“Ya Got Trouble”: Education Reform as a Con Game (6-22-15)

As I have mentioned in this space previously, this spring I finally fulfilled a long-held wish as an actor and played Harold Hill in The Music Man. 

The supposedly old-fashioned, supposedly corny play holds many levels of meaning for me, but as I became more and more familiar with the script, I realized that the con game Harold Hill almost pulls over on the people of River City, Iowa, is a con that is still in use today. 

If you are, by some chance, unfamiliar with The Music Man, here’s the basic plot. A man named Greg, who now goes by the name Harold Hill, travels through middle America circa 1912. In each town he goes to, he creates some kind of trouble–a manufactured crisis that is putting the city’s youth at risk of corruption. In River City the trouble is a pool table newly arrived in town. Once the town is convinced that there is trouble– “right here in River City/Trouble with a capital T/And that rhymes with P/And that stands for pool!” Harold then presents the solution to their trouble: a boys band that will keep kids off the street and give them something constructive to do. 

Harold sells the people of River City instruments, uniforms, and instruction books (for something called the Think Method, where you “don’t bother with notes”), and then leaves town with all the money. 

So how is Harold’s little plot like education reform? My comic strip alter-ego Mr. Fitz, who also played Harold, explains…

The public schools, despite reports to the contrary, have never really been “failing.” To hear some people talk, every single public school is a dropout factory and we are lagging behind every other industrialized nation in terms of test scores. If you want an in-depth look at how this “Trouble” is really a scam, read Diane Ravitch’s excellent book Reign of Error. As Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

The schools-are-failing myth led to the Test System, a bit of flimflam every bit as lame as Harold’s Think System. Our schools, over the past decade or more, have become test score factories as schools, principals, and teachers have been pushed to achieve higher and higher scores. Under No Child Left Behind, the supposed goal was 100% proficiency for all our students (every student in America!) by 2014. Of course, every state had different definitions of proficiency–another bit of trouble– which led to the creation of the Common Core State Standards and their attendant tests. 

Reformers keep creating trouble, and each solution they create makes them more money and gives them more power over the public school system. Your local school is too focused on test prep? Well, with school choice, you can take your money to a charter school that doesn’t suffer under all those terrible mandates that the public schools do! 

The ultimate goal of this scam, I have come to realize, is the dismantling of our public school system so reformers can replace it with their own, profit-driven schools. More on that later.

But here’s where Harold Hill’s plot and the reformers’ plot diverge. Harold’s scam somehow actually made River City a better, more creative, friendlier, happier place. The whole story hinges on this point. Harold’s scam comes true, and all is well. Harold himself is transformed as well, into an honest man who will stay in town and lead the band for real.

The reformers’ scam has not made our schools into better, more creative, friendlier, happier places. Education reform has made schools into places of test prep, conformity, and drudgery… except in those places where teachers have resisted. I’ve been resisting every step of the way.

But that was part of their plan. Make the public schools miserable enough, and people will clamor for something else. 

Trouble indeed. 

Production photos by Nadia Schult