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Education “Reform” and its Discontents

As those of you who hang out in the left-of-liberal internet world and have any interest in the state of public education in America may have already noticed, a heartening trend is brewing – there is more and more intellectual energy going into a left critique of centrist educational reform in America. Yes, a spectre is haunting the halls of the department of education. It’s still on the fringes, but it seems we are on the verge of a major break with the neoliberal consensus education reform that has gripped the American school system for the past thirty years.

Since the Reagan-era, the American public school system has come under relentless attack from market forces; under the banner of educational reform, both conservatives and liberals have applied the logic of business and the market to make American schools more “competitive.” This has meant union-busting, privatization of a wide variety of school functions, and ubiquitous standardized testing. In a brilliant article in the winter issue of Jacobin called “A Nation of Little Lebowski Urban Achievers,” Megan Erickson outlines an erudite history of this dark chapter in American education. In 1983 Terrel Bell, then Secretary of Education under Reagan, was put in the awkward position of being asked to find a way to shut down his own department. In response he commissioned a report on the state of education in America, which ultimately produced A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. The report argued that a creeping malaise had gripped the American school system, producing mediocre students and putting the nation at risk of being outcompeted internationally. Playing to Cold War paranoia and fears of deindustrialization and inflation, the report argued that the solution was more effort, emphasis on advancement of student’s personal and occupational goals, performance-based teacher salaries, standardized tests, and increased work load – solutions essentially rooted in the emerging Friedmanian neoliberal ideology. The report embodied the animating spirit of everything that has since been called educational “reform” – whatever shortfalls exist within the education system, they are not a result of class or inequality, they are a result of a lack of effort on the part of students, families, and teachers. Students would not be taught to think critically about social reproduction, but rather how best to produce themselves to best take advantage of a fundamentally corrupt society.

One prominent trend in recent educational reform, which is immediately ascertainable after even a brief perusal of the website of the Department of Education, is the growing prominence of private-public partnerships that are coming to shape how students experience education today. New nonprofits are being invented with the express purpose of connected business leaders to school administrators and students. One such organization, named PENCIL, features pictures of business people smiling in front of a chalkboard – learn to think like a businessman: if you don’t your future will be thrust upon you by others! Over the past ten years the Gates Foundation has spent 5 billion dollars on urban education initiatives geared toward making summer internships a permanent part of the high school curriculum.

Something is rotten in the state of education reform.

Recently I was perusing the blog Black Educator, a great source of news and analysis meant to advance education for liberation. In “Who Owns your Child’s School? The Rise and Rise of Edu-business,” Melissa Benn summarizes her latest book, “School Wars: The Battle for Britain’s Education. It seems that in Britain, education is being taken over by groups that run chains of for-profit academy schools, taking over school functions and selling them back to consumers (students and their families). This is a multi-billion dollar business, and as with so many other sectors of society, a dense network is forming between the state and the market leading to a “corporatization” of schooling. As these companies grow and give more revenues to the state, they become larger stakeholders in each new round of educational “reform” and attain greater influence in the thinking of policymakers generally. Within classrooms themselves, this process means the incorporation of private sector management techniques as well as the incorporation of entrepreneurial and aspirational narratives of individual self-mastery into the educational experience.

Businessmen offer a helping hand to students.

One of the most important things to realize is that this is not just coming from the hard-core right (though folks like Scott Walker and his ilk have been some of its more prominent crusaders), but also from an embattled American liberalism that has increasingly shown its reactionary face when it comes to educational reform. Even ostensibly liberal programs like Teach for America (TFA) are important parts of the corporatization of education. Andrew Hartman has come out with a great article exposing the real effects of TFA, in which he shows has been “in the vanguard in forming a neoliberal consensus about the role of public education – and the role of public school teachers – in a deeply unequal society.” TFA buys into the hallmarks of the neoliberal consensus on educational reform – teachers unions are barriers to educational quality, testing is the best way to assess progress, and meritocracy, not attention to class inequality, is the order of the day. TFA itself is rooted in inequality; most of its recruits come from elite private schools, and use the selective program to launch professional careers in the educational reform bureaucracy (or leave education altogether for fancy careers in more lucrative fields) that leap over the increasingly perilous positions of working teachers.

The technocratic market utopianism of consensus educational reform has banished politics from policymaking, a recipe for reproducing and worsening social inequality.

All this reform might be justified if it could be said to be producing positive outcomes – but the consensus on that point is also increasingly fractured. The use of Standardized tests to measure quality have increased greatly from George Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy to president Obama’s “Race to the Top” initiative. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has enacted the policy of allocating federal resources to states that most aggressively implement testing. As with the trends identified by Melissa Benn in Great Britain, the multi-billion dollar testing industry has become an increasingly powerful force in the state-private complex of educational reform. And while education crusaders point to test results that seem to confirm their own ideology, scandals have broken out in cities all over the United States about institutional cheating on test numbers. In Atlanta, the darling superintendent of educational reform, Beverly Hall, was caught systematically falsifying test results in order to confirm her administrative prowess. One further sign that the neoliberal consensus might be starting to crack is that Valerie Strauss reblogged Hartmann’s expose of TFA on her Washington Post blog. The Washington post is featuring a left critique of neoliberal reform?! Truly, the barbarians are at the gates.

It’s also becoming apparent to more people (though any of us who are young enough to remember Bush-era standardized tests and have a modicum of gray matter already knew this) that standardized tests often don’t even assess knowledge or critical thinking at all. Many tests deem as incorrect answers that under critical examination may actually be correct. Others count as right answers that could be argued to be wrong. In “Manufacturing Stupidity” Peter Frase hypothesizes that standardized tests may not even be meant to assess quality of producing thinkers, but in a disavowed way, actually be meant to produce dolts, passive consumers for our future idiocracy. Frase suspects that this kind of mindless bureaucratizing confirms that late-capitalism is rapidly devolving into a rigid and decaying order dominated by irrational administrative and marketing imperatives.

Even the Atlantic, albeit in more stayed form, has featured an article arguing for a thorough reassessment of educational reform. Anu Partanen, a Finnish journalist, recently argued based on the Finish example that social justice and equality, “is the only proven means of raising educational outcomes.” The PISA survey, conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), compares 15-year-olds in different countries in reading, math and science. Finland has ranked at or near the top in all three competency surveys since 2000, while the US ranked somewhere near the middle at best. Finland assigns less homework and spends more time with creative play. There are practically no private schools in Finland and those that exist are publicly funded. There are no tuition fees. They have no standardized tests, except for one National Matriculation Exam at the end of upper-secondary school. The key is that teachers and administrators are given decent pay, respect, and responsibility, and that the driver of Finnish education policy is that each child should have the exact same opportunity, regardless of their background.

We’ve arrived at a very important point in history – we are witnesses to a moment pregnant with possibility, a moment where the neoliberal consensus of the last four decades is looking less and less like common wisdom and seems to produce failure after miserable failure. In the field of educational reform, the weaknesses of our late-capitalist society are especially apparent – an increasingly dense and unwieldy private-public bureaucracy, obsessed with its own means of tracking itself, is making bundles of money for some while inequality and decay grip the republic in ways they have not since the Gilded Age. The question is – how will hold the system accountable for its ongoing failure? How can we create a new future where educational reform is the by-product of a change in social relations, instead of an excuse for producing individuals who can better minimally accommodate themselves to exploitation?

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About Jonathan Dentler

Jonathan Dentler currently lives in Berlin where he studies the history of German influence on American progressivism.