Tag Archives: think tanks

Poisoning the well of public debate

Following up on my previous post about talking points for the #MeToo backlash, I did a google search for the phrase “meet the women worried about metoo” and found two articles of interest, one rebutting talking points and another, earlier article, that was propagating them for somebody’s profit. Exploring these articles and the connections between them can lead us to insights about how propaganda happens in the twenty-first century and some potential solutions.

Poison and its rebuttal

Since it’s more pleasant reading, I’ll start with the rebuttal: “People Still Have No Idea What The #MeToo Movement Is Actually About” by Callie Byrnes, January 11th 2018.

It appeared on a site called thoughtcatalog.com, which I hadn’t heard on, so my first step was to wonder, “Okay, who’s funding this?” If I’m going to do true critical thinking I can’t simply criticize sources that challenge my own world view but must also suspect those that confirm them. To my pleasant surprise, their funding appears to come from the sale of products (such as books) rather than the pockets of the ultra-rich.

Byrne summarizes her main points here:

It’s as if people have taken the #MeToo movement and twisted it backwards and sideways and so many directions that it’s stopping them from focusing on what it really is: a movement against sexual harassment and assault. It’s not anti-men. It’s not anti-sex. It’s not Victorian or puritanic. It’s not meant to create victims on either side. It’s about stopping a problem we’ve always had but have always overlooked — and the only reason it seems like a “revolution” is because people are finally paying attention.

Nicely argued, and if I were debating #MeToo on social media, I’d do well to start with these points. But there’s another question: Why do we have to bother? Why can’t we just get on with our work rather than continually answering irrelevant questions?

I’d suggest the answer is right there in her quote, with a few tweaks (in bold and strikeout). It’s exactly as if somebody has taken #MeToo twisted it backwards and sideways and so many directions in order to focus attention away from it’s central message.

Then who is that somebody? Yesterday I pointed to the “Meet the women . . .” article, published in Spiked Online, December 19, 2017. That article was pushing the talking points anti-sex (“Real feminists don’t think sex is dirty”), Victorian victims (“Women as victims/fainting flowers”), Puritanic (“Witch hunt”), and victims on both sides (“innocent people destroyed”).

But that’s only one among many of well-funded think tank pieces, so today I’ll pick on an article published in The Federalist, “The #MeToo Movement Is DestroyingTrust Between Men And Women” by D.C. McAllister.

First, what is the Federalist and who funds it? It’s an online magazine with a tag line “Be lovers of freedom and anxious for the fray” (meaning: get involved in social media fights). It’s free and with limited advertising, which suggests funding from another source. Well, what does that mean? It’s operating under capitalism. There is a buyer, a seller, and a product. FDRLST Media is the seller, the buyer is unknown, and the product is manipulation of public opinion.

The product of this article is talking points, specifically Glittering Generalities, Destroying Trust, Demonizing Men or Masculinity, Naive Touch/ Innocent Kiss, Destroying the Rule of Law, Propagation of Fear, Totalitarianism, Policing of Sex and Love. Here are the examples:

  • Glittering Generalities (all of which are theoretically threatened): “Freedom and community flourish in a culture of trust,” “free, civil society,” “free society,” “we must have faith,” “free and happy,” “relationship freedom”
  • Destroying Trust: “breakdown of trust between the sexes,” “distrust is generated,” “environment of suspicion”
  • Demonizing Men or Masculinity: “cannot be labeled toxic, brutal, or evil,” “all men with their masculine sexuality intact are dangerous,” “become eunuchs,” “abandoning their natural sexuality”
  • Naive Touch/Innocent Kiss: “When anything from a naive touch during a photo shoot to an innocent attempt at a kiss is compared to rape”
  • Destroying the Rule of Law: “men never know when they will be presented at the court of injustice as a “sexual abuser”
  • Propagation of Fear: “when fear of the other sex becomes generalized, society simply can’t thrive,” “women assume a man’s sexuality is a threat,” “fear is generated on both sides,” “live in fear of a woman’s accusation”
  • Totalitarianism: “as was done in the past by certain totalitarian religions regarding feminine sexuality,” “political freedom breaks down,” “silenced through threats and intimidation,” “totalitarian regimes incite fear to maintain power,” “totalitarianism thrives on distrust,” “court of injustice”
  • Policing of Sex and Love: “harmless flirting is stifled,” “love is eradicated,” “sex being policed as a result of the sexual harassment with-hunt,” “in [1984], sex was severely regulated and loving relationships between men and women forbidden,” “robbing ourselves of mutual affection,” “one day we will wake up and feel the hollowness within, find that we’re alone”

These talking points are manipulating peoples’ basic values, deep insecurities, and genuine need for love. So they’re powerful and they get replicated. Like a cold virus. Replicated how much? Well, according to the traffic analysis website SimilarWeb, the Federalist gets five million visits every six months. So it’s replicated a lot.

(Replicated . . . for free. I already said there’s a buyer, a seller, and a product. There’s also unpaid, volunteer labor. All those folks who read the magazine and recycle its talking points are doing it on their own time.)

So that’s why authors like Byrne end up having to rebut such manipulative talking points: because the points come at us so hard and so fast and in such great numbers. Like a swarm of angry hornets or a cloud of mosquitoes. Or spam in our email inboxes.

Even worse: they’re coming at us from our friends and family members. People we trust. Even people who are on our side of whichever issue.

Is there an antidote?

On an individual level, the solution is to turn off social media and walk away. I know a few people who have done that. But let’s be realistic: social media is here to stay. And we need a collective solution for the problem.

What would it look like? Let’s use spam as an analogy. In the early days of the Internet, a few enterprising people learned you could make money by emailing huge numbers of people. At first the emails came in a trickle, and people read them carefully and emailed back saying “I don’t want your emails!” Eventually somebody got annoyed enough to name them, spam, after a Monty Python song. Eventually people built tools to automate it.

I don’t know if people can build tools to automate propaganda detection (it’s all about the context, the motivation of the entity spreading the phrase, etcetera) and in any case that sounds like a hazardous experiment in deliberate centralized censorship.

But we could name it, catalog it, learn to recognize it, and develop a quick and easy response. I have some ideas, which are just for starters.

On naming it: I’ve been using the term “think tank talking point” or “propaganda” but neither really work for that short, seductive, manipulative nugget of language that causes so much trouble. Maybe there is a word and I just don’t know it? Is there a linguist in the house?

On cataloging it: Somehow, seeing all the points in one list robs them of their power and makes them easy to recognize in casual use.

On developing a quick and easy response: A good response doesn’t shoot the messenger. If my friend says, “Oh, sure I support #metoo, but I don’t support policing kisses,” I could call my friend all sorts of names, or I could cuss at the Federalist and either ignore the statement or ask my friend to kindly put it in their own words.

-Kristin
ouat3-20kansas

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Talking points for the #MeToo backlash

We all know that political discussion on social media can be infuriating, hazardous, frustrating, a minefield, a hornet’s nest, et cetera. And we’re starting to understand how easily social media can be used to manipulate us. But here’s something we don’t know: people with money can pay to design talking points that get allies fighting among ourselves. When this happens invisibly, we have no defense. But we can learn.

Let’s start with a metaphor. A well designed talking point, or meme, is like a hand grenade. It’s thrown carelessly and it does more damage than anyone expected. Or it’s an unethical translator. A says one thing, B translates it for their own personal gain, and C loses trust in A. Or perhaps a virus. An idea that on the surface sounds so good, so exactly like the point you were going to make yourself, that you spread it everywhere. But it has a payload you weren’t expecting.

With that groundwork in place, let’s take a look at some talking points against the #metoo backlash as they appear in a site built by a P.R. firm to change the world by shaping discourse. I’m not going to link directly to their site but SourceWatch has a page for them here and the Wayback machine has generously provided a glimpse at their original intentions when they launched in 2000: “nothing less than the creation of a new language for political, social and cultural writing in the twenty-first century”.

(By the way, the page also makes mention of “fresh, non-consensual thinking.” That’s not what they meant to say, I’m sure, but I find it apt. If propaganda can shape our words, it also shapes our thinking. And when it does so invisibly, there is an element of consent that gets lost.)

Anyway, their article, “Meet the women worried about #MeToo”, gathers opinions from thirteen women on why the #metoo crowd is a bunch of weak victims who are gathered in a screaming mob to chop heads off innocent men. We could go through point by point and refute their arguments, or we could do something different for a change. We could catalog them. With no further ado:

Talking Points for the #Metoo backlash

(I found all these in that single article, by the way.)

A. Destroying REAL feminism 

A1. Real feminists don’t think sex is dirty

A2. Women as victims / fainting flowers

A3. My generation kicked them in the balls

A4. Turning back the clock on sexual equality

A5. Watch your privilege!

B. Hysterical mob

B1. Mob violence

B2. Witch hunt

B3. Beheading

B4. Panic

B5. Mass hysteria

C. That’s not really assault

C1. Confusing real assault with failed advances

C2. Trivializes real sexual violence

C3. Phantom sexual harassment

C4. You can’t touch my elbow

D. Totalitarianism

D1. Censorship

D2. George Orwell

D3. Bullying women to conform

E. The legal system

E1. Presumed innocent / no due process

E2. Innocent people destroyed

E3. If it’s not against the law, it’s not assault

E4. All we need to do is fix the law

Examples

“we are throwing knee-touching into the same basket as rape” – C1, C4

“sex itself seems increasingly to be seen as dirty” – A1

“destroy almost any man by a single accusation” – E1

“in need of shielding” – A2

“celebrates conformity and demonises dissent” – D3

“it was supposed to be about empowering women” – A3

“this is a witch-hunt” – B2

“return women to delicate, Victorian damsels who reach for the smelling salts if they hear a lewd joke” – A1, A2

“accused of transgressions no reasonable person would define as a crime” – E3

“even decades later” – C3

“The heads keep rolling” – B3

“A charge of creepiness is a death sentence” – E2

“ensuring that the lives of innocent people are not destroyed” – E2

“every male as a potential predator and every female as a perpetual victim” – A2

“modern feminism all but ignores the plight of the most oppressed women around the world” – A5

“turning the clock back on hard-won sexual equality” – A4

“Raise qualms and watch the insults roll” – D1

“those of us who have spent years metaphorically kicking sex pests in the balls” – A3

“bullying climate” – D3

“phantom sexual-harassment epidemics” – C3

“fainting-couch nonsense” – A2

What’s Next?

The first step in countering think tank talking points is to find them in the first place. I found it enjoyable – with just a think tank article and a highlighter pen, I was able to take a pile of glowing propaganda and identify the core messages being pushed by the funders, thereby dismantling it until it turned into naked sludge of ugly insults. Fun.

But it would be much more fun as a shared exercise. You could do the same thing to any propaganda campaign, really. Or you could take it one step farther and identify which of the many propaganda techniques are being used. Or consider what’s deliberately left unsaid.

If we can develop a shared understanding of think-tank memes, we’ll be much better prepared to explore the important issues on our own terms.   Using our own words, finding our own thoughts. That’s consensual thinking at its finest.

– Kristin

witch hunter

 

 

 

 

Hate speech not welcome

At my kid’s school, there’s an assembly every Monday morning. A student is given the honor of reading the school expectations, which are posted conspicuously:

I use respectful language. I am in the right place at the right time. I keep my body in my personal space. I move safely on school grounds. I care for school property in a responsible way. I am considerate and respectful of others.

And there’s a sign (from the Safe Schools Coalition) that I see when I walk in the door of the school. It says,

“Degrading racial, ethnic, sexist or homophobic remarks not welcome here. RESPECT the differences.”

The message simple and clear. Our community tries hard to follow it. The call for consideration and respect protects everybody. The sign on the door makes a call out to groups that are protected from hate speech because of historic and continuing oppression. We don’t do a perfect job, but when something goes awry, we are much better equipped to handle the situation because we are all on the same page.

There is broad-based agreement at our school that these are legitimate social expectations, for practical reasons. None of us want our kids to come in from recess with bloody noses and scraped knees.

Until recently, I would have thought there was broad-based agreement within the science fiction and fantasy community as well. However, recent dramas have shown this is not so. There are a sizable number of people who think it’s perfectly fine to make degrading racial, ethnic, sexist or homophobic remarks — but that it’s not okay for a community to try to stop them. There is also a backlash against people the extreme right wing are calling “Social Justice Warriors.”

This by itself is not so surprising to me. What’s surprising is that middle-of-the-road people seem to be going along with them to some extent. Why?

Well, for one thing, the phrase “political correctness” has made a comeback. That phrase is vague and muddles the conversation about what is okay to say and what isn’t. (In a recent post, I suggested there was a reason for that: the millions of dollars that conservative philanthropies have thrown into think tanks and other propaganda efforts.)

The phrase “political correctness” also hides a critical distinction between the kinds of people who use it and the reasons they use it. Some people use it maliciously and nefariously, to cover up or defend hate speech. Others use it sincerely, out of frustration that they don’t feel free to express opinions that do not rise to the level of harrassing, discriminatory, or hate speech.

There’s a need for the science fiction and fantasy community to come up with clear expectations for speech and fair consequences if they are violated. And these expectations should treat hate speech differently than other kinds. I’m not talking censorship here. I’m talking about a community setting standards for itself.

What happens if we don’t? Well, at the moment, somebody’s job is at stake (Irene Gallo) over some comments that she made. Here are the comments:

There are two extreme right-wing to neo-nazi groups, called the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies respectively, that are calling for the end of social justice in science fiction and fantasy. They are unrepentantly racist, misogynist, and homophobic. A noisy few but they’ve been able to gather some Gamergate folks around them and elect a slate of bad-to-reprehensible works on this year’s Hugo ballot.

Her employer, the major SF/F publisher Tor, is being financially threatened by a boycott if she is not fired. The reasoning behind the call for firing is that conservatives have been fired for their public comments, so she should too.

But what’s not mentioned is that some of the firings conservatives are complaining about involved degrading racial, ethnic, sexist or homophobic remarks. If that’s not even mentioned, then as a community how can we possibly set consequences that most people think are fair?

We’re now in a situation that’s bad for everyone, including Tor. If she’s fired, Tor will face a boycott from the left. If she’s not fired, Tor will face a boycott from the extreme right.

Tor’s response was perhaps the best they could do under the circumstances to appease both groups. But there’s something that bugs me. A lot.

In short, we seek out and publish a diverse and wide ranging group of books. We are in the business of finding great stories and promoting literature and are not about promoting a political agenda

There’s that little political correctness complaint again. What political agenda is he talking about? Gallo criticized the Puppies for being openly racist, misogynist, and homophobic. So her political agenda is what?

More important, though, the political agenda of the Puppies is off limits for discussion here. I kind of get that Tor would want to avoid a discussion that would alienate many of its customers. But the discussion needs to happen somewhere, or rather, in as many venues as possible. And it needs to include an acknowledgement that hate speech is not welcome.

As a community, science fiction and fantasy authors, readers, and editors can and should set standards for discourse. The work on that has already begun, but it looks like there’s a long way to go.

For Further Reading 

A balanced post about complaints of political correctness by blogger and cartoonist Amptoons, “Chait Criticizes Exactly The Kind Of Speech We Should Want More Of”.) This post also has an excellent list of links at the end.

From blogger Julian Sanchez, a post from a leftist about the mistakes the left is making when it comes to political correctness, “Chait Speech.”

From the ADA Initiative website, a post about anti-harassment speech that is being done, “Conference anti-harassment work in SF&F, 2014 edition: N. K. Jemisin’s speech, Hugo battles, Frenkel saga & more”.

A blog post by Laura “Tegan” Gjovaag about the Puppies, “The ongoing Hugo mess comes to haunt me again. . .” This is coming from a fan perspective and is written in lively prose.

Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) anti-harassment policies and social media policies on discriminatory speech.

And finally, the Safe Schools Coalition, which created the “Respect the Differences” Sign.

from http://www.safeschoolscoalition.org/

from safeschoolscoalition.org

The history of political correctness

Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Confusion of Tongues, Gustave Doré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When someone complains about “political correctness,” it feels grossly unfair to those of us on the left. But often, when people are using it, they’re complaining about a situation that feels grossly unfair to them. Both sides sense injustice but fail to articulate its specifics. No understanding is possible and the argument festers.

I’m inclined to blame the term itself.  In my last blog post, I suggested that the term is slippery and vague. Well, there’s a reason for that. Although the word “political correctness” has been around for a while, its meaning changed in the early 1990s when the one percent funded a comprehensive attack on “the liberal bias” in education — an attack that continues to this day.

There is a good summary of this attack in the article “Buying a Movement – Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics” by People for the American Way, September 11th, 1996. It explains how corporate foundations pour millions and millions of dollars into shaping public debate on key political issues. They paid for mass media coverage, conservative think tanks, and an organization of conservative university scholars.

I’m interested in just one part of that attack — the use of the terms “politically correct” and “political correctness.” I researched it by logging on to my public library account and searching its article database for those terms in the years 1990 and 1991. (Thank you to my friend Phyllis Fletcher for pointing me to that resource!)

There’s not much until November of 1990, when the Wall Street Journal and New York Times began running articles on the horrors of censorship by liberal faculty and administration.

Who wrote these articles and what were the horrors? It turns out that the National Association of Scholars (NAS) played a key part. The NAS was founded in the 1980s as a network of conservative faculty. In the early 1990s, it received funding from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, and others. It was strongly opposed to multicultural education, and in the 1990s it burst into the spotlight by blocking the inclusion of civil rights readings into an English course and by defunding a Chicano newspaper.

Basically, they were bent on censoring diversity in curriculum. But they couldn’t say that in so many words. Propaganda was necessary to make their efforts palatable to the public.

In November of 1990, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Rabinowitz, wrote the opinion piece “Vive the Academic Resistance” (Wall Street Journal, Nov 13 1990). She defined political correctness here:

PC-ism, as it has come to be called, reigns on campuses from sea to shining sea. Dissent from politically correct positions on women, minorities, multiculturalism and the like comes at a high cost — a cost that may include threats, vandalism, sit-ins, shout-downs, charges of racism and sexism and, frequently, administrative punishment.

This article framed people who dissented from “politically correct positions” as underdogs. It framed attempts to add diversity to the campus as an attack on Western culture. And it framed opposition to NAS scholars as an assault on free speech.

Once Rabinowitz had framed the problem, she presented a solution. She introduced the NAS as a “Resistance Movement.” This meant that, among other things, her article was recruiting conservative university scholars who were “opposed particularly to the new doctrine of multiculturalism.” These scholars would later add their voices and their horror stories to the charges of political correctness that the Wall Street Journal and New York Times were all too happy to print.

A year later, a think-tanker named Dinesh D’Souza wrote the book Illiberal Education, which criticized multicultural education and affirmative action, spoke against student groups formed around skin color, and said that political correctness was “chilling freedom of thought and speech on American campuses.”

D’Souza, who holds extreme views on colonialism, feminism, and black culture, worked for the American Enterprise Institution through a grant from the John M. Olin Foundation. That foundation’s goals were to:

provide support for projects that reflect or are intended to strengthen the economic, political and cultural institutions upon which the American heritage of constitutional government and private enterprise is based.

To translate, “economic” means “free market economy.” “Political” means “a power structure that promotes the free market economy.” And “cultural” means the canon of Western literature. Marxists, feminists, people of color, and environmentalists are not welcome.

Let’s take a quick look at how Dinesh D’Souza articulated his vision of political correctness in the article “PC So Far” published in the journal Commentary in October 1991. There isn’t a simple, clear definition of “political correctness” anywhere.  D’Souza does mention the dictionary definition of politically correct from Merriam-Webster:

marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially race, gender, sexual affinity, or ecology

If you stop and think about the “politically correct” definition, there’s nothing sinister about it. You could just as easily make up a word and call it:

marked by or adhering to a typically conservative orthodoxy on issues involving especially race, gender, sexual affinity, or ecology

But it got sinister overtones in this article. Why? Because in the first paragraph D’Souza suggested that it

seems to have originated in the early part of the century, when it was employed by various species of Marxists to describe and enforce conformity to their preferred ideological positions.

Seems to have? Yes, that’s the kind of slippery wording you often find in propaganda. Where did he get his evidence for this? Who knows! But by inserting this quasi-historical statement, D’Souza had the opportunity to insert the concept of enforced conformity into the definition of political correctness. Neatly done, if sleazy. The next phrase that is almost a definition of political correctness is:

a political and social atmosphere in which politically incorrect opinions are discouraged, villified, and ostracized.

Who are the agents of this villification? Who knows! Which are the politically incorrect opinions? Who knows! What happens to the people who made these opinions in the first place? Who knows! As far as actual meaning goes, this sentence only says, “Some people discourage, villify, and ostracize opinions.” That’s almost true but again, not sinister. I’d wager to say that everybody discourages and villifies opinions. Not sure how somebody ostracizes an opinion, but whatever.

To sum up, D’Souza wrote an entire article on political correctness without defining it. Instead of a definition, he used scaremongering.

###

That was twenty-four years ago. Since then, the propaganda machine built by corporate foundations and think tanks has kept right on chugging along. Foundations have spent a lot of money over the years loading the definition of “political correctness” with innuendo, so it can be used as a weapon against progressive speech. (The NAS, by the way, is still around, still promoting its free-market, anti-multicultural agenda. At the moment, they’re up in arms about the A.P. US History curriculum.)

How do you fight that kind of verbal manipulation? I would just avoid the phrase “politically correct” altogether. It’s been used as manipulation by a disreputable crowd for twenty-four years. Isn’t that enough?

Instead, when there’s a complaint about some situation and the term “political correctness” is used, it’s probably better for both sides to go back to the specifics of the situation itself. This means asking whowhatwhenwherewhy, and how.

For instance, take the word retard. Nobody uses that word any more, and good riddance! But attempts to substitute the word special needs were criticized for political correctness. Who wanted to change the word, and whyWhat did they want to change it to? And how? Meanwhile, who wanted to preserve its use? How did they want to use it? And what kinds of situations did they want it for?

Now, that’s a conversation worth having.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Confidences

Pierre-Auguste Renoir – Confidences

Who makes public policy?

Lawmakers pass laws. Lobbyists influence lawmakers and therefore the laws. But who writes the laws? And most importantly, who decides on the public policy that shapes the laws? That’s the part of government that we don’t usually see. Luckily, it’s easy to find, if you know where to look.

The private sector creates public policy. This includes for-profit corporations, nonprofits, billionaire philanthropists, and think tanks. One well-known example of the private sector creating policy is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – read more about them here.

ALEC does their work in secret, but many organizations do the same thing out in the open. I found this out when I started learning about corporate education reform, which mostly means creating opportunities for the private sector to take public education dollars and use them to “improve” public education and control what is taught to our kids. For the public to swallow this, I learned, it took quite a bit of propaganda. Being a curious person, I researched and wrote a post on the think tanks that create the propaganda.

As it turns out, these same think tanks are holding policy discussions on topics that affect us, and our children, quite intimately. Seattle Public Schools, along with thousands of schools across the nation, is about to administer a suite of tests called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. These tests are meant to measure student mastery of the Common Core, a set of education standards that was designed and promoted by the private sector — specifically, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), two nonprofits. These standards are copyrighted by the NGA and the CCSSO, meaning that any modifications to the standards are completely out of the control of the public.

Let’s go back to the think tanks for a minute. One of the think tankers I mentioned in my blog post on think tankers is named Rick Hess, or Frederick Hess. He’s a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which was founded in 1943 by a combination of thinkers, business leaders, and finance leaders. It has drawn fire over the years for spreading propaganda for the tobacco industry and for bribing scientists to disseminate information that undermined legitimate research on global warming. Not a poster child for the public good.

Hess, to my surprise, came out with criticism of the Common Core. Curious as always, I poked around a bit and found that the AEI had hosted a symposium with the topic “Common Core Meets the Reform Agenda.” It asked the question: “Going forward, will the Common Core initiative complement or conflict with the school reform agendas that states are currently pursuing?” That question was tackled by people who influence policy in one way or another (see participant bios).

The papers show a debate over various corporate reform policies such as high-stakes testing, charter schools, and the Common Core. For example, here is a policy recommendation from the article “The Common Core Standards and Teacher Quality Reforms” by Morgan Polikoff.

(A quick note: There is a note on this article claiming it is a draft and asking people not to cite it. That’s silly. Since it’s online, it is published, and citations fall under fair use guidelines.)

“Because these changes are happening simultaneously, both reforms might be more faithfully applied if there were a moratorium on making high stakes decisions about teachers (e.g., hiring, firing, tenure) until after the Common Core and its assessments are fully implemented.”

So the recommendation is to implement Common Core and assessments, and then work on legislation to use those assessments to make high-stakes decisions about teachers.

That conversation ought to have occurred in the public eye and with the involvement of the public, especially the parents, teachers, and students this recommended policy will impact.

It didn’t. That’s not how our government works.

But seeing what’s going on behind the scenes does give us the ability to stop it. Knowing about ALEC, for instance, has helped us oppose dangerous laws before they are passed.

Knowledge is power.

Knowledge is Power!

How to check out a nonprofit

In yesterday’s post I asked the question “Are Nonprofits our Frenemies?” That is to say, are there any social benefit nonprofits that are also working behind our backs — for example, to close our neighborhood schools? And I explained how to find out. To recap:

1. Look at their board of directors.

2. Look at their funders.

Now let’s look at another example. I’ve been investigating problems with student data privacy, and I’ve learned that federal privacy laws were recently weakened and that very detailed, personally identifiable data, is being given out to a wide range of researchers. The national PTA has been looking into it as well, and they’ve very considerately put out a press release and guide on questions parents should be asking about data privacy. Strangely, though, it’s missing some of the key questions that parents really ought to be asking, and instead it has vague reassurances that “federal laws protect privacy” and what might just be an outright lie, that the vendors who get student information “can’t sell the data or let anyone else access it.”

Why might that be?

Well, the PTA didn’t put this out alone. They paired up with a nonprofit to write this guide: the Data Quality Campaign. The DQC is pushing for state and federal legislation that set up longitudinal (long term) databases. It also creates “public demand and discourse” for better education data. That is, it does PR.

So let’s check out the DQC.

Who are their funders?

  • The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
  • The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation
  • The Alliance for Early Success
  • AT&T
  • Target

Not too surprising, that a lot of foundations related to technology would want lots and lots of data collection. Companies like Microsoft, Dell, and AT&T will benefit financially from selling all those IT systems to the public schools. I don’t know what Target is doing there, but folks, when you shop at Target and they say they’re giving money to education, you don’t suppose it’s for stuff like this, do you?

Anyway, because nonprofits live or die by their funders, everything this nonprofit does is because its funders want it.

Who’s on their Board of Directors?

Okay, so I could find out, but I don’t feel like it today. I’m more interested in the Partners page.

Who are their partners?

They have a bunch of partners. I definitely don’t have time to look at all of them, especially since some are nonprofits. But I see some familiar faces. Specifically:

  • National Council on Teacher Quality – they advocate against National Board Certification for teachers and were infamous in Seattle for horning in on Seattle’s contract negotiations a couple years back. They also put out a biased rating survey of schools of education.
  • Northwest Evaluation Association – they make the MAP test, which has been quite controversial in Seattle
  • Schools Interoperability Framework Association – this is a not-for-profit corporation that oversees an industry initiative to make student data sharing easier
  • Oh dear, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. They’re a think tank and PR organization focused on privatization.

That’s enough for one day. This nonprofit is run by, and partners with, corporate interests who want to privatize schools and collect and share large amounts of data on our students. They’re not really the people we should trust to tell us whether our children’s data is safe.

Curious that the National PTA would partner with them.

Next up: How to check out a nonprofit, part two

Also see: What are our students’ privacy rights, really?

Charter Schools and the Reason Foundation

Charter schools are on the rise nationally, despite no evidence of success and evidence of real harm to students. Seattle has voted down charter schools time after time, but 2010 might be the year they establish a firm foothold in our most vulnerable neighborhoods. Charter school companies like KIPP and GreenDot are coming to town to give public and private lectures, probably in an effort to pass state legislation allowing charter schools. Meanwhile, the school superintendent seems to be pushing to close schools that have failed under No Child Left Behind.

What’s behind this huge push?

A previous blog post talked about the influence of billionaires Fordham, Gates, and Broad in the recent anti-union efforts of the organization NCTQ. These billionaires have charter school plans as well, which I’ll discuss in another post.

But another key player is the Reason Foundation, a major libertarian organization partly funded by billionaire David H. Koch. (The Koch brothers fund the Tea Party, and their father, Fred Koch, was a founding member of the John Birch society.)

Through this foundation, Koch has been gaining greater and greater power over public policy. This power is leading to changes in our laws that the vast majority of Americans probably do not want.

The mission statement of the Reason Foundation says:

“We use journalism and public policy research to influence the frameworks and actions of policymakers, journalists and opinion leaders. Reason Foundation’s nonpartisan public policy research promotes choice, competition, and a dynamic market economy as the foundation for human dignity and progress.”

This agenda of “choice, competition, and a dynamic market economy” is especially dangerous for our public schools. But that’s the direction our nation’s schools are taking, and it’s because of the behind-the-scenes power of billionaires and organizations like the Reason Foundation and the Fordham Institute.

The Reason Foundation policy paper “Fix the City Schools: Moving All Schools to Charter-Like Autonomy” by Lisa Snell, proposes that schools perpetually compete with one another based on the results of standardized tests, and perpetually close when they fail to meet standards that have been imposed by the top.

Snell writes: “The bottom line is that the district seeks continuous improvement by assessing performance of all schools, closing the lowest performing schools and creating alternate opportunities for students in the least productive schools.” In other words, “the essence of this policy brief” is to “close failing schools, open new schools, replicate great schools, repeat.”

What makes this technique so damaging to students is that charter schools, on the whole, don’t provide a better education. One third of charter schools do worse than public schools – while only one sixth do better, and one half do about the same. This means that approximately one third of students in these closed schools will move on to an even worse education. And every time a school closes, all the students face severe disruptions.

These are not just theoretical outcomes, but represent the actual, lived experience of millions of students in districts where charter schools have taken hold, as in cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. (David H. Koch, by the way, is the richest and most powerful resident of New York City.) It has been devastating for the most marginalized children – poor children, children of color, special education children, and English language learners.

But the actual suffering of children does nothing to deter the Reason Foundation or school district leaders in cities targeted for charter schools. Snell interviewed Louisiana State Superintendent Paul Pastorek and described his vision for public schools:

“There was an article written the other day called ‘Try, Try Again,’ and I think it epitomizes our strategy. We’ll give it to a charter operator. We’ll let them work it. If they fail, we’ll bring in another charter operator and if they fail, we’ll bring in another charter operator until they get it right.”

Our struggling kids can’t wait while policymakers and state superintendents try out this charter experiment. They need real change now. They need an end to the punitive measures in No Child Left Behind.They need librarians, counselors, social services, and tutoring. They need equal access to excellent education, regardless of income, race, ability, or language. They need qualified, experienced teachers with union protections. They need small class sizes.

Because there are no quick fixes.

Because education isn’t about “high performing” or “productive” schools.

It’s about the kids.