Friday, April 19, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: Schooling for Sale by Brian Elliott

Schooling for Sale: A Critique of US Public School Reform
Brian Elliott

PHOTO: Olav Bryant Smith
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical
What’s wrong with America’s schools?

It’s not hard to find criticism of the US public school system. Both local and national newspapers regularly carry articles outlining a new policy initiative, a school district’s remarkable success or, more likely, the alarming characteristics of a “failing” school.

As an educator and an outsider (having moved to the US four years ago), the portrayal of the plight of public education in the US is both familiar and yet culturally curious. Having worked a few short years in America at the post-secondary level, it didn’t take me long to realize that public schooling is–after job insecurity and health care–possibly the greatest cause of social anxiety in the US. America’s seemingly dire standing in the world tables of schooling achievement has clearly attained the status of a more general cultural barometer, with a consistent reading of low pressure and storms ahead. Curious to delve into the origins and credibility of this public perception, it quickly become clear to me that key elements of the schooling crisis are symptoms of the much broader and well canvassed phenomenon of neoliberalism. While saying that the public school system in the US is in the process of being “privatized” may strike many as alarming (though it may even come as a relief to others), the term alone explains little. After all, the state has never had a monopoly over education in America. But what goes by the name of “school reform” in the US today amounts to a direct assault on the very notion of “public good” in the name of which public schooling was originally established. Post-secondary “public” universities in the US are already de facto privately financed organizations, but until now education up to the age of eighteen or nineteen has been considered a basic right protected by state provision. US school reform is pushing hard against this century old assumption. Why is this happening and what does the reform movement ultimately hope to achieve?

PHOTO: David Schott

The business of schooling

In the last few years, the debate about school reform has enjoyed greater resonance, thanks in large part to a number of widely distributed movies. The heavy-handed emotional narrative of documentaries such as Waiting for Superman and The Lottery is generated by portraying bright but poor kids as hapless victims of a callously rigid public school system and its self-serving defenders: lazy and incompetent teachers, school district administrators, and corrupt teachers’ unions. The panacea for this injustice is simple: school choice. As Diane Ravitch sets out in a chapter of her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the discourse of school choice is most readily traced back to Milton and Rose Friedman’s coauthored 1977 best-seller Free to Choose. Conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the John M. Olin Foundation (this last funding much of Ravitch’s own work in the 1980s and 90s) have been hugely influential in advancing the school choice agenda over recent decades. At the same time, the two national teachers’ unions–the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)–have come out strongly against the school choice agenda and see it as a platform for privatizing public schools. 

The struggle between teachers’ unions and pro-reform think tanks to influence educational policy is clearly a key battleground in the context of US public schools. Theorists such as Terry Moe have been banging the drum against teachers’ unions for decades and the refrain is always the same: unions are self-interested organizations that are intrinsically incapable of placing the good of students before the good of unionized teachers. But this claim is extremely counter-intuitive. Just ask yourself: why would anyone teaching in good faith want to advance their own conditions of work to the detriment of the students they teach? The cynicism advanced by ideologues of school reform is unwarranted and in reality espouses the very vision of society attributed to teachers’ unions, namely unreflective individual self-interest pursued at the cost of social solidarity. In light of this vision we do not have public schools to ensure social integrity and fairness but rather to see that those with prior advantage reap the full reward of their competitive edge. But public education can never be defended in terms of individual self-interest, but requires the lens of what theorists call “convergent goods.” In the words of Chris Higgins, public education is a convergent good because, “[if ] my neighbor’s child is well educated, I stand to benefit.”

Framing an effective position in any public forum requires the successful deployment of key terms. There are a number of key words advanced by US school reformers, among which “excellence” and “accountability” (as well as “choice”) do most of the heavy lifting. As Ravitch makes clear, the “accountability” buzzword came to dominate public discourse in the 1990s. Accountability here takes on a primarily technocratic rather than political meaning. Curiously, democratic accountability is generally diminished by successful school reform, with the dissolution of elected school boards, eradication of union representation, and marginalization of parental and community input being typical. In its technocratic sense the rhetoric of accountability appeals to putatively neutral, scientific measures of educational “success.” As has become increasingly apparent since the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under President George W. Bush in 2002, standardized testing in the core subject areas of literacy and mathematics has become the gold standard against which school success is measured. Ravitch is quick to point out the flaws involved in seeing such testing as an accurate measure of anything, insisting that “standardized tests are not precise instruments.”

While its scientific validity is dubious at best, standardized testing plays a crucial role in the push to allow private for-profit businesses into the sphere of public education in the name of accountability. The Education Industry Association report for 2010 points out that, of the approximately $750 billion of public funding spent on public education, around $80 billion is spent on complementary and supplementary products and services. According to the jargon, the collective term for products and services provided through the non public sector is “supplemental education services” (SES). The average annual reported revenue of the top ten for-profit firms selling “accountability commodities” to school districts grew from $430 million in 2003 to $780 million in 2008.

Katrina Bulkley and Patricia Burch have explored this sector in recent research and come to the conclusion that “test-based accountability” constitutes a key current focus for firms seeking a greater share of public education dollars. While many are aware of school tables and the use of standardized testing, the price and provenance of testing materials is less well known. According to Bulkley and Burch, this is exactly what the for-profit firms supplying SES want, as they fear adverse attention from the public and prefer “behind the scenes.” As recent research clearly shows, private providers are rapidly making the transition from the relatively peripheral provision of testing materials to central concerns of public education such as curriculum development and teacher management. This makes sense: tests require preparation and teachers as well as students need to be given the tools to steer a class successfully through the mandated tests. The fact that for profit companies choose to focus their current efforts on providing less publicly visible elements of public schooling indicates that the ideological battle to allow full-blown privatization in this sector is yet to be won. When it comes to the actual staffing and managing of the public school system, the vast majority of non public providers are non-profit organizations. There are many indications, however, that such organizations ultimately represent the advanced guard of a campaign eventually to transform public schooling into a fully privately managed sector.

PHOTO: Barbara Hall

Charting success

Following disputes over the introduction of voucher systems in the 1980s, the charter management organization (CMO) has emerged since the early 1990s as the dominant way in which the running of public schools is taken out of direct public management. Across the field of non-profit educational management organizations (EMOs), this dominance is clear. Bulkley and Burch note that charters make up 97% of the schools run by nonprofit EMOs. Interestingly, they also draw attention to the fact that there is already evidence of consolidation in this sector, with individual EMOs often managing ten or more schools. When the charter school model was first conceived in the late 1980s, by contrast, the underlying idea was that small, teacher-led schools would be able to experiment with alternative pedagogical approaches to tackle the challenges faced by those student populations that did least well in the traditional public school system. 

Initially, educational progressives and teachers unions alike warmly welcomed the charter school idea. In the course of the 1990s, however, the original idea behind charters was subject to a fundamental mutation. Those who had backed the Friedmans’ idea of school transfer vouchers realized charter schools would prove less controversial within the public debate. Realizing that the original idea had been coopted by conservatives, progressives and teachers’ unions moved to distance themselves from the charter school movement in the 1990s.

Currently, there are a plethora of influential and well-funded non-profit organizations advocating the rollout of charter alternatives to traditional public schools. In line with the general character of neoliberalism, the underlying idea is to take public schools out of public management while diverting public funds into privately run charter schools. One of the longest standing such organizations is The Center for Education Reform. Founded in 1993 and based in Washington DC, the mission statement of the Center offers a familiar mantra of standardized testing, accountability, and stringent action against consistently “failing” schools. Some EMOs are increasingly taking on the role of professional development for educators, with organizations such as Teach for America, New Leaders for New Schools, KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), and Uncommon Schools leading the field. Standing behind these charter school providers are some of the wealthiest foundations in the United States. Often referred to collectively as “venture philanthropy,” these foundations intervene in the public school system not just by providing additional material resources, but also by directly influencing school governance and public discourse.

The New Teacher Project (TNTP), established by the controversial former chancellor of Washington, D.C. public schools, Michelle Rhee, offers an instructive example. Founded in 1997, in its first ten years under Rhee’s leadership TNTP focused on training teachers through its Teaching Fellows program. In more recent years the platform has become more ambitious, extending to provision of teacher performance measurement. Looking at the board membership of TNTP is instructive as to its position within the American body politic. To take one example, John Arnold is a billionaire former trader at Enron, who went on to found his own energy trading company Centaurus in 2002 following Enron’s collapse. Having recently announced his retirement from business at the age of thirty-eight, presumably Arnold will be devoting more attention to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation established in 2011. Identifying education as one of three key areas of focus, the Foundation views public education as in need of enhanced “performance management” by means of rigorous “scientific” models redolent of the now familiar standardized tests for students.

Consulting the mission statements, lobbying track records, and board membership of the most influential organizations pushing charters schools in the United States makes it clear that the example given is typical. It would be realistic rather than cynical to conclude that a very exclusive and privileged subsection of the American “public” is currently bankrolling the push for charter schools.

The picture one quickly forms with respect to the charter school movement in the US is this: a “non-profit” front is being used to realize what is in reality a corporate push to divert public education funding into private hands. Seen in this light, public school reform in the US is simply another spoke in the wheel of the corporate machine dismantling what remains of American social democratic infrastructure.

PHOTO: Vita Haake

Playing politics with schooling

Since the warnings of the Reagan administration report A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform in 1983 public schooling in the US has been rhetorically constructed as a site of cultural catastrophe and crisis. In contrast to the traditional arguments deployed to establish and maintain a universally accessible public school system as an essential pillar of democratic society, the creeping privatization of US schools plainly operates according to a different logic. One salient aspect of this alternate logic, as Janelle Scott points out in a recent article examining school reform and racial equity, is a tendency to seal off the issue of school reform from broader concerns for economic and social equality. This leads to a curious situation, whereby those who advocate market-based solutions for public schools rhetorically appropriate the language of 1960s civil rights activism without actually endorsing the radically redistributive platform that was originally integral to it. Scott sets out around a dozen key claims of the US school reform movement more generally, among which criticism of current modes of teacher education and putatively corrupt teachers unions, the endorsement of charters, and mayoral control of schools stand out as central. Another claim advanced constitutes the focus of Scott’s analysis, namely, that “school integration is no longer desired by parents of color.”

One of the central concerns of progressive politics during the civil rights movement of the 1960s was the racial desegregation of public schools. While the Obama presidency was celebrated as a sign of a “post-racial” America, it would appear that current educational policy is entrenching patterns of racial division in public schools. Scott contends that charter schools are actually exacerbating racial segregation. Taking a broader historical perspective, not only has achieved racial integration in US public schools been reversed in recent years, but efforts to close the “achievement gap” through federally mandated regimes of standardized testing have also failed. Another author, Joel Spring, notes in his book Political Agendas for Education that NCLB “did not reduce the achievement gap between White and Black students as was hoped for by its supporters.” By contrast, the period predating the introduction of NCLB in 2001 did see some significant closing of the gap, especially in mathematics between 1973 and 1996. Identifying a historical shift in Democratic education policy away from a position originally supportive of credible racial and economic equity in the 1970s, Spring poses a key question: “Did Democrats sacrifice equality of educational opportunity to concerns about preparations of workers to serve the global economy?” The question obviously transcends the immediate party political context and points to a significant recalibration of the social impact of public education.

Evidence of a widening achievement gap along ethno-racial lines flies in the face of widespread claims concerning the success of charter schools and puts in question continued support for the charter movement under the Obama administration. After a decade of NCLB and warnings as to its corrosive effects on the public school system, the dangers of diverting resources away from sound teacher training and curriculum development toward “teaching to the test” as well as increased exposure to commercial practices in the arena of SES, the current Democratic administration has not challenged the rhetoric of “progressive” charters. As Scott points out, current school reform places its faith in corporate solutions to the detriment of those who practice teaching as a vocation and more credible forms of democratic community participation.

Returning to the theme of accountability, it is key to note the difference between the meaning of this term as used by advocates of school reform and that traditionally used by defenders of democratic governance. The idea of democratic accountability is so important because it relates to the basic reason for having a public education system. As opposed to the conceptual framing of accountability by advocates of market models of education, democratic accountability refers to the basic principle that those affected by a decision have a moral right to participate in the decision-making process. The theory elaborating on this principle has in recent decades gone by the name of “deliberative democracy,” though it stems ultimately from the work of the German theorist Jürgen Habermas. Modern democracy ultimately rests on the idea of popular sovereignty, which in turns calls for an informed and cognitively competent electorate. The recent history of US school reform, by contrast, shows clear signs of non-participatory, even autocratic reconfiguration.

PHOTO: mollyali

Hijacking the system

As recounted by Ravitch, those school districts where charter schools have made most extensive inroads have typically seen elected school boards dissolved and decision-making devolved directly onto city mayors. In New York, for example, the media billionaire Michael Bloomberg established the New York City Department of Education in 2002 that effectively undermined the power of the central school board through mayoral appointment. Leveraging his extensive network of business connections, Bloomberg was able to raise $75 million to establish a privately financed Leadership Academy to train new school principals. The mayor appointed the former Clinton administration assistant attorney general, Joel Klein, to the highest position in the New York DOE and Klein in turn surrounded himself with non-educators from the business world. As Scott notes, this pattern has been repeated in cities where charter schools have been most aggressively and successfully pushed into the public school system: San Diego, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.

In an enlightening chapter of her book titled “The Billionaire’s Boys Club,” Ravitch identifies the business leaders who fund the most influential foundations involved in ongoing US school reform: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. As she makes clear, these foundations operate as “philanthrocapitalism,” making strategic investments to produce desired results. While the money behind these foundations is immense, they are able to exert outsized influence through relatively small sums because public school districts typically have little or no discretionary funding at their disposal. Rather than seeking to aid established public school administration, foundations deploy their funds in a strategic manner, directing it toward a relentless raft of favored experiments in education. Always struggling to maintain their public school systems, city administrations are easy targets for the foundations’ largess. But the relatively small sums of additional money carry a high price for the democratic viability of public education. This is what distinguishes philanthrocapitalism from what might be considered more traditional charitable giving and leads to a disturbing power asymmetry. This lack of balance ultimately amounts, as Ravitch remarks, in a “fundamentally antidemocratic” agenda of school reform. Both those who back and those who execute school reform can also be justifiably accused of the basic hypocrisy of demanding endless technocratic measures of “accountability” for school and teachers, while allowing for an almost total lack of democratic accountability on their own part.

Each of the influential foundations backing school reform has typically fixed on one silver bullet idea for improving public schools: charter chains and vouchers in the case of the Walton Family Foundation, smaller high schools for the Gates Foundation, mayoral control and alternative teacher training for the Broad Foundation. Obama’s current Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, previously worked as superintendent of Chicago public schools and oversaw rapid expansion of charter schools partly financed by the Gates and Broad Foundations. Given Duncan’s appointment it could come as no surprise that the $4.3 billion set aside for the Obama administration’s replacement of NCLB–“Race to the Top”–carries with it the proviso that states availing of federal money are unable to limit the number of charter schools or resist evaluation of teaching staff based on student test scores. This makes clear that the venture philanthropy agenda remains at work at the very highest levels of federal policy-making. While the details of how tests, evaluation, and broader school reform are realized remain a matter for states to decide, it would be naïve to believe that the promise of federal funding does not skew educational policy at the state level.

Public education and the democratic deficit

While the data to back the claims of charter success remains absent or mixed, on the ideological level a definitive shift has already occurred. Rather than viewing public education as an area of activity with its own intrinsic goals that are ultimately tied into the viability of democratic participation in civil society, schooling is increasingly subject to the logic of efficient business management. What needs to be noted is the implacable logic of this “solution”: once the public comes to accept that the underlying purpose of education is economic competitiveness, the means needed to meet this goal are naturally looked for in the realm of business management expertise.

John Dewey
PHOTO: Wikipedia

Nineteenth and early twentieth-century proponents of the establishment of nationally mandated public education could never have successfully made their case on economic grounds alone, as it was and is plainly the case that developed economies only require selective types and levels of educational attainment. As John Dewey remarked in Democracy and Education almost a century ago, “a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, a conjoint communicated experience.” For Dewey it follows from this that a truly democratic education has the underlying purpose of facilitating the cooperative activity of individuals across all strata of society. Whereas a “society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements,” any credible defense of democratic education must seek to resist the dominance of ruling class interests. While the leading organizations pushing for US school reform speak the language of social justice and equity, those who back them are overwhelmingly from a corporate elite that in practice rejects the principle of democratic participation in public education.

The severing of public schools from traditional mechanisms of grassroots democracy is arguably the most damaging and alarming consequence of US school reform to date. As an educator, what is most striking to me about the public debate is the fact that the basic reasons for having a public educational system in the first place are seldom if ever broached. As philosophers are fond of speculating, if a Martian were to visit the US they could be forgiven for coming away with the impression that the need for education was some irritating necessity parallel to the public provision of sewers. Following a year of the Occupy movement, which demonstrated against state actions that clearly placed the viability of private financial institutions above the public’s need for basic elements of well-being, our Martian could hardly be expected to return with a lively impression of devolved democratic decision-making. The debate we should be having, I feel, would address the basic features of the democratic rationale for public education. As the politic class across all liberal democracies shows a growing tendency toward autocratic unaccountability, it is time for us to bring our supposed representatives back to earth. Public schooling might be the perfect arena in which to do this.

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