50 Days Worth of Blogs About ‘Tornadic’ Tom Vander Ark: Day 10

Day 10

BOLD PRINT are Links! And fair warning, the language in this today —well it is not “C” for classroom-rated!

Tom Vander Ark has several catch phrases (don’t all aggressive salesman). There is one that just gets on my nerves every single time I read where he is using it..and he uses it A LOT! He loves to make education analogous to a Gordian Knot!

He uses it like a CMA (cover my a$$). Note the business-ese.

There are significant barriers (SB)—including the Gordian knot of federal, state, and local policies combined with contracts and traditions—to creating an innovative school (IS) that is student-centered and competency-based. There is little focused R&D investment and almost no capacity (or incentive) to make productivity-improving capital investments.

He uses it as a complaint:

1. Strong state and federal policy constraints, and a Gordian knot of local contracts ensconced in board policies and state laws (i.e., you may need to change three provisions/policies to do anything differently).

Or wait maybe it is not a complaint but rather an excuse —and we all know that excuses are like a$$holes and they stink:

State and federal policy create a pretty confined space: standards influence aims, tests monopolize time, and funding is input-based and programmatic. Local contracts are often ensconced in board policies and state laws creating a Gordian knot of constraints that requires several waivers or changes before doing anything different.

He uses it like a salesman selling sheep $hit to a sheep farmer:

Tom Vander Ark: It’s the system. It’s just crazy. One, it’s just turned out not to be a great way to govern schools, the basic building blocks upon which the system is built. And then, on top of the building blocks we’ve layered state government and this giant web of Federal legislation. It’s a Gordian knot of governance. I don’t know that you can pick one particular thing, but in total we’ve got it wrong, and it’s really hard to undo the knot.

Guernica: It’s a Gordian knot that’s calcified.

Tom Vander Ark: Yeah. That’s what it is.

(At the bottom of the page containing the interview referenced above, it strangely says if you want to contact Guernica or Michelle Rhee…click here. So was Michelle Rhee interviewing him or what??!! No time to traipse down that rabbit hole…she literally is a manure salesperson now!)

He uses it to whitewash over his failures:

Fixing this problem has proven vexing.  The one difference between good schools and bad schools is everything—structure, schedule, curriculum, instruction, culture, and connections with families and community.  That makes turnarounds, especially at the high school level, really difficult.  Layer on top of that outdated employment contracts and revolving door leadership [he was referring to Deasy in this part] and you have a national Gordian knot. The best approach to date has been trading bad seats for good seats—closing failing schools and opening good new schools.  This approach, while politically and logistically difficult, has been used with success in Chicago and New York.  Armed with this knowledge, Arne Duncan went to Washington determined to take on the problem lowest performing schools.

I think that Tom Vander Ark thinks he is Alexander the Great coming along and slicing the knot with his shiny sword for all to see how he “solves the problem”. (feel free to hum Superman theme music in the background–*roll eyes*) After rubbing shoulders with the richest man in the world, he views all schools as the “lands to be controlled, and conquered”.

But I think in the myth analogy he us more likened to Gordias the peasant in the oxcart. I can not imagine what crazed supernatural something or other possessed Bill Gates to hire Tom Vander Ark after he was the first businessman to wheedle his way into the position of a school superintendent. Seriously that sounds as ridiculous to me as the Phrygians being told by some fortune-teller that the next man to come in town was fit to be a King of their town and an eagle landing on an oxcart would serve as confirmation. Five years, five years as a wanna-be-superintendent, and POOF he was suddenly an education expert?

Here is a word picture of what I think the ‘Gordian Knot’ that he speaks of actually is more like.

It is like a huge beautiful basket of yarn. Some of the yarn was new and some of the yarn was frayed having been salvaged from once glorious projects. Some of the yarns were in skeins and some were already rolled into balls. I think TOMCAT stalked up on that basket. I think he had never ever held crochet or knitting needles in his hands. I do not think he had ever read a pattern that said something like this (but use education acronyms-;-) ):  Ch 1, turn, sc in next 3 sts, *skip next post st in row below, FPtr around next post st in row below, skip next sc, sc in next 2 sc, working in front of FPtr just made, FPtr around skipped post st, skip next st, sc in next 2 sts; repeat from *, sc in last st . So TOMCAT jumped right in the basket and invited some other alley cats to join him. And then he ripped and clawed and tore at and looped and ran with the colors of string (for years, really).

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What a slew of messes he has made. At least in a Gordian Knot of sorts, there might be some form or semblance of order instead of shear chaos and confusion.

Think of all the BULL$HIT REFORM that occurred while TOMCAT was the Executive Director of Education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (1999-2006).

Think of  the destruction and helter-skelter havoc he has caused since 2006 as he continually purports what needs to be changed in education and how he purloins public monies while disguised as an education savior.

TOMCAT, and other reformers are for-profit businessmen working a market. (Leopards do not change their spots!)

Policy. A growing number of think tanks and advocacy groups are attempting to nudge the Gordian knot of policy in a slightly more positive and coherent direction. 

• Problem addressed: three-tiered mess of American education policy 

• Key assumption: a smart investment in advocacy can yield big returns
• Risk: high risk of little or no progress, possible unintended consequences
• Return: high leverage if successful; opportunity to change the opportunity set for millions of students 
• Example: EdTrust, Democrats for Education Reform, Education Equality Project, EdSector, ConnCAN

They think of liabilities and losses. They think of interest and gains. They think of risks and data-induced successes.

Sentences like these two cause me to be in sheer anguish thinking about the children ,the families, the teachers, the school staff, the neighborhoods, and the communities affected by his arrogant experiments. So many personal stories come to mind.

The best approach to date has been trading bad seats for good seats—closing failing schools and opening good new schools.  This approach, while politically and logistically difficult, has been used with success in Chicago and New York.  Armed with this knowledge, Arne Duncan went to Washington determined to take on the problem lowest performing schools.

Closing schools is ‘all business as usual’ around the tables. The TOMCATs in business suits all agree “Men, we’ve got to cut our losses.”  And I am not just talking about the PUBLIC schools being closed in Chicago, Newark, Philadelphia and Youngstown, etc. I am not just talking about the New Orlean’s schools that suffered through a hurricane and were advantageously left for dead as reformers plopped their for-profit properties down everywhere and filled them with their transient inexperienced teachers. I am talking about all of those, PLUS the new charters and small schools within schools that are opened with 6-digit salary collectors full-well knowing that a SOLID 15%+ of those schools will close within the first 5 years. They are so callously casual about it all. Ooops, oh well, another one closed, onward.

Here is a report put out by the Center for Education Reform FOUR YEARS AGO. The sick cycle of charter school closings has only spun even further out of control since this report was released. Google “school closures” for yourself. Or drive to the nearest WalMart (do NOT go in and shop—please!) and you will likely see a school closing since they are that visible and rampant. The blatant squandering of not just billions of dollars, but time and energy also.

My God, how does anyone write or read such a report without personal names and situations coming to mind? Has anyone thought to research the ripple effects of all of these closures. The psychological effects? The emotional effects? The unemployment ratios on macro-scales in those areas? The physical effects (meaning all of the furniture and material goods being shuffled)? I mean I suppose we are used to storefronts and restaurants opening and closing all of the time. BUT, THESE ARE OUR SCHOOLS. NOT ONLY OUR CHILDREN’s FUTURES but their TENDER FORMATIVE FLEETING PRESENT YEARS. This is obnoxiously unacceptable on so many wrong levels.

It is amazing to me how fast 1500 words get typed.

We had TOMCAT as Gordias, the oxcart-pulling peasant, finding himself in the right place at the right time to just step right up on a throne. We had TOMCAT as thinking he is Alexander the sword-swinging Great, rendering death by a thousand cuts to the education system. But, I wish I had a bit more time to explain how TOMCAT also thinks he is the “oracle at Telmissus” —he loves to predict how many will be learning online. Folks he is into FINANCE. This is what FINANCE MAJORS do. They calculate and predict future sales for a company. (Oh, wait, they are his companies). These are not predictions. They are his business-growth goals. His engineered financial outlooks.

In closing, here is a section from a fun bit I came across while preparing this blog. It is called the Untold Story of the Gordian Knot, and I thought it ‘tied right in’.

Seleucus: Don’t I? Look, this time it’s just a damn knot, and knowing Alex the press will probably eat this up. They’ll be writing about it for at least 2,346 years – “And then Alexander the Great cut the Gordian Knot, and found a solution where no one else could!” But Alex is trying to rule the whole world, Heph, and this attitude of destroy/eliminate/repeat is going to be the end of him. If he doesn’t learn how to actually solve these “unsolvable” problems, then what’s he going to do when he encounters one he can’t get rid of?


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