NOTE TO READERS: If you all want to get a reportorial perspective upon a recent decision in the case Vergara v. California threatening teacher tenure in the state of California (and possibly, later, in other states!), read zenbassoon’s diary here or Laura Clawson’s diary here or Bill Raden’s earlier piece here. My task here is to explain the bigger picture, of the organized attack upon the employment status of America’s teachers as part of a greater, long-term effort.
I can’t say what you were all thinking when you read about this ruling, and the commentary that followed from the White House — my own immediate reaction was that they’re now getting what they want directly, rather than having to fuss over “school reform!” Want to mess with the teachers’ unions? Have the courts do it! Perhaps in the future we can now expect a new era of honesty, in which open-ended class warfare upon teachers and students is no longer seen as requiring justification through the ever-expanding rationalizations of “school reform.”
We can see a long history of “school reform” dating back to the 1970s — Ira Shor’s volume titled Culture Wars details the beginnings of “school reform,” with career education, “back to basics,” and “excellence” as public excuses for “school reform.” And of course the most recent “school reform” efforts have exhibited their own guiding philosophies: “No Child Left Behind,” as justified by a philosophy of universal achievement through universal standards and testing, or the “Race to the Top” philosophy of excellence through market-based reform.
But at its core “school reform” is really about one, and only one, motivating force: capitalist discipline. To make schools into conduits for profit, teachers must be made cheaper, and schools must be shown to produce an “added value” labor force while imposing permanent debt servitude upon graduates of the system at its highest levels after they graduate from college. The idea behind “school reform,” in sum, is to impose the discipline of capital upon the schools. As Noam Chomsky might put it, costs will be borne by the public, and profits will go to private actors.
The singular, official mythology in support of “school reform” is that teaching is absurdly easy, because all teaching is really just pouring facts into heads, which (supposedly) any adult can do. Teaching, then (like work at McDonald’s or WalMart), is properly a job for up-and-coming youth who will move on to something else when it’s time for their real careers (the purpose of “Teach for America”). This official mythology views teachers as a centrally-placed unionized gang of thieves, who are currently overpaid while at the same time being the only real factor in the presence or absence of “student achievement.” All of the faults of the system, then, can be blamed upon “bad” teachers who soak up salary while doing their (ostensibly easy) jobs. And look! They bagged a judge with this line of thought.
Now, once upon a time, before hegemonic neoliberalism took control of the capitalist world-system, there was a then-current debate in policy discussions of American education which engaged terms such as “relevance.” Are students learning anything in school which is relevant to their lives? the intelligentsia used to ask. And then there’s that question intimately related to relevance, which at times they asked as well — are we educating students merely to adapt to society, or to make contributions to society which would improve it? Those debates were fruitful. Discussing “relevance” meant that policy designers had to discuss what student lives were actually like, and also to discuss what such lives would be like once said students graduated from school or college or university with diplomas and degrees in hand. Discussing “school reform” in terms of “relevance” would prompt the immediate question: these reforms may be good for capital, but are they good for students? As a friend on Facebook asked: if you end teacher tenure, who’s going to want to teach? They have to put a warm body in that classroom. Should it be just anyone?