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Market-Based Dogmas Undermine Strong Education

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One of the barriers we must overcome in framing a reasonable debate on school reform is the powerful hegemony of right-wing ideology which sees free-market mechanisms as the only way to organize a large social project such as education or health care. Indeed, the notion of a public space, a democratically controlled community effort, is almost impossible to advance in the current debates. For this, we have to thank the victory of the right-wing Reagan agenda, building on the dogmas of free-market gurus such as Milton Freedman and Ayn Rand.

The current free-market religion makes such pre-Reagan Republicans as Nixon and Eisenhower look like lefties. Politicians and researchers only a generation ago, even conservatives, entertained the possibility of various models of how to organize society, different versions of liberal capitalism, which allowed for aspects of social democratic ideas -- strong social supports, medical care, public education, etc. All of these are now under attack. The ideology of American politics today makes liberals such as Obama and Duncan act like blinkered rightists.

The goal of the most extreme exponents of the new ultra-right is nothing less than the turning back of all the reforms of the New Deal -- privatizing social security, ending trade unions, and even making such services as fire protection and medical care a matter of individual, private purchase. Everything functions when there is competition, self-interested battle, and Social Darwinist struggle. (Of course, as an aside, we note that these ideologues of competition usually end up supporting massive monopoly power -- a command economy where those calling the tunes sit in the top boardrooms).

This debate in American society goes back even before the New Deal. During the late 19th Century, when massive industrialization led to efforts of workers to build trade unions for decent pay and conditions, when Native American and African-American communities were struggling for basic survival, Horatio Alger wrote a series of popular pulp novels which proposed that the plucky determination of individuals could help them pull themselves up by their bootstraps, they could achieve success and happiness by looking out for only themselves. The dream of individual success, of escaping the working class, was supposed to keep the rest, the millions who did not escape, content and hopeful -- hey maybe they could make it. This myth was always in conflict with the vision of the unions and activists, the idea of a public good in public power.

During the 19th century, advanced education was reserved for the elites -- basic literacy and social discipline was the lot of those designated for factory work. As for people of color, the place reserved for them in the rightist universe was even more limited. Chinese men were brought in for railroad construction -- no education. Native Americans were kept out of schools or sent to such centers as the Carlisle Indian School whose mission was to "civilize the savages," by "killing the Indian to save the man." African-American education either did not exist or focused again on the civilizing (subordinating) mission of schools.

Today in the mainstream political discourse, any talk of public space, democratic options, or social justice is seen as just so much fuzzy headed socialism. Reintroduction of the claim that poor people are stuck in ghettos because of a self-destructive "culture of poverty" echoes the charge by school authorities in the 19th century that those who did not do well suffered from moral failings.

The operating assumption that suffuses Waiting for 'Superman' from beginning to end, but what is never questioned, is the current rage for market competition, the neo-liberal formula applied to all facets of public life, which dominates policy debates. As someone who has been deeply involved in the struggle to develop small schools and charter schools to improve education, I recognize the value of model schools to nudge a crushing school bureaucracy. We saw the possibility of smaller learning communities in allowing students to build a sense of community, to be noticed and challenged by a caring adult; in having teachers work together to strengthen and integrate their curriculum, to advance an open-ended, exploratory learning project. We wanted to inspire the large, impersonal schools or shame them into change. The small schools movement has achieved mixed results. We were, frankly, surprised by how fierce the opposition was to such change by parents of privilege and conservative school boards.

But the current rightist forces that have seized the microphone, and appropriated the term "reform," have anything but progressive education in mind. Their interest is nothing less than using charter schools to disband the public school system and, for many of them, to move right ahead to vouchers -- giving public cash to private schools, including for-profit and religious schools. What captivates these reformers is the notion that competition, battle, struggle is the law of nature. In their Hobbesian world of kill or be killed, the United States must continue to fight to be the top dog in world politics and economics. In the first place, this worldview suggests that the United States must exist in a constant state of war using its massive military machine. From there it smoothly glides over to the assumption that the US must also train cadres of children to out-compete others, particularly India and China in the coming period, in controlling the economy.

The poster advertising the film shows a nightmarish battlefield in stark gray, with a little white girl sitting at a desk in the midst of it. The text: "The fate of our country won't be decided on a battlefield. It will be determined in a classroom." This is a common theme for the Superman crowd: We are at war with India and China and we have to out-math them and crush them so that we can remain rich and they can stay in the sweatshops.

But no one asks: Who declared this war? When did I as a teacher sign up as an officer in this war? And when did that fourth-grade girl become a soldier in it? Instead of this new educational Cold War, perhaps we should be helping kids imagine a world of global cooperation, sustainable economies, and equity.

Waiting for 'Superman' is guided not only by a belief that we must be at war with the rest of the world. It also endorses the Obama-Duncan re-branding of No Child Left Behind as Race to the Top. Education is all a race, a competition. States must compete against states. Districts against districts. Schools against schools. And they are most explicit about the fact that teachers must compete against teachers. Since they believe market forces make everything work, they imagine an incentive for better test-prep on the part of teachers by giving bonus pay to those teachers whose students achieve better test scores. This undermines the essence of the art and professionalism of teaching: a constant process of sharing, borrowing, layering, critiquing, and supporting each other. Now, if I have a successful project, I am supposed to hide it from other teachers.

Under this program, teachers will be pressured to gather the most promising students, to remain isolated from peers, and to cheat; principals have already been caught cheating in a desperate attempt to boost test scores. In spite of the many millions of dollars poured into expounding the scheme of paying teachers for higher student test scores (sometimes mislabeled as 'merit pay'), a new study by Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Incentives found that the use of merit pay for teachers in the Nashville school district produced no difference in test outcomes for students -- even according to their measure.

And, at the bottom of the heap, are the students who are told from a young age that they are in a life-and-death struggle -- against their classmates and other students -- to climb over others to the top. Students would be able to pursue studies in an atmosphere of confidence and curiosity if they were not constantly saddled with scare stories about the divergent paths, between flipping burgers and driving a BMW. Masking as motivational talks, these tales actually poison the educational terrain. Students who estimate that they will lose the race begin to drop out, drift, and resist even in elementary school; those slated for success learn cynicism and shortcuts to continue racking up points. Life-and-death video games are not the cause of the cynicism of these kids; they are only a recreational reflection of the world we adults have put them in.

Anyone connected with school districts knows how enamored administrative education programs are with business models. Every superintendent and principal is reading the new-agey business manuals on goal setting and people-managing. For the many MBA's who have recently found their calling in education, the key issue is metrics -- an improvement plan must have something to measure. Test scores became the easiest number, something portable and subject to all of the regression analyses one learned in business statistics class. Never mind that the scores are flawed, fatally flawed, in their ability to reflect teaching or learning. I could say so much more on testing here -- how it narrows and dumbs down curriculum, how it reflects class and racial fissures in our society, how it undermines the best in education -- questioning, creativity, and innovation. But testing has been better debated elsewhere, so I just mark this problem in passing.

But the interesting point is that even within business education circles, many of the thoughtful analysts are questioning the received wisdom of constant competition, constant growth. A recent article in the Boston Globe reviewed extensive studies that have shown that "improvement goals" and an obsession with upward graph curves have often led to disaster. It points out how General Motors' single-minded focus on market share led to shoddy design and ultimate disaster. Other cases, the Ford Pinto design, the Enron collapse, and the lending practices of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, followed the same pattern. Bending all educational efforts to achieving higher test scores has disastrous unintended consequences. But the market fetishists will not be deterred. This is because their commitment to market-based school reform is not evidence based, it is faith based.

Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books explored how much public discourse is in the grip of free-market dogma since the Reagan Revolution. Judt was appreciating an essay by Czeslaw Milosz which ruthlessly deconstructed the thinking of Eastern Europeans in communist countries who refused to question practices that were wrong-headed and disastrous for society. But he brought that same group-think critique up to the current free market proponents:

Our contemporary faith in 'the market' rigorously tracks its radical nineteenth-century doppelgänger - 'the unquestioning belief in necessity, progress, and History ... But 'the market' -- 'like 'dialectical materialism' -- 'is just an abstraction: at once ultra-rational (its argument trumps all) and the acme of unreason (it is not open to question). It has its true believers -- mediocre thinkers by contrast with the founding fathers, but influential withal; its fellow travelers -- 'who may privately doubt the claims of the dogma but see no alternative to preaching it; and its victims, many of whom in the US especially have dutifully swallowed their pill and proudly proclaim the virtues of a doctrine whose benefits they will never see.

Above all, the thrall in which an ideology holds a people is best measured by their collective inability to imagine alternatives. We know perfectly well that untrammeled faith in unregulated markets kills: the rigid application of what was until recently the 'Washington consensus' in vulnerable developing countries -- 'with its emphasis on tight fiscal policy, privatization, low tariffs, and deregulation -- 'has destroyed millions of livelihoods. Meanwhile, the stringent 'commercial terms' on which vital pharmaceuticals are made available has drastically reduced life expectancy in many places. But in Margaret Thatcher's deathless phrase, 'there is no alternative.' ...

Leaving reform in the hands of these forces -- who were so adept at ushering in the current economic disaster -- promises to be an expensive gamble and one that will chew up generations of young people who will be deprived of engaged and effective educational opportunities. If we can see through the hype, if we can break from the hegemonic ideology of Waiting for 'Superman', we will realize that we must let go of the controlling metaphor of American big business as a way to understand education. We would do well to look for other areas for our analogies to the educational project. I'm drawn to the idea of the public square, the messy and complicated debate we must have about what is democracy, where we are going in the coming years, and who gets a seat at the table -- who is us and who is the "other?" So many of our debates on education are really masked versions of this discussion -- a discussion we can never have out loud and honestly.

Or, if we are looking for a metaphor with some generative power, a broad framing that can inform our thinking about educational reform, perhaps we should look at medical care. This would allow us to address honestly the issues of funding and equity; of the need for broad coverage (single payer) for the common good; of the importance of innovation and even alternative medicines. Our students come to school suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder but never receive the kind of attention that veterans get -- and even for veterans it is woefully inadequate. People's involvement in their own care, in learning healthy living and preventative medicine, is key to keeping health costs down. The same could be said for education.

For now, just to keep the discussion honest, don't drink the Kool Aid of market force "reform." Imagine how we could create a hopeful, empowering, joyful public space. Imagine communities and families and children and teachers working out the kind of education they want and need. And imagine schools, instead of being centers where spirits are crushed and curious students are bored, as sites of joy and hope and possibility.