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OP-ED | Are Wall Street Values Right for Schools?

by | Apr 18, 2014 9:00am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Education, Opinion, Wall Street

Last week on a flight back from England, I read Michael Lewis’ latest book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. I found myself highlighting passages, struck by parallels with the corporate education reform movement. It’s not surprising as both industries involve players from high tech and hedge funds — and, of course, the politicians who enable them.

Upon reading this quote from Constantine Sokoloff, a Russian who helped develop NASDAQ’s matching system for buyers and sellers: “The old Soviet educational system channeled people away from the humanities and into math and science,” a political sound bite started playing in my head:

“The president and I believe that ensuring our nation’s children are excelling in the STEM fields is essential for our nation’s prosperity, security, health and quality of life . . . All of us need to be engaged in task of improving STEM education. Business leaders and major donors are leading the way, and leaders from other sectors need to join them.” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, November 2009

Brad Katsuyama, the former Royal Bank of Canada trader who co-founded the IEX exchange featured in Flash Boys, made this observation about the dark pools and stock exchanges used by high frequency traders: “It’s an entire industry that overglorifies data, because data is so easy to game and the true data is so hard to obtain.”

And there was Arne Duncan in my head again:

“Data is an essential ingredient in the school reform agenda. We need to follow the progress of children from preschool to high school and from high school to college and college to career to see whether they are on-track for success . . . I look forward to the day when we can look a child in the eye at the age of eight or nine or 10 and say, ‘You are on track to succeed in colleges and careers.’ . . . Data systems are a vital ingredient of a statewide reform system . . . Data can help us unleash the power of research to advance reform in every school and classroom in America. Data can help us identify the teachers and principals all across America who are producing miracles in the classroom every day . . . Data can help us identify outdated policies and practices that need to change so our children will succeed in school and in the workforce.”

But Duncan wasn’t up there in my jet-lagged head alone. Bill Gates, another proponent of data in education reform started piping up.

“Aligning teaching with the common core — and building common data standards — will help us define excellence, measure progress, test new methods, and compare results. Finally, we will apply the tools of science to school reform.”

Finally, Lewis quotes Serge Aleynikov, the former Goldman Sachs programmer who was wrongfully convicted of two counts of theft of trade secrets from the firm.

“Everyone lived for the year-end bonus number . . . Everything there is very possessive. Everyone’s trying to show how good their individual contribution to the team is. Because the team doesn’t get the bonus, the individual does.”

This reminded me of a piece I’d read in Vanity Fair about the catastrophic stack ranking system at Microsoft, an evaluation method similar to the VAM teacher evaluation system the Gates Foundation has spent billions trying to prove effective and which, despite Arne Duncan’s laughable assertion that Gates has no seat at the Dept of Education policy table, has become a requirement that states implement in order to receive a NCLB exemption and Race to the Top funding.

Stacked ranking crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed — every one — cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Vanity Fair’s Kurt Eichenwald wrote. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

On April 8, the American Statistical Association added an important statement to the chorus of academic research pointing out the flaws of VAM as an effective evaluation methodology:

“More classroom time might be spent on test preparation and on specific content from the test at the exclusion of content that may lead to better long-term learning gains or motivation for students. Certain schools may be hard to staff if there is a perception that it is harder for teachers to achieve good VAM scores when working in them. Over-reliance on VAM scores may foster a competitive environment, discouraging collaboration and efforts to improve the educational system as a whole.”

Yet instead of looking at the data they claim to live by, Duncan, Gates and our governor, Dan Malloy, persist in pushing these flawed policies. Like a recalcitrant toddler, Gates wields his philanthropy as a cudgel, threatening to take away his money if districts don’t implement VAM — even though Microsoft has done away with the much-hated stacked rankings.

Teaching is a collaborative profession, something that the current administration and the billionaires who guide its actions don’t appear to understand. What’s more, as parents we want our children to receive a well-rounded education that prepares them not just to be “college and career ready” but to be life ready — to develop the critical thinking skills, the creativity, the social skills, and the ability to advocate for themselves that they’ll need as citizens in what’s left of our democracy post-Citizens United and McCutcheon. Perhaps that’s what the billionaires are afraid of?

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.

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(6) Archived Comments

posted by: Fisherman | April 18, 2014  10:39am


posted by: RJEastHartford | April 18, 2014  12:22pm

Now What?

Reasoned argument has had little influence because it is a philosophy backed by money, lots of it. The answer to the question you have posed is “of course not.” There is an opening that big money is leveraging. That is we in the inner ring suburbs have seen what is happening, and I know parents looking for a change in the current educational model as the system in their view has failed them. Governor Malloy, is clumsily responding to some in the inner city and inner ring suburbs, but he is responding. Voters in outer ring suburbs have no vested stake, as long as their district is not further integrated and fully funded, they will vote/support this policy.

posted by: Doug Hardy | April 18, 2014  12:28pm

Hi RJ - How to use HTML to create links in our comment section is listed in our comment policy. and you can also find stuff on html at w3schools.com - give it a try.

posted by: RJEastHartford | April 18, 2014  6:31pm

Thank You Mr. Hardy.
Happy Easter to all

posted by: brutus2011 | April 18, 2014  6:36pm


This morning I awoke with a flash flood nosebleed—this was bad as in blood everywhere and the thick dark red blood. After a half an hour of stuffing paper towels into my nostril, there was no signs of stoppage. So I went to the ER and it stopped. I was there for no more than 30 minutes, had no shots, no medicine, no tests. The Dr only peered into my nostril and applied a two tong clamp jury-rigged with tape to the sides of my nose. I was told the bill would be at least $1900.00. Yes, nineteen hundred dollars!

What is my point? Our society has gone money crazy. I mean craz-ee.

The Wall Street boys and girls are running our country and their passion (I’m being nice) for the cash is everywhere.

The spirit of U.S. is I gotta get mine now and the heck with you or who I throw under the bus to get it. And if I have to lie, or fabricate or obfuscate—who cares?  As long as I win.

Now when it comes to private business I pretty much say hands off unless the public good is affected.

This includes public education. Top-down dictatorial coercion does not work well with education. Bottom-up collaboration does.

This whole education reform thing is about management and labor. Those above the classroom dictating to those in the classroom to save money to spend it on management, administration, consultancy, testing fees, fees, fees, and more fees. And of course to feed the bottom line of the private equity fund folks.

This is going to destroy our republic if we allow unbridled greed to privatize our public schools.

posted by: brutus2011 | April 21, 2014  10:57am



It really does have a lot to do with poverty.

Ask yourself why elite prep schools do not use the same “standards” or do not evaluate their teachers like edu-reformers say is necessary or why a well rounded curriculum is the norm as opposed to the reform emphasis on STEM pushing out the arts and humanities and finally, why suburbs of higher socio-economic status have NO charter schools?

It really does have a lot to do with poverty. This is not to say that all is lost on urban youth but do you really think these reformers care about our kids and don’t care about lining their pockets?

Now, if you are unhappy with public school bureaucratic administrators who collect large salaries and pensions while nothing changes, then yes I agree that this must change.

Giving up local control to the wealthy elitist non-profit charters is not the answer. Why? Because that is shifting responsibility for our children from one group of scoundrels to another.

What is the solution? We need to step and guard our children by participating in their education and by voting in representatives that “clean up” the management of our public school districts.

Otherwise, the cost of us not stepping up to take responsibility for our youth will be more of the same—data be dog-goned.

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