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THE NEOLIBERAL AGENDA FOR PUBLIC EDUCATION Whatever the political disagreements among the ruling class about how best to “reform” our schools, there are nevertheless five central features of the neoliberal assault on public education that we can identify. 1. Austerity - driving down wages, and attacking private-sector unions, deregulating huge sectors of the economy, and slashing taxes for corporations and the wealthy. 2. Sorting - intensification of the “sorting machine” at school. This process—of separating out a small layer of youth who can move into white-collar, “knowledge economy” jobs from the rest of the students—may not be as apparent a feature of neoliberalism as are the financial attacks on education described above; however, it is just as consequential. 3. Social Control – Part of this element of social control is an ideological shift in focus from education as a “public good” to education as “personal responsibility.” In so doing, the crisis in education is no longer a public burden, but rather one for individual students, parents, and teachers to shoulder. a. One of the most profound reflections of this shift is the extent to which the term “educational equity” has all but disappeared from public conversations about reversing the legacy of racism in US schools. Instead, it has been replaced with a relentless focus on the “achievement gap.” In other words, improving educational experiences and outcomes for youth of color is thus no longer a public, social, or systemic question, but rather a personal one measured above all by individual student performance on standardized tests.16 Knopp, Sarah; Bale, Jeff (2012-04-17). Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation (Kindle Locations 2484-2488). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition. 4. Privatization - It should come as no surprise that many private organizations and corporations are angling to get a piece of the almost six hundred billion dollars spent on K–12 education each year in this country— in 2009, the figure stood at $590.9 billion. In an era when capital is desperate for avenues of profitable investment, privatization of public services becomes an attractive option. a. Of course, business leaders are excited about charter schools in particular because they are a mechanism for funneling public funds
into private hands. And this dispossession is now formal federal policy: in order for states to qualify for any Race to the Top (RTTT) money, they must increase the percentage of charter schools allowed to operate in that state. b. But privatization is occurring in other ways as well: textbook, curriculum, and testing companies have also been major beneficiaries of NCLB and RTTT, while many essential services that make schools function—from busing and custodial services to provision of substitute teachers and food preparation—have been outsourced to private bidders. 5. Centralization - This feature of the attack on public education fits with the goals of local elites in urban areas who want to restructure their cities in ways that make them more hospitable to business investment (and consequently displace poor communities of color). a. For example, with Chicago’s “Renaissance 2010” plan to “reconstitute” failing schools, “the mayor and Civic Committee are operating from a larger blueprint to make Chicago a ‘world-class city’ of global finance and business services, real estate development, and tourism, and education is part of this plan. Quality schools (and attractive housing) are essential to draw high-paid, creative workers for business and finance.” Moreover, in Chicago, as well as Washington, DC, replacing neighborhood schools with charter schools has gone hand in hand with the demolition of public housing. AN EXAMPLE OF THE OUTCOME OF NEOLIBERAL EDUCATION REFORM “Yet the promise of these [Race To The Top] funds has been used to push through major changes to education policy: Twenty-three states have overhauled teacher evaluation policies, lifted the cap on charter schools, or adopted punitive “turnaround” policies for their lowest-performing schools. For example, if California had been chosen in the first round, the state would have gotten at best seven hundred million dollars in one-time funds, scarcely 1 percent of its education budget. With these paltry funds as justification, the state passed a bill in December 2009 mandating “turnarounds” for the bottom 5 percent of schools and forcing schools to be converted to charters if 50 percent of parents sign a petition. Obviously, politicians—from former Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to liberal Democratic state senator Gloria Romero (who sponsored the new law)—pushed these policies not only to make California eligible for the grant money, but also because the policies coincided with some of their overall goals.”
Key Points Do any of following passages resonate, and do you see how they apply to our local public schools? 1. “The idea that we can quantify the value of knowledge leads to a style of teaching that Paulo Freire called “banking education,” a pedagogical approach in which teachers deposit knowledge into the “banks” of students’ brains, “the teacher teaches and the students are taught,” and where “the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are the mere objects.” That administrations are now pushing to use VALUE ADDED MEASUREMENTS to assess teachers is a strange admission on their part that they expect teachers to implement exactly the model Freire criticized.” 2. “Rather, the predominant function that schools historically have served is to control the behavior of students and to assimilate them—whether forcibly or more subtly—into the dominant ideology, behaviors, culture, and ways of speaking and interacting desired by the US ruling class.” 3. The educational system selects for and rewards certain personality traits. Bowles and Gintis cite a study that shows that in calculating a student’s grade point average (GPA), personality traits are almost as important as cognitive skills. Some of these highly rewarded personality traits include: dependability, perseverance, consistency, willingness to follow orders, punctuality, and ability to delay gratification. Personality traits that have a negative association with GPA are creativity, aggressiveness, and independence.” 4. “The problems of inner-city schools stem from poverty, inadequate funding and resources, underpaid teachers, and top-down control.” 5. “Central to the “neoliberal” plan that has ruled the US economy from 1973 to the present is the idea on the part of business owners that it is essential to get more out of each worker (in this case, teachers) and to limit workers’ voice and power in the workplace. In this case, that means attacking aspects of teachers’ collective bargaining rights and academic freedom, and standardizing and scripting curriculum.” 6. “VAMs wrongly assume that standardized tests are an accurate way of measuring student learning. A teacher whose students are successful in critical thinking and project-based learning may not register as “effective” on the narrow measure of multiple-choice tests. The more that teachers’ own evaluations are tied to these test scores, the more “teaching to the test” will replace authentic curriculum and assessments.”
7. “[Teachers] may be better educated and in some cases better paid [than their underclass students], and the AFT may call itself “a union of professionals,” but we are still dependent on our labor to live. If we take our labor and go home, we will not make rent; and our better pay is the product of our struggle and the struggle of those before us, not our exploitation of someone else. So, in arguing for the necessity, say, of working-class solidarity in the face of administrative divide-and-conquer maneuverings, we are not coming from the outside and imposing our middle-class ideas on working-class people. We are acting in our own interests. Our interests and those of our students—who in public school are also largely working class—are the same, both in and out of the classroom.” 8. “The arguments by current education reformers: that too many Black parents do not value education and are not transmitting the proper values to their children; that teachers’ unions are an obstacle to racial justice in education; that philanthropists are Black parents’ best ally in the struggle for equality; and that racial justice is not synonymous with desegregation or equitable funding, but rather with market-oriented changes that foster competition and encourage private-sector management of schools are based on a dubious set of propositions about racial politics today. The actual history of the Black struggle for education in the United States challenges every one of those propositions.” 9. “In schools today, education is standardized, sterilized, and stripped down. Achievement on a high-stakes test takes the place of meaningful learning, and by design, meaningful teaching. In this upside-down world, each subject is taught separately with a list of specific skills to be taught as unrelated exercises in futility. As such, each unit bears no relation to the one before and knowledge is fragmented and abstract. Most fundamentally, learning or knowing is separated from doing or creating in a way that is intrinsically unnatural.”