Neo Liberalism & Education (or Market Madness): Part II
The essence of neo-liberalism is the emptying out of the public sector, of notions of communal space, and the reduction of human relations to a number to represent its market value. As Carlos Ovando tells us, neo-liberalism tries to “substitute commercial relations between customers for democratic relations between citizens.” For education, besides what’s already been described, this means the constriction of teacher/student relationships, the narrowing of curriculum especially in No Child Left Behind (NCLB)-sanctioned schools, the reduction of knowledge to basic skills, the standardization and decontextualization of schooling, along with the deskilling of teaching – scripting and a one metric evaluation system (test scores). How can we skill up students as we skill down teachers? All of this accompanied by a concerted demonization of teacher unions.
As for equity, we seem to be moving toward a 2-tiered system with low SES schools dominated by test prep, and zero-tolerance discipline, while more affluent schools are generally able to escape the discipline of high stakes testing. Negative labels, loss of Title 1 funding, threatened and actual school closure punish schools most in need. The achievement gap remains persistent, especially among high achievers. And the rate of graduation of urban students of color remains unconscionably low.
I don’t think it is out of place, right now, to question where the “symbolic analysts and manipulators” – the supposed vanguard competitors of 21st century workers –have taken us. In a moment where the economic situation is much more dire than the recession that A Nation at Risk bemoaned, the computer simulators, the concocters of impossibly complicated financial instruments, the path breaking leveragers of imaginary value surely have some responsibility for our current economic dilemmas. Their success in short-term profit taking should be a sobering example of Campbell’s law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.” Of course, this applies equally to high-stakes testing. We would have been better served by less hype, a media less subservient to power, and a citizenry with a stronger sense of its own needs with less faith in these high-powered symbol manipulators.
The imperial dreams and neoliberal fantasies of the Bush Administration, to borrow the apocalyptic tone of A Nation at Risk, purged of its crude nationalism, have now put A People at Risk. The economy is in the tank and social programs on the cutting board. We cannot effectively fight the cutbacks without a different vision of the future for education. A Nation at Risk was not wrong to focus attention on our schools; just off the mark in its simple-minded economics and barren social vision.
So what is our alternative vision? To solve problems of inequity, to prepare our young people for the trials and tribulations of our difficult world, to enrich the lives of young people, to challenge the expertise of the powerful, how might we move in a different direction? I wish I had more definitive advice, but let me try and add to the conversation. We need to start with those with the greatest stake in our educational system, rather than from some flawed metaphor of the global economy. We can build on a generation of scholarship and practice in turning away from deficit thinking – in which students need to be fixed rather than nurtured — and make use of the knowledge and aspirations of students, teachers and community members to enrich our learning communities. We need to recruit and support community members to be part of our schools, including as teachers. We need to make college and university educational affordable so that its graduates are not in perpetual debt.
Good teaching is labor intensive, requiring high-level organizational, psychological, cultural and pedagogical skills, not to mention subject matter competency. Teacher training must move toward training teachers with socio-political consciousness and cultural competency; whose belief in student capacity is rooted in a real sense of students’ lives. The new technologies can and will be useful tools, but are no substitute for caring, thoughtful, resourceful, and knowledgeable teachers.
Schools need to be reconceived as part of local communities, responsive to community needs and tuned into community context, functioning as a key part of larger support system. We know that schools which embody “relational trust” based on reliable and honest working relationships between administrators, students, teachers, and community members are more successful. Evaluation of schools need to go beyond test scores and even graduation rates, to the quality of school libraries, the development of active citizens, the promotion of physical and emotional health and evidence of close relations to the local community. Ideas such as Richard Rothstein’s for a school inspectorate – with experienced people spending structured time in our schools and community institutions to evaluate schools on a broad basis — can be the beginning of a conversation for an alternative to the NCLB metric for systematic evaluation of schools. As Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that can be counted, counts.”
Our educational goals must include an expansive definition of citizenship. Good citizenship is more than casting a ballot or an episode of community service. Education should help teach students to hold our leaders to account; amplify student voices so they can become leaders. True literacy empowers students to ‘read the world’, connect to others, and engage in authentic and creative self-expression. Computer and media literacy necessarily include the temerity and capacity to interrogate the claims of pundits and bloggers. These are not particularly new ideas, but ideas that have been downgraded, and disparaged when not ignored, in the neoliberal induced panic about global competition. They need to be revivified, adapted, transformed so that our young people can flourish in a complicated world that while scary enough is less threatening than the dog-eat-dog/nation-eat-nation world conjured up by the neoliberals.
Finally, as education activists, we also need to be part of the fight for affordable and adequate health insurance, affordable housing, the right to form a union, for more socially conscious unions, for green space in our communities, and a fairer tax structure; for equity in all areas which affect our students’ ability to learn and effectively engage the world.
We stand at a critical moment for the future of American education. There is an opening for a different direction for American education that we cannot afford to miss. Neoliberal economic and political policies have put our people at great risk and people have a strong sense of being misled by the big money players. We need to come together to reframe our understanding of education. How can we as education activists and organizers move away from this failed ideology toward a richer, fuller sense and practice of education?
A final thought: perhaps we should banish the term “neo-liberalism” in favor of one more understandable and less confusing: perhaps “market fundamentalism” or “market mysticism” or just “market madness”.