Moral Monday – – – The Immorality of “Rocketship Education”

  • Moral Values

The educational immorality called “Rocketship Education” being imposed on the children of Milwaukee is the product of years of deliberate, calculated transfer of wealth out of inner-cities all across America. It is a well-researched fact that poverty is the single most important factor in any failure of our public schools. As stated in a report from the Economic Policy Institute:

“Decades of studies have affirmed that the single most important factor affecting educational achievement are inequalities of wealth and poverty. Since the inception of testing under No Child Left Behind, students from poor or economically disadvantaged families have never scored higher than their better-off peers—not at any age, nor in any state (Tienken and Zhao 2013, 112). The impact of poverty similarly outweighs any difference between charter and public schools, for students of any ethnicity, income level, or disability (CREDO 2013, 75). This is partially because students from poor families start school with less exposure to reading, writing, and vocabulary. But poverty’s impact on education is often much simpler and cruder than underexposure to vocabulary. As one expert notes:

First, health matters. Children who can’t see well can’t read as well as those who can, and lower-class children, on average, have poorer vision than middle-class children. Lower-income children have a higher incidence of lead poisoning, poorer nutrition, and higher rates of iron-deficiency anemia, which result in impaired cognitive ability. They have greater exposure to environmental toxins, air pollution, and smoke, and therefore greater incidence of asthma. Lower-class children have less adequate pediatric care, resulting in more frequent absences from school. . . . The lack of affordable housing for low-income families is another social class characteristic that has a demonstrable effect on average achievement. Children whose families have difficulty finding adequate housing move frequently and student mobility is an important cause of low achievement. Teachers cannot work as effectively with children who are in their classrooms for a short time as with those who stay longer. (Rothstein 2013, 62)

Thus, the single most important steps Wisconsin policymakers could take to improve the education of Milwaukee students would be to make it easier for these children’s parents to obtain sufficiently well-paying jobs or to ensure a sufficiently robust safety net to enable their families to live decently. Unfortunately, as will be discussed later, many of the same corporate interests advancing education reform also support economic policies that make it more difficult for families to pull themselves out of poverty.” (Bold added)

 In economically more advantaged communities, America’s and Wisconsin’s public schools compete favorably with the best schools in the world. Thus, any genuine desire to improve the education of the children of Milwaukee must look at the decisions and policies that led to the impoverishment of so many American cities. We must look at the failure of “trickle down” economics to do anything other than transfer ever more of the wealth to the already wealthy. We must look at the litany of tax breaks for corporations and the rich that have methodically defunded our cities and our government. We must look at the deregulation – especially of the financial industry – that allowed hedge funds and Wall Street banks to use unethical and parasitic practices to bleed our citizens and communities, and virtually destroy our economy. We must look at the billions upon billions of public dollars that were used to bail out these same Wall Street banks. We must look at international trade policies like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the current push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that were designed specifically to increase the profits of corporations and the rich by allowing the transfer of American jobs to low wage, low environmental regulation nations. But perhaps most of all, we must look at the incredible inequality that allows eight billionaires to make more money than all of the public school teachers west of the Mississippi. We must look at the incredible inequality that allows corporate CEO’s to “earn” 300 times the income of typical employees. We must look at the incredible inequality that has deliberately created the government debt that is now being used as a tool to “privatize” all things public and supportive of community. We must look at the incredible inequality that has impoverished Milwaukee and destroyed the educational system for the children living there.

In the past several years we have watched some of the richest people in America – the Gates family, the Walton family, the Devoss family, the Broad family, and the multimillionaire CEO’s of online “educational” software corporations like “Deambox” and “Zeal” – push endlessly for educational “reform.” But given the massive poverty caused by the gross and historic inequality now existing in America, these people are not the solution to the problem – they are the problem.

You will not see the children of any of the wealthy people pushing educational “reform” attending the unethical farce called “Rocketship Education.” Again from the Economic Policy Institute report:

Where privileged parents send their children to school

“While there are decades of scholarly research pointing to the importance of small classes and broad curricula, there is a much simpler way to judge the value of these things: by observing which schools the country’s elite select for their own children. While these schools include technology, it is not used to substitute for teachers. On the contrary, Forbes magazine’s review of the country’s most elite school stresses that it is “tiny classes” and “individualized attention” that “help students earn their way into the best colleges” (Laneri 2010).

Even those insisting on a stripped-down version of education as public policy choose something different for their own children. Thus, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—who famously fought with teachers over class size and test-based evaluations—sends his children to the University of Chicago Lab School (Spielman 2011). The school has seven full-time art teachers and three libraries, and the school’s director, David Magill, writes that “world languages, libraries and the arts are not frills. They are an essential piece of a well-rounded education.” Further, Magill explains that his school does not evaluate teachers based on standardized tests: “[M]easuring outcomes through standardized testing and referring to those results as the evidence of learning and the bottom line is, in my opinion, misguided” (Elk 2012).

Indeed, although the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) has been a vociferous booster of the Rocketship model of education, the hometown schools of MMAC’s leaders seem to be closer to Finland’s model than to Rocketship’s. MMAC Chairman Ted Kellner lives in Thiensville, where the local elementary school is Oriole Lane; MMAC President Tim Sheehy lives in Fox Point, where the local school is Stormonth Elementary. Both schools are ranked among the state’s highest performers. Both have approximately 15 students for every licensed teacher, or half the Rocketship ratio. Both offer a broad curriculum including music and art. Both have libraries and both have computer labs, but neither uses them to replace teachers with online instruction. At Stormonth Elementary in Mr. Sheehy’s hometown—but not at Rocketship—students even have the option of studying Spanish. Finally, both schools boast veteran teaching staffs, and identify these as part of the backbone of their success. An Oriole Lane administrator, for instance, boasts of having a “very stable teaching staff,” with 90 percent of teachers possessing master’s degrees. (Smith 2014; Oriole Lane Elementary n.d.; Stormonth Elementary n.d.)

The sole purpose of “Rocketship Education” is to make money for rich people at the expense of our children. What is happening to the children of Milwaukee – and if not stopped it will soon be in our rural public schools – is absolutely immoral. It is intellectually crippling these children for life and destroying any chance they have for a decent future. The unethical dismantling of public education taking place in Wisconsin is morally beneath us as Americans, as Wisconsinites, and as human beings.

Please, as citizens, as educators, and as people who care about our children – and they are all our children – take the time to read Gordon Lafer’s report from the Economic Policy Institute. We cannot let this continue.