Running on Empty: Capitalism & “Education Reform”


As the education theorist Diane Ravitch closes out her work The Death and Life of the Great American School System, she makes the following short summation of the current state of affairs in public education in the United States

“The most durable way to improve schools is to improve curriculum and instruction and to improve the conditions in which teachers work and children learn, rather than endlessly squabbling over how school systems should be organized, managed and controlled.  It is not the organization of the schools that is at fault for the ignorance we deplore, but the lack of sound educational values (225).”

Not so long ago, Diane Ravitch was one of the most visible conservative critics of public education in the United States. Her late-1970s polemic The Revisionists Revised was a response to the radical assessment of schools in the country that was offered by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis in their Debsian/ Marxist study Schooling in Capitalist America.  Later she became Assistant Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush, and a proponent of his No Child Left Behind Act, which greatly accelerated the high stakes testing and data-driven nightmares which currently pass for qualitative change in today’s so-called “education reform.”

I welcome Ravitch’s theoretical  return to the “liberal center,” for what it’s worth. Her exposure of the actual corporate  character of “education reform” in The Death and Life has been well received by teachers all across the country.  Her clarity on the reactionary character of the “school reform” movement is a breath of fresh air in the education reform discussion.

However, despite the critical witness of Diane Ravitch, and a host of other serious academic theorists who have attempted to warn the public about the corporate dismantling of education, it’s all business as usual. Billions of dollars have been poured into charter schools and school “reform,” and the continuing outcome is exactly what has existed all along: a multi -tiered school system in which kids who can thrive in traditional “stand and deliver” academic culture thrive, and many other students do just enough to get by, just as kids who are unmotivated always have. Charter schools rarely surpass the accomplishments of the much-maligned public schools, and several charter efforts have actually done worse.  Under capitalism, no pedagogical effort can stand outside the cultural fall-out from a class stratified system.

In the United States, we have public schools that work quite well in the neighborhoods where the upper professionals live; schools that are adequate in neighborhoods where the children of the better-off workers attend classes; schools that do enough to get by in working class communities that are feeling the impact from the economy  more directly; and  many schools in neighborhoods where people of color or the working poor are concentrated that are anywhere from dysfunctional to outright wretched. The income-based “caste system” that has always been a feature of “middle class” politics in the United States functions as it always has, and there has been little that handfuls of educators with social engineering schemes have been able to correct.

Occasionally there will emerge programs like KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) or Middle College High Schools that can make some inroads among students who are given the classification “at risk.” But these efforts, despite their successes, further underscore the fact that the only solution to the crisis of public education is steady influx of funding, consistent parental and community support, and empowered and organized teaching staffs. Objective data confirms this little fact repeatedly, but the agenda of the current “education reform” movement has much less to do with actual shifts in the way the country thinks about education than it has to do with the agenda of the wealthiest members of society.

Two of the major players in education reform are Eli Broad of the Broad Foundation and Bill Gates of the Microsoft dynasty. As Ravitch explains: “The [Broad]foundation’s investments have focused on Eli Broad’s philosophy that schools should be redesigned to function like corporate enterprises. Eli Broad made his vast fortune in industries for which he had no special training, and his foundation embraces the belief that neither school superintendents or principals need to be educators. His foundation includes educators in its training programs, but it seems to prefer people with a private sector background. Presumably the educators who are trained by the Broad Foundation learn the skills and mindset of corporate executives, which they can utilize when they return to their districts. (217)”

So what would that look like?  Bill Gates has some interesting ideas, according to Ravitch:

“This agenda is now shared by the Gates Foundation, along with several other major foundations, including the Robertson Foundation (assets in excess of $1 billion).  Together, these foundations wield immense economic and political power.  During the 2008 campaign the Gates and Broad foundations jointly contributed $60 million to launch a project to make education reform a national campaign issue, while advocating for national standards, a longer school day, and merit pay.

“The Gates-Broad foundation was warmly endorsed by the Obama administration.  Both foundations had invested heavily in the programs of Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education, when was superintendent of the Chicago public schools (217).”

National academic standards, as Ravitch notes many times, are not in themselves a bad idea, provided that the system is willing to bring to every public education effort in the country the same resource and support, or is willing to ensure a universal education for every student who applies.  But the opportunity to receive a comprehensive education has long been uneven in this country, because in most school districts it is based largely upon revenue from taxed property and income. The more people own, the greater the likelihood there will be quality public schools in their neighborhood. With budget cuts leaving districts starved of cash, they often have to go cap in hand to corporate donors. But with corporate money comes corporate control.

There can be no equity in public education until a quality, universal public education is seen as a fundamental right.  As for longer school days, up until the moment such strategies haven’t been anything more than a sop that fools a lot of younger teachers into working outside of union contract hours in the hopes of raising test scores. Often when these instructors do so, they find themselves confronted by district administrators who arbitrarily decide to disaggregate any data that shows the incremental progress that has been made. Disaggregated data in many instances has been a sneaky tactic that makes it possible for district officers  to wipe actual school achievement from the table, often condemning the school to closure or chartering.

As for merit pay, anyone who’s ever worked for a living knows what a rotten scam that is. Promotions at work are more often than not arbitrary and political. But in education, an additional sweetener is added. The Obama education department has suggested that merit pay, or teacher bonuses or pay increases, should be linked to how students perform on high stakes tests. And while on the surface this seems a logical idea, it’s actually very much like making the decision to issue a driver’s license to an adult based upon how well their teenage son or daughter does on a driver’s test.

The bottom line is this: Universal or comprehensive education means the opportunity and the resources to study high academics, or industry, or music, or athletic culture, or what have you. But in the United States, this has never been the case. And the current education “initiatives” proposed by the “progressive” education stewardship of Gates, or Broad, or Duncan, or Obama are  a glorification of the marketplace, as may be seen in the so-called “Race to the Top” initiative, where the states are encouraged to compete for grants from a purse of less than five billion dollars.

A ruling class which has no problem squandering millions of dollars a day on wars that can do nothing for the greater population of this country, and much less the world; a ruling class which can find billions of dollars to subsidize bonuses for the banking executives who near completely derailed all of “western civilization” two years ago, this very same ruling class  want to rely on the market to do for public education what they’ve done for public health and public transportation.  Trust Eli Broad and Bill Gates.  Trust the charismatic Obama. Trust the pixies and “invisible hand” of the marketplace.

Diane Ravitch is no Marxist, so she’d never phrase things as I do here.  But what insight she does bring to this moment in the struggle to rebuild public education is right on point:

“Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king. But the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well educated teachers and a sound educational program (221).”

But, as Ravitch now knows and documents in her book, that’s not what’s happening.  Teachers and education workers everywhere now find themselves on an incredibly treacherous assembly line, where “quality control” and abstract measure have displaced the grounded practice of data informed instruction. Data informed education practice is a very different animal then “data driven” practice, which is no comprehensive education practice at all.

The market cult “education reform” ideas of Eli Broad and Bill Gates are having a devastating effect upon educators and the communities we serve everywhere.  And in part two of this article, I will give the reader a point by point illustration of the abusive and destructive impact this “practice” is having upon me and many other instructors in the Seattle Public Schools.


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