What can General Franco teach us about education reform?

By Mazinger Z

Francisco Franco embodied the “no excuses” mentality.

World history is filled with great lessons that we can learn from as we seek to right our listing public schools, *crush* the achievement gap and launch our students towards 21st century success and prosperity. While reformistas occasionally acknowledge the existence of the rest of the world, or at least Finland and Singapore, they need to go further—much further. Franco’s Spain, por ejemplo, may provide a shining beacon for their cause. In fact, the Generalísimo’s leadership embodied the “no excuses,” “whatever it takes” mentality in action.

Like the best principals, Franco had the power to hire and fire (literally) at will. His “no excuses” mentality did away with the Spanish Army’s unfortunate tendency to coddle the underperformers of the time: conscripts. (He personally shot a few of these for not living up to his high expectations on the battlefield.) He did “whatever it takes,” up to and including a six-figure body count. As for “excellence”, well, El Caudillo was not particularly fond of such fuzzy concepts, but he did demand to be addressed as His Excellency the Chief of State, so that’s something.

Just like today’s reformistas, the Generalísimo also had some terrific ideas for how to improve the nation’s schools, most notably his Formación del Espíritu Nacional or FEN, a nifty concept which transformed schools into nation builders for the beloved fatherland. I was reminded of the Generalísimo’s vision recently upon reading about Democracy Prep, the acclaimed New York City charter school.

Autocracy Prep
As explained in an American Enterprise Institute “case study” that pulses with the kind of propagandistic fervor that would make El Caudillo proud, Democracy Prep’s own Caudillo, Seth Andrews, believes that the purpose of education is “preparing the kids for
citizenship.” Now, whenever I hear fuzzy concepts like “citizenship” mentioned in connection with education, I am tempted to reach for the proverbial Browning. No reason to worry here. Mr. Andrews views on “citizenship” are remarkably concrete.

Citizenship involves “attachment to one’s country, […], “following rules”, […] mobilizing others to take part in politics.” A citizen is someone who “obeys laws”, “pays taxes”, and (seriously) “registers for the selective service”. “schools […] should be in the business [sic] of nation-building.”

How do we instill all this deference and patriotism on the rabble? Simple! “Repetition is key”..”making concepts “sticky,” “reciting pledges,” “series of chants,” “reciting the Pledge of Allegiance,” “overcommunication and repetition,” “making learning ‘sticky’ so that it is retained by the students.” I am sure you get the point. No doubt the students do too, unless they are among the 24% who leave Democracy Prep each year.

Fatherland Fen Club
Much like Democracy Prep’s approach to instilling citizenship, FEN’s pedagogical techniques were simple: repetition, repetition and more repetition. Much time and effort was devoted to the reciting of pledges and anthems. Exams consisted mostly of “making learning “sticky,” i.e., rote memorization and regurgitation. Grades were awarded for attitude, rather than knowledge. And just like at Democracy Prep, students were expected to move in straight, silent lines, though the Ministry of Education never quite had the budget for uniforms.

Alas, FEN does contain a sort of cautionary tale for Democracy Prep’s Caudillo Andrew. The whole thing was never taken very seriously, even by the most stalwart Phalangists. By 1970, FEN had become an outright laughingstock, and Franco, always a practical guy, quietly put it out of its misery. At any rate, it appears that Mr. Andrew is hedging his bets. After a life-long commitment of about eight years, he is “moving on” from Democracy Prep, as they say, and will now devote his efforts to his lobbying outfit.

Mazinger Z is the pen name of a Wall Street trader who has worked for hedge funds and investment banks for more than a decade. Send comments to tips@haveyouheardblog.com.



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