SNAKE OIL AND PATENT MEDICINE

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.

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20 Responses to “SNAKE OIL AND PATENT MEDICINE”

  1. ts46064 Says:

    A town with money's a lot like a mule with a spinning wheel, nobody knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it!

  2. HoosierPoli Says:

    The solution to education is the same as the solution to crime, health care, homelessness, etc: Effective and sensibly-structured government social programs.

    But the actual solution is off the table, so we'll take some dirt-cheap snake oil, please.

  3. Nunya Says:

    This bullshit started in the business world, oh, about 500 years ago. Once you have gained a title, you are automatically qualified to continue in that role for the rest of your life with the full protection of the other hacks that have also risen to that particular rank.

    Seeing the same thing happen in the public sphere doesn't shock me in the least. Since America refuses to promote smart, well intentioned people from within for any number of positions, the smooth talking huckster will continue to steal center stage despite the fact that they have botched everything they have ever touched.

    My advice to the younger readers of this fine publication… if you want to move up, you have to move out. The meritocracy fantasy your parents peddled to you in your youth is all but dead in this country,

  4. J. Dryden Says:

    I'm sorry, but thanks to your choice of illustrative photos, I can't respond to your argument, because all I can hear in my head right now is the Monorail song. But then, you knew you ran that risk when you chose it.

  5. Middle Seaman Says:

    You are victimizing the education sector. Scam Artist'R'Us. Every field has scam artists unless there are hard measures to mitigate scams. If you bat .300 life time, you are an excellent hitter (provided you played many hundreds of games). Our president is a scam artist, the Repugnicans have been scamming the whole country for the last 30 years and are still going strong. Science is full of scammers, many physicians are too, etc.

    The liberal blogging world is full of writer who conned their audience to believe that they are smart with very little smarts stock.

  6. Tim H. Says:

    The scam artists receive the support of business because they promise solutions that don't involve a major part of the problem, economically deficient households. Conservatives have some valid points, but the schools of yesteryear depended on ill-paid women, and would be in difficulty with today's students. Just another aspect of the Compound Failure.

  7. Southern Beale Says:

    We don't see much of this anymore….

    Clearly you aren't inundated with SPAM for the magical mystery Acai Berry juice. Or maybe it's Goji Juice. Or maybe it's matcha tea. Or no wait, it's stinkhornn mushroom juice ….

  8. Southern Beale Says:

    As for the silver tongued con artists who come in to take over failing school districts, we have a version of that in Nashville. Except he's not a Chocolate Jesus and our school district wasn't failing. But he's a "Free Market Fairies Will Bring Your Kids Ponies"-type named Jay Steele, and he's partnered our high schools with the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. What could possibly go wrong?

    We got him from the St. Johns County School District in St. Augustine, Fla. He's not our schools director but he has the position of "associate superintendent for high schools." It's been controversial, to say the least. But since he's peddling the favorite conservative line du jour ("business can do everything better! And shinier! And BETTER!") we're stuck with him until the con is exposed for the pack of lies it clearly is.

  9. Misterben Says:

    The scam-artist administrator is one thing, but don't forget the astonishing fraud perpetrated by those who sell things to school districts.

    I'm related to long-time veterans in several school districts in different states, and for at least 15 years now, 4/5 stories they tell me revolve around some new piece of technology, or system, or curriculum module that the school board was inveigled into buying. The tech never works, the systems break down and customer support is never available, and the curriculum modules inevitably turn out to be total bullshit that the schools are forced to cast aside after a year.

    But, you know, this is why it's so vital that every school district should be administered by the least qualified local politicians available: only they are capable of making these incredible terrible decisions.

  10. Marc Says:

    The Houston public schools are another great example: you can have a major school district with zero dropouts! As long as you define them as "transfers to the school of hard knocks"…

  11. Bob Says:

    I mean, you got Michelle Rhee and Clifford Janey, but Jean-Claude Brizard? Cathie Black?

    And since Marc mentioned Houston, let's not forget the one under the Bush era. Rod Paige.
    Many touted the "Houston Miracle" accomplished under Paige where student test scores rose under his leadership. A 60 Minutes report exposed many dropout rates touted in the "Houston Miracle" as false; deliberate fraud occurred at Sharpstown High School, for instance.[2] Not only were dropout rates falsified, but Houston area teachers admitted to raising test scores (for which they received cash bonuses) by cheating.[3]

    Paige once referred to the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, as a "terrorist organization."[4]

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rod_Paige

  12. Xynzee Says:

    @TimH: we also have to remember that kids didn't have Rights back then. Teachers had a bit of respect in the community too. They had some semblance of authority in the class room.
    Now adays that's not going to happen.

  13. OliverWendelHolmslice Says:

    "Is there a chance the track could bend?"

    "Not on your life, my Hindu friend!"

  14. Richard Says:

    Being married to a woman who was an educator for about 40 years I can say this with little fear of contradiction. The system isn't "broken"…it's dead. All we can do now is grease the rails of decline until the train crashes. Hopefully, from the ashes, an educational Phoenix will arise.

    Until that time.

  15. acer Says:

    @Xynzee:
    I think the economic factors at work here are a tad more complex than These Damn Kids Today and their Surplus Self-Esteem. But, okay.

  16. Chris Flynn Says:

    Ed, nice blog.

    Ed, bad fonts. Don't use Futura or whatever this font that you're currently using. Very hard to read. The eyes of the lower case "e" fill in. Do something else with the @font-face property. Thanks,

    Chris

  17. eau Says:

    "The ring came off my pudding can"
    "Take my penknife, my good man"

  18. Water Moccasin Snake Says:

    The system is dead me, we need a complete over haul. Love the USSR background lol

  19. A 20-something attorney & mathematician Says:

    @ Misterben: I agree,
    The FDA requires that food and drugs pass safety and efficacy trials before they are adopted. Why doesn't the department of education require EFFICACY trials for any "technology, system, or curriculum module" that school boards could buy? I would be in favor of limiting school boards to only be legally capable of purchasing things which have passed efficacy trials (analogous perhaps to double blind studies conducted for pharmaceuticals).

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