Originally published in TruthoutAugust, 2014.
By Tim Scott and Deborah Keisch
Presidential administration proclamations about the state of public education over the past 30 years:
1983: “Our Nation is at risk. . . . the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded. . . .[and] threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
– President Reagan’s policy report titled “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform”
1991: “For the sake of the future, of our children and of the nation’s, we must transform America’s schools. . . . if the United States is to maintain a strong and growing economy into the next century.”
– President H.W. Bush’s “AMERICA 2000: An Education Strategy”
1994: “To get beyond the crisis of education that we’ve talked and talked about. . . . We need to raise the standards to essentially reinvent our educational system to fit this new economy.”
– President Clinton’s Secretary of Education Richard Riley
2004: “The educational system itself needed to be reformed – transformed. . . . to improve education. . . . American business must be involved. If we can improve the educational system, we can improve the corporate bottom line.”
– President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education Rod Paige, addressing the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce
2012: “Far too many students aren’t getting the high-quality education and training they need to compete for jobs in the knowledge-based economy. . . . We have an education crisis in our country. . . . We have to act boldly and decisively to turn the tide.”
– President Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, writing for the US Chamber of Commerce
Public education in the United States is in a state of crisis. We know this because we have heard the warning from government officials of both political parties over the past 30 years. We have also heard that if we don’t fix this crisis, the United States and the “American way of life” is in jeopardy of losing its global economic competitiveness and superiority. We are told that our schools aren’t doing the job we need them to do, with a quarter of our children dropping out of high school every year, and still two-fifths of those who do graduate leave high school unprepared for college or a career, while 57 percent lack comprehension of even remedial math. We have heard that American students place anywhere from the middle to the bottom of the pack in all three continuing comparative studies of achievement in mathematics, science and general literacy in the advanced industrial nations, while college remediation rates are high and US employers report that today’s young people don’t have the skills and knowledge needed for the modern workforce. Additionally, vast gaps in academic achievement and graduation rates that separate low-income students and students of color from their more privileged peers continue to plague the American education landscape (These statistics from The Education Trust).
We are told that corporate leaders are best positioned to fix the problems that plague public education and thus have been charged by our elected leaders to transform public education to meet the workforce demands of the 21st century economy, which will translate into solving the achievement gap. Corporations and financial institutions like Intel, Target, Cisco, IBM, Goldman Sachs, AT&T and many others, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, are giving billions to reform our schools, while most efforts are being financed through corporate philanthropic foundations. The “big three” foundations driving and shaping education reform policies are the Broad Foundation (housing and insurance billionaire Eli Broad), the Gates Foundation (billionaire Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft), and the Walton Foundation (billionaire family behind Walmart). Corporate funded groups like StudentsFirst,Stand for Children, Teach Plus, Parents Transparency Project, and many others (also referred to as Astroturf) play an important role in leveraging power by portraying education reform initiatives as being driven by a grassroots movement. Government officials, these corporations, these foundations and these Astroturf groups together make the same argument about what the problems and solutions are with regard to public education.
We also have heard that a large part of this crisis is not a result of economic and social inequity, but rather a result of teachers who aren’t “effective.” A summary of a report by the Center for American Progress on getting rid of ineffective teachers opens with the following quote about President Obama’s stance on this position, “As President Barack Obama so aptly stated in his remarks to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce last year, ‘From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it’s the person standing at the front of the classroom.'” In line with this, Bill Gates tells us how “Great teaching remains at the center of the solution. Improving schools will require that we figure out how to improve the way we train, measure and reward effective teachers. Achieving that will be hard and it will take a great deal of effort.”
This predominant storyline places the blame for this perceived crisis on public schools, parents, teachers and their unions, and has been very effectively sold to us through a narrative that has been repeated over and over again – by our politicians, the super rich and the corporate media. The 2010 documentary film Waiting for Superman (heavily financed by Gates and Broad) evoked this crisis – effectively creating a tug-on-the-heartstrings film that further convinced the public that not only were public schools failing, but that there was a very particular solution: imposing the notion of a market ideology on education – otherwise known as corporate education reform – in this instance in the form of privately owned or operated charter schools.
While most people would agree that there is indeed a crisis in public education, there is deep divide around understanding of just what the crisis is. Another take on the crisis, quite different than the dominant perspective just shared, is that public education has always needed to be re-envisioned and reformed to truly become an engine for social equity and a robust democracy by way of expanding public participation and ownership to ensure universal and equitable funding as well as critical and holistic approaches to teaching and learning for all students, schools and communities.
Those who share this alternative view of public education recognize that current education reform efforts are in fact having the opposite outcomes from those claimed by market-based reformers and are, instead, reproducing and exacerbating historical and ongoing inequities. Because of these reform efforts, schools are becoming even more stratified along race and class lines, while children are being subjected to more austere, segregated, controlled and stress-inducing school environments and at increasingly younger ages, with the children from the most marginalized communities experiencing the most devastating impacts.
Critical capacities that are essential components of social agency and a democratic society are being suppressed in the race to increasingly reduce learning and knowing to rote and measurable quantitative data that can be collected through standardized tests – tests that are also used as profit making instruments and provide the rationale to sort students, privatize schools, disempower teachers and destroy their unions. Within this environment, we are seeing greater policing, criminalizing and a pushing out of school of the most marginalized students, primarily black and brown youth, in effect feeding the insatiable school to prison pipeline. What is often referred to as “corporate education reform” is in essence an integral part of what is increasingly being recognized as “The New Jim Crow” and “Juan Crow.”
Just as there is disagreement about what the crisis in education is, there is also disagreement about how the crisis developed, and what the solution should be. Within the scheme of corporate education reform, there is a formula repeatedly being enacted – on state, city and district levels – to institutionalize education reform policies. While slight variations in the formula exist, there are shared elements within several main areas: standardized testing, the market notion of “choice,” privatization, union-busting, profiteering and workforce development – meaning students as future workers are trained to have the vocational aptitudes required by private sector industries.
To unpack these areas a bit further, standardized curriculum paired with assessment measures (standardized testing) designed by for-profit companies are imposed on state, city and district levels through state-corporate partnerships; sanctions are applied to schools for poor-performance on these standardized tests; there is increased involvement of for-profit companies supplying test development and preparation, data analysis and management, mandated remedial services and the utilization of proprietary online software. This forces schools and students to experience a greater narrowing of curriculum and focus on rote learning where teachers are expected to be technicians who teach to the test, while their pay and job security is dependent upon test scores that do not capture the most meaningful aspects of teaching and learning.
Synergistically working with testing systems, market notions of choice are implemented by states at the same time as austerity measures are applied throughout society, creating the rationale for cuts in school funding, and creating additional market mechanisms where schools compete against each other for public funds and customers (students). This allows public schools to be further drained of essential resources, and even more so when coupled with schools being identified as failing due to poor test scores and “bad teachers,” creating further “customer” dissatisfaction with public schools – so that privately owned and operated charter schools (extensively marketed, rapidly expanding and deceptively touted as being superior) become a desperately sought after “choice” by parents who are understandably concerned about their children being “winners” in an increasingly competitive dog-eat-dog job market and a world with fewer and fewer public services and social safety nets.
When public schools continue to not make “adequate yearly progress” by improving test scores (i.e. actually produce the predesigned outcomes), they are identified as “turnaround” schools, which allows a process to unfold whereby principals and unionized teachers can be fired and entire schools can be “redesigned,” meaning they can now be operated by union-free private education management companies or charter schools. They can also be closed permanently.
All together, these “reform” mechanisms are a huge success for the profiteers who are responsible for designing and implementing them. What is currently being realized by way of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top was boldly predicted by Fortune magazine in 1998 when they stated, “education, broadly defined, will emerge as one of the leading investment sectors over the next 20 years.” Not coincidentally, these profit-driven education policies are systematically undermining democratic control of our schools while creating “learning” conditions where generations of our children can be properly sorted, controlled and trained to become obedient subjects of a corporatocracy, as future workers, prisoners and consumer “citizens.” Education reform is indeed working – for a select few.