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On Contact: The end of public education with Noliwe Rooks

Chris Hedges talks to Cornell University Professor Noliwe Rooks about how America’s public education system, under successive administrations, continues to be segregated along racial lines, and what is taught is often shaped by business goals and ideas. With the rise of charter schools, a cover for privatization, steering public money towards corporate profits, the most disturbing trends are cyber charter schools where children only have to check-in with teachers three times a week, term papers outsourced and graded in India, and the advent of cyber classes for pre-K children.
Rooks’ book, now in paperback, is entitled ‘Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation and the End of Public Education’.

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CH: Some of the college students I teach in prison say they never experienced overt racism growing up, they were not attacked and insulted with racially derogatory language.  But then I asked them to describe the overcrowded schools they attended in poor, urban neighborhood, the dilapidated and often unsafe facilities, the lack of textbooks, lab equipment and computers in the presence of police and metal detectors in the hallways, the bullying and fights, and constant stress that makes it hard to concentrate.  I then described the Princeton Public Schools where I live.  This is the modern face I tell them of racism.  United States does not educate the poor the way it educates the wealthy and it certainly does not educate them with the wealthy.  The separate segregated and unequal forms of education, divided largely along the lines of race has perniciously given rise to an industry that seeks to profit from the selling of education all in the name of rectifying the gross injustices meted out to poor boys and girls.  Joining me in the studio to discuss our system of educational apartheid and the corporations who have found a way to profit from it is Noliwe Rooks, Professor at Cornell University, and the author of “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education.”  Very important book.

NR: Thank you so much.

CH: And from the start, you lay out that we do know how to educate, but there is fierce resistance not only among the ruling elites, but among the liberal class.  I think, at one point, you quote a pole about how liberal whites, in theory, would like quality education for all children, but they don’t want bussing.

NR: Right.

CH: So, let’s just begin there.  We know what works.

NR: Uh-hmm.  We do.  And one of the things, I think, I discovered writing this book, because you have to research the book to write it and it wasn’t that I knew all of this before I started to research the book, how well we know how to educate kids who are poor, kids who are black, kids who are Latin, it’s how many teachers, experiments, schools, superintendents we’ve had who have done it well.  And so looking over time, like, you know, the book is--actually goes back to reconstruction, post-reconstruction and makes this argument from post reconstruction up to the 21st century.  And what I found is that there’s generally support for educational experimentation for idiosyncratic forms of education.  For things that sound right to people who are in those schools, not in those communities, that makes sense to them.  But the actual things that we know, building up self-esteem, having black teachers.  You know, the last data that we have, one black teacher before the third grade for a black child increases the likelihood of college graduation by twenty percent.

CH: Let’s talk about the industry that’s been built up to profit off of educational inequality.

NR: Yeah, I am--you know, you mention that we never educate poor kids or kids of color in the same way that we do the wealthy.  I think actually grappling with how different those forms of education are in private schools versus public schools in highly resource districts versus struggling districts and when you start to say, “Well, why are--why does testing look the way that it does?  And why does it impact poor kids in certain, school districts?”

CH: And can I just interject there?  Because I know this from the book.  In fact, when these kids are in good schools, there isn’t a disparity with testing.

NR: Right.  Right.  Yeah.

CH: We know that.  We know that.

NR: The issue really is--for me, the issue began with, why do we seem so committed to segregated schools?  Segregated education?  Why the resistance from 1954 on pre-1950 for the first law suit arguing for a black, parent arguing for equal education for their child is 1848 in Boston, right?  So, it’s not just a sudden thing but why?  Why is that happening?  And the thing that you consistently see is you want a different kind in quality of education for some kids.  And the question really is why?  One of the answers, I think, that there are number of answers.  We tend to just, sort of say racism.  We tend to say we just don’t know each other well enough.  But one of the things that I consistently found is there are businesses that profit from segregation that need high-levels of segregation.  Some in the charter school industry, the publicly funded, privately run schools that are expanding in some urban and rural areas, you know, what they’re really going for is what they called 90/90/90 Schools.  Like, their profit is…

CH: Explain what that is.

NR: …is based on 90/90/90 Schools.  Those are 90% children of color, 90% poor kids and 90% of kids who are performing below grade level.

CH: I want to point--I want to look at exactly what they do, but you make a point in the book that the wealthy schools, like in Princeton, they’re not doing this.

NR: They don’t do these things, no.

CH: They’re not doing destroying brick and mortar for online classes.  The statistics you had in here is staggering in terms of the utter failure.  This is Betsy DeVos, of course.  But let’s talk about how this has become and amazingly profitable industry under the guise of socially, culturally bettering the lives of the poor.  It reminds me of King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild where King Leopold is going down there and commits genocide against Congolese on the rubber plantations, all in the name of fighting slavery.  It’s exactly the same kind of hypocrisy.  But this is a huge industry--I just have to point out because it’s in the book, which I did not know, that Michael Milken the Junk Bond felon, who was just pardoned by Trump, is deepen into this stuff, and I think here from your book, is still worth three billion dollars.  But it is a huge industry and it’s very cynical and very manipulative because it--in the name of confronting these injustices, it perpetuates them.  ;

NR: Uh-hmm.  Yeah.  One of the things that really led me to start looking in and trying to understand this was I was teaching at Princeton.  And around 2009, I had all these students who were white, who were wealthy, who buy their own admissions.  So, they just didn’t know a lot about poor communities that their schools, they work--you don’t come to Princeton buy and large from struggling schools.  You yourself may be from a lower socioeconomic level, you just don’t get there from poor schools very often.  So, you know, all of these, you know, white wealthy students, they were like, “Yeah, we know how to solve what’s wrong in struggling communities.  We get it.  We have seen the light.” And I was trying to understand.  Well, for, you know, for--at--literally, at first, I was a little bit charmed and was thinking 1964 Freedom Summer, right?  So at least initially I was kind of, “Like this is kind of like that,” where…

CH: You hadn’t--think about Princeton by then?

NR: I’ve--I had a moment, you know, I have hope.  I’m a prisoner of hope in a way.  So, I’m kind of, like, “This group is doing--is a little bit different.” But what they kept telling me is this the civil rights issue for our generation.  This is the unfinished work of the civil rights movement.  They had slogans like a child ZIP code.  It should not determine the quality education.  All true.  All inarguably, you know, true.  But up underneath it, what I consistently found was because they didn’t know any--like, they just did know poor people.  They would say things, like, well, the fault of under-education lies in those communities, lies with those parents, lies with those guardians because if they valued education of those communities and those individuals valued education, the system wouldn’t look like that.

CH: That’s--so you’ve been reading David Brooks?

NR: So, it’s a constant--it’s a--I mean, they were constantly against not a systemic issue, it’s an individual issue.  But the pernicious thing for me is that, again, they were speaking not from even experience, which Brooks is good for, right?  He’s all, like, let’s generalize my experience though.  They didn’t have any experience.  And yet they were indict entire communities and never propose the kind of education that they had as the way to fix it.

CH: But from your book, I mean, however revolting, and it is revolting, this kind of, you know, this basically racial supremacy, white supremacy, but there are power figures.  Bill Gates, Eli Broad, who have billions of dollars and the same attitude but the ability to do a lot of them.

NR: And Michael Bloomberg.

CH: Michael Bloomberg, there you go.

NR: Like at New York City Schools, I don’t actually talk about him much in the book, but he--his administration really did take a lot of these experiments that we have seen spread and tried them out here first.  Cyber education didn’t start in Silicon Valley.  The most--or supposed successful examples are out in Silicon Valley.  However, they really start in New York City, billionaires, and Diane Ravitch, a Educational Researcher.

CH: I’ve interviewed her.  She’s good.

NR: Yeah.  So she calls them the Billionaire Boys Club.  We now have women who are amongst the Billionaire Class.  Steve Jobs is widow, is with the Emerson Collective, funding many of these kinds of experimental thing.  So, it’s my students at Princeton on steroids because unlike my students who were kind of, like, “I get it.  I see the--what’s wrong.”  They need more of what I have, what I know, what I would do.  These billionaires have the money to have their experiment tried out and expanded all across the country.  So, from Bloomberg to Mark Zuckerberg came into Newark and pledged a hundred million dollars.  And like a business person said, “You know, okay.  Five years.  You got five years, I’ll give you a hundred million dollars,” there was actually some matching grants there but when they’re all done, you know, you--we will have turned things around and we’ll have demonstrable things to show and we’ll be able to scale this up everywhere and hunting everyone.  And when they announced this, he and Cory Booker, Mary Chris--Governor Chris Christie at the time on the Oprah Show, everyone was just, “Yes.  Hundred million.”  Clearly, clearly, you have figured out how to do this.  And at the end of the five years, everyone pretty much acknowledged that this was the most expensive educational failure that anyone had ever seen because they kept trying to do things that don’t actually work.

CH: I want to come back to that in detail.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about segregation in education with Professor Noliwe Rooks.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about our segregated educational system with Professor Noliwe Rooks.  So, before the break, we were talking about Newark.  Explain the disaster that it was.

NR: Well, a big--the three big things that they managed to do with this, one, over sixty percent of the money went to hire consultants to tell them what to do.  Now, the reason that I--

CH: We’re talking $100,000,000?

NR: Yeah.  Yeah.  Yeah.

CH: So $60,000,000 went to consultants?

NR: $60,000,000 went--$62,000,000, I believe it is…

CH: Wow.

NR: …went to consultants to come in and tell them look at the district, give them advise, tell them what should happen.  The thing is, you know what I mean?  This is a little horrifying to me about that--about that figure was supposedly this money was being give--excuse me, given because they knew what to do, because they had it all figured out, because they had a plan of action.  So, you have to spend $60,000,0000 now to have other people come in and tell you what exactly.  They also had to spend about thirty something million dollars to pay past teachers’ contracts.  So, teachers had been working without a contract because the district was saying we have no money, like, as soon as we get some money, though, you know, we’re going to--we’re going to live up to our obligations.  So, a big chunk of money went to that, the rest of it went to expand charter schools, which caused all manner of issues in the district where the majority of kids don’t attend charter schools, how it was drawing from money from traditional public schools, how kids were supposed get to school.  There were all kids of parents that were like “You want my child, you’re not providing transportation here.  You want my child, I want my child to attend this charter school.  They have to cross over literal gang territory as kids pass through two different hostile kinds of territory to get there and you’re saying that this is a good thing and, no, I can’t just pick up and move closer to the school.”  So, what is supposed to happen?  The consultants that they paid the $60,000,000 to apparently didn’t tell them.

CH: Statically, I mean, just let me ask you first, there is an--a huge attempt to an assault against public education.  There’s a charter school in Princeton, which no one wants and who’s at the charter school?  Well, no one who needs English as a second language, no one with learning disabilities, the only “minorities” are Asian.  The Black and Latinos are negligible as a presence.  They’re all left because they’re more expensive to educate in, you know, at the public school and you’re draining money into the charter schools.  And this is replicated.  There’s also that whole militarization of education, you know, they put them in uniforms.  And then there’s the whole vocational aspect.  But before we get into the mode of the people who push it and often profit from it, why are charter schools so pernicious in terms of educating young boys and girls?

NR: Well, the reason--well, the issues with them have to do with these experimental tech--practices that they often engage in, but--however the reason that they tend to come about, I remember when the Princeton Charter School was opened, is a bunch of Princeton Professors who did not think the public schools, highly ranked public school in Princeton, were doing a good enough job teaching math and science to their kids.  So, they were looking at how their kids were coming home like “Oh, we should be able to do much better.  Let’s start our own school.”  With no kind of background in educational this or this or that, no kind--they--let’s start--it’s--Blue Ribbon School won awards, they took very highly educated kids and had smaller classrooms, more rigorous curriculum, and so the test scores went up which that’s how you determine if people are doing well in charter school.  But in general, what happens is, given that tax dollars fund the majority of public education in our communities and there are thousands of--I forgot the number now, I think the last time, it was, like, 17,000 public school districts across the country.  And the majority of that money is coming from property tax, what people pay to live in those communities.  What you have are--and then the tax dollars follow the child.  So, if they go to a public charter school, the money, whatever it is, in Princeton, when I was there, it was about $20,000.  In Trenton, which is not far down the road, was like $7,000 per child.  Whatever the amount is per child follows the child to the charter school.  What that means is if you have 10 kids who are taking their $20,000 from point A to point B, you quickly start coming up with a budget gap with a short fall.  A district that had had $200,000 more, the season before all of a sudden is plugging holes, is trying to figure out, well, where--what--where do I have to take that from?  For districts that are poor already, they don’t have a big tax space, that don’t--property owner in Trenton, 90% of the property is rental property.  There’s not a big tax base there to support the public schools.  What you end up is a hole that gets bigger, and deeper, and wider.  So, you end up having to increase class sizes for the kids who are left behind.  You have to cut college councilors, you have to cut social workers, cut art classes, cut PE, cut dancing enrichment.  You have to cut what people consider the fluff, right?  Because we have to, of course, you know, keep teaching math and keep teaching science so, it’s not--it’s not value neutral.  Money goes from point A to point B and these billionaires who really could, if they were of a mind to, if they wanted to take their money and say “We want to experiment.  We want charter schools, we want this experiment, but we’re going to actually pay for students who want to go.  We will reimburse the district.  While we’re doing our experiment over here and the things that are successful that maybe we can talk about having them work.”  But no, the money is almost like Trump’s wall when he’s kind of like “Mexico’s going to pay for the wall.”  The money for this is coming from the traditional public schools and weakening them while enriching a small group of kids, you know?  I mean, I think it--the last thing I saw is about 15% of kids in the country--all over the country attend charter schools of some sort, that means 85% could--shouldn’t we at least at some point be focusing on where the 85% are going?

CH: And--but you have Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, a huge proponent of charter schools.  And I just want to--because it’s in the book, we know statistically that these schools in fact don’t demand individual testing.

NR: The majority do not.

CH: The majority do not raise test scores.  And then this whole online, which is a very lucrative business, you know, putting kids in front of a screen as if that’s going to somehow replicate a classroom experience.  You write about Agora Cyber Charter School.  And “Only 60% of the students are behind the grade level of math,” this is from a New York Times report.  Fifty percent trailed in reading, a third did not graduate on time, hundreds of children, from kindergarten to seniors, withdrew within months after they enrolled.  By Wall Street standards, you’re quoting them again from this New York Times story.  By Wall Street standards, though, “Agora’s remarkable success that has helped enrich K12 Inc., a publicly traded company that manages the school and the entire enterprise is paid for by the tax payers.”  Right.  So, it’s lucrative in term of its ability to generate profit, but a disaster generally across the board for the students.

NR: For education.

CH: Now we have the data in and yet it--it’s accelerating--and let’s not let Arne Duncan off the hook here under the Obama administration, Obama also pushed this for the same kinds of reasons.

NR: From Clinton on.  From Clinton on.

CH: From Clinton on.

NR: I mean, really it was from Raegan on.  So, Raegan just sort of cracked open the door with William Bennett, his Secretary of Education who was big into privatization, big into let’s let business, let’s let industry, let’s have business practices really get in here and fix some of what we see as waste, and wasting--like why do people need to spend all these time with all these other things when we have businesses saying we need workers?  And we need workers trained in certain kinds of ways and that training is overwhelmingly is in math and sciences, so let’s just kind of refocus on that.

CH: But let me take that point because they’re not actually training them in math and science the way Princeton trains them, they’re training them in numerical literacy to work at low wage jobs.

NR: Yes.  Yes.

CH: This is about cementing into place a class project that keeps people of color…

NR: It has.

CH: …a caste system.

NR: Yeah.  It’s a caste system.  The level--one of the ways it’s easier--easiest I think to see, you often hear in poor communities or in schools, or, you know, we need more--we’re being left behind technologically.  We need--the--honestly the way that cyber education has gained such a foothold in urban and rural poor communities to educate kids is the companies that run them give the families broadband access, some high percentage of Black and Latin families actually use the internet--I mean, their phones to access the internet.  They don’t have broadband access.  So, they say “Well, you can’t do some of this, you know, data intensive kind of learning on your phone, so we’ll give all--everyone in the family will have access to broadband and a laptop so the whole family will become literate.  When you--and maybe they’ll learn some coding.  So, it’s that, it’s like, let’s just give you access and let’s teach you how to code.  Neither in upper middle class in wealthier--in Silicon Valley, coding is not a profession.  Coding is a set of skills that’s outsourced at this point.  It’s not something, it’s not like engineering, it’s not something you go to school to do except for these kids.

CH: But I just want to quote you writing about the virtual schools.  “Students rarely even hear or see their teachers.  At some Cyber School Charter Schools students need only to sign into the school website and/or communicate the teacher once every three days to prove they’re actually attending.  In Wisconsin, a state legislative unit found that sixteen percent of the virtual teachers surveyed had contact with individual students as little as three times a month.  Other schools insurance in the state outsource duties such as paper grading the contractors in India, making it difficult for the teachers to meaningfully explain to students the basis of the grades they receive.  While virtual education is a growth industry in Wisconsin, it is important to note that the state has the largest achievement gap between black and white students in the country, and ranks last in reading comprehension tests among black fourth graders.  And yet this is an expanding industry.

NR: Right.  Actually, just recently, some places have started to bring online virtual preschools.  What you--what you imagine a preschool to be that the child--it used to be that they started in kindergarten.  So now, the expansion is going even further.

CH: Wow.

NR: Where your kid is sitting in front of a computer to learn whatever, colors, to learn--with no real checks and balances, no creativity, no play, that’s starting earlier and earlier creating this kind of divide that then there’s a whole industry that has sprung up to tell you, you need to pay them to close it, right?  Like--so you get these educational gaps.  Of course you do.  If you have some kids who are learning to expression, creativity, and having people notice, one of the things I know when my son went to a private school, we were in Princeton but we ended up having to put him in a private school at one point, and we had teachers coming to us and saying things like, “Do you know he’s an oral learner?”  So, if you show--he’s not a visual learner.  That’s really hard for him, like, if you show it to him, for some reason, he doesn’t get it as fast the first time.  He needs to hear it.  And if he hears it three times then he gets it.  We had teachers who were able to tailor how he learned.

CH: Of course.

NR: You know, two, how he would best learn.  This was not some extra, this wasn’t an add-on, this is just what they, you know, at the private school, thought that the kids they were teaching needed.

CH: Well…

NR: Why wouldn’t we have that?  Why?

CH: We know…

NR: we do not have that for poor kids.

CH: We know why.  We know why.  We know why.  And…

NR: Because you’re creating a caste system.

CH: Right.  So--of course.  And now all these people in Silicon Valley, they can go to these--send their kids to these schools.  I would stop this in an instant.  Thank you.  That was Cornell Professor, Noliwe Rooks, about her book, “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the end of Public Education.”

NR: Thank you.

CH: That was great.  Thank you so much.

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