As a kid I made annual trips to Oak Brook, IL in mid-November with my family to knock out the Christmas shopping. Oak Brook was home to the Fancy Mall. People of the suburbs understand the typography of malls; there is the standard mall against which others are judged, the Good mall (with a Banana Republic instead of a Gap), the Bad mall (read: patronized by black people and mostly Foot Locker derivatives) and then the Fancy Mall containing exotic and expensive stores unknown to peasants. Oak Brook was a logical location for Fanciness, being the global headquarters of McDonald's. It will not surprise you to learn that those McDonald's folks have some serious money. Accordingly, Oak Brook is crammed with seven-figure homes and the kind of high end retail and "corporate campuses" that wealth attracts.

The funny thing about Oak Brook to me – I was a perceptive little bastard, and greatly unpleasant to be around no doubt – was that for a place built on the fortunes of a fast food megacorporation, there didn't seem to be any fast food places.

An eight year old, when picturing the World Headquarters of McDonald's, envisions the biggest Playland on Earth or perhaps a McDonald's with an eight lane drive-thru and seating for 1000.

But It was just a bunch of well maintained if totally bland office buildings. There wasn't even a regular McDonald's in sight. In fact there were hardly any fast food restaurants at all.

The irony that I grew to understand with age is that upper-middle class people who have made great sums of money building the McDonald's empire are, almost without exception, people who would not be caught dead in a McDonald's. Nor would they consent to having one in their neighborhood, with its gaudy, plasticky exterior dragging down property values and attracting Undesirables. They don't eat that stuff and they would never feed it to their kids. There are no McDonald's restaurants in swanky neighborhoods for the same reason there are no car title loan places or drive-thru liquor stores – because these establishments were invented by the well-to-do as a means to screw poor people for profit. I often say half-jokingly that if you see a product, service, or social institution that is enthusiastically supported, but not used, by rich white people then it's a safe bet that it exists to screw you.

Which, in an analogy that probably makes sense only in my mind, brings us to the School Reform industry. Why is it that the very wealthy are so vocal these days about reforming public schools that they would never send their children to anyway? Why are they so enthusiastic about "charter schools" and for-profit education models when they and their kids continue to go to elite, expensive private schools? Do you think the CEO of Kaplan, now extracting money from the masses under the guise of "Kaplan University", is going to send his kids to Harvard or to the school run by the company that has made him so rich?

I'll believe that McDonald's thinks its products are healthy when I see some statistics about how often its white collar employees eat there. I'll believe that online schools, for-profit colleges, and charter schools are superior educational options when I see a university president or EduCorporation executive with a degree from one or with kids enrolled in one.

A cynic might suggest that their tremendous enthusiasm for replacing traditional publicly funded education – which, to be certain, has plenty of problems – with privatized alternatives has less to do with academic excellence and more to do with money. They don't want to pay for public K-12 institutions and they want to figure out a way to line their own pockets with the money funneled toward higher education.

Education reformers are a mix of well intentioned if somewhat naive young people and hard, cynical predators who know a cash cow when they see one. Next time you encounter one, ask them where they went to school.

More importantly, ask them where their kids are enrolled. More often than not, the names of expensive private schools and elite public schools will roll off their lips in much greater numbers than any of the bogus alternatives they hawk to their social inferiors. That, in a dramatic oversimplification, tells you everything you need to know about School Reform.


  • Sports fans. I think the answer lies somewhere in the hearts of sports fans. Because sports fans illustrate that there is nothing so viscerally, joyfully, catharsis-inducingly engaging as caring about something in which you have no personal stake whatsoever.

    Issues that affect you, you have to think about. Care about. (Or not, to judge by the degree to which American voters are determined to choose their leaders on the basis of how thoroughly they will be screwed by them.)

    Issues that don't affect you, you can just scream your fool head off, and get insanely worked up about (seriously–try saying the phrase "minimum wage" to a self-employed libertarian who is thoroughly untouched by the existence of such a thing)–and win or lose, nothing happens to you as a result. It's politics as interactive entertainment–screaming about something trivial because you can lose your shit as much as you want and no harm will come to you in doing so. Charter schools are to opinionaters what tackle dummies are to anger management students.

  • middle seaman says:

    School reform matters to us, to our kids and, in my case, my grandkids.

    No doubt, many of the rich got to be that by robbing targets of opportunity. The Jobs and the Gates are far and few between. Most rich people are robbers. Schools entail trillions. What a money loaded target. Health insurance was once a target now fully owned by the rich who pretend to offer coverage.

    The way out: elect real people not the fake one like congress or the president.

  • @ middle seaman. There's a great David Foster Wallace interview (probably on Youtube) where he talks about the lack of "being a good citizen" in modern Am. soc.: voters—these days, in stark contrast to^3 my^2 grandfather'^4s days^1…—don't realize that doing independent, somewhat less-than-superficial research on their choices for representation is an indispensable part of calling yourself and American citizen; but why bother when the converse is being done for free (you don't even have to get off the couch!) by the people who want your vote?

  • The great myth, of course, is that Private Industry™ does everything better than The Gub'Mint™.

    Thing is? I've worked in Private Industry™, from the local retail branch of the K empire to big multinational software houses. Turns out, Private Industry™ doesn't do anything better than The Gub'Mint™; they're just accountable to no one and don't tell you how much they're screwing up.

    But boy oh boy, do we Americans love giving them taxpayer dollars to do it!

  • Sophonisba Breckenridge says:

    Now I am asking myself those questions, and the answers are:

    In my Private Industry company, in the training department where I work, yes, most people here in management have at least one if not more certifications from our own education program. Nearly all non-managers do, because it's a job requirement.

    On schools–I went to public school through eighth grade, the same one my father went to (with some of the same teachers). For high school I went to a private school. I don't have children, but if I did, I wouldn't automatically send them to private school, because there are some good public schools, and I'd hope that anything they would miss there would be made up for at home.

    For-profit education enrages me. I used to work in higher education, and I once did a massive project on the University of Phoenix, looking at how many students defaulted on their federal loans after attending the school. The graduation rate by the sector standard (6 years) is 18%. Only 18% of students who enroll in a 4 year program will graduate after 6 years. Additionally, the rate of students who defaulted on their student loans within 1 year of unenrolling from Phoenix (either graduating or dropping out) was a little over 40%. (These numbers are from a 2007-08 time frame.) It is not an institution for educating people, it's a money making machine for the Apollo Group, right in line with your premise above.

  • This is another reason why we need to disincentivise (if I got that word right – if it even is a word) acquiring (I won't say earning) and hoarding great sums of money. The already wealthy are not showing themselves to be very responsible members of society.

    I had another dose of it yesterday in a year end meeting of my department in one of the most profitable companies in the world. We have "no money" for new resources, (yet we wonder" why everyone complained about workload), and next year, we have to "prioritize better". It's all to get more profit to the shareholders, which doesn't actually do me a lot of good. I'd give up my (paltry, in comarison) bonus and take a paycut if I could just get some more people hired to help in my 3-person "team".

  • Thank you for focusing on this. Since the loss of Doghouse (R.I.P.) a rapier wit turned towards the edumacation industry has been needed!

  • "Next time you encounter one, ask them … where their kids are enrolled. … That, in a dramatic oversimplification, tells you everything you need to know about School Reform."

    It's not an oversimplification. It's plain old heuristics. One action — sending their own kids to you-get-individual-attention schools — is indicative of a whole train of inside knowledge.

    Great post. I've been saying the same thing for years, but not as well.

  • Schools have been "in crisis" since long before I was in school. It seems to goes back to Sputnik and "Johnny Can't Read", although I suspect it probably goes back even further.

    the answer always seems to be some sort of gimmick–more memorization; open, chaotic classrooms based on dopey interpretations of progressive education, new math, testing people to death and using achievement testing in ways that were never intended, charter schools based on naive ideas, etc. The current round of "reform" seems easily gamed and people like Michele Rhee are obvious charlatans who know nothing about educating children or putting in place curricula based on principles that work. there always have been teachers who insist on doing things their own way—usually its God awful, rigid stuff from another generation, but going after the unions and demonizing existing classroom teachers won't solve anything., especially if no one takes a good look at the administrators. Education administration at all levels of education tends to attract the least talented and least imaginative, often with large rewards.

    As for Oakbrook–it seems odd that such an upscale mall exists in a sea of not very upscale suburbs. Yes, Oakbrook the town is well off, but it's not far to places like Hillside. It's also funny that it and Old Orchard (another upscale Chicago mall) were never enclosed. people who can't quite grasp the death of middle brow malls seem to cling to climate control as a reason for their energy wasting existence, yet open shopping centers thrive in Chicago's less than idyllic climate (not to mention Michigan Avenue, where the only vacancies are in enclosed malls). Malls also were sold as being "safe" (i.e., white), yet once "incidents" happen, they die faster than downtowns. It will be interesting to see what happens to Garden State Plaza after the shooting there. Malls are probably the worst places imaginable to evacuate in a crisis and the place would have been more difficult in the middle of the day.

  • My nephew the elementary public school administrator (only four years of actual grade school teaching before curriculum adviser/assistant principal jobs and now a principal at age 31) has had many a discussion with me, the retired chief steward for my union local, about his attitude toward the "Union".

    "Just do your job.", I say. No, not the Chris Christie rant. "Sure burnout teachers exist. Document the performance in the performance period. Make a plan to improve areas that need improvement with known consequences for meeting/not meeting realistic goals. Sure, it's a little work but not much more than the performance evaluations you already do."

  • Oh, I've long held the belief that the Republicans have had an agenda to destroy public education. Naturally their wealthy donors have heeded the call and assisted with the charter school/voucher venture.

    I just hope I make it to my grave before things get REALLY bad…but I am thinking that is less and less likely.

  • Not that there aren't plenty of grifters in the dubiously named School Reform game, but I'm not sure I completely agree.

    I think it's possible for one to really want to reform public schools and work to do so (not a shark like Rhee, I mean an earnest person) and send their kid to public school.

    Forget about Rhee. If I'm the head of DC public schools, I think I can work to fix them as hard as I can while still believing they're still not "there" yet in terms of quality. DC public schools are terrible-I wouldn't send my kids there even if I ran them, optics be damned.

    Yeah the optics are bad (good enough for your kids but not good enough for mine!) but we're talking about *children* here. Innocent third parties. I'm not going to send my kids to a school I know is bad if I have the means not to. Superficially it looks hypocritical, but overall I find this more than a little glib.

  • Umm… Ed I am 48, and as a 7th and an 8th grader would occasionally ride my bike with friends to Oak Brook mall where we would eat at Mickey D's. It was kind of in a wierd spot almost all by itself in the "back" of the mall east of Sears. I think the only other "store front" was actually a bar/restaurant.

  • Charter schools & prisons are the same: when private investors crave to get in that market AND get FULL and NON-STOP Republicans support when they do, you KNOW the general public is getting SCREWED big time!

  • I know that vouchers open up all kinds of problems (maybe more than they solve). But one point worth considering in the voucher debate is real estate.

    I grew up in a small town. The haves and the have nots went to the same school because there was only public school and Catholic school to choose from. Vouchers would almost certainly hurt the public school system in a small town.

    In the "big city" the story is different. The haves and have nots have already self segregated into different schools. The "good" schools make real estate prices rise, and (generally) high real estate prices then have an effect on school quality (more time can be spent teaching that dealing with kids' out of school emotional stresses). Vouchers probably still screw the poor in cities, but they might be able to help the lower middle and middle classes not drown in mortgages or tuition while trying to give their kids the best chance opportunity they can afford.

    Or… we could just pay more taxes for more teachers (not administrators) and fix public schools, but I'll put my money (as an athiest) on the rapture happening before the public will spend more money educating "someone else's kids".

  • Thank you so much for writing this, Ed. I know you've been feeling burned out lately, but I keep returning to G&T because you keep writing stuff like this.

  • Doctor Roc–DC schools are far from good, in general, but even in their nadir there were high performing schools and a number current charters are just recycled DC public schools. Conversely, the suburban schools seem overrated. I've taught and supervised grads of supposedly stellar schools–stellar mostly in their self-important attitude.

    Rhee imposed a system that was easily gamed and put nothing in place that can lead to any long-term benefit. The process of building a school system is long and requires collaboration among teachers, parents, and administrators. Unfortunately, most parents and administrators are quick to seize on gimmicks. There are schools in DC that have become highly desired, although it probably took a decade of community involvement to make that happen.

  • You make valid points, Rich, none of which I disagree with in fact. I am just narrowly addressing the claim that a school reformer not sending their kids to public school is per se hypocritical or disingenuous.

  • There's a book y'all should read: "Reign of error: the hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America's public schools".

    We all know that the main determinant of poor school outcomes is poverty, right? Has nothing to do with the schools themselves?

  • Not true, Ed, not true at all. The centrist i-banker running for governor as a Republican in Illinois, and an influential force behind school reform here, could have sent his daughter to any high school on earth (including the north shore suburb where he lives), yet he thinks so highly of public education in Chicago that he clouted his kid into one of its elite selective high schools. So there.

  • "I'll believe that McDonald's thinks its products are healthy when I see some statistics about how often its white collar employees eat there."

    If my experience of eating in Oak Brook is any guide, it's not health, it's class. The restaurants I've been to in Oak Brook tend to be gutbusting steak houses; if I was looking to keep my calorie count down, I'd go to McDonald's, just because of portion size.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    I grew up not far from Oak Brook and used to go to that mall often. I don't much anymore, but when I do these days, it's crammed to the gunwales, to the point where finding a parking space is an ordeal (and they have MASSIVE parking lots). Whatever they're doing, it's working.

  • "Education reformers are a mix of well intentioned if somewhat naive young people and hard, cynical predators who know a cash cow when they see one."

    Well, that's part of it, although I think the media supporters are middle aged people who can well believe these uppity teachers are bad for kids, and need to be put in their place. Because they saw it in Waiting for Superman.

  • Yes. I find that there's no hornet's nest more hornet-y than education, so I'm surprised at the civility of the commenters. Incidentally, the reform movement just swept School Board elections here in Denver (no contribution limits in school board races here!). Very disheartening result for the unions.

  • As to this:
    . I often say half-jokingly that if you see a product, service, or social institution that is enthusiastically supported, but not used, by rich white people then it's a safe bet that it exists to screw you.

    Sure sounds like Obamacare to me… Voted in by rich white people who exempted themselves from the law…

  • I thought the mall near us was the standard against which all other malls in Nashville are measured but we have both a Banana Republic AND a Gap so now I'm confused.

    We also have Tiffany's, Louis Vuitton and Michael Kors. And a Sunglasses Hut and Ann Taylor Loft. We go both ways: upscale and downscale.

  • OrwellianDoublespeaker says:

    "these establishments were invented by the well-to-do as a means to screw poor people for profit."

    Really? So, the Indian immigrants who bought and continue to operate the drive-thru liquor store frequented mostly by us southern Maryland rednecks are actually well-to-do and screwing us for profit? Is it not equally plausible that there are markets with willing buyers and sellers at all socio-economic levels, and not everybody wants or needs the same things?

    As to Micky D's being healthy, they've tried that to satisfy the nanny-staters. Unfortunately, salad sales aren't off the charts. Which seems to suggest that what the increasingly obese masses want ain't what you think they should have. But you blame the supply side for giving them what they want?

    On education reform, sure money is a factor; when isn't it? But the central gov't model of education has been broken for a very long time and cannot be fixed by throwing more money at it. I'm personally not a fan of charter schools because the fundamental concept of 12 years of compulsory education is ludicrous. Too many high school grads can't read, write or do 'rithmetic, and the vast majority (and their parents) don't seem to care. That said, adding choice, which is what charter schools do, at least gives options to the minority of students and parents who actually do give a damn.

    I think the Japanese have a far superior model of public education that involves compulsory schooling through the 9th grade, by which time most should have adequate mastery of the 3Rs. To continue on in high school at taxpayers' expense, students take tests that demonstrate capacity. After high school, still harder tests are the gatekeepers for public universities. Over there, it's the public universities that are "Ivy League." Since taxes are collected "at the point of a gun," I think it's a far better bargain for taxpayers to fund the best and the brightest than in the American model, in which dim bulbs get passed up the education conveyor belt one after the other for 16 years or more.

  • @Tom,

    "Sure sounds like Obamacare to me… Voted in by rich white people who exempted themselves from the law…"

    Huh? I'm no fan of the ACA, but if you're under the impression the the elected democrats who "voted for the law" somehow "exempted themselves from it," then you need to step back from David Vitter's Kool-aid stand.

    Congress-critters aren't "exempt" from Obamacare. They are (like the vast majority of insured Americans, including, probably, you) already covered by an employer-sponsored group plan. "Obamacare" is not directed at that demographic.

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