Understanding the Propaganda Campaign Against Public Education

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This post first appeared on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

A few years ago, when I was blogging at Education Week with Deborah Meier, a reader introduced the term FUD. I had never heard of it. It is a marketing technique used in business and politics to harm your competition. FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. The reader said that those who were trying to create a market-based system to replace public education were using FUD to undermine public confidence in public education. They were selling the false narrative that our public schools are obsolete and failing.

This insight inspired me to write Reign of Error, to show that the “reform” narrative is a fraud. Test scores on NAEP are at their highest point in history for white, black, Hispanic and Asian students. Graduation rates are the highest in history for these groups. The dropout rate is at an historic low point.

Public Schools for Sale?

Why the FUD campaign against one of our nation’s most treasured democratic institutions? It helps the competition. It makes people so desperate that they will seek out unproven alternatives. It makes the public gullible when they hear phony claims about miracle schools, where everyone graduates and everyone gets high test scores, and everyone goes to a four-year college. No such school exists. The “miracle school” usually has a high suspension rate, a high expulsion rate, a high attrition rate and such schools usually do not replace the kids they somehow got rid of. Some “miracle schools” have never graduated anyone because they have only elementary schools, but that doesn’t stop the claims and boasting.

It turns out that there is actually a scholar studying the phenomenon of the “the cultural production of ignorance.” He hasn’t looked at the attack on public schools, but his work shows how propaganda may be skillfully deployed to confuse and mislead the public. Michael Hiltzik of The Los Angeles Times writes about the work of Robert Proctor of Stanford University:

Robert Proctor doesn’t think ignorance is bliss. He thinks that what you don’t know can hurt you. And that there’s more ignorance around than there used to be, and that its purveyors have gotten much better at filling our heads with nonsense. Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford, is one of the world’s leading experts in agnotology, a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance. It’s a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.

The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson’s files, “Doubt is our product.” Big Tobacco’s method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo’s author wrote, but to establish a “controversy.”

When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco’s program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.

FUD was pioneered decades ago. Now public education is the target, and privatizing it is the goal. I hope Professor Proctor turns his attention to this issue, where a well-funded propaganda campaign seeks to spread enough doubt to destroy an essential Democratic institution.

There is no evidence from any other nation that replacing a public system with a privatized choice system produces anything but social, economic and racial segregation.

Diane Ravitch

Diane Ravitch is a research professor of education at New York University and a historian of education. She was the assistant secretary of education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. Ravitch has authored several books on education, including her latest Reign of Error. She blogs about education issues at dianeravitch.net. You can follow her on Twitter @dianeravitch.
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  • Dan Shevock

    Good points. When you say, “a well-funded propaganda campaign seeks to spread enough doubt to destroy an essential Democratic institution” I believe you meant small-d democratic (not big-D as in the specific party). After all, I think Bill Gates (who hates small-d democracy, public schools, and whose foundation destroys schools, especially for black and brown children) is a Democrat. The moneyed attacks on public education may come mostly from Republicans, but also from many Democrats.

  • Ragua

    Thank you for bringing these issues to the public light. I think if more people were aware of how private industry and individuals are essentially purchasing our public education system, there would be a huge outcry.

  • Willy West

    Actually Bill Gates does no such thing. It’s for the most part the GOP / far religious right who are attacking the public education system. They are the anti-science movement, and they want the school systems to conform to the Bible.. Basically you are talking about the taking down of the scientific method and set theory in which are the foundations of logic and reason in order to replace them with pseudoscience in conformity to biblical interpretation. These people want total control, and they believe if they can’t get it into the public school systems, they can destroy the public school systems and replace them with religious private school systems to which are nothing more than indoctrination centers. And they are using the democratic system against itself through divide and conquer tactics. Essentially this Nation is well on its way to collapsing into a 3rd world nation.

    Several southern states are actively violating the establishment clause in their public school systems as we speak. Yeah, they have creationism being taught in these schools. They pride themselves on woeful ignorance, and teach it as fact. This is their idea of intellectualism, and this is the same sort of thing that happen to Afghanistan when it’s education system collapsed into pure woeful religious fundamentalist ignorance. The dominion theologies require the need to oppress education and exposure to the real world, otherwise they have no power or control over the masses. There is a reason why the bible belt is the poverty belt, and why they rank the worst in the country when it comes to education. They make great cannon fodder for the military industrial complex from what I understand as they are a War culture worshiping a GOD of War.

  • Eric Scoles

    Check again. Gates is all over charter schools like a cheap suit. OTOH it would be a little odd to think of him as “liberal”. He’s basically an Eisenhower republican, which these days means registering Democratic.

  • Anonymous

    You think because you were in a classroom as a student or had kids in a classroom, you know all about teaching. You don’t. Secondary teachers have to major in the subjects they teach. Elementary teachers are generalists. Neither needs to be an “expert” in their field because teachers simply don’t waltz in a classroom and regurgitate things they learned in college. The job is vastly more difficult than you think it is. They do have to know HOW to teach and how to communicate with children, and that’s why pedagogy classes and courses in psychology and classroom management are so vital. Without them teachers would not survive in the classroom. Your post was good until you started on this “expert in subject area” nonsense.

  • Anonymous

    This is one reason why the tax rates need to be drastically raised on the very rich–they are doing tremendous damage because they have too much money.

  • Anonymous

    You are completely and totally wrong. The destruction of public education is being fostered by billionaires and Wall Street hedge fund crooks in order to pilfer the public treasury for private gain. The religious right has little to do with this by comparison. They are small potatoes.

    Gates and company OWN Obama and Duncan. These fake Democrats have singlehandedly started the movement to destroy public education wholesale.

  • Anonymous

    Sure, I would love to have Wall Street educating our kids. And why would that get expensive? Wall street is not greedy.

  • Anonymous

    Lies – when when the truth just won’t do.

  • Anonymous

    Forget your little niche in this big country and look at the country as a whole. Read my comment above to see what I have been seeing the past two decades.

  • Anonymous

    Before I begin, understand that I am pro-private education. On the contrary. I am for Public Education IF done properly. I have had kids in school since the early ’70s in different states and home schooled the last one part of the time. I am a writer and researcher who (as an RN in the past) looks outside every box to assess the whole picture. Below is my response to the above article.

    I believe SOME of what she is saying, however our Public School System does need to be overhauled because of the way high functioning kids with autism, ADHD, and so forth, learn. Most do best with active learning, as opposed to sit and memorize. Hands-on, visual, auditory, analytical style learning would work well and be fun. And this would work well for students without learning differences, as well.

    As for the “studies” if they looked at the world they would that the US has fallen so far behind other countries it is not funny. AND since then, numerous states have actually LOWERED the standards for graduating rather than ensuring all teachers can recognize a child’s learning style.

    LOOK OUTSIDE THE BOX of a few statistics and one sees that a country as large as ours, where each state defines what to teach and how much knowledge is needed to graduate, with different requirements IS one of many problems in a mobile society. We need minimal national standards and a national test of compentency that are achievable for ALL students in secondary school.

    For example, funcional mathematics, along witha bit of basic algebra and geometry should be sufficient to graduate high school. Math beyond this should be electives to prepare students who aim for Engineering, Medicine, IT college courses, but for students who desire carpentry, auto mechanics, Paralegal or Office or Retail careers may not need advanced mathematics. Not everyone is cut out to be a math genius and America should not force advanced studies on kids who plan other careers. Should the child want a career, later in life, requiring more math skills they will then be mature enough to put forth the effort to learn and retain it because they will them see its worth. We are suppose to encourage kids to become educated, not bully them into it. Education CAN be enjoyable after all.

  • Craig Stewart Files

    Public Education money is for public education, ONLY! The Republicans have it worse than backwards. Vouchers, if allowed to exist at all, should be ONLY FOR SPECIAL NEEDS AND GIFTED EDUCATION! …AND THEIR OWN BUS. Vouchers do nothing but strip public schools of funds and only attempt to educate the AVERAGE. Leaving behind those students most impacted by the lack of funding. The curriculum is almost always questionable at best.

  • Anonymous

    Amen! Many parents think they know what makes a good school and his to solve education problems but they never look at data. They automatically think private is better. My son’s elementary school sits amid million dollar houses and few, if any, of the neighborhood kids attend. Instead they climb in European SUVs and drive down to the Episcopalian school. Nothing wrong with Episcopalians but the school’s population doesn’t match with the size of the congregation. My son’s school is brown. Theirs is white. Funny, huh?

  • Terri EC Mom5

    What about the special education students? These students aren’t getting a “free and appropriate education” in any school they attend. The school work is “dumbed down” in the public school and the children seem to pass onto the next grade regardless of their educational performance in the current grade. I was told at my child’s school that it wasn’t the “district policy” to fail special education students regardless of their educational performance. That is translation for “we will pass your special education student into the next grade even if that child can’t achieve any of the standards for their current grade.” The charter and voucher schools don’t want to educate them. From what I have seen, the teachers are more facilitators than educators. The students lack the necessary skills to be self managers and lack the self discipline, skills and motivation needed for an online “do it yourself” education. Where are these students supposed to go to get properly educated? How does the no child left behind act and the race to the top initiative affect those students at the very bottom of the learning curve and who have already fallen behind their peers, educationally speaking?

  • Frank Lockwood

    Adjusting the level of instruction to the person’s personal level for achievement and for appropriate success rate is not “dumbing it down.” Appropriate level of difficulty is one of the most important elements of the art of instruction, and this can only be done by a well trained, intelligent teacher who is freed from the restraints created by the dumbbells at the top. If the level is too low for an individual student, he/she becomes bored and restless, if the level is too high/difficult for an individual, the student will have no success and the likelihood of interest in the topic decreases to the point of rebellion and destruction of school property. The people who invented the original benchmarks in the 1980′s had obviously never taught any at-risk population whatsoever. Idiots at the top.

  • Frank Lockwood

    Dianne, I think you are right on.

  • Craig Stewart Files

    I have several relatives that are teachers. “The responsibility to educate sometimes and increasingly profoundly disabled students” has been passed to the public schools without a budget increase to support the extra facilities(sometimes including court ordered restraining equipment) and more expensive nursing staff. The demand for more specialized training for an almost entirely new field of public school teachers is time consuming and emotionally draining to this new field of specialized teaching staff (many quit). Public schools struggle to provide a “Constitutionally Guaranteed free public education”. Teachers have just become
    “relief providers” for the parents of many of these children. The parents themselves do not have the skills to care for their own children in many cases. It is a crisis. There is not enough money and charter school students in GA DO NOT PERFORM any better and often much worse than their publically educated peers. Until our political and cultural priorities change, just like school shootings…it is not a matter of “if” but “when”. There is not enough money to go around and starting another entirely different system just drains public schools that much more and exacerbates the problem. I am a product of and very much believe in the vision of Thomas Jefferson and the necessity public schools are to a successful democracy. Public schools were not designed for the current demands and everyone will need to put their heads together to come up with a solution.