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Dispelling Three Decades of ‘Educational Reform’

Gregory A. Smith is a professor in the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon.  His most recent book, co-written with David Sobel, is Place- and Community-based Education in Schools (Routledge, 2010).

Pauline Lipman, The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City (New York: Routledge, 2011), 208 pages, $38.95, paperback.

One of the more remarkable public relations successes of the past two decades can be seen in the way neoliberals, and other supporters of an unfettered market economy, have portrayed their school reform efforts as in the interest of people otherwise excluded from the economy and the political process. A widely viewed film like Waiting for Superman, with its vilification of educators and public schools, suggests that only through the expansion of competition and privatization can the children of black and Latino working-class families be given learning opportunities that will allow them to participate in the American Dream. Thirty years ago, it was progressive educators and policymakers who stood by this constituency, arguing that schools were not fulfilling their social responsibility in providing an equitable education for all children. Now such educators and policymakers are portrayed as the defenders of a status quo that has failed to meet the needs of lower-income and non-white students. Much has changed since the beginning of the standards and accountability movement in the 1980s, and much of that change can be ascribed to the way current educational debates have been framed, through sleight of hand, to transform the exploiters of the poor and disadvantaged into their saviors.

Pauline Lipman’s 2011 volume, The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City, with its careful, on-the-ground examination of recent school reform efforts in Chicago, provides a comprehensive and illuminating analysis of how this has happened along with ways to circumvent policy initiatives that are eroding the integrity of an educational system that for a century-and-a-half has been a defining feature of U.S. life and democracy. Since Chicago is the city where both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan cut their teeth as educational reformers, events there have particular meaning for the nation as a whole. Although Lipman is clearly a critic of neoliberalism and its policy initiatives, she is not an uncritical observer of the public schools, often acknowledging their failure to address funding inequities connected to race and social class, as well as the alienating instruction encountered in far too many of the schools that serve disadvantaged students. Her approach to reform, however, contrasts starkly with the initiatives that now dominate educational discourse. Rather than turning to experts and elites, she aligns herself with parents, students, and teachers, believing schools can best be reformed through inclusive and truly democratic processes.

Lipman draws on geographer David Harvey’s perspective in A Brief History of Neoliberalism that neoliberalism goes beyond a set of policy initiatives; it also involves the construction of a new understanding of what common sense entails, a new “social imaginary” in which democracy is reduced to “choice in the marketplace” and freedom to the “personal freedom to consume.” For those who subscribe to this ideology, competitive individualism becomes a pivotal social virtue; private property trumps other values; and governments are relieved of responsibility for the welfare of citizens who must bear the costs of their own circumstances and decisions without the benefit of collective support (10). Under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, this vision of society emerged in the 1980s as a replacement to the social contract of support and care for a nation’s citizens that emerged in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Second World War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s rejection of communism in favor of state capitalism in the 1990s, little has stood in the way of those who argue, like Thatcher, that “there is no alternative” to this now dominant model of human society.

The irony is that in the United States so many voters have bought into a vision that is diminishing their own welfare and resulting in a vast redistribution of wealth in this country, what Harvey, in The New Imperialism, calls “accumulation by dispossession.” To effect this goal in Chicago, shapers of this new social imagination have achieved their ends by building on and extending an educational discourse that presents schools and the children who attend them as victims of a disaster perpetrated by teachers’ unions, educational bureaucrats, and school boards unable to perceive and act upon changes in the larger social and economic context—primarily globalization—that require a fundamental rethinking about what schooling in the United States needs to become. This process began in the 1980s with the standards and accountability movement under the Reagan administration, something that David Berliner and Bruce Biddle, in The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools, suggest from the outset was a fabrication, at least when viewing data for the U.S. educational system as a whole.

It is a fabrication, however, that has allowed the neoliberal “disaster capitalists,” well described in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, to take the lead in educational reform efforts. Informed by the anti-government perspectives of economists like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, they argue that governments are incapable of orchestrating needed changes, which can only be achieved by drawing upon the mechanisms of the market—a market in which those with the most resources possess the greatest power and authority. The challenge in Chicago is that in many respects schools for low-income students were a disaster, something Paul Street painfully describes in his 2005 volume, Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America. Despite efforts to desegregate schools in the decades following the Brown decision, the abandonment of urban neighborhoods by whites during this period resulted in both the impoverishment of many U.S. cities, including Chicago, and the perpetuation of residential segregation. The shift of resources from cities to suburbs contributed to underfunded schools and neighborhoods and a decline in educational quality.

In Chicago, two neoliberal reform efforts during the past decade have been aimed at dealing with both low-performing schools and economically marginalized neighborhoods. As Lipman makes clear, neither has dealt with more fundamental inequities linked to longstanding patterns of economic discrimination that have contributed to the impoverishment of largely black and Latino families in the city. The first response advocated by Chicago’s corporate and political elites in their central planning document, Renaissance 2010, has been tied to the replacement of neighborhood public schools by charter or contract schools and the provision of much expanded school choice to Chicago families. Since this document was first presented in 2004, sixty-three elementary and forty-six secondary, non-public schools have been established. This has meant that approximately one in every eight elementary schools in the city is a charter or contract school, and one out of every three secondary schools, a dramatic shift over the course of the past eight years. Many of these new schools have entrance requirements that proscribe the attendance of many black and Latino students. This policy initiative stands in contrast to Chicago’s experiment with Local School Councils (LSC) in the 1980s and ‘90s that gave parents and community members the opportunity to actively participate in the reshaping of local educational possibilities. Lipman observes that, although never well-funded and to some extent doomed to failure because of this, the LSCs were “a potent vehicle for local communities to contend for a share of city resources [to] shape their schools, and to organize politically around other issues, including opposition to [Mayor Richard] Daley’s downtown development and displacement of working class people” (40). Rather than being given the opportunity to participate in the governance of their own schools, Chicago families now must choose from an educational menu developed by others.

The second reform initiative has involved efforts to overcome the racial and social class segregation that for decades has been so problematic in U.S. cities and schools. Motivated by the theory that mixing students from different races and social classes will improve the school performance of low-income students, over the past decade neoliberal reformers in Chicago have worked to eliminate low-cost housing and transport children away from their neighborhood schools to others that theoretically include a more diverse population of young people. On one hand, such initiatives seem desirable. As Lipman notes, “Quality affordable housing for everyone and culturally and socially empowering high quality education are, in my view, basic human rights and fully feasible in the United States given its overabundance of national wealth” (75).

Unfortunately, such a vision does not undergird the neoliberal agenda now being played out in Chicago. After longstanding public-housing complexes have been demolished, new mixed-income housing has not included enough affordable units for previous residents, driving them from their newly gentrifying neighborhoods. And although “mixed-income” schools have been able to reduce their proportion of low-income students, the overall demographics encountered in such schools is, according to Lipman, “not dramatically different” (83). She goes on to point out that reformers generally ignore the negative consequences for children of being bused far from their own neighborhoods, what researcher Mindy Fullilove (in her book of the same name) has called “root shock,” as well as multiple studies that demonstrate the negative consequences of student mobility on academic performance, health, and well-being. In many respects, both reform initiatives are aimed at reopening the inner city to affluent, generally white, citizens interested in reclaiming and renovating historic neighborhoods abandoned for the suburbs decades before by removing current non-white and lower-income residents through the construction of housing beyond their means and creating charter and contract schools their children will be unable to attend.

To Lipman’s credit, she acknowledges why elements of this agenda appeal to black and Latino parents as well as besieged public-school teachers who perceive few opportunities for positive action within the context of the current educational system. For parents, the opportunity to choose a school that promises a more “rigorous college prep curricula, the latest technology, and…graduation rates and college admissions of 90% or more” leads thousands to attend New Schools Expos where they have a chance to learn about school choices available to them in the city (133). It also leads progressive educators to seek employment in such schools, where they find more opportunities to teach in creative and experiential ways, something that is increasingly rare in conventional schools, where a preoccupation with curricular standardization and test prep limits instructional possibilities. The vision that underlies all of these efforts, however, is essentially individualistic and corporate in nature; it focuses more on what families and students can accomplish through their singular efforts, rather than through political struggle aimed at benefitting the larger community.

The result is the infusion of a competitive ethos among disenfranchised and impoverished citizens that weakens their will to join with one another to reverse policies and practices that result in collective suffering. While imperfect, the Local School Councils provided sites for citizen participation in which the skills of democratic decision-making could be learned and practiced. In contrast, school choice, as well as the busing of children from their own neighborhood schools to others that theoretically include a more diverse mix of students, atomizes communities and reinforces the neoliberal transformation of citizens into consumers.

According to Lipman, much of the success of these initiatives can be tied to the investment of billions of dollars by a handful of extraordinarily wealthy individuals (like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and members of the Walton Family) who together have become the new “lords of urban education” (108). Ironically, it is the people who have benefitted most from the impoverishment of an ever-growing proportion of the U.S. population who now present themselves as benefactors of the poor. Their ability to articulate and enact an educational agenda that serves their ends has resulted in the removal of schools from the oversight and control of local citizens and shifted the governance of this vital public institution to people far distant from civic accountability. It is their power and influence that have led to the creation of a new narrative about education that is reifying schools into agents of compliance and conformity, rather than vehicles through which the young learn to become the thoughtful and engaged citizens so needed in today’s uncertain and tumultuous world.

It is that very uncertainty and tumult, however, that gives Lipman some cause for hope. Although this section of her volume would benefit from more examples of educational and community actions aimed at addressing pressing social, economic, and environmental issues, she is to be commended for moving beyond the stance of critic to social visionary. Too often volumes that provide this kind of insightful analysis of serious social ills stop too soon; not this one. Citing Henri Lefebvre, Lipman’s sense of the possible is informed by Lefebvre’s assertion that cities hold the promise of a counter-hegemonic coalition because of their “potential as a creative space of vibrant democratic dialogue and debate” (161). Especially when dominant economic and political institutions are facing a crisis of legitimacy, space for new ideas and institutions emerges. Lipman calls on present day organic intellectuals, including public school teachers and their education professors, to step forward and share their perspectives and understandings in public forums to help their fellow citizens “‘connect the dots’ between immediate issues and systems of oppression and exploitation” (163), something Lipman herself did during the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike. If they were to align themselves with other urban social movements, adopt educational practices that are democratic and liberatory in nature, establish connections with similar efforts across the planet, and build schools that become agents of social criticism and change, then educators could help seed an equitable and sustainable future far beyond the imaginings of the country’s current neoliberal managers. By doing so, they might be able to break the spell of market-based reforms that have for too long held this nation in thrall.

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