"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Education Policy’

The Universal Pre-K Diversion: Why Isn’t Closing 129 Chicago Public Schools National News?

In Uncategorized on March 2, 2013 at 7:36 pm

Oldspeak:“President Obama waxed poetic at his state of the union speech; tours the country crowing about providing universal pre-k education and increasing access to college education, and receives thunderous applause. One has to wonder why then, he has been silent about the decimation of public school systems nationwide? Even though most of the school closings and privatizations are occurring in socioeconomically disadvantaged minority-majority communities where he presumably did his much ballyhooed community organizing. Why no discussion of the increasing corporatization and militarization of public schools that has no measurable benefits for students?  Probably because he appointed as his education secretary Arne Duncan, a non-educator & former CEO of Chicago Public Schools who was instrumental in implementing the CPS’s “Renaisance 2010” school privatization scheme. Yes, Mr. Duncan oversaw the conversion of  over 100 public schools to charter schools during his tenure in Chicago. What about others in the political class, red and blue? Why the silence on this? Bruce A. Dixon has an interesting take.

Related Stories:

Educators Push Back Against Obama’s “Business Model” for School Reforms

“Who’s Killing Philly Public Schools?”: Daniel Denvir on Plan for School Closings, Privatization

A Look at Arne Duncan’s VIP List of Requests at Chicago Schools and the Effects of his Expansion of Charter Schools in Chicago

Zombie Politics, Democracy, And The Threat of Authoritarianism

By Bruce A. Dixon @ Black Agenda Report:

It’s an obvious question, with an easy answer. Our nation’s bipartisan political elite have decided to privatize public education. They know the only way they can execute this deeply unpopular policy is to do it on the down-low, with a minimum of coverage, and no mention of the p-word, especially of growing civic resistance to it.

If you don’t live in Chicago you might not know that the CEO and the dozens of other six figure a year mayoral cronies who run the Chicago Public Schools want to close 129 public schools this year, more than a third of the city’s total. It’s not national news for the same reason that closing 40 public schools in Philadelphia last year wasn’t national news, and massive school closings in the poorer neighborhoods of cities across the country is not news either.

It’s not news because school closings and school privatization, the end game of the bipartisan policies the Obama administration, Wall Street, the US Chamber of Commerce, a host of right wing foundations and deep pockets and hordes of politicians in both parties from the president down are pushing down the throats of communities across the country, are deeply unpopular. The American people, and especially the parents, teachers, grandparents, and other residents of poorer neighborhoods where closings and privatization are happening emphatically don’t want these things.

Even the word describing their policy, “privatization” is so vastly unpopular that they’ve taken it out of circulation altogether. The best way, our leaders imagine, to contain and curtail resistance to their deeply unpopular policies is to avoid naming them for what they are, to keep them on the down low, to not report on their implementation, and certainly to not cover any civic resistance to them.

Local elites in each city and school district concoct real or imaginary “crises” to which the solution is always firing more experienced teachers, hiring more temps in their place, instituting more high-stakes testing, closing more public schools and substituting more unaccountable (and often profitable) charter schools, frequently in the same buildings that once housed public schools. In Chicago the “crisis” is precipitated every year when the CPS (that’s Chicago Public Schools – Chicago’s never had an elected school board, they’re all mayoral appointees) honchos announce the schools are in a billion dollar hole. The Chicago Teachers Union of course, took a look over the same books and revealed that despite the host of top $100,000 a year officials whose jobs never seem to be cut, the system was nine figures in the black, not ten in the red. Naturally, local and national media didn’t report that either.

Chicago’s teachers have done what those in New York, Houston, Dallas, L.A. and others have not, and spent their union dues funding outreach and collaboration with parents across the city, so neighborhood hearings on the school closings are packed to overflowing with outraged parents, indignant local business people, angry teachers and concerned students. If CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News gave the school closings and privatization story a fraction of the coverage they gave deceptive and dishonest pro-privatization movies like Waiting For Superman and Won’t Back Down, the outrage against the move to privatize education would be unstoppable. The most coverage the wave of school closings have received lately was a misleading segment on Melissa Harris-Perry’s weekly TV show on whether school closings were “racist” or not, with no examination of the how or why they happen or the growing resistance to them.

Oceans of ink and hot air have been expended claiming that “social media” would somehow take up the slack created by the disappearance of local news gathering organizations, and how these things can somehow fuel and sustain a wave of public outrage that can topple unjust authority and make the will of the people felt. But when it comes to the war of our elite waged to privatize public education, we haven’t seen it yet.

For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Bruce Dixon. Find us on the web at www.blackagendareport.com.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report. A longtime Chicagoan, he now lives in exile near Marietta GA, where he is a state committee member of the Georgia Green party and a partner in a tech firm. Contact him via this site’s contact page, or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.

Dangerous Pedagogy In The Age Of Casino Capitalism & Religious Fundamentalism

In Uncategorized on March 1, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Oldspeak:The greatest threat to our children does not come from lowered standards, the absence of privatized choice schemes or the lack of rigid testing measures… it comes from a society that refuses to view children as a social investment, that consigns 16.3 million children to live in poverty, reduces critical learning to massive testing programs, promotes policies that eliminate most crucial health and public services, and defines masculinity through the degrading celebration of a gun culture, extreme sports and the spectacles of violence that permeate corporate-controlled media industries. Students are not at risk because of the absence of market incentives in the schools; they are at risk because, as a country, we support an iniquitous class-based system of funding education and, more recently, are intent on completely destroying it precisely because it is public. Children and young adults are under siege in both public and higher education because far too many of these institutions have become breeding grounds for commercialism, racism, social intolerance, sexism, homophobia and consumerism, spurred on by the right-wing discourse of the Republican Party, corporations, conservative think tanks and a weak mainstream media. We live in a society in which a culture of punishment and intolerance has replaced a culture of social responsibility and compassion. Within such a climate of harsh discipline and disdain, it is easier for states such as California to set aside more financial resources to build prisons that to support higher education.” –Henry A. Giroux   When education is utterly commodified and privatized, democracy dies; corporatocracy rules. “Ignorance Is Strength.” “Freedom Is Slavery.”Profit Is Paramount.”

By Henry A. Giroux @ Truthout:

All over the world, the forces of neoliberalism are on the march, dismantling the historically guaranteed social provisions provided by the welfare state, defining profit-making and market freedoms as the essence of democracy while diminishing civil liberties as part of the alleged “war” against terrorism. Secure in its dystopian vision that there are no alternatives to a market society, free-market fundamentalism eliminates issues of contingency, struggle and social agency by celebrating the inevitability of economic laws in which the ethical ideal of intervening in the world gives way to the idea that we “have no choice but to adapt both our hopes and our abilities to the new global market.”[1] Coupled with an ever-expanding culture of fear, market freedoms seem securely grounded in a defense of national security and the institutions of finance capital. Under such circumstances, a neoliberal model now bears down on American society, threatening to turn it into an authoritarian state. The script is now familiar: there is no such thing as the common good; market values become the template for shaping all aspects of society; the free, possessive individual has no obligations to anything other than his or her self-interest; profit-making is the essence of democracy; the government, and particularly the welfare state, is the arch-enemy of freedom; private interests trump public values; consumerism is the essence of citizenship; privatization is the essence of freedom; law and order is the new language for mobilizing shared fears rather than shared responsibilities;  war is the new organizing principle for organizing society and the economy; theocracy now becomes the legitimating code for punishing women, young people, the elderly, and those groups marginalized by class, race and ethnicity when religious moralism is needed to shore up the war against all social order.[2]

Given this current crisis, educators need a new political and pedagogical language for addressing the changing contexts and issues facing a world in which capital draws upon an unprecedented convergence of resources – financial, cultural, political, economic, scientific, military and technological – to exercise powerful and diverse forms of control. If educators and others are to counter global capitalism’s increased ability to separate the traditional nation-state-based space of politics from the transnational reach of power, it is crucial to develop educational approaches that reject a collapse of the distinction between market liberties and civil liberties, a market economy and a market society. This suggests developing forms of critical pedagogy capable of challenging neoliberalism and other anti-democratic traditions, such as the emerging religious fundamentalism in the United States, while resurrecting a radical democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond the “dream world” of capitalism.  Under such circumstances, education becomes more than testing, an obsession with accountability schemes, zero-tolerance policies and a site for simply training students for the workforce. At stake here is recognizing the power of education in creating the formative culture necessary to both challenge the various threats being mobilized against the very idea of justice and democracy while also fighting for those public spheres and formative cultures that offer alternative modes of identity, social relations and politics.

The search for a new politics and a new critical language that crosses a range of theoretical divides must reinvigorate the relationship between democracy, ethics, and political agency by expanding the meaning of the pedagogical as a political practice while at the same time making the political more pedagogical. In the first instance, it is crucial to recognize that pedagogy has less to do with the language of technique and methodology than it does with issues of politics and power. Pedagogy is a moral and political practice that is always implicated in power relations and must be understood as a cultural politics that offers both a particular version and vision of civic life, the future, and how we might construct representations of ourselves, others, and our physical and social environment. As Roger Simon observes:

As an introduction to, preparation for, and legitimation of particular forms of social life, education always presupposes a vision of the future. In this respect a curriculum and its supporting pedagogy are a version of our own dreams for ourselves, our children, and our communities. But such dreams are never neutral; they are always someone’s dreams and to the degree that they are implicated in organizing the future for others they always have a moral and political dimension. It is in this respect that any discussion of pedagogy must begin with a discussion of educational practice as a form of cultural politics, as a particular way in which a sense of identity, place, worth, and above all value is – informed by practices which organize knowledge and meaning.[3]

An oppositional cultural politics can take many forms, but given the current assault by neoliberalism on all aspects of democratic public life, it seems imperative that educators revitalize the struggles to create conditions in which learning would be linked to social change in a wide variety of social sites, and pedagogy would take on the task of regenerating both a renewed sense of social and political agency and a critical subversion of dominant power itself. Making the political more pedagogical rests on the assumption that education takes place a variety of sites outside of the school. Under such circumstances, agency becomes the site through which power is not transcended but reworked, replayed and restaged in productive ways. Central to my argument is the assumption that politics is not only about power, but also, as Cornelius Castoriadis points out, “has to do with political judgements and value choices,”[4] indicating that questions of civic education and critical pedagogy (learning how to become a skilled citizen) are central to the struggle over political agency and democracy. In this instance, critical pedagogy emphasizes critical reflexivity, bridging the gap between learning and everyday life, understanding the connection between power and knowledge, and extending democratic rights and identities by using the resources of history. However, among many educators and social theorists, there is a widespread refusal to recognize that this form of education is not only the foundation for expanding and enabling political agency, but also that it takes place across a wide variety of public spheres mediated through the very force of culture itself.

One of the central tasks of any viable critical pedagogy would be to make visible alternative models of radical democratic relations in a wide variety of sites. These spaces can make the pedagogical more political by raising fundamental questions such as: what is the relationship between social justice and the distribution of public resources and goods? What are the conditions, knowledge and skills that are a prerequisite for civic literacy, political agency and social change? What kinds of identities, desires and social relations are being produced and legitimated in diverse sites of teaching and learning? How might the latter prepare or undermine the ability of students to be self-reflective, exercise judgment, engage in critical dialogues, and assume some responsibility for addressing the challenges to democracy at a national and global level? At the very least, such a project involves understanding and critically engaging dominant public transcripts and values within a broader set of historical and institutional contexts. Making the political more pedagogical in this instance suggests producing modes of knowledge and social practices in a variety of sites that not only affirm oppositional thinking, dissent and cultural work, but also offer opportunities to mobilize instances of collective outrage and collective action. Such mobilization opposes glaring material inequities and the growing cynical belief that today’s culture of investment and finance makes it impossible to address many of the major social problems facing both the United States and the larger world. Most importantly, such work points to the link between civic education, critical pedagogy and modes of oppositional political agency that are pivotal to creating a politics that promotes democratic values, relations,  autonomy and social change. Hints of such a politics is already evident in the various approaches the Occupy movement has taken in reclaiming the discourse of democracy and in collectively challenging the values and practices of finance capital. Borrowing a line from Rachel Donadio, the Occupy movement protesters are raising questions about “what happens to democracy when banks become more powerful than political institutions?”[5] What kind of education does it take, both in and out of schools, to recognize the dissolution of democracy and the emergence of an authoritarian state?

In taking up these questions and the challenges they pose, critical pedagogy proposes that education is a form of political intervention in the world and is capable of creating the possibilities for social transformation. Rather than viewing teaching as technical practice, pedagogy, in the broadest critical sense, is premised on the assumption that learning is not about processing received knowledge, but actually transforming knowledge as part of a more expansive struggle for individual rights and social justice. This implies that any viable notion of pedagogy and resistance should illustrate how knowledge, values, desire and social relations are always implicated in relations of power, and how such an understanding can be used pedagogically and politically by students to further expand and deepen the imperatives of economic and political democracy. The fundamental challenge facing educators within the current age of neoliberalism, militarism and religious fundamentalism is to provide the conditions for students to address how knowledge is related to the power of both self-definition and social agency. In part, this means providing students with the skills, knowledge and authority they need to inquire and act upon what it means to live in a substantive democracy, to recognize anti-democratic forms of power, and to fight deeply rooted injustices in a society and world founded on systemic economic, racial and gendered inequalities.

The Responsibility of Teachers as Public Intellectuals

In the age of irresponsible privatization, it is difficult to recognize that educators and other cultural workers bear an enormous responsibility in opposing the current threat to the planet and everyday life by bringing democratic political culture back to life. While liberal democracy offers an important discourse around issues of “rights, freedoms, participation, self-rule, and citizenship,” it has been mediated historically through the “damaged and burdened tradition” of racial and gender exclusions, economic injustice and a formalistic, ritualized democracy, which substituted the swindle for the promise of democratic participation.[6] At the same time, liberal and republican traditions of Western democratic thought have given rise to forms of social and political criticism that at least contained a “referent” for addressing the deep gap between the promise of a radical democracy and the existing reality. With the rise of neoliberalism, referents for imagining even a weak democracy, or, for that matter, for understanding the tensions between capitalism and democracy, which animated political discourse for the first half of the 20th century, appear to be overwhelmed by market discourses, identities and practices, on the one hand, or a corrosive cynicism on the other. And, of course, at the present moment a kind of political lunacy that testifies to the rise of extremism in America. Democracy has now been reduced to a metaphor for the alleged “free” market and, in some cases, to the image of a theocratic state. It is not that a genuine democratic public space once existed in some ideal form and has now been corrupted by the values of the market, but that these democratic public spheres, even in limited forms, seem to no longer be animating concepts for making visible the contradiction and tension between the reality of existing democracy and the promise of a more fully realized, substantive democracy. Part of the challenge of linking critical pedagogy with the process of democratization suggests constructing new locations of struggle, vocabularies and subject positions that allow people in a wide variety of public spheres to become more than they are now, to question what it is they have become within existing institutional and social formations, and to give some thought to what it might mean to transform existing relations of subordination and oppression.

Critical Pedagogy as a Project of Intervention

If educators are to revitalize the language of civic education as part of a broader discourse of political agency and critical citizenship in a global world, they will have to consider grounding such a pedagogy in a defense of what I have called in the past, “educated hope.”[7] Such hope is built upon recognizing pedagogy as part of a broader attempt to revitalize the conditions for individual and social agency while simultaneously addressing critical pedagogy as a project informed by a democratic political vision while conscious of the diverse ways such a vision gets mediated in different contexts. Such a project also suggests recasting the relationship between the pedagogical and political as a project that is indeterminate, open to constant revision and constantly in dialogue with its own assumptions. The concept of the project in this sense speaks to the directive nature of pedagogy, the recognition that any pedagogical practice presupposes some notion of the future, prioritizes some forms of identification over others and upholds selective modes of social relations. At the same time, the normative nature of such a pedagogy does not offer guarantees as much as it recognizes that its own position is grounded in modes of authority, values and ethical considerations that must be constantly debated for the ways in which they both open up and close down democratic relations, values and identities. Central to both keeping any notion of critical pedagogy alive is the recognition that it must address real social needs, be imbued with a passion for democracy and provide the conditions for expanding democratic forms of political and social agency.

Critical Pedagogy as a Matter of Context, Ethics and Politics

In opposition to the increasingly dominant views of education and cultural politics, I want to argue for a transformative pedagogy rooted in the project of resurgent democracy, one that relentlessly questions the kinds of labor, practices and forms of production that are enacted in public and higher education. Such an analysis should be relational and contextual, as well as self-reflective and theoretically rigorous. By relational, I mean that the current crisis of schooling must be understood in relation to the broader assault that is being waged against all aspects of democratic public life. As Jeffrey Williams has recently pointed out, “the current restructuring of higher education is only one facet of the restructuring of civic life in the US whereby previously assured public entitlements such as healthcare, welfare, and social security have evaporated or been ‘privatized,’ so no solution can be separated from a larger vision of what it means to enfranchise citizens or our republic.”[8] But as important as such articulations are in understanding the challenges that public and higher education face in the current historical conjuncture, they do not go far enough. Any critical comprehension of those wider forces that shape public and higher education must also be supplemented by an attentiveness to the conditional nature of pedagogy itself. This suggests that pedagogy can never be treated as a fixed set of principles and practices that can be applied indiscriminately across a variety of pedagogical sites. Pedagogy is not some recipe that can be imposed on all classrooms. On the contrary, it must always be contextually defined, allowing it to respond specifically to the conditions, formations and problems that arise in various sites in which education takes place. Schools differ in their financing, quality of teachers, resources, histories and cultural capital. Recognizing this, educators can both address the meaning and purpose that schools might play in their relationship to the demands of the broader society while simultaneously being sensitive to the distinctive nature of the issues educators address within the shifting contexts in which they interact with a diverse body of students, texts and institutional formations.

Ethically, critical pedagogy requires an ongoing indictment “of those forms of truth-seeking which imagined themselves to be eternally and placelessly valid.” [9] Simply put, educators need to cast a critical eye on those forms of knowledge and social relations that define themselves through a conceptual purity and political innocence that not only clouds how they come into being, but also ignores that the alleged neutrality on which they stand is already grounded in ethico-political choices. Neutral, objective education is an oxymoron. It does not exist outside of relations of power, values and politics. Thomas Keenan rightly argues that ethics on the pedagogical front demands an openness to the other, a willingness to engage a “politics of possibility” through a continual critical engagement with texts, images events, and other registers of meaning as they are transformed into public pedagogies.[10] One consequence of linking pedagogy to the specificity of place is that it foregrounds the need for educators to rethink the cultural and political baggage they bring to each educational encounter; it also highlights the necessity of making educators ethically and politically accountable for the stories they produce, the claims they make upon public memory and the images of the future they deem legitimate. Pedagogy is never innocent, and if it is to be understood and problematized as a form of academic labor, educators must not only critically question and register their own subjective involvement in how and what they teach, they must also resist all calls to depoliticize pedagogy through appeals to either scientific objectivity or ideological dogmatism. Far from being disinterested or ideologically frozen, critical pedagogy is concerned about the articulation of knowledge to social effects and succeeds to the degree in which educators encourage critical reflection and moral and civic agency, rather than simply mold it. Crucial to the latter position is the necessity for critical educators to be attentive to the ethical dimensions of their own practice.

Critical Pedagogy and the Promise of Democratization

But as an act of intervention, critical pedagogy needs to be grounded in a project that not only problematizes its own location, mechanisms of transmission and effects, but also functions as part of a larger project to contest various forms of domination and to help students think more critically about how existing social, political and economic arrangements might be better suited to address the promise of a radical democracy as an anticipatory rather than messianic goal. The late Jacques Derrida suggested that the social function of intellectuals, as well as any viable notion of education, should be grounded in a vibrant politics which makes the promise of democracy a matter of concrete urgency. For Derrida, making visible a “democracy” which is to come, as opposed to that which presents itself in its name, provides a referent for both criticizing everywhere what parades as democracy – “the current state of all so-called democracy” – and for critically assessing the conditions and possibilities for democratic transformation.[11] Derrida sees the promise of democracy as the proper articulation of a political ethics and by implication suggests that when higher education is engaged and articulated through the project of democratic social transformation, it can function as a vital public sphere for critical learning, ethical deliberation and civic engagement. Moreover, the utopian dimension of pedagogy articulated through the project of radical democracy offers the possibility of resistance to the increasing depoliticization of the citizenry, provides a language to challenge the politics of accommodation that connects education to the logic of privatization, commodification, religious dogma, and instrumental knowledge. Such a pedagogy refuses to define the citizen as simply a consuming subject and actively opposes the view of teaching as market-driven practice and learning as a form of training. Utopianism in this sense is not an antidote to politics, a nostalgic yearning for a better time, or for some “inconceivably alternative future.” But, by contrast, it is an “attempt to find a bridge between the present and future in those forces within the present which are potentially able to transform it.”[12]

In opposition to dominant forms of education and pedagogy that simply reinvent the future in the interest of a present in which ethical principles are scorned and the essence of democracy is reduced to the imperatives of the bottom line, critical pedagogy must address the challenge of providing students with the competencies they need to cultivate the capacity for critical judgment, thoughtfully connect politics to social responsibility, and expand their own sense of agency in order to curb the excesses of dominant power, revitalize a sense of public commitment, and expand democratic relations. Animated by a sense of critique and possibility, critical pedagogy at its best attempts to provoke students to deliberate, resist and cultivate a range of capacities that enable them to move beyond the world they already know without insisting on a fixed set of meanings.

Against the current onslaught to privatize public schools and corporatize higher education, educators need to defend public and higher education as a resource vital to the democratic and civic life of the nation. Central to such a task is the challenge of academics, young people, the Occupy movement and labor unions to find ways to join together in broad-based social movements and oppose the transformation of the public schools and higher education into commercial spheres, to resist what Bill Readings has called a consumer-oriented corporation more concerned about accounting than accountability.[13] The crisis of public schooling and higher education – while having  different registers – needs to be analyzed in terms of wider configurations of economic, political and social forces that exacerbate tensions between those who value such institutions as public goods and those advocates of neoliberalism who see market culture as a master design for all human affairs. The threat corporate power poses can be seen in the ongoing attempts by neoliberals and other hypercapitalists to subject all forms of public life, including public and higher education, to the dictates of the market while simultaneously working to empty democracy itself of any vestige of ethical, political and social considerations. What educators must challenge is the attempt on the part of neoliberals to either define democracy exclusively as a liability, or to enervate its substantive ideals by reducing it to the imperatives and freedoms of the marketplace. This requires that educators consider the political and pedagogical importance of struggling over the meaning and definition of democracy and situate such a debate within an expansive notion of human rights, social provisions, civil liberties, equity and economic justice. What must be challenged at all costs is the increasingly dominant view, propagated by neoliberal gurus such as Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, that selfishness is the supreme value in shaping human agency, profit-making is the most important practice in a democracy and accumulating material goods the essence of the good life.

Defending public and higher education as vital democratic spheres is necessary to develop and nourish the proper balance between public values and commercial power, between identities founded on democratic principles and identities steeped in forms of competitive, self-interested individualism that celebrate selfishness, profit-making and greed. Educators also must reconsider the critical roles they might take up within public and higher education so as to enable them to oppose those approaches to schooling that corporatize, privatize and bureaucratize the teaching process. A critical pedagogy should, in part, be premised on the assumption that educators vigorously resist any attempt on the part of liberals and conservatives to reduce their role in schools to either that of technicians or corporate pawns. Instead, educators might redefine their roles as engaged public intellectuals capable of teaching students the language of critique and possibility as a precondition for social agency. Such a redefinition of purpose, meaning and politics suggests that educators critically interrogate the fundamental link between knowledge and power, pedagogical practices and social consequences, and authority and civic responsibility. It also means eliminating those modes of corporate governance in the public schools and higher education that reduce teachers to the status of clerks, technicians, and, with respect to higher education, to a subaltern class of part-time workers, with little power, few benefits and excessive teaching loads.

By redefining the purpose and meaning of schooling as part of a broader attempt to struggle for a radical democratic social order, educators can begin to vigorously challenge a number of dominant assumptions and policies currently structuring public and higher education, including but not limited to: ongoing attempts by corporate culture to define educators as multinational operatives; escalating efforts by colleges and universities to deny students the loans, resources and public support they need to have access to a quality education; the mounting influence of corporate interests in pressuring universities to reward forms of scholarship that generate corporate profits; increasing attempts to deny women and students of color access to higher education through the reversal of affirmative action policies, the raising of tuition costs, and a growing emphasis on classroom pedagogies designed to create marketable products and active consumers. Rather than providing students with an opportunity to learn how to shape and govern public life, education is increasingly being vocationalized, reduced to a commodity that provides privileges for a few students  and low-skill industrial training for the rest, especially those who are marginalized by reason of their class and race. Republican Party presidential candidate Rick Santorum has recently argued that public education is a form of government intrusion and that higher education is simply irrelevant because it is doing the work of Satan by allowing leftist educators to indoctrinate students.[14] That such ideological and political idiocy passes as a legitimate discourse in a presidential race tells us something about the devalued state of public and higher education, not to mention how vulnerable it is to the most extreme authoritarian pressures and policies.

What has become clear in this current climate of religious fundamentalism and casino capitalism is that the corporatization of education functions so as to cancel out the democratic values,  impulses and practices of a civil society by either devaluing or absorbing them within the logic of the market. Educators need a critical language to address these challenges to public and higher education. But they also need to join with other groups outside of the spheres of public and higher education in order to create a national movement that links the defense of noncommodified education with a broader struggle to deepen the imperatives of democratic public life. The quality of educational reform can, in part, be gauged by the caliber of public discourse concerning the role that education plays in furthering not the market-driven agenda of corporate interests, but the imperatives of critical agency, social justice and an operational democracy. In this capacity, educators need to develop a language of possibility for raising critical questions about the aim of schooling and about the purpose and meaning of what and how educators teach. In doing so, pedagogy draws attention to engaging classroom practice as a moral and political consideration animated by a fierce sense of commitment to expanding the range of individual capacities that enable students to become critical agents capable of linking knowledge, responsibility and democratic social transformation.

Approaching pedagogy as a critical and political practice suggests that educators refuse all attempts to reduce classroom teaching exclusively to matters of technique and method. In opposition to such approaches, educators can highlight the performative character of education as an act of intervention in the world – focusing on the work that pedagogy does as a deliberate attempt to influence how and what knowledge and experiences are produced within particular sets of classroom relations. Within this perspective, critical pedagogy foregrounds the diverse conditions under which authority, knowledge, values and subject positions are produced and interact within unequal relations of power; it also problematizes the ideologically laden and often contradictory roles and social functions that educators assume within the classroom. Pedagogy in this view can also be reclaimed as a form of academic labor that bridges the gap between individual considerations and public concerns, affirms bonds of sociality and reciprocity, and interrogates the relationship between individual freedom and privatized notions of the good life and the social obligations and collective structures necessary to support a vibrant democracy.

Classroom Authority and Pedagogy as the Outcome of Struggles

The question of what educators teach is inseparable from what it means to locate oneself in public discourses and invest in public commitments. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that the responsibility of critical educators cannot be separated from the consequences of the subject positions they have been assigned, the knowledge they produce, the social relations they legitimate and the ideologies they disseminate to students. Educational work at its best represents a response to questions and issues posed by the tensions and contradictions of the broader society; it is an attempt to understand and intervene in specific problems that emanate from those sites that people concretely inhabit and actually live out in their lives and everyday existence. Teaching in this sense becomes performative and contextual, and it highlights considerations of power, politics and ethics fundamental to any form of teacher-student-text interaction.

It is crucial to reiterate that any pedagogy that is alive to its own democratic implications is always cautious of its need to resist totalizing certainties and answers. Refusing the pull of dogmatism, ideological purity and imperious authority, educators must at the same time grasp the complexity and contradictions that inform the conditions under which they produce and disseminate knowledge. Recognizing that pedagogy is the outgrowth of struggles that are historically specific, as are the problems that govern the questions and issues that guide what and how we teach, should not suggest that educators renounce their authority. On the contrary, it is precisely by recognizing that teaching is always an act of intervention inextricably mediated through particular forms of authority that teachers can offer students a variety of analytic tools, diverse historical traditions, and a wide-ranging knowledge of dominant and subaltern cultures and how they influence each other – for whatever use students wish to make of these tools and knowledge.  This is a far cry from suggesting that critical pedagogy define itself either within the grip of a self-righteous mode of authority or completely remove itself from any sense of commitment whatsoever. On the contrary, at stake here is the need to insist on modes of authority that are directive but not imperious, linking knowledge to power in the service of self-production, and encouraging students to go beyond the world they already know to expand their range of human possibilities.

Academics must deliberate, make decisions, and take positions, and, in doing so, recognize that authority “is the very condition for intellectual work” and pedagogical interventions.[15] Authority in this perspective in not simply on the side of oppression, but is used to intervene and shape the space of teaching and learning to provide students with a range of possibilities for challenging a society’s commonsense assumptions, and for analyzing the interface between its members’ own everyday lives and those broader social formations that bear down on them. Authority, at best, becomes both a referent for legitimating a commitment to a particular vision of pedagogy and a critical referent for a kind of auto-critique. It demands consideration of how authority functions within specific relations of power regarding its own promise to provide students with a public space where they can learn, debate and engage critical traditions in order to imagine otherwise and develop discourses that are crucial  for defending vital social institutions as a public good.

While pedagogy can be understood performatively as an event where many things can happen in the service of learning, it is crucial to stress the importance of democratic classroom relations that encourage dialogue, deliberation and the power of students to raise questions. Moreover, such relations don’t signal a retreat from teacher authority as much as they suggest using authority reflexively to provide the conditions for students to exercise intellectual rigor, theoretical competence and informed judgments. Thus, students can think critically about the knowledge they gain and what it means to act on such knowledge in order to expand their sense of agency as part of a broader project of increasing both “the scope of their freedoms” and “the operations of democracy.”[16] What students learn and how they learn should amplify what it means to experience democracy from a position of possibility, affirmation and critical engagement. In part, this suggests that educators develop pedagogical practices that open up the terrain of the political while simultaneously encouraging students to “think better about how arrangements might be otherwise.”[17]

At its best, critical pedagogy must be interdisciplinary,  contextual, engage the complex relationships between power and knowledge, critically address the institutional constraints under which teaching takes place, and focus on how students can engage the imperatives of critical social citizenship. Education is not simply about the transmission of knowledge; it is about the producing of subjects, identities and desires – no small matter when recognizing what such a struggle suggests about preparing students for the future. Once again, critical pedagogy must be self-reflexive about its aims and practices, conscious of its ongoing project of democratic transformation, but openly committed to a politics that does not offer any guarantees. But refusing dogmatism does not suggest that educators descend into a laissez-faire pluralism or an appeal to methodologies designed to “teach the conflicts.” On the contrary, it suggests that, in order to make the pedagogical more political, educators afford students with diverse opportunities to understand and experience how politics, power, commitment and responsibility work on and through them both within and outside of schools. This, in turn, enables students to locate themselves, within an interrelated confluence of ideological and material forces, as critical agents who can both influence such forces and simultaneously be held responsible for their own views and actions. Within this perspective, relations between institutional forms and pedagogical practices are acknowledged as complex, open and contradictory – though always situated within unequal relations of power.[18]

To read more article by Henry A. Giroux and other writers in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

Making the Pedagogical More Meaningful

Any analysis of critical pedagogy must stress the importance of addressing the role that affect and emotion play in the formation of individual identity and social agency. Any viable approach to critical pedagogy suggests taking seriously those maps of meaning, affective investments and sedimented desires that enable students to connect their own lives and everyday experiences to what they learn. Pedagogy in this sense becomes more than a mere transfer of received knowledge, an inscription of a unified and static identity, or a rigid methodology; it presupposes that students are moved by their passions and motivated, in part, by the affective investments they bring to the learning process. This suggests, as Paulo Freire points out, the need for a theory of pedagogy willing to develop a “critical comprehension of the value of sentiments, emotions, and desire as part of the learning process.”[19] Not only do students need to understand the ideological, economic and political interests that shape the nature of their educational experiences, they must also address the strong emotional investments they may bring to such beliefs. For Emory University professor Shoshana Felman, this suggests that educators take seriously the role of desire in both ignorance and learning. “Teaching,” she explains, “has to deal not so much with lack of knowledge as with resistances to knowledge. Ignorance, suggests Jacques Lacan, is a ‘passion.’ Inasmuch as traditional pedagogy postulated a desire for knowledge, an analytically informed pedagogy has to reckon with the passion for ignorance.”[20] Felman elaborates further on the productive nature of ignorance, arguing. “Ignorance is nothing other than a desire to ignore: its nature is less cognitive than performative … it is not a simple lack of information but the incapacity – or the refusal – to acknowledge one’s own implication in the information.”[21] If students are to move beyond the issue of understanding to an engagement with the deeper affective investments that make them complicitous with oppressive ideologies, they must be positioned to address and formulate strategies of transformation through which their individualized beliefs and affective investments can be articulated with broader public discourses that extend the imperatives of democratic public life. An unsettling pedagogy in this instance would engage student identities and resistances from unexpected vantage points and articulate how they connect to existing material relations of power. At stake here is not only a pedagogical practice that recalls how knowledge, identifications, and subject positions are produced, unfolded and remembered, but also how they become part of an ongoing process, more strategic, so to speak, of mediating and challenging existing relations of power.

Conclusion

In the current historical conjuncture, the concept of the social and the common good is being refigured and displaced as a constitutive category for making democracy operational and political agency the condition for social transformation. The notions of the social and the public are not being erased as much as they are being reconstructed under circumstances in which public forums for serious debate, including public education, are being eroded. Within the ongoing logic of neoliberalism, teaching and learning are removed from the discourse of democracy and civic culture – defined as a purely private affair. How else to explain Rick Santorum’s rants against higher education, the elites, and that old phantom, the liberal media.   Divorced from the imperatives of a democratic society, pedagogy is reduced to a matter of taste, individual choice, home schooling and job training. Pedagogy as a mode of witnessing, a public engagement in which students learn to be attentive and responsible to the memories and narratives of others, disappears within a corporate-driven notion of learning in which the logic of market devalues the opportunity for students to make connections with others through social relations which foster a mix of compassion, ethics and hope. The crisis of the social is further amplified by the withdrawal of the state as a guardian of the public trust and its growing lack of investment in those sectors of social life that promote the public good. With the Supreme Court ruling that now makes vouchers constitutional, a deeply conservative government once again will be given full reign to renege on the responsibility of government to provide every child with an education that affirms public life, embraces the need for critical citizens and supports the truism that political agency is central to the possibility of democratic life.

The greatest threat to our children does not come from lowered standards, the absence of privatized choice schemes or the lack of rigid testing measures. On the contrary, it comes from a society that refuses to view children as a social investment, that consigns 16.3 million children to live in poverty, reduces critical learning to massive testing programs, promotes policies that eliminate most crucial health and public services, and defines masculinity through the degrading celebration of a gun culture, extreme sports and the spectacles of violence that permeate corporate-controlled media industries. Students are not at risk because of the absence of market incentives in the schools; they are at risk because, as a country, we support an iniquitous class-based system of funding education and, more recently, are intent on completely destroying it precisely because it is public. Children and young adults are under siege in both public and higher education because far too many of these institutions have become breeding grounds for commercialism, racism, social intolerance, sexism, homophobia and consumerism, spurred on by the right-wing discourse of the Republican Party, corporations, conservative think tanks and a weak mainstream media. We live in a society in which a culture of punishment and intolerance has replaced a culture of social responsibility and compassion. Within such a climate of harsh discipline and disdain, it is easier for states such as California to set aside more financial resources to build prisons that to support higher education. Within this context, the project(s) of critical pedagogy need to be taken up both within and outside of public and higher education. Pedagogy is not a practice that only takes place in schools; it is also a public mode of teaching, that is, a public pedagogical practice largely defined within a range of cultural apparatuses extending from television networks to print media to the Internet. As a central element of a broad-based cultural politics, critical pedagogy, in its various forms, when linked to the ongoing project of democratization, can provide opportunities for educators and other cultural workers to redefine and transform the connections among language, desire, meaning, everyday life, and material relations of power as part of a broader social movement to reclaim the promise and possibilities of a democratic public life. Pedagogy is dangerous not only because it provides the intellectual capacities and ethical norms for students to fight against poverty, ecological destruction and the dismantling of the social state, but also because it holds the potential for instilling in students a profound desire for a “real democracy based on relationships of equality and freedom.”[22] Given the current economic crisis, the growing authoritarian populism, the rise of religious dogmatism, the emergence of a failed state, and a politics largely controlled by the bankers and corporations, critical pedagogy becomes symptomatic of not only something precious that has been lost under a regime of casino capitalism, but also of a project and practice that needs to be reclaimed, reconfigured and made foundational to any viable notion of politics.

 

Endnotes
1. Stanley Aronowitz, “Introduction,” in Paulo Freire, “Pedagogy of Freedom” (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), p. 7
2.   For an excellent analysis of contemporary forms of neoliberalism, see Stuart Hall, “The Neo-Liberal Revolution,” Cultural Studies, Vol. 25, No. 6, (November 2011, pp. 705-728; see also David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008).
3. Roger Simon, “Empowerment as a Pedagogy of Possibility,” Language Arts 64:4 (April 1987), p. 372.
4. Cornelius Castoriadis, “Institutions and Autonomy.” In Peter Osborne(Ed). “A Critical Sense” (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 8.
5.  Rachel Donadio, “The Failing State of Greece,” New York Times (February 26, 2012), p. 8.
6.  John Brenkman, “Extreme Criticism,” in Judith Butler, John Guillary, and Kendal Thomas, eds. “What’s Left of Theory” (New York: Routledge, 2000), p. 123.
7. Henry A. Giroux, “Public Spaces, Private Lives: Democracy Beyond 9/11” (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).
8. Jeffrey Williams, “Brave New University,” College English 61:6 (1999), p. 749.
9. Paul Gilroy, “Against Race” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 69.
10. For a brilliant discussion of the ethics and politics of deconstruction, see Thomas Keenan, “Fables of Responsibility: Aberrations and Predicaments in Ethics and Politics” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. 2.
11. Jacques Derrida, “Intellectual Courage: An Interview,” Trans. Peter Krapp, “Culture Machine” Vol. 2 (2000), p. 9.
12. Terry Eagleton, “The Idea of Culture” (Malden, MA: Basil Blackwell, 2000), p.22.
13. Bill Readings, “The University in Ruins” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,     pp, 11, 18.
14.  Scott Jaschik, “Santorum’s Attack on Higher Education,” Inside Higher Education (February 27, 2012).
15. This expression comes from John Michael, “Anxious Intellects: Academic Professionals, Public Intellectuals, and Enlightenment Values” (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 2.
16.  Cornel West, “The New Cultural Politics of Difference,” in Russell Fergusen, Martha Geever, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Cornel West, eds. “Out There” (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), p. 35.
17. Jodi Dean, “The interface of Political Theory and Cultural Studies,” in Jodi Dean, ed. “Cultural Studies and Political Theory” (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), p. 3.
18. Alan O’Shea, “A Special Relationship? Cultural Studies, Academia and Pedagogy,” Cultural Studies 12(4) 1998, pp. 513-527.
19. Paulo Freire, “Pedagogy of Freedom” (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999), p. 48.
20. Shoshana Felman, “Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 79. For an extensive analysis of the relationship between schooling, literacy, and desire, see Ursula A. Kelly, “Schooling Desire: Literacy, Cultural Politics, and Pedagogy” (New York: Routledge, 1997); Sharon Todd, “Learning Desire: Perspectives on Pedagogy, Culture, and the Unsaid,” (New York: Routledge, 1997).
21. Shoshana Felman, “Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight: Psychoanalysis in Contemporary Culture” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 79.
22. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire,” (New York, NY: The Penguin Press, 2004),  p. 67

How Private For-Profit Online Learning Corporations, Wall Street & “Education Philanthropists” Bought America’s Pubic Schools

In Uncategorized on January 12, 2012 at 1:13 pm

Oldspeak:” The hostile take over of Public Education is full swing. Your kids education is the next “bubble”. Children’s education is being viewed as a cash cow to be milked dry by wall street investment bankers and computer magnates via their “Educational Philanthropies”.  America’s Public School system is being outsourced to private profit-driven “education” corporations, with the financial backing of wall street titans like Goldman Sachs & Merrill Lynch, and computer titans Microsoft & Dell. In a trend that is great for business and terrible for children, teachers are being replaced with computers.  And in this age of austerity, with dwindling educations budgets,  less money to pay high-quality and well-trained flesh and blood teachers, teacher  are being fired and ‘e-learning’ is being held up as a viable option for the existential task of  effectively educating our children. Nevermind the fact that the “education” provided by cyberschool companies is nowhere near as effective as that provided in traditional schools with people. And much like what was done during the sub-prime morgage lending bubble, poor people and communities are being exploited. Subsidies slated for free public education are being diverted to private, for-profit “education”. High-powered lobbyists are being employed to push “education reform” legislation that is in benfits everyone but children. Left unasked are other important questions – Where will children learn their social skills? Their respect for elders and authority figures? How to work and play well with others?  Social Atomization is being institutionalized. Divide and conquer has gone digital.. “Profit Is Paramount” “Ignorance Is Strength”

Related Story:

Why Is Public Education Being Outsourced to Online Charter Schools?

By Lee Fang @ The Nation:

If the national movement to “reform” public education through vouchers, charters and privatization has a laboratory, it is Florida. It was one of the first states to undertake a program of “virtual schools”—charters operated online, with teachers instructing students over the Internet—as well as one of the first to use vouchers to channel taxpayer money to charter schools run by for-profits.

But as recently as last year, the radical change envisioned by school reformers still seemed far off, even there. With some of the movement’s cherished ideas on the table, Florida Republicans, once known for championing extreme education laws, seemed to recoil from the fight. SB 2262, a bill to allow the creation of private virtual charters, vastly expanding the Florida Virtual School program, languished and died in committee. Charlie Crist, then the Republican governor, vetoed a bill to eliminate teacher tenure. The move, seen as a political offering to the teachers unions, disheartened privatization reform advocates. At one point, the GOP’s budget proposal even suggested a cut for state aid going to virtual school programs.

Lamenting this series of defeats, Patricia Levesque, a top adviser to former Governor Jeb Bush, spoke to fellow reformers at a retreat in October 2010. Levesque noted that reform efforts had failed because the opposition had time to organize. Next year, Levesque advised, reformers should “spread” the unions thin “by playing offense” with decoy legislation. Levesque said she planned to sponsor a series of statewide reforms, like allowing taxpayer dollars to go to religious schools by overturning the so-called Blaine Amendment, “even if it doesn’t pass…to keep them busy on that front.” She also advised paycheck protection, a unionbusting scheme, as well as a state-provided insurance program to encourage teachers to leave the union and a transparency law to force teachers unions to show additional information to the public. Needling the labor unions with all these bills, Levesque said, allows certain charter bills to fly “under the radar.”

If Levesque’s blunt advice sounds like that of a veteran lobbyist, that’s because she is one. Levesque runs a Tallahassee-based firm called Meridian Strategies LLC, which lobbies on behalf of a number of education-technology companies. She is a leader of a coalition of government officials, academics and virtual school sector companies pushing new education laws that could benefit them.

But Levesque wasn’t delivering her hardball advice to her lobbying clients. She was giving it to a group of education philanthropists at a conference sponsored by notable charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation. Indeed, Levesque serves at the helm of two education charities, the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a national organization, and the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a state-specific nonprofit, both of which are chaired by Jeb Bush. A press release from her national group says that it fights to “advance policies that will create a high quality digital learning environment.”

Despite the clear conflict of interest between her lobbying clients and her philanthropic goals, Levesque and her team have led a quiet but astonishing national transformation. Lobbyists like Levesque have made 2011 the year of virtual education reform, at last achieving sweeping legislative success by combining the financial firepower of their corporate clients with the seeming legitimacy of privatization-minded school-reform think tanks and foundations. Thanks to this synergistic pairing, policies designed to boost the bottom lines of education-technology companies are cast as mere attempts to improve education through technological enhancements, prompting little public debate or opposition. In addition to Florida, twelve states have expanded virtual school programs or online course requirements this year. This legislative juggernaut has coincided with a gold rush of investors clamoring to get a piece of the K-12 education market. It’s big business, and getting bigger: One study estimated that revenues from the K-12 online learning industry will grow by 43 percent between 2010 and 2015, with revenues reaching $24.4 billion.

In Florida, only fourteen months after Crist handed a major victory to teachers unions, a new governor, Rick Scott, signed a radical bill that could have the effect of replacing hundreds of teachers with computer avatars. Scott, a favorite of the Tea Party, appointed Levesque as one of his education advisers. His education law expanded the Florida Virtual School to grades K-5, authorized the spending of public funds on new for-profit virtual schools and created a requirement that all high school students take at least one online course before graduation.

“I’ve never seen it like this in ten years,” remarked Ron Packard, CEO of virtual education powerhouse K12 Inc., on a conference call in February. “It’s almost like someone flipped a switch overnight and so many states now are considering either allowing us to open private virtual schools” or lifting the cap on the number of students who can use vouchers to attend K12 Inc.’s schools. Listening to a K12 Inc. investor call, one could mistake it for a presidential campaign strategy session, as excited analysts read down a list of states and predict future victories.

Good for Business; Kids Not So Much

While most education reform advocates cloak their goals in the rhetoric of “putting children first,” the conceit was less evident at a conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, earlier this year.

Standing at the lectern of Arizona State University’s SkySong conference center in April, investment banker Michael Moe exuded confidence as he kicked off his second annual confab of education startup companies and venture capitalists. A press packet cited reports that rapid changes in education could unlock “immense potential for entrepreneurs.” “This education issue,” Moe declared, “there’s not a bigger problem or bigger opportunity in my estimation.”

Moe has worked for almost fifteen years at converting the K-12 education system into a cash cow for Wall Street. A veteran of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, he now leads an investment group that specializes in raising money for businesses looking to tap into more than $1 trillion in taxpayer money spent annually on primary education. His consortium of wealth management and consulting firms, called Global Silicon Valley Partners, helped K12 Inc. go public and has advised a number of other education companies in finding capital.

Moe’s conference marked a watershed moment in school privatization. His first “Education Innovation Summit,” held last year, attracted about 370 people and fifty-five presenting companies. This year, his conference hosted more than 560 people and 100 companies, and featured luminaries like former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty and former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, now an education executive at News Corporation, a recent high-powered entrant into the for-profit education field. Klein is just one of many former school officials to cash out. Fenty now consults for Rosetta Stone, a language company seeking to expand into the growing K-12 market.

As Moe ticked through the various reasons education is the next big “undercapitalized” sector of the economy, like healthcare in the 1990s, he also read through a list of notable venture investment firms that recently completed deals relating to the education-technology sector, including Sequoia and Benchmark Capital. Kleiner Perkins, a major venture capital firm and one of the first to back Amazon.com and Google, is now investing in education technology, Moe noted.

The press release for Moe’s education summit promised attendees a chance to meet a set of experts who have “cracked the code” in overcoming “systemic resistance to change.” Fenty, still recovering from his loss in the DC Democratic primary, urged attendees to stand up to the teachers union “bully.” Jonathan Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA, likened the conflict to war, according to a summary posted on the conference website. “There’s an air game,” said Hage, “but there’s also a ground game going on.” “Investors are going to have to support” candidates and “push back against the pushback.” Carlos Watson, a former cable news host now working as an investment banker for Goldman Sachs specializing in for-profit education, guided a conversation dedicated simply to the politics of reform.

Sponsors of the event ranged from various education reform groups funded by hedge-fund managers, like the nonprofit Education Reform Now, to ABS Capital, a private equity firm with a stake in education-technology companies like Teachscape. At smaller breakout sessions, education enterprises made their pitches to potential investors.

Another sponsor, a group called School Choice Week, was launched last year as a public relations gimmick to take advantage of the opportunity for rapid education reforms. Although it is billed as a network of students and parents, School Choice Week is one of the many corporate-funded tactics to press virtual school reforms. The first School Choice Week campaign push earlier this year featured highly produced press packets, sample letters to the editor, a sign in Times Square and rallies for virtual and charter schools organized with help from the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. The blitz got positive press coverage, providing “grassroots” cover for newly elected politicians who made school privatization their first priority.

A combination of factors has made this year what Moe calls an “inflection point” in the march toward public school privatization. For one thing, recession-induced fiscal crises and austerity have pressured states to cut spending. In some cases, as in Florida, where educating students at the Florida Virtual School costs nearly $2,500 less than at traditional schools, such reform has been sold as a budget fix. At the same time, the privatization push has gone hand in hand with the ratcheting up of attacks on teachers unions by partisan groups, like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity, seeking to weaken the union-backed Democrats in the 2012 election. All of this has set the stage for education industry lobbyists to achieve an unprecedented expansion in for-profit elementary through high school education.

From Idaho to Indiana to Florida, recently passed laws will radically reshape the face of education in America, shifting the responsibility of teaching generations of Americans to online education businesses, many of which have poor or nonexistent track records. The rush to privatize education will also turn tens of thousands of students into guinea pigs in a national experiment in virtual learning—a relatively new idea that allows for-profit companies to administer public schools completely online, with no brick-and-mortar classrooms or traditional teachers.

* * *

Like many “education entrepreneurs,” Moe remains a player in the education reform movement, pushing policies that have the potential to benefit his clients. In addition to advising prominent politicians like Senator John McCain, Moe is a board member of the Center for Education Reform, a pro-privatization think tank that issues policy papers and ads to influence the debate. Earlier this year, the group dropped $70,000 on an ad campaign in Pennsylvania comparing those who oppose a new measure to expand vouchers to segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, who blocked African-American children from entering white schools.

Moe isn’t the only member of the Center for Education Reform with a profound conflict of interest. CER president Jeanne Allen doubles as the head of TAC Public Affairs, a government relations firm that has represented several top education for-profits. Allen, whose clients have included Kaplan Education and Charter Schools USA, served as transition adviser to Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett on education reform.

Corbett, a Republican who rode the Tea Party election wave in 2010, supports a major voucher expansion that is working its way through the state legislature. The expansion would be a windfall for companies like K12 Inc., which currently operates one Pennsylvania school under the limited charter law on the books. According to disclosures reported in Business Week, Pennsylvania’s Agora Cyber Charter School—K12 Inc.’s online school, which allows students to take all their courses at home using a computer—generated $31.6 million for K12 Inc. in the past academic year.

Thirteen other states have enacted laws to expand or initiate so-called school choice programs this year. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels has pushed the hardest, enacting a law that removes the cap on the number of charter schools in his state, authorizes all universities to register charters and expands an existing voucher program in the state for students to attend private and charter schools (in some cases managed by for-profit companies). Critics note that Daniels’s law allows public money to flow to religious institutions as well. Twenty-seven other states, in addition to Pennsylvania, have voucher expansion laws pending. And states like Florida are embracing tech-friendly education reform to require that students take online courses to graduate. In Idaho this November, the state board of education approved a controversial plan to require at least two online courses for graduation.

“We think that’s so important because every student, regardless of what they do after high school, they’ll be learning online,” said Tom Vander Ark, a prominent online education advocate, on a recently distributed video urging the adoption of online course requirements. Vander Ark, a former executive director of education at the influential Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, now lobbies all over the country for the online course requirement. Like Moe, he keeps one foot in the philanthropic world and another in business. He sits on the board of advisors of Democrats for Education Reform and is partner to an education-tech venture capital company, Learn Capital. Learn Capital counts AdvancePath Academics, which offers online coursework for students at risk of dropping out, as part of its investment portfolio. When Vander Ark touts online course requirements, it is difficult to discern whether he is selling a product that could benefit his investments or genuinely believes in the virtue of the idea.

To be sure, some online programs have potential and are necessary in areas where traditional resources aren’t available. For instance, online AP classes serve rural communities without access to qualified teachers, and there are promising efforts to create programs that adapt to the needs of students with special learning requirements. But by and large, there is no evidence that these technological innovations merit the public resources flowing their way. Indeed, many such programs appear to be failing the students they serve.

A recent study of virtual schools in Pennsylvania conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University revealed that students in online schools performed significantly worse than their traditional counterparts. Another study, from the University of Colorado in December 2010, found that only 30 percent of virtual schools run by for-profit organizations met the minimum progress standards outlined by No Child Left Behind, compared with 54.9 percent of brick-and-mortar schools. For White Hat Management, the politically connected Ohio for-profit operating both traditional and virtual charter schools, the success rate under NCLB was a mere 2 percent, while for schools run by K12 Inc., it was 25 percent. A major review by the Education Department found that policy reforms embracing online courses “lack scientific evidence” of their effectiveness.

“Why are our legislators rushing to jump off the cliff of cyber charter schools when the best available evidence produced by independent analysts show that such schools will be unsuccessful?” asked Ed Fuller, an education researcher at Pennsylvania State University, on his blog.

The frenzy to privatize America’s K-12 education system, under the banner of high-tech progress and cost-saving efficiency, speaks to the stunning success of a public relations and lobbying campaign by industry, particularly tech companies. Because of their campaign spending, education-tech interests are major players in elections. In 2010, K12 Inc. spent lavishly in key races across the country, including a last-minute donation of $25,000 to Idahoans for Choice in Education, a political action committee supporting Tom Luna, a self-styled Tea Party school superintendent running for re-election. Since 2004, K12 Inc. alone has spent nearly $500,000 in state-level direct campaign contributions, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. David Brennan, Chairman of White Hat Management, became the second-biggest Ohio GOP donor, with more than $4.2 million in contributions in the past decade.

The Alliance for School Choice, a national education reform group, set up PACs in several states to elect state lawmakers. According to Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, American Federation for Children spent $500,000 in media in the lead-up to Wisconsin’s recall elections. AFC shares leaders, donors, and a street address with ASC. Bill Oberndorf, one of the main donors to the group, had been associated with Voyager Learning, an online education company, for years. A few months ago, Cambium Learning, the parent company of Voyager, paid Oberndorf’s investment firm $4.9 million to buy back Oberndorf’s stock. Cambium currently offers a fleet of supplemental education tools for school districts. With the recent acquisition of Class.com, a smaller online learning business, the company announced its entry into the virtual charter school and online course market.

Allies of the Right

Lobbyists for virtual school companies have also embedded themselves in the conservative infrastructure. The International Association for Online Learning (iNACOL), the trade association for EdisonLearning, Connections Academy, K12 Inc., American Virtual Academy, Apex Learning and other leading virtual education companies, is a case in point. A former Bush appointee at the Education Department, iNACOL president Susan Patrick traverses right-leaning think tanks spreading the gospel of virtual schools. In the past year, she has addressed the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a group dedicated to setting up laissez-faire nonprofits all over the world, as well as the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Two pivotal conservative organizations have helped Patrick in her campaigns for virtual schools: the American Legislative Exchange Council and the State Policy Network. SPN nurtures and establishes state-based policy and communication nonprofits with a right-wing bent. ALEC, the thirty-eight-year-old conservative nonprofit, similarly coordinates a fifty-state strategy for right-wing policy. Special task forces composed of corporate lobbyists and state lawmakers write “template” legislation [see John Nichols, “ALEC Exposed,” August 1/8]. Since 2005, ALEC has offered a template law called “The Virtual Public Schools Act” to introduce online education. Mickey Revenaugh, an executive at virtual-school powerhouse Connections Learning, co-chairs the education policy–writing department of ALEC.

At SPN’s annual conference in Cleveland last year, held two months before the midterm elections, the think tank network adopted a new push for education reform, specifically embracing online technology and expanding vouchers. Patrick opened the event and led a session about virtual schools with Anthony Kim, president of the virtual-school business Education Elements.

SPN has faced accusations before that it is little more than a coin-operated front for corporations. For instance, SPN and its affiliates receive money from polluters, including infamous petrochemical giant Koch Industries, allegedly in exchange for aggressive promotion of climate denial theories. But SPN’s conference had less to do with policy than with tactics. Kyle Olson, a Republican operative infamous in Michigan and other states for his confrontational attacks on unionized teachers, gave a presentation on labor reform in K-12 education. Stanford Swim, heir to a Utah-based investment fortune and head of a traditional-values foundation, ran a workshop at the conference on creating viral videos to advance the cause. He said policy papers wouldn’t work. Tell your scholars, “Sorry, this isn’t a white paper,” Swim advised. “You gotta go there,” he continued, “and it’s because that’s where the audience is.” “If it’s vulgar, so what?” he added.

Since the conference, SPN’s state affiliates have taken a lead role in pushing virtual schools. Several of its state-based affiliates, like the Buckeye Institute in Ohio, set up websites claiming that unions—the only real opposition to ending collective bargaining and the expansion of charter school reforms—led to overpaid teachers and budget deficits. In Wisconsin, the MacIver Institute’s “news crew” laid the groundwork for Governor Walker’s assault on collective bargaining by creating news reports denouncing protesters and promoting the governor. In March, while busting the teachers unions in his state, Walker lifted the cap on virtual schools and removed the program’s income requirements.

State Representative Robin Vos, the Wisconsin state chair for ALEC, sponsored the bill codifying Walker’s radical expansion of online, for-profit schools. Vos’s bill not only lifts the cap but also makes new, for-profit virtual charters easier to establish. As the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison-based liberal watchdog, notes, the bill closely resembles legislative templates put forward by ALEC.

Although SPN’s unique contribution to the debate has been clever web videos and online smear sites, the group’s affiliates have also continued the traditional approach of policy papers. In Washington State, the Freedom Foundation published “Online Learning 101: A Guide to Virtual Public Education in Washington”; Nebraska’s Platte Institute released “The Vital Need for Virtual Schools in Nebraska”; and the Sutherland Institute, a Utah-based SPN affiliate, equipped lawmakers with a guide called “Thinking Outside the Building: Online Education.” SPN think tanks in Maine, Maryland and other states have pressed virtual school reforms. Patrick visited SPN state groups and gave pep talks about how to sell the issue to lawmakers.

Meanwhile, ALEC has continued to slip laws written by education-tech lobbyists onto the books. In Tennessee, Republican State Representative Harry Brooks didn’t even bother changing the name of ALEC’s Virtual Public Schools Act before introducing it as his own legislation. Asked by the Knoxville News Sentinel’s Tom Humphrey where he got the idea for the bill, Brooks readily admitted that a K12 Inc. lobbyist helped him draft it. Governor Bill Haslam signed Brooks’s bill into law in May. The statute allows parents to apply nearly every dollar the state typically spends per pupil, almost $6,000 in most areas, to virtual charter schools, as long as they are authorized by the state.

SPN’s fall 2010 conference featured the man perhaps happiest with the explosion in virtual education: Jeb Bush. “I have a confession to make,” he said with grin. “I am a real policy geek, and this is like the epicenter of geekdom.” Bush shared his experiences initiating some of the nation’s first for-profit and virtual charter school reforms as the governor of Florida, acknowledging his policy ideas came from some in the room. (The local SPN affiliate in Tallahassee is the James Madison Institute.)

Bush: Man Behind the Virtual Curtain

Jeb Bush campaigned vigorously in 2010 to expand such reforms, with tremendous success. About a month after the election, he unveiled his road map for implementing a far-reaching ten-point agenda for virtual schools and online coursework. Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise, a Democrat, has barnstormed the country to encourage lawmakers to adopt Bush’s plan, which calls for the permanent financing of education-technology reforms, among other changes. In one promotional video, Wise says it is “not only about the content” of the online courses but the “process” of students becoming acquainted with learning on the Internet.

The key pillar of Bush’s plan is to make sure virtual education isn’t just a new option for taxpayer money but a requirement. And several states, like Florida, have already adopted online course requirements. As Idaho Republicans faced a public referendum on their online course requirement rule last summer, Bush arrived in the state to show his support. “Implemented right, you’re going to see rising student achievement,” said Bush, praising Idaho Governor Butch Otter and school superintendent Tom Luna, who was elected with campaign donations from the online-education industry. Bush also claimed that making high school students take online classes would “put Idaho on the map” as a “digital revolution takes hold.” Bush was in Michigan in June to testify for Governor Rick Snyder’s suite of education reform ideas, which include uncapped expansion of virtual schools, and he was back in the state in July to continue to press for reforms.

In August, at ALEC’s annual conference in New Orleans, the education task force officially adopted Bush’s ten elements agenda. Mickey Revenaugh, the virtual school executive overseeing the committee, presided over the vote endorsing the measure. But when does Bush’s advocacy, typically reported in the press as the work of a former governor with education experience advising the new crop of Republicans, cross the threshold into corporate lobbying?

The nonprofit behind this digital push, Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, is funded by online learning companies: K12 Inc., Pearson (which recently bought Connections Education), Apex Learning (a for-profit online education company launched by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen), Microsoft and McGraw-Hill Education among others. The advisory board for Bush’s ten digital elements agenda reads like a Who’s Who of education-technology executives, reformers, bureaucrats and lobbyists, including Michael Stanton, senior vice president for corporate affairs at Blackboard; Karen Cator, director of technology for the Education Department; Jaime Casap, a Google executive in charge of business development for the company’s K-12 division; Shafeen Charania, who until recently served as marketing director of Microsoft’s education products department; and Bob Moore, a Dell executive in charge of “facilitating growth” of the computer company’s K-12 education practice.

Like other digital reform advocates, the Bush nonprofit is also supported by Microsoft founder Bill Gates’s foundation. The fact that a nonprofit that receives funding from both the Gates Foundation and Microsoft pressures states to adopt for-profit education reforms may raise red flags with some in the philanthropy community, as Microsoft, too, has moved into the education field. The company has tapped into the K-12 privatization expansion by supplying a range of products, from traditional Windows programs to servers and online coursework platforms. It also contracts with Florida Virtual School to provide cloud computer solutions. Similarly, Dell is seeking new opportunities in the K-12 market for its range of desktop products, while the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the charitable nonprofit founded by Dell’s CEO, promotes neoliberal education reforms.

Through Bush, education-technology companies have found a shortcut to encourage states to adopt e-learning reforms. Take his yearly National Summit on Education Reform, sponsored by the Foundation for Excellence in Education.

At the most recent summit, held in San Francisco in mid-October, a group of more than 200 state legislators and state education department officials huddled in a ballroom over education-technology strategy. Rich Crandall, a state senator from Arizona, said to hearty applause that he had developed a local think tank to support the virtual school reforms he helped usher into law. Toward the end of the discussion, Vander Ark, acting as an emcee, walked around the room acknowledging lawmakers who had recently passed pro–education tech laws this year. He handed the microphone to Kelli Stargel, a state representative from Florida, who stood up and boasted of creating “virtual charter schools, so we can have innovation in our state.”

Throughout the day, lawmakers mingled with education-technology lobbyists from leading firms, like Apex Learning and K12 Inc. Some of the distance learning reforms were taught in breakout sessions, like one called “Don’t Let a Financial Crisis Go to Waste,” an hourlong event that encouraged lawmakers to use virtual schools as a budget-cutting measure. Mandy Clark, a staffer with Bush’s foundation, walked around handing out business cards, offering to e-mail sample legislation to legislators.

The lobbying was evident to anyone there. But for some of those present, Bush didn’t go far enough. David Byer, a senior manager with Apple in charge of developing education business for the company, groaned and leaned over to another attendee sitting at the edge of the room after a lunch session. “You have this many people together, why can’t you say, ‘Here are the ten elements, here are some sample bills’?” said Byer to David Stevenson, who nodded in agreement. Stevenson is a vice president of News Corporation’s education subsidiary, Wireless Generation, an education-technology firm that specializes in assessment tools. It was just a year ago that News Corp. announced its intention to enter the for-profit K-12 education industry, which Rupert Murdoch called “a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed.”

As attendees stood up to leave the hall, the phalanx of lobbyists surrounding the room converged, buttonholing legislators and school officials. On a floor above the main hall, an expo center had been set up, with companies like McGraw-Hill, Connections Academy, K12 Inc., proud sponsors of the event, providing information on how to work with politicians to make education technology a reality.

Patricia Levesque, a Bush staffer speaking at the summit and the former governor’s right hand when it comes to education reform, does not draw a direct salary from Bush’s nonprofit despite the fact that she is listed as its executive director, and tax disclosures show that she spends about fifty hours a week at the organization. Instead, her lobbying firm, Meridian Strategies, supplies her income. The Foundation for Florida’s Future, another Bush nonprofit, contracts with Meridian, as do online technology companies like IQ-ity Innovation, which paid her up to $20,000 for lobbying services at the beginning of this year. The unorthodox arrangement allows donors to Bush’s group to avoid registering actual lobbyists while using operatives like Levesque to influence legislators and governors on education technology.

Levesque’s contract with IQ-ity raises questions about Bush’s foundation work. As Mother Jones recently reported, the founder of IQ-ity, William Lager, also founded an education company with a poor track record. Lager’s other education firm, Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, is the largest provider of virtual schools in Ohio. ECOT schools have consistently underperformed; though the company serves more than 10,000 children, its graduation rate has never broken 40 percent. The company was fined for billing the state to serve more than 2,000 students in one month, when only seven children logged on during the same time period. Nevertheless, after Levesque spent at least two years as a registered lobbyist for Lager’s firm, Bush traveled to Ohio to give the commencement speech for ECOT. “ECOT proves a glimpse into what’s possible,” Bush said with pride, “by harnessing the power of technology.”

* * *

Levesque is no ordinary lobbyist. She is credited with encouraging the type of bare-knuckle politics now common in the wider education-reform movement. In an audio file obtained by The Nation, she and infamous anti-union consultant Richard Berman outlined a strategy in October 2010 for sweeping the nation with education reforms. The two spoke at the Philanthropy Roundtable, a get-together of major right-wing foundations. Lori Fey, a representative of the Michael Dell Foundation, moderated the panel discussion.

Rather than “intellectualize ourselves into the [education reform] debate…is there a way that we can get into it at an emotional level?” Berman asked. “Emotions will stay with people longer than concepts.” He then answered his own question: “We need to hit on fear and anger. Because fear and anger stays with people longer. And how you get the fear and anger is by reframing the problem.” Berman’s glossy ads, which have run in Washington, DC, and New Jersey, portray teachers unions as schoolyard bullies. One spot even seems to compare teachers to child abusers. Although Berman does not reveal his donors, he made clear in his talk that the foundations in the room were supporting his campaign.

Levesque ended the strategy discussion with a larger strategic question. She pointed to the example of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donating $100 million to Newark schools. She then asked the crowd to imagine instead raising $100 million for political races where we “could sway a couple of seats to have more education reform.” “Just shifting a little bit of your focus,” she added, noting that new politicians could have a greater impact.

Levesque’s ask has become reality. According to author Steven Brill, ex–DC school chancellor Michelle Rhee’s new group, StudentsFirst, raised $100 million within a few months of Levesque’s remarks. Rhee’s donors include Rupert Murdoch, philanthropist Eli Broad and Home Depot founder Ken Langone. Rhee’s group has pledged to spend more than $1 billion to bring for-profit schools, including virtual education, to the entire country by electing reform-friendly candidates and hiring top-notch state lobbyists.

A day before he opened his education reform conference to the media recently, Bush hosted another education meeting. This event, a private affair in the Palace Hotel, was a reconvening of investors and strategists to plan the next leg of the privatization campaign. Michael Moe, Susan Patrick, Tom Vander Ark and other major players were invited. I waited outside the event, trying to get what information I could. I asked Mayor Fenty how I could get in. “Just crash in, come on in,” he laughed, adding, “so what company are you with?” When he learned that I was a reporter, he shook his head. “Oh, nah, you’re not welcome, then.”

An invitation had billed the exclusive gathering as a chance for “philanthropists and venture capitalists” to figure out how to “leverage each other’s strengths”—a concise way to describe how for-profit virtual school companies are using philanthropy as a Trojan horse.

The “Shock Doctrine” Comes To Your Neighborhood Classroom

In Uncategorized on September 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm

Oldspeak:“”Let’s hope the fiscal crisis doesn’t get better too soon. It’ll slow down reform.” – Tom Watkins, consultant, summarizes the corporate education reform movement’s current strategy. For sheer weapons-grade assholishness, Watkins’ publicly wishing for a crushing recession to continue ranks up there with such gems as “bring them on” and “let them eat cake. Disaster Capitalists rarely come out and acknowledge their strategy. That’s why Watkins’ outburst of candor, buried in this front-page New York Times article yesterday, is so important: It shows that the recession and its corresponding shock to school budgets is being  used by corporations to maximize revenues, all under the gauzy banner of “reform. In this case, he has told us what the “reform” movement to demonize teachers, undermine public education, and generate private profits from public schools is really all about: It is about using the shock of a fiscal crisis to enact a radical, unproven but highly profitable agenda that corporate forces fully know they cannot pass under non-emergency circumstances, when objective scrutiny would be much more intense. Indeed, corporate “reformers”are so reliant on the Shock Doctrine to glaze over uncomfortable questions about their agenda, that they are now praying that the shock of recession continues.” –David Sirota

By David Sirota @ Common Dreams:

The Shock Doctrine, as articulated by journalist Naomi Klein, describes the process by which corporate interests use catastrophes as instruments to maximize their profit. Sometimes the events they use are natural (earthquakes), sometimes they are human-created (the 9/11 attacks) and sometimes they are a bit of both (hurricanes made stronger by human-intensified global climate change). Regardless of the particular cataclysm, though, the Shock Doctrine suggests that in the aftermath of a calamity, there is always corporate method in the smoldering madness – a method based in Disaster Capitalism.

Though Klein’s book provides much evidence of the Shock Doctrine, the Disaster Capitalists rarely come out and acknowledge their strategy. That’s why Watkins’ outburst of candor, buried in this front-page New York Times article yesterday, is so important: It shows that the recession and its corresponding shock to school budgets is being  used by corporations to maximize revenues, all under the gauzy banner of “reform.”

Some background: The Times piece follows a recent Education Week report showing that as U.S. school systems are laying off teachers, letting schoolhouses crumble, and increasing class sizes, high-tech firms are hitting the public-subsidy jackpot thanks to corporate “reformers'” successful push for more “data-driven” standardized tests (more on that in a second) and more technology in the classrooms. Essentially, as the overall spending pie for public schools is shrinking, the piece of the pie for high-tech companies — who make big campaign contributions to education policymakers — is getting much bigger, while the piece of the pie for traditional education (teachers, school infrastructure, text books, etc.) is getting smaller.

The Times on Sunday added some key — and somehow, largely overlooked — context to this reportage: namely, that the spending shift isn’t producing better achievement results on the very standardized tests the high-tech industry celebrates and makes money off of. “In a nutshell,” reports the Times, “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.”

The paper adds that the successful “pressure to push technology into the classroom without proof of its value has deep roots” going back more than a decade, which raises the fundamental question: Why? Why would this push be so successful in changing education policy if there is little hard evidence that it is the right move to improve student achievement?

The answer goes back — as it so often does — to corporate power and the Shock Doctrine.

Tech companies give the politicians who set education policy lots of campaign contributions, and in exchange, those politicians have returned the favor by citing tough economic times over the last decade as a rationale to wage an aggressive attack on traditional public education. That attack has included everything from demonizing teachers; to siphoning public money to privately administered schools; to funneling more of the money still left in public schools to private high-tech companies.

This trend is no accidental convergence of economic disaster and high-minded  policy. On the contrary, it is a deliberate strategy by corporate executives and their political puppets, a strategy that uses the disaster of recession-era budget cuts as a means of justifying radical policies, knowing that the disaster will have shellshocked observers asking far fewer questions about data and actual results. As the Times  sums it up, the recession’s “resource squeeze presents an opportunity” for corporate interests.

Or as Watkins explains, social pain is an opportunity: “Let’s hope the fiscal crisis doesn’t get better too soon. It’ll slow down reform.”

For sheer weapons-grade assholishness, Watkins’ publicly wishing for a crushing recession to continue ranks up there with such gems as “bring them on” and “let them eat cake.”

However, the real news here is that a Disaster Capitalist has spoken the unspoken and clearly articulated the Shock Doctrine in all its hideous glory. In this case, he has told us what the “reform” movement to demonize teachers, undermine public education, and generate private profits from public schools is really all about: It is about using the shock of a fiscal crisis to enact a radical, unproven but highly profitable agenda that corporate forces fully know they cannot pass under non-emergency circumstances, when objective scrutiny would be much more intense. Indeed, corporate “reformers”are so reliant on the Shock Doctrine to glaze over uncomfortable questions about their agenda, that they are now praying that the shock of recession continues.

The Times article does a good job of raising questions, forcing the corporate “reform” movement to resort to a revealing kind of hypocrisy. Check out the response from the Obama administration — which has been one of the leaders of the corporate “reform” movement — when confronted with data showing that its push for technology isn’t raising student achievement:

Karen Cator, director of the office of educational technology in the United States Department of Education, said standardized test scores were an inadequate measure of the value of technology in schools. Ms. Cator, a former executive at Apple Computer, said that better measurement tools were needed but, in the meantime, schools knew what students needed.

“In places where we’ve had a large implementing of technology and scores are flat, I see that as great,” she said. “Test scores are the same, but look at all the other things students are doing: learning to use the Internet to research, learning to organize their work, learning to use professional writing tools, learning to collaborate with others.” (emphasis added)

Cator, of course, is making the argument that supporters of traditional public education have been making against corporate “reformers” for years — namely, that standardized tests cannot be the primary tool to measure overall educational achievement, because they do not measure other equally important skills. And the fact that she is selectively making it in defense of her former technology industry tells us a lot about how public policy is really made in America.

Recall that this statement against standardized testing comes from the same Obama administration that has been pushing for more standardized testing — the same Obama administration that wants to use standardized testing as a key metric for withholding federal aid from “failing” schools and for firing teachers. That’s right, somehow, according to the Obama administration, standardized tests are the perfect tool to judge and punish struggling schools and the teachers who work with low-income kids, but they can’t be used to similarly judge technology products that are making Obama’s high-tech donors lots of cash.

In this oxymoron, we see who the corporate “reformers” in government really believe they work for, and whom they shape public policy on behalf of. It’s not the average parent or student or voter. It’s the Disaster Capitalists, who now have their sights set on your local schoolhouse.

Note: Steven Brill, the author of the new book “Class Warfare,” and Dana Goldstein, the Nation magazine’s education reporter, will be debating these and other education issues on my KKZN-AM760 radio show at 9 a.m. ET on Sept. 7. Stream it live or podcast it at sirota.am760.net.

© 2011 David Sirota

Why The United States Is Destroying Its Education System

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm

Oldspeak: ” Imagine, going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job…The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.” –Unnamed New York City School Teacher

By Chris Hedges @ Truthdig:

A nation that destroys its systems of education, degrades its public information, guts its public libraries and turns its airwaves into vehicles for cheap, mindless amusement becomes deaf, dumb and blind. It prizes test scores above critical thinking and literacy. It celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state. It funnels them into a caste system of drones and systems managers. It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs.

Teachers, their unions under attack, are becoming as replaceable as minimum-wage employees at Burger King. We spurn real teachers–those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential–and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests. These instructors obey. They teach children to obey. And that is the point. The No Child Left Behind program, modeled on the “Texas Miracle,” is a fraud. It worked no better than our deregulated financial system. But when you shut out debate these dead ideas are self-perpetuating.

Passing bubble tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence. This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system. These tests produce men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs. The tests elevate those with the financial means to prepare for them. They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts–those who march to the beat of their own drum–are weeded out.

“Imagine,” said a public school teacher in New York City, who asked that I not use his name, “going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job. Up until very recently, the principal of a school was something like the conductor of an orchestra: a person who had deep experience and knowledge of the part and place of every member and every instrument. In the past 10 years we’ve had the emergence of both [Mayor] Mike Bloomberg’s Leadership Academy and Eli Broad’s Superintendents Academy, both created exclusively to produce instant principals and superintendents who model themselves after CEOs. How is this kind of thing even legal? How are such ‘academies’ accredited? What quality of leader needs a ‘leadership academy’? What kind of society would allow such people to run their children’s schools? The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.”

Teachers, under assault from every direction, are fleeing the profession. Even before the “reform” blitzkrieg we were losing half of all teachers within five years after they started work–and these were people who spent years in school and many thousands of dollars to become teachers. How does the country expect to retain dignified, trained professionals under the hostility of current conditions? I suspect that the hedge fund managers behind our charter schools system–whose primary concern is certainly not with education–are delighted to replace real teachers with nonunionized, poorly trained instructors. To truly teach is to instill the values and knowledge which promote the common good and protect a society from the folly of historical amnesia. The utilitarian, corporate ideology embraced by the system of standardized tests and leadership academies has no time for the nuances and moral ambiguities inherent in a liberal arts education. Corporatism is about the cult of the self. It is about personal enrichment and profit as the sole aim of human existence. And those who do not conform are pushed aside.

“It is extremely dispiriting to realize that you are in effect lying to these kids by insinuating that this diet of corporate reading programs and standardized tests are preparing them for anything,” said this teacher, who feared he would suffer reprisals from school administrators if they knew he was speaking out. “It is even more dispiriting to know that your livelihood depends increasingly on maintaining this lie. You have to ask yourself why are hedge fund managers suddenly so interested in the education of the urban poor? The main purpose of the testing craze is not to grade the students but to grade the teacher.”

“I cannot say for certain–not with the certainty of a Bill Gates or a Mike Bloomberg who pontificate with utter certainty over a field in which they know absolutely nothing–but more and more I suspect that a major goal of the reform campaign is to make the work of a teacher so degrading and insulting that the dignified and the truly educated teachers will simply leave while they still retain a modicum of self-respect,” he added. “In less than a decade we been stripped of autonomy and are increasingly micromanaged. Students have been given the power to fire us by failing their tests. Teachers have been likened to pigs at a trough and blamed for the economic collapse of the United States. In New York, principals have been given every incentive, both financial and in terms of control, to replace experienced teachers with 22-year-old untenured rookies. They cost less. They know nothing. They are malleable and they are vulnerable to termination.”

The demonizing of teachers is another public relations feint, a way for corporations to deflect attention from the theft of some $17 billion in wages, savings and earnings among American workers and a landscape where one in six workers is without employment. The speculators on Wall Street looted the U.S. Treasury. They stymied any kind of regulation. They have avoided criminal charges. They are stripping basic social services. And now they are demanding to run our schools and universities.

“Not only have the reformers removed poverty as a factor, they’ve removed students’ aptitude and motivation as factors,” said this teacher, who is in a teachers union. “They seem to believe that students are something like plants where you just add water and place them in the sun of your teaching and everything blooms. This is a fantasy that insults both student and teacher. The reformers have come up with a variety of insidious schemes pushed as steps to professionalize the profession of teaching. As they are all businessmen who know nothing of the field, it goes without saying that you do not do this by giving teachers autonomy and respect. They use merit pay in which teachers whose students do well on bubble tests will receive more money and teachers whose students do not do so well on bubble tests will receive less money. Of course, the only way this could conceivably be fair is to have an identical group of students in each class–an impossibility. The real purposes of merit pay are to divide teachers against themselves as they scramble for the brighter and more motivated students and to further institutionalize the idiot notion of standardized tests. There is a certain diabolical intelligence at work in both of these.”

“If the Bloomberg administration can be said to have succeeded in anything,” he said, “they have succeeded in turning schools into stress factories where teachers are running around wondering if it’s possible to please their principals and if their school will be open a year from now, if their union will still be there to offer some kind of protection, if they will still have jobs next year. This is not how you run a school system. It’s how you destroy one. The reformers and their friends in the media have created a Manichean world of bad teachers and effective teachers. In this alternative universe there are no other factors. Or, all other factors–poverty, depraved parents, mental illness and malnutrition–are all excuses of the Bad Teacher that can be overcome by hard work and the Effective Teacher.”

The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business. Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think. Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals–themselves.

“It is better to be at odds with the whole world than, being one, to be at odds with myself,” Socrates said.

Those who can ask the right questions are armed with the capacity to make a moral choice, to defend the good in the face of outside pressure. And this is why the philosopher Immanuel Kant puts the duties we have to ourselves before the duties we have to others. The standard for Kant is not the biblical idea of self-love–love thy neighbor as thyself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you–but self-respect. What brings us meaning and worth as human beings is our ability to stand up and pit ourselves against injustice and the vast, moral indifference of the universe. Once justice perishes, as Kant knew, life loses all meaning. Those who meekly obey laws and rules imposed from the outside–including religious laws–are not moral human beings. The fulfillment of an imposed law is morally neutral. The truly educated make their own wills serve the higher call of justice, empathy and reason. Socrates made the same argument when he said it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.

“The greatest evil perpetrated,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”

As Arendt pointed out, we must trust only those who have this self-awareness. This self-awareness comes only through consciousness. It comes with the ability to look at a crime being committed and say “I can’t.” We must fear, Arendt warned, those whose moral system is built around the flimsy structure of blind obedience. We must fear those who cannot think. Unconscious civilizations become totalitarian wastelands.

“The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter, and, without remembrance, nothing can hold them back,” Arendt writes. “For human beings, thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur–the Zeitgeist or History or simple temptation. The greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots, and because it has no roots it has no limitations, it can go to unthinkable extremes and sweep over the whole world.”

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. He writes a regular column for TruthDig every Monday. His latest book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

© 2011 Truthdig All rights reserved.

Public Teachers: America’s New “Welfare Queens”

In Uncategorized on March 7, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Oldspeak:” ‘Everything is a version of something else.’-Patrick Marber in “Closer”. ‘Much like the “welfare queen,” the “bad teacher” and the “public employee” are convenient scapegoats at which we direct our current economic rage… attacks on teachers and other public servants…. is not just trick of mass psychological transference, a means to distract us from the real culprits of this economic devastation – crooked bankers, sneaky lenders and complicit politicians.’-Adam Bessie.”

By Adam Bessie @ Truthout:

In 1976, on a failed campaign to the White House, Ronald Reagan coined one of his enduring linguistic legacies – the “welfare queen,” [4] a mythical, inner-city resident who wastes the public’s hard-earned money on “welfare Cadillacs” and other luxuries she can’t afford, and, thus, doesn’t deserve. When Reagan finally succeeded in becoming president four years later, he waged war on these “welfare queens,” redistributing money from the “least deserving” by cutting social services and public programs that helped the poor, and funneling it to the “most deserving,” by providing generous tax cuts for the extremely rich, who had actually “earned” their money.

Today, as a recent Gallup poll [5] found that Americans were most likely to dub Reagan “the greatest president ever” (just above the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln), Reagan’s battle against the “welfare queen” lives on – though she doesn’t drive a Cadillac, but, perhaps, a fire engine, and has a Cadillac health care plan, as Jonathan Cohn presciently pointed out in “Public Employees Are the New Welfare Queens” [6] last August in The New Republic. In the last few weeks, “public employee” has become a bad word, a symbol of greed and undeserved excess, one that is responsible for our crumbling budgets, and, by logic, our own struggling economy – just like the “welfare queens” of the 70’s.

And yet, many Americans will find a comparison of “public employees” to “welfare queens” hard to swallow, given our patriotic disposition toward firefighters and police officers – especially in the wake of 9/11, when they were elevated to the status of heroes worthy of bumper stickers honoring them across the country. Unlike Reagan’s image of the “welfare queen” ripping off the system, it’s hard to see people who rush into burning buildings or step into the line of fire as undeserving of their benefits.

The perfectly ambiguous term “public employee” was designed in the first place for just this reason: the label sounds more like a faceless, heartless bureaucrat than a public servant risking her or his life for the common good. The term strips away the humanity and the nobility of a public servant’s work, replacing it with an uninspiring, and certainly unrespectable, blandness. It’s far easier to take away a “public employee’s” pension than it is to take away your local firefighter’s, who might someday save your life.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker seems perfectly aware of this potential political trap. As he tries to dismantle collective bargaining [7] and, thus, cut benefits and pay for “public employees,” he is ensuring that firefighters, police and state troopers are all exempt from his attack. He could never sell benefit-busting against American heroes.

Teachers, however, are a much easier sell as the new “welfare queens,” which is why they (and other, less visible public servants) find themselves in the conservatives’ crosshairs. In the last year, public education has undergone a sustained, highly successful character assassination from billionaires and the corporate media [8], transforming educators from dedicated public servants to lazy, self-interested bureaucrats who care more about pensions than their students. “The Myth of the Bad Teacher” [9]has prevailed, popularized by “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” discussed at length on Oprah and repeated ad nauseam on the covers of popular magazines like Time, which proclaim that these “bad teachers” have caused a crisis in education [10]. Wading in this swamp of negative propaganda, teachers are easy prey. After all, “bad teachers” working in a “bad” school system clearly don’t deserve our hard-earned money when they aren’t earning it in the first place. Why not take away their Cadillac benefits?

Much like the “welfare queen,” the “bad teacher” and the “public employee” are convenient scapegoats at which we direct our current economic rage.

Walker’s attack on teachers and other public servants, however, is not just trick of mass psychological transference, a means to distract us from the real culprits of this economic devastation – crooked bankers, sneaky lenders and complicit politicians. Rather, Walker – whose hero is Reagan, according to a recent New York Times profile [11]  – is carrying out another of Reagan’s linguistic and ideological legacies, “starving the beast.” Walker is playing by the Gipper’s handbook, working hard to transfer wealth from the public to the private sector and attempting to cut pay and benefits for public servants, while at the same time cutting taxes for businesses. In fact, Walker’s tax cuts [12] for private business appear to be underwritten by cuts in public sector benefits. If he succeeds, the money will literally be handed from the pockets of public servants to private business owners.

The inspiring protests in Wisconsin [13] are not just about health care benefits, pensions or even unions. No, the Wisconsin uprising [14] is really about defending the public sector, and those that work for the public, against increasing privatization and corporatization [15] that serves to increase wage inequity and decrease benefits for the many for the profit of the few – which is Reagan’s real legacy [16].


Strong New Films Go After The Much Hyped “Waiting For Superman” And Its Simplistic Educational Analysis

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2010 at 11:44 am

Oldspeak:“Education reform” is not simply firing bad teachers, closing failing schools, privatizing education, busting teachers unions, and forcing students/schools to compete for too few resources based on high stakes standardized test scores. The school system needs to be fundamentally changed from the 19th century model currently in use, to a 21st century one that works for kids today. Teachers need to be paid and valued just as highly as their students. Children are not widgets who will work in a factory when they grow up as many did 200 years ago. The can’t be educated as such.”

From Megan Driscoll @ Alter Net:

In light of the success of Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman, many education experts have come out with vehement criticism against the film’s assertion that teachers, and the unions that protect them, are the primary cause of the public education crisis. Now, Guggenheim’s fellow filmmakers are beginning to do the same.

Vicky Abeles rejects Superman’s allegation in her new film, Race to Nowhere. Instead of placing blame on educators, Abeles suggests that the current failures of the education system are largely due to the excessive pressures students and teachers alike endure on a daily basis, primarily as a result of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy.

Inspired to make Race to Nowhere after observing the detrimental effects that extreme academic burdens were having on her own children, Abeles’ picture portrays a number of students who exhibits signs of emotional distress under the confines of NCLB. Abeles highlights the consequences of a test score-driven system – one that Superman emphasizes as a solution – featuring students who feel overwhelmed by the intense academic expectations imposed upon them and begin to manifest their stress both emotionally and physically. One teacher interviewed in the film remarks, “You have a system that is trying to further roboticize students, mechanize them if you will, to be these academic competitors, these producers. The very nature of it in itself is very dehumanizing,” while a frustrated student exclaims, “Everyone expects us to be superheroes.”

While Abeles’ depiction of the consequences NCLB has on American youth is certainly compelling, it is her portrayal of exhausted teachers that proves to be her strongest case against Superman’s claims.

Race to Nowhere, currently screening in schools and theaters across the country, examines the effects NCLB has had on educators and public schools since its inception in 2001. The education policy, which measures success and determines funding almost entirely based on standardized test results, leaves little room for teachers to develop alternative instruction methods that may better appeal to individual students. Rather, educators are left “literally just drowning in content” they are obligated to teach in order to ensure that adequate scores are achieved and necessary financial support is provided. Numerous teachers throughout Abeles’ film express frustration with the pressures they endure to follow the rigid curriculum.  “Do it or you don’t have a job,” says one teacher. “It’s gotten harder and harder to feel like I can teach the things I believe in, versus be a yes-man.”

Vanessa Roth reiterates the prevalence of undervalued educators in her upcoming documentary that exists as part of The Teacher Salary Project, a campaign spearheaded by Dave Eggers and Nínive Calegari to advocate for higher wages for teachers across the country. The Project, set to premier May 3, 2011, is comprised of Roth’s film, as well as an interactive online resource and a national outreach campaign, all of which collectively seek to educate and empower citizens on both the local and national level on the fight for sustainable wages for educators.

Eggers and Calegari, who co-authored the 2005 book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers, joined with Roth to produce and create a film that emphasizes the struggles educators face in a system that fails to recognize their significant role in shaping American youth. Contrary to Guggenheim’s contention against today’s teachers, Calegari stresses that, “The main reason that American public schools are failing is because we, as a country, haven’t taken the teaching profession seriously.” The Project, like Race to Nowhere, asserts that current U.S. education policy has resulted in schools that are gravely underfunded and educators who are too often forced to survive on unsustainable salaries or abandon their professions altogether.  As noted onThe Teacher Salary Project’s Web site, 50 percent of the nation’s best teachers are forced to take on second jobs in order to be able to actually afford teaching.

Calegari continues on the subject, contending, “Research has proven that the quality of a students’ teacher has the greatest impact on a students’ future success.”  These findings, however, suggest a grim future, when 46 percent of public school teachers leave the profession within the first five years of being in the classroom.

So what methods of reform are needed?

Contrary to Superman’s not-so-subtle urging for the dismantling of teacher unions, The Teacher Salary Project team advocates for the increase of teacher wages.  “Raising effective teachers’ salaries, and keeping them in the classroom, is the most important thing we can do to preserve our democracy,” Calegari argues, “We need to create an overwhelming movement that says to everyone that teachers need to have a new day.  A day with a seriously prestigious profession, that is wildly competitive, with strong and inspiring leadership, meaningful development, and legitimate financial rewards and incentives.”

Abeles urges for similar changes in Race to Nowhere, where she emphasizes the need for a more personalized curriculum that permits teachers flexibility in the classroom and encourages more creative approaches, such as project-based learning. Moreover, Race to Nowhere suggests that a reevaluation of our capitalistic focus on creating an academically competitive youth is essential. Abeles’ film suggests that America’s incessant dependence on test results to measure knowledge and achievement is rapidly destroying students’ overall health and eagerness to learn. Thus, the call for a greater emphasis on more uniquely tailored methods of teaching will serve to benefit both educators and the students they instruct.

In other words, the two projects suggest, Guggenheim gets it utterly wrong – it is about the funding, it is about sustainable-living wages, and it is about providing students with a customized, challenging curriculum that does not equate them or their teachers to a group of homogenous androids.

Collectively, the films serve to illustrate the true complexity of today’s education crisis. Both show that placing blame on educators and their unions is not only a gross oversimplification of the current circumstances, but in fact is a disservice to those teachers who make substantial financial sacrifices with very little return.

With 2010 being deemed the year of education films and Superman at the forefront, make sure to watch these alternatives that offer a different perspective on the call for education reform.

Megan Driscoll is the editorial and communications assistant at AlterNet.