New York Times, You’re Breaking My Heart

Let me say it straight out. I love the New York Times. I grew up with the Grey Lady in my home every morning. When my husband and I were living in upstate New York and contemplating a move closer to the City (where he worked) so he wouldn’t have to leave me with two tiny kids two nights a week, our list of “must haves” included — at my insistence — a location within the catchment area for daily delivery service. (Also, access to good bagels.)

I still revere the NYT.  But once in a blue moon there’s an article that makes me twitch in irritation. This happened today.

Natasha Singer’s article “The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools” is an exercise in perfidy. It’s supposed to be journalism, not editorial (like this is), and, technically (especially for a piece in the Technology Section — come on, guys!) a reportorial account of a newsworthy subject.

But it is not. It is Luddism parading as progressivism. It is technophobia that uses images of innocent children — subjected to terrors like math programs that make them love math! — as an excuse to bash educational innovation. It is so off-key that Arnold Schoenberg couldn’t listen to it without earmuffs.

Read it yourself. But for me this article hits a nerve because it undermines the goals of public education reform through either ignorance or duplicity. It’s hard enough advocating for  access to equity in resources,  high-quality instruction, and meaningful oversight in a laissez-faire age. And the vocation gets that much harder when the nation’s paper of record prints an article marred by personal politics.  

The article pretends to examine “Silicon Valley billionaires” Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Netflix’s chief, Reed Hastings. The writer unveils nefarious misdeeds and craven schemes by these con men to infiltrate the minds of shiny-eyed babes and the pockets of their parents. This duplicity is accomplished through introducing and paying for technological innovations in needy schools. The writer doesn’t appear to consider that they could genuinely be trying to offer help to an adult-centered monopoly trapped in the industrial age. She doesn’t even appear to read her own quotes: Benioff asking the San Francisco superintendent to imagine the best possible schools “if money were no object”;  a math program offered by Hastings to Baltimore County schools that children found so compelling that “some had begged their parents to let them play DreamBox even during trips to the supermarket”; Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan offering a district in Sunnyvale, CA  a team of Facebook engineers to further develop software for personalized learning “and make it available free to schools nationwide.”

This derision of philanthropy is justified by the magical lens the author has into the intentions of her villains. There can only be one reason why rich people would be altruistic. I’m not sure what that reason is, but it’s BAD. Zany Zuckerberg!

A few other examples and then I’ll stop.

  • She writes, “[c]aptains of American industry have long used their private wealth to remake public education, with lasting and not always beneficial results.”

Yes, like Andrew Carnegie building free public  libraries in every town.

  • She quotes a fellow Luddite on the dangers of tech companies offering free hardware and software to schools: “They have the power to change policy, but no corresponding check on that power,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. “It does subvert the democratic process.”

What does that even mean? Philanthropists don’t have the power to change school policies. Only school boards and legislative bodies do. Surely we know this, right?

  • This end-to-end influence represents an “almost monopolistic approach to education reform,” said Larry Cuban, an emeritus professor of education at Stanford University.OMG. Public schools are already a monopoly, right? That’s why public charters are considered such a threat by the monopolizers. So the Silicon Valley dudes are going to monopolize the monopoly? I’m getting dizzy.
  • “But many parents and educators said in interviews that they were unaware of the Silicon Valley personalities and money influencing their schools.”

Well, those parents (and perhaps the author of the editorial — oops! article) should read school board minutes and look at the bills lists, which itemize all the private vendors used by schools, as well as grants received from both private and public beneficiaries. And “influence”? About 85% of school revenue is spoken for before the rich guys sip cognac while deviously colluding with school board members to change policies on — what? — immunizations? Lice checks? Textbook adoption? There’s very little spare change after you deduct payroll, utilities, transportation, special education. And that extra bit is already spoken for about ten times over.

Time for a bagel. I love you, New York Times, but sometimes I have to work at it.

What do you think?

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