dedicated to K-12 education by creating digital products and services that empower students, teachers and parents in new ways. Amplify will enhance the potential of students with new curricular experiences, support teachers with new instructional tools and engage parents through extended learning opportunities. We are focused on transforming teaching and learning by creating and scaling digital innovations in three areas: insight, learning, and access.

In March, 2013, inBloom listed twenty-two partner companies. Most of these were technology companies that hoped to utilize the database for creating personalized online instruction. For example, the inBloom website lists Dell as one of its partners:

At Dell, we are committed to providing personalized learning solutions to schools, teachers and students around the world. We’re happy to be working with inBloom to help move forward this shared vision around innovation through data insight, professional development and creative tools educators need to make personalized learning a reality [author’s emphasis].” Jon Phillips, Global Education Director, Dell Inc.

Another partner, is interested in ensuring the use of its Kindle reader in schools along with providing cloud services:

Amazon is excited to work with inBloom to empower teachers with the right tools to manage the digital classroom. With our innovative tools like Whispercast, our vast selection of content, and our cloud solutions from Amazon Web Services, we hope to drive innovative solutions to improve students’ outcomes and lower the costs of education.” – Raghu Murthi, VP of Kindle Education & Enterprise.

      1. You and I both know there are poor, poverty stricken children out there. Is education the only way out for them, and should teachers be specifically trained to work with this group?

The reality is that Race to the Top and NCLB have contributed to increasing racial and economic segregation of U.S. schools as reported in 2012 by the UCLA Civil Rights Project. The report asserts that segregation is a major cause of school failure: “The consensus of nearly sixty years of social science research on the harms of school segregation is clear: separate remains extremely unequal. Schools of concentrated poverty and segregated minority schools are strongly related to an array of factors that limit educational opportunities and outcomes.”

With the descriptive title “E Pluribus… Deepening Double Segregation for More Students,” the report concludes:

Segregation has increased dramatically across the country for Latino

students, who are attending more intensely segregated and impoverished schools than they have for generations . . . In spite of declining residential segregation for black families and large-scale movement to the suburbs in most parts of the country, school segregation remains very high for black students. It is also double segregation by both race and poverty.

Increasing racial and economic segregation for Latino students has increased since the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation: “In the early 2000s, the average Latino and black student attended a school where a little over half of the students were low income (as measured by free and reduced price lunch eligibility), but now attend schools where low income students account for nearly two-thirds of their classmates.”

Charter Schools—unlike the 1990s when charter schools were touted as part of choice plans, under Race to the Top they are now part of a new war on poverty. Elite groups, such as the Democrats for Education Reform, argue traditional public schools have failed students from low-income families. Therefore, charter schools are needed to serve this group. The result is that charter schools are contributing to increasing racial and economic segregation of schools.

      1. I understand you are going to be at AERA- what are you going to be speaking about?

My major project at AERA is to leaflet the speech to be given by Arne Duncan protesting corporatization of U.S. schools and elite takeover of American educational policy.

I am seeking volunteers to help me distribute a one page (double-sided) outline of the “Political Coup Called Race to the Top” and a short table listing the corporatization of American schools.

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