Kenneth Cole gets schooled

Updated: The fashion mogul has backed off his assault on schoolteachers after a public outcry

Topics: Education, Fashion,

Kenneth Cole gets schooled

[UPDATE BELOW]

It was always bound to go there, but few likely expected it would be so blatant. I’m talking about the ongoing campaign against organized labor; for decades deeply rooted in American political culture, the crusade has been periodically amplified in popular culture as well, from 1954′s “On the Waterfront” all the way to the Sopranos’ depiction of mob-controlled unions (and sometimes pop culture and political culture have even fused). So it was only a matter of time before vilifying rank-and-file union members would be commodified into a consumer brand by a company looking for an edge in the high-end retail market.

That’s where Kenneth Cole now comes in. The clothing designer has just launched a new crusade to tie his expensive clothing and shoes line to the elite’s movement du jour: the fight to demonize public schoolteachers and their unions. In a billboard and Web-based campaign, Cole’s foundation portrays the national debate over education as one that supposedly pits “Teachers’ Rights vs. Students’ Rights.”

“Should underperforming teachers be protected?” asks the foundation’s website.

When asked about the campaign, one of Cole’s spokeswomen insisted the company isn’t trying to insult teachers or unions, saying, “It’s something in the news and being debated, and we wanted to provide a forum where people could discuss it as well.” But with the company using the same loaded language as the conservative political activists trying to undermine public education and teachers’ unions, the corporate P.R.-speak is, to say the least, unconvincing.

No, Cole’s campaign is thinly veiled ideological propaganda, and it comes with myriad problems, not the least of which is the simple fact that almost nobody believes “underperforming teachers” should be protected. That includes the nation’s biggest teachers’ unions, which have been outspoken in backing “accountability” reforms for teacher tenure. So right off the bat, Cole is constructing a straw man, one that has served over the years to pretend that public employee unions in general and teachers’ unions specifically are about nothing more than making sure bad employees get to keep their jobs.

Of course, there is a legitimate debate among state lawmakers and school boards about how to determine what an “underperforming teacher” is. Should a teacher be considered subpar if her students perform poorly on standardized tests? Should any teacher-to-teacher peer review be included in performance evaluations? And should any factors other than tests and grades — say, student poverty levels — be considered when using student achievement to judge a particular teacher?

You Might Also Like

As evidenced by the language of his new campaign, Cole, like the anti-union activists in the larger corporate-sponsored education “reform” movement, doesn’t want those questions asked, much less answered, for pondering them raises the very queries about power and wealth that Cole’s fellow 1 percenters don’t want to discuss.

For instance, actually taking an honest look at America’s education system brings up queries about why other less economically stratified nations have unionized teachers and far better academic results than here in America. It also forces us to ask why it just so happens that wealthy unionized districts in America do so well — but poorer districts have such problems. All of that consequently compels us to consider issues like poverty and funding disparities between rich and poor districts — issues that inherently threaten the status quo, and thus the interests of the super-wealthy. And so under the veneer of the term “reform” and with the backing of seemingly altruistic philanthropy via foundations like Cole’s, the super-wealthy work to avoid substance and instead define the education policy discourse on reductionist slogans like “underperforming teachers.”

Perhaps the biggest problem with Cole’s campaign, though, is how it forwards the “us-versus-them” notion that teachers’ rights to due process in the workplace are automatically at odds with their students’ interests. This so fundamentally misunderstands how education works that it perfectly underscores why a clothing corporation doesn’t have much credibility on education issues.

Think about it: We need our best teachers to work in the public schools that educate the most at-risk populations. Why? Because with decades of social science research proving that achievement is driven mostly by out-of-classroom factors (poverty, family dysfunction, etc.), those are the schools that need the most skilled pedagogues to overcome comparatively difficult odds for success. But why would a good teacher opt to work in such a school without basic protections — protections designed to make sure the at-risk population’s achievement-suppressing disadvantages aren’t used as a rationale to fire her? She probably wouldn’t.

In this way, “Teachers’ Rights vs. Students’ Rights” is the mirror opposite of how things actually work. Without extending teachers’ rights to, say, be evaluated fairly or to challenge a termination, it would be difficult — if not impossible — for public schools to recruit the best teachers to the specific at-risk schools that need them the most.

Most likely, these inconvenient truths are of little concern to someone like Kenneth Cole. According to Gotham Schools, he sends his kids to private school, making him part of the larger trend of elites who are trying to foist radical policies onto public schools, knowing their own kin won’t be hurt by those policies.

But, you ask, wouldn’t a clothing mogul with no kids in public school be averse to a divisive crusade against teachers, if only to circumvent a controversy? Even if he is a political activist, wouldn’t he refrain from such a campaign for fear of losing customers?

These are fair questions, and they highlight how Cole’s campaign may say something hugely important — and troubling — about the long-term future of education politics in America.

Recall that Cole is in a zeitgeist industry that is all about lashing branded chic to the popular fad of the moment. That means his move probably reflects what he believes to be an ascendant cause célèbre — one that he thinks he isn’t joining in spite of his company, but in support of its profit-making objectives. Put another way, he probably believes he will gain customers if he ties his company to anti-teacher, anti-union themes.

Sure, that gamble could be wrong — and I hope it is. I hope America sees just how wrongheaded and ideologically extreme the crusade against public schools, teachers and unions is.

But as a successful mogul, Cole’s clearly got skill as a cultural seer; and if someone like him sees mass profit potential in not-so-subtly bashing teachers and unions, it’s a scary sign that such unhinged anti-teacher sentiment could be going more mainstream than ever.

Update: After a mass outcry from teachers, Kenneth Cole announced on Twitter Monday that it is removing the billboard. In its statement, the company said “We misrepresented the issue – one too complex for a billboard – and are taking it down.” It has also taken down the campaign on the accompanying website.

David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>