Thursday, August 28, 2003

“An Enron Education”

One of the claims made for George W. Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas was that he had galvanized the state’s educational system. Bush’s supporters pointed proudly to lowered dropout rates, improved attendance, and—the Holy Grail—higher test scores. The education issue helped make Bush more attractive to many voters, and he used the Texas model of tests and accountability as the backbone of his “No Child Left Behind” education legislation. He also rewarded Rod Paige, superintendent of the high-achieving Houston school system, by naming him U.S. Secretary of Education.

Now school districts all over the country are struggling to duplicate Texas’s feat and live the “Lake Woebegone Dream”—to reach that blessed radio land where “all the children are above average.” Schools face increasingly stiff penalties if they fail to measure up in attendance, dropout rate, and test scores. Here in West Virginia, the state just released a list of over three hundred of our schools which are “low performing”—including every high school in our region. Calhoun County High School, Gilmer County High School, Braxton County High School, Roane County High School, Ritchie County High School, and Wirt County High School—they’re all on the list..

The problem? Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure. A belated audit has revealed that thousands of school dropouts in Texas were hidden by showing the students as having “transferred” to another school. Students who would lower test score averages were pushed out of the system. In Houston, twelve out of fourteen schools rated among the “best,” based on the data which they originally submitted, had to be reclassified with the “worst” once the audit was completed. Moreover, teachers claim that test scores were altered to show significant improvement. And subsequent testing has shown little if any narrowing of the gap between black and white students in math and science.

Paige did make improvements in aspects of the Houston school district. He improved the district’s self-image, raised teacher pay, and improved morale. He improved special education services. But the bottom-line measures—dropout rates, test scores, and attendance figures—were gussied up. The model we’re following, it turns out, isn’t a model of dramatically-improved teaching and learning. It’s a model of fabricated figures, falsification of records, and phony publicity. It’s to education what Enron was to the business world. Both served to promote the career of Mr. Bush. Both appeared to be spectacular successes. Both, in fact, were colossal frauds.

So why isn’t this a major news story? Trent Lott’s bumbling tribute to Strom Thurmond, or Bill Clinton’s reprehensible conduct with Monica Lewinsky, could draw headlines for weeks or even months. But those events are trifling compared with this story. Every public school in the country has the demands of “No Child Left Behind” hanging over it like the sword of Damocles.

Parents and teachers know that education builds skill by skill, concept by concept, and that the building takes time. But “No Child Left Behind” assumes that schools, with the same teachers and the same kids they had last year, will transform themselves in what, educationally, is the blink of an eye. Because Texas did it, under Mr. Bush. Just as Enron could regularly turn profits of 20% or more annually. A lot of people bought Enron stock. And voted for Mr. Bush as an “education President.” Welcome to the real world.

© Tony Russell, 2003

Thursday, August 21, 2003

“How to Bake a War” (An Heirloom Recipe from the Bush Family Album)

This recipe has been handed down from generation to generation in our family. I know you’re going to love it! And it’s so easy to make--almost foolproof. Even a dunce, if he follows the directions carefully, can whip up a war in only a few months. A steady diet of this tasty treat isn’t advisable, but as an occasional course, it promotes popularity and wins elections. Goes especially well with economic downturns. Not recommended for the thoughtful or tenderhearted.

Step 1: Assemble your main ingredients. Begin by demonizing the leader of the country you wish to attack. Stir constantly in the press and on TV talk shows until the desired image is firmly implanted. Important: You cannot compare him too often to Hitler! This strategy has consistently produced the desired results for us. (See “Manuel Noriega,” “Osama bin Laden,” and “Saddam Hussein.”) Ignore any references to the fact that previously your country curried favor with the demon; supplied him with money and arms; and cheerfully overlooked any corruption, massacres, or human rights abuses he might have been a party to.

Step 2: Portray the intended victim as a threat to the United States or vital U.S. interests.
Don’t be deterred by the fact that most of the nations you wish to attack will be far too distant and too weak for this to seem credible. References to classified “intelligence reports” purportedly documenting the threat may be introduced to the recipe at this point. Some variant of the formula “Release of this information could compromise ongoing diplomatic efforts as well as intelligence or law enforcement investigations or operations” has proven consistently effective. What can your opposition do? Since the supposed documentation is classified, this leaves the war’s opponents fumbling for answers. Highly recommended.

Step 3: If at all possible, provoke a “provocation.” Send warplanes into the victim’s air space. Seize upon affronts to U.S. citizens; exaggerate wildly if necessary. (See “Panama.”) If unable to secure the necessary provocation, stage one (see “Gulf of Tonkin”) or insist there is a link between the victim and an earlier attacker. (See “World Trade Center” and “Saddam Hussein.”)

Step 4: Reiterate frequently that you view war as a last resort, and that you will do everything possible to settle this matter diplomatically, while in fact doing everything possible to make diplomacy unworkable. Simultaneously, proceed full speed ahead with mobilization for your intended invasion. ("When I say I'm a patient man, I mean I'm a patient man and that we will look at all options and we will consider all technologies available to us, and diplomacy and intelligence.")

Step 5: Keep new justifications for the war in reserve, and introduce them to the mix promptly as opponents begin to undercut earlier justifications. This frustrates your opponents, who operate under the delusion that they can reason their way out of war. The resulting confusion works to your advantage; the public assumes that “Where there’s so much smoke, there must be a fire.” (Examples: “Saddam Hussein’s possesses huge stores of weapons of mass destruction which pose an immediate threat to the United States.” “We have to act before we have mushroom clouds floating over our cities.” “There are links between Saddam Hussein and the terrorist al-Qaeda network.” “He is a cruel dictator who has done terrible things to his own people.” “We are planting seeds of freedom and democracy in that part of the world.”)

Step 6: Disregard grassroots opposition and initial public distaste for war. History shows that, once our troops go into battle, the majority of the public will confuse supporting their sons and daughters with supporting the war.

Step 7: How a dish is presented is an important part of the total dining experience. Garnish with martial music, an abundance of flags, and red, white, and blue bunting.

Step 8: Push through the initial opposition and place troops under fire. Turn up the heat. At the point where our people are dying, anger and solidarity kick in, and your dish is nearly done.

Step 9: Do not leave troops in the oven too long. Public support can cool quickly, leading to deflated polls.

© Tony Russell, 2003