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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
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Wary feelings on Camp Philos

I love summer camp, and I love philosophy.

So when I learned of a weekend-long event in the Adirondacks called Camp Philos, I wondered what it was all about. Would attendees spend their evenings gathered around a campfire, discussing Plato and Aristotle? Would they engage in debates about the nature of reality while canoeing on Lake Placid?

Sadly, no.

The subject of Camp Philos is education reform.

Billed as “a philosopher’s camp” that invites participants to “embark on three spring days of fun, fellowship and strategy with the nation’s thought leaders on education reform,” the event will run from May 4 to 6 at Whiteface Lodge. Sponsored by the nonprofit organization Education Reform Now, Camp Philos is not cheap — for general attendees, the fee is $1,000, and for VIPs it’s $2,500.

Camp Philos is expected to attract elected officials, philanthropists and education activists from throughout the country.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo will serve as the event’s honorary chair; special guests include Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana, and film director M. Night Shyamalan, who helmed “The Sixth Sense” and authored the 2013 book “I Got Schooled: The Unlikely Story of How a Moonlighting Movie Maker Learned the Five Keys to Closing America’s Education Gap.”

I’m all for improving the nation’s schools, but I remain skeptical about the education reform movement, with its emphasis on the Common Core curriculum, rigorous standardized tests, teacher evaluations and charter schools. These measures will do little to address the root cause of poor academic performance, which is poverty, and they’re more likely to undermine public schools than strengthen them.

One of my big concerns about the education reform movement is its elite nature.

After all, some of the movement’s biggest supporters and funders include Bill and Melinda Gates and the Walton Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by Wal-Mart founders Sam and Helen Walton, as well as wealthy hedge fund managers such as Daniel Loeb and Carl Icahn. Many of these people have given generously to Cuomo’s campaign. For instance, Icahn gave the governor $25,000 last March, while Ken Langone, a charter school advocate and founder of Home Depot, gave $50,000.

I don’t necessarily doubt the sincerity or good intentions of education reformers, but I’m wary of allowing rich people to set America’s education agenda, which is what appears to be happening. And when I hear that education reformers from around the country are convening at a pricey, secluded retreat in the mountains, well, it doesn’t exactly dispel my suspicions and misgivings.

Unsurprisingly, teachers and public school advocates have also taken a dim view of Camp Philos, particularly Cuomo’s involvement.

“The governor has become the poster child of the corporate education reform movement,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Albany-based Alliance for Quality Education. He described the movement as one that pushes “Wall Street strategies in education. ... They want to bottom-line schools and teachers the way you would a balance sheet. They want to introduce competition and create groups of winners and losers. Cuomo has been borrowing from that playbook since he got elected.”

I reached out to Joe Williams, who heads Education Reform Now, the group sponsoring Camp Philos, to see what he had to say.

In an email, Williams explained that “the idea for Camp Philos was to ask a bunch of folks that we work with from around the country to get away from the day-to-day policy and political battles and to spend some time thinking, talking and planning for the future.”

“We expect a lot of the discussion to revolve around teacher preparation policies, using collective bargaining to solve problems, and strategies around improving the nation’s lowest-performing schools,” Williams continued. Neither charter schools nor the Common Core are specifically on the agenda, but he said that he expects that both topics will come up.

“At the end of the day, these people believe in public education,” Williams said. “But they also believe it requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to making sure teachers and kids are part of a system that is helping them and not hurting them.”

Cuomo has come under fire for the rocky implementation of the Common Core standards and the rush to be among the first states in the nation to administer more rigorous standardized tests.

But his steadfast advocacy for the education reform movement has made him one of its leaders. Next month, he and other reformers will gather at Camp Philos to discuss strategy and ideas. I have no idea what will come out of this meeting. But if it’s anything like what we’ve already seen from the education reform movement, I doubt I’ll be impressed.

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at

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