SNAKE OIL AND PATENT MEDICINE

Posted in Rants on April 27th, 2011 by Ed

There's something impressive about fraud – the old fashioned kind, not the new Wall Street "we'll rob you blind and pay off Congress for protection" or the identity theft kind. I mean the 19th Century kind; a man rolls into town on a wagon, sells a bunch of bottles of McGillicuddy's #5 Elixir (guaranteed to cure the Vapors, Rheumatism, Sallow Complexion, and Female Complaints), and disappears before the customers realize it's essentially grain alcohol, cocaine, and poison. It required a combination of balls and showmanship that not many of us are blessed with. I'm not saying it's a good way to earn a living, but I have always been more than willing to tip my hat to a criminal with a particularly bold or ingenious methodology.

We don't see much of this anymore, mostly because A) modern technology makes people too easy to track down (and prosecute) once they leave town and B) modern advertising techniques are difficult to distinguish from a man in a top hat grifting out of the back of a covered wagon. Some of these sales techniques – promises of miracle products and cure-alls, untrustworthy looking touts with suspiciously white teeth, loud and repetitive sales pitches – live on today in infomercials and in things like the "dietary supplement" industry (aka Orrin Hatch's love child). But to see real, honest-to-god fraud that would make a Three Card Monte dealer blush, the "field" of education reform is the place to look.

One of my favorite blogs has a good comment on a phenomenon that has always fascinated me. It points to the prevalence of fast talking, silver tongued con artists failing in highly paid positions at the helm of failing school districts…then "failing upward" into an equally high paying gig in some other city and repeating their performance. Since urban public school districts are usually a complete disaster, you can see the natural allure of some out of town savior – "Superintendent Chocolate Jesus", as BJ delicately puts it – promising the moon and dazzling the desperate locals with bullshit.

The scam is essentially self-perpetuating, as these Ed.D.-bearing swindlers have mastered the many ways of convincing a new mark school district that their magic potion works. How hard is it to be creative with definitions to make the graduation rate look better? Not very. How hard is it to create a shiny, polished presentation of some Big Plan with an Inspiring Name ("Achievement-gasm 2020!!!!111!!!") with some fudged examples of past successes? It isn't. How hard is it to fudge aggregate student performance numbers? Why, not at all! Just look at Oprah / Beltway Media Insider / Bush / Obama darling Michelle Rhee, the high-profile union buster and "school choice" advocate who achieved remarkable improvements in performance at some failing Washington D.C. schools…using the miracle pedagogical technique of having administrators erase students' incorrect answers and replace them with correct ones on standardized tests. The sheer genius of it. It boggles the mind.

Despite the fact that any semi-reasoned analysis must conclude that there are no quick, cheap, or easy answers to the morass of failure in which the American educational system currently resides, parents and politicos continue to take a short view and seek miracle cures. It's understandable; if my Billy is getting a bad education now, I'm not interested in hearing about a plan that will improve the school in 15 years. So for the foreseeable future this will continue to be America's highest profile, most financially rewarding swindle, making a small group of ballsy scam artists shuttling among the halls of power in Cleveland, Detroit, Newark, Buffalo, and every other major city dealing with the reality of urban decay and a public school system that redefines catastrophic failure.