Last week on a flight back from England, I read Michael Lewis’ latest book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. I found myself highlighting passages, struck by parallels with the corporate education reform movement. It’s not surprising as both industries involve players from high tech and hedge funds — and, of course, the politicians who enable them.

Upon reading this quote from Constantine Sokoloff, a Russian who helped develop NASDAQ’s matching system for buyers and sellers: “The old Soviet educational system channeled people away from the humanities and into math and science,” a political sound bite started playing in my head:

“The president and I believe that ensuring our nation’s children are excelling in the STEM fields is essential for our nation’s prosperity, security, health and quality of life . . . All of us need to be engaged in task of improving STEM education. Business leaders and major donors are leading the way, and leaders from other sectors need to join them.” US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, November 2009

Brad Katsuyama, the former Royal Bank of Canada trader who co-founded the IEX exchange featured in Flash Boys, made this observation about the dark pools and stock exchanges used by high frequency traders: “It’s an entire industry that overglorifies data, because data is so easy to game and the true data is so hard to obtain.”

And there was Arne Duncan in my head again:

“Data is an essential ingredient in the school reform agenda. We need to follow the progress of children from preschool to high school and from high school to college and college to career to see whether they are on-track for success . . . I look forward to the day when we can look a child in the eye at the age of eight or nine or 10 and say, ‘You are on track to succeed in colleges and careers.’ . . . Data systems are a vital ingredient of a statewide reform system . . . Data can help us unleash the power of research to advance reform in every school and classroom in America. Data can help us identify the teachers and principals all across America who are producing miracles in the classroom every day . . . Data can help us identify outdated policies and practices that need to change so our children will succeed in school and in the workforce.”


But Duncan wasn’t up there in my jet-lagged head alone. Bill Gates, another proponent of data in education reform started piping up.

“Aligning teaching with the common core — and building common data standards — will help us define excellence, measure progress, test new methods, and compare results. Finally, we will apply the tools of science to school reform.”

Finally, Lewis quotes Serge Aleynikov, the former Goldman Sachs programmer who was wrongfully convicted of two counts of theft of trade secrets from the firm.

“Everyone lived for the year-end bonus number . . . Everything there is very possessive. Everyone’s trying to show how good their individual contribution to the team is. Because the team doesn’t get the bonus, the individual does.”

This reminded me of a piece I’d read in Vanity Fair about the catastrophic stack ranking system at Microsoft, an evaluation method similar to the VAM teacher evaluation system the Gates Foundation has spent billions trying to prove effective and which, despite Arne Duncan’s laughable assertion that Gates has no seat at the Dept of Education policy table, has become a requirement that states implement in order to receive a NCLB exemption and Race to the Top funding.

Stacked ranking crippled Microsoft’s ability to innovate. “Every current and former Microsoft employee I interviewed — every one — cited stack ranking as the most destructive process inside of Microsoft, something that drove out untold numbers of employees,” Vanity Fair’s Kurt Eichenwald wrote. “If you were on a team of 10 people, you walked in the first day knowing that, no matter how good everyone was, 2 people were going to get a great review, 7 were going to get mediocre reviews, and 1 was going to get a terrible review,” says a former software developer. “It leads to employees focusing on competing with each other rather than competing with other companies.”

On April 8, the American Statistical Association added an important statement to the chorus of academic research pointing out the flaws of VAM as an effective evaluation methodology:

“More classroom time might be spent on test preparation and on specific content from the test at the exclusion of content that may lead to better long-term learning gains or motivation for students. Certain schools may be hard to staff if there is a perception that it is harder for teachers to achieve good VAM scores when working in them. Over-reliance on VAM scores may foster a competitive environment, discouraging collaboration and efforts to improve the educational system as a whole.”

Yet instead of looking at the data they claim to live by, Duncan, Gates and our governor, Dan Malloy, persist in pushing these flawed policies. Like a recalcitrant toddler, Gates wields his philanthropy as a cudgel, threatening to take away his money if districts don’t implement VAM — even though Microsoft has done away with the much-hated stacked rankings.

Teaching is a collaborative profession, something that the current administration and the billionaires who guide its actions don’t appear to understand. What’s more, as parents we want our children to receive a well-rounded education that prepares them not just to be “college and career ready” but to be life ready — to develop the critical thinking skills, the creativity, the social skills, and the ability to advocate for themselves that they’ll need as citizens in what’s left of our democracy post-Citizens United and McCutcheon. Perhaps that’s what the billionaires are afraid of?

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. A former securities analyst, she’s now an adjunct in the MFA program at WCSU, and enjoys helping young people discover the power of finding their voice as an instructor at the Writopia Lab.