The Neo-Liberal Agenda and School Reform: T. Banks
Our city and state claims that it is "the leader" in school reform. We have a host of self-proclaimed school reform "rock stars" living and working amongst us. I need not name them as they name themselves every chance they get.
But the story of our city is not unique. It is a neo-liberal narrative that is being written across the country. Neo-liberalism's influence is shaping our city's story of school reform and leading to the further neglect of our neighborhoods and our children.
Pauline Lipman, a soldier and advocate for public education describes it well in her book, The New Political Economy of Urban Education:
"Neo-liberalism is a particular, historically-generated state strategy to manage structural crisis of capitalism and provide new opportunities for capital accumulation. Put simply, neo-liberalism is an ensemble of economic and social policies, forms of governance, and discourses and ideologies that promote individual self-interest, unrestricted flows of capital, deep reductions in the cost of labor, and sharp retrenchment of the public sphere. Neoliberals champion privatization of social goods and withdraw from government from provision for social welfare on the premise that competitive markets are more effective and proficient" (p. 6).
In terms of public education, the neo-liberal agenda is the agenda of school reform.
A story has been told that says public schools are failing nationwide, that it is educators' fault this has happened, that public schools systems are incapable of the change necessary to address this crisis, and that the private sector and thus the free-market are the only way out.
The narrative of the economic crisis has become the underlying impetus for quick change in public education. Meaning, if we do not "train" this new order of students to "compete" in the global economy then we are doomed. Who better to train them than the private sector? Who better to fund the change than the private sector? To add complexity, schools, school districts, and departments of education across the country have now been running systems of schools that rely on private money just to balance budgets. Over the last 20 years it has become absurd for schools to think they could operate solely on public funding. Educators have been happily taking Gates, Walton, and Freidman Foundation money for years, and now rely on it. The economic system of education is based on this infusion of private dollars from the 1 percent just to survive.
So why is this happening and what does it look like?
áTeachers stopped fighting for what they believe in at least five years ago. Those of us who are still fighting are being replaced by new teachers trained in schools of education that are tightly coupled with corporate reformers and their agendas. Schools of education know they cannot survive if they do not get in line, thus the new teaching force believes in the neo-liberal narrative and have been trained to implement it.
* The idea of a school or system that does not include standardization or standardized tests is a ridiculous notion and has no place in public education. Schools, educators, and families that fight against standardization are deemed radicals and dismissed.
* A narrative of school reform has been written that says if you are against standardization then you are against accountability. If you are not willing to close schools then you are unwilling or unable to do the hard work of improving education.
* Public education is being "Teach for America-nized." An entire army of "teachers" is being fast tracked into our schools with the most need. This army is being indoctrinated into the neo-liberal agenda. They are trained to raise scores for the two years they are there. Any that come to the realization of the neo-liberal agenda and have other notions are gone in two years and replaced with a new "member" to pick up where they left off. They are smart, passionate people who could be catalysts for transformative education, but instead they are neo-liberal foot soldiers.
* For-profit and "non-for-profit" groups are starting networks of well-funded, mechanized, schools all over the country, especially in urban spaces, that are taking the place of local public and/or independent schools that were once serving kids. These groups are making lots of money and are politically lobbying for legislation that will further their agendas.
* Progressive education, especially in urban spaces, is dying or dead. The idea of anything that does not have an immediate (5 years or less) impact on standardized tests scores is not valued by the neo-liberal agenda and is either never allowed to exist or is extinguished in short order.
* Closing or taking over schools, often by municipalities or for-profit groups, is becoming the badge of courage in school reform. If you haven't closed a school then you are not courageous and your neo-liberal peers question you.
* The 1 percent that controls the world is controlling the education reform agenda because they are funding it.
* There is no collective and organized counter argument/agenda to confront or battle the current neo-liberal agenda of school reform.
* Especially in urban spaces, a system of educational apartheid is being created and the toughest kids are being pushed lower and lower to the bottom of the heap.
I have spent the better part of the last 16 years in public education. All but three of those years were in schools created by teachers and/or communities of teachers and families. I am exhausted but still fighting. I am searching for rationale or some sign that this is the wrong direction. When I find myself in a place of darkness I try to find those people who can pull me out. I end this with some thoughts from three very smart, activist women at the forefront of creating a counter-narrative to the neo-liberal social imaginary that is driving the current agenda.
Pauline Lipman's New Political Economy (2011):
A fundamental condition is that marginalized, oppressed, and exploited people rally together to push for liberatory agendas in a time of strong, progressive social movements, as they did in many parts of the world in the 1960s and early 1970s, and may even forge a counter hegemonic social bloc to contest for a new social order. However, in periods when dominant forces effectively reshape common sense around their program (as has been the case with the rise of neoliberalism over the past 25 years) and there is no strong counter alliance with its own agenda, options are more limited. In this context, individuals may opt to "work the system" and organized oppressed groups may tactically ally themselves with the elements of the dominant agenda in an effort to meet immediate needs. (p. 123)
Diane Ravitch, "American Schools in Crisis,"The Saturday Evening Post, August 16, 2011:
We are now at a fork in the road. If we continue on our present path of privatization and unproven market reforms, we will witness the explosive growth of a for-profit education industry and of education entrepreneurs receiving high salaries to manage nonprofit enterprises. The free market loves competition, but competition produces winners and losers, not equality of educational opportunity ...
What we will lose, if we move in that direction, is public education. Just as every neighborhood should have a good police station and firehouse, every neighborhood should also have a good public school. It is worth remembering that the reason we first established public education was to advance the common good of the community. It began in small towns, where communities agreed that all the children should be educated for the good of all and the sake of the future. Public schools have a civic mission: They are expected to prepare young people to become citizens and to share in the responsibility of maintaining our society. As political forces tear them apart, creating opportunities for entrepreneurs and for profit, it diminishes our commonwealth. That is a price we must not pay.
Deborah Meier, "On being on the edge of the possible," On Education, Aug. 12, 2012:
I see the task of folks in my camp to be largely educational–to change minds. We have to make it easy for others to identify with us and maybe join us from time to time by focusing on the issues that we have the most leverage on: too much testing, too much prepping, the narrowing of the curriculum, the abandonment of phys ed and the arts, the pressure and fear imposed on very young children (and their parents), especially those who reach specific benchmarks later, and finally a rotating teaching force with little training and constantly afraid of losing their jobs. There's another battle needed to remind folks about why unions were invented and why things are every bit as hard now as they were "then." In short, just as we know that we must start where the kids' are–taking their misconceptions and ignorance as natural and expected, so too must we start with our fellow adults. Given the relentless and misinformed (lies) attack on teachers and unions, and the hyping of private enterprise what would we expect? It's even more "natural" for adults to believe we are the crazies. That's the starting point. Accept it. To go further we need patience, and the capacity to find the metaphors that connect others to our concerns. We need to share tactics and strategies for enlarging our circle of allies. We need to be organized ... We need to set an example for the youngest of what it means to be long-distance runners.
I am a long-distance runner, but I am tired. I am not at all confident that transformative education within the current public education system is possible. I am less confident that there is a collective will to counter the neo-liberal agenda; an agenda that is as powerful and has as much momentum as it ever has before. Millions, maybe billions, of dollars are being made and invested in a calculated attack on public education. So, I'm not even confident that locally driven, public education will survive, let alone be transformative and democratic in nature. It is a dark day and it will only get darker if a large and organized group of advocates and activists for public, transformative, democratic education cannot create the public will to summon the courage of which Lipman, Meier, and Ravitch speak.
Ackoff, R., & Greenburg, D. (2008). Turning learning right side up: Putting education back on track. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Wharton School Publishing.
Sterling, S. (2001). Sustainability education: Revisioning learning and change. Devon, UK: Green Books.
Lipman, Pauline, (2011). The New political economy of urban education: Neoliberalism, race, and the right to the city. New York, NY: Taylor and Francis.
Ravitch, Diane, (2011). American Schools in Crisis. The Saturday Evening Post, September/October. Retrieved from: http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2011/08/16/in-the-magazine/trends-and-opinions/american-schools-crisis.html.
Meier, Deborah, (2011). On Being on the Edge of the Possible. Deborah Meier on Education, August. Retrieved from: http://deborahmeier.com.
Taylor, Charles, (2003). Modern social imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Tarrence "Tarrey" Banks is a founder, middle school teacher, and president of the board of the Bloomington Project School. Tarrey has been involved in progressive and experiential public education for 16 years, and is currently a Ph.D student in Sustainability Education at Prescott College.