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Thoughts On Education After Vergara v. California

8:08 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

An abandoned classroom with papers and books half-packed on a table

A recent ruling against tenured teachers highlights the ongoing corporate attack on education.

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?

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No future for you

10:10 am in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

This is an attempt to assess how political life has been foreshortened by the fact that "the horizon of the future has contracted."

(Crossposted at Orange)

*****

This was somewhat popular in avant-garde circles when I was a mere highschooler; today its message seems more relevant than ever:

Yes, that’s right: no future for you. In October of ’08, during the most accelerated phase of the downward economic slide, there was some sort of pseudo-questioning which was going on in publications such as The Economist about "capitalism at bay." There wasn’t really any thought here of divergence from the official ideology: The Economist’s capitalist flag-waving is on full display in its final paragraph:

Indeed, history suggests that a prejudice against more rules is a good idea. Too often they have unintended consequences, helping to create the next disaster. And capitalism, eventually, corrects itself. After a crisis investors (and for that matter regulators) seldom make exactly the same mistake twice.

The problem with this logic, of course, is in what counts for The Economist’s readers as a "mistake." For the investor class, appropriate behavior means predatory accumulation, and a "mistake" would be failing to turn a profit. During certain periods of capitalist history, predatory investor behavior was forgivable because conditions were such that, to quote John F. Kennedy, "a rising tide lifts all boats." This is no longer the case, as it once might have been in the ’60s: in the era of neoliberalism (1980-present), the global growth rate declines from decade to decade, while investor expectations remain as high as ever, and so you have economies of growing inequality in which the investor class grabs all the economic gains while everyone else just breaks even.

Thus nobody in the investor class is going to consider predatory accumulation a "mistake," whereas in real life the growth of inequality is generally bad for the economy as a whole. With continued appropriate investor behavior, as profits continue to be privatized while losses continue to be dumped onto the public as a whole, the worsening of economic situation is a practical inevitability. This is the reality you’d read from bobswern’s last diary, or from gjohnsit’s statistical litany of last month.

The dynamic of worsening capitalism, moreover, does not appear to be limited to the logic of capital accumulation. It repeats itself across a whole spectrum of social behaviors. The root cause of this dynamic appears as an accumulating pointlessness, as the mad rush of global capitalism desperately gropes for a good reason to continue to burn 85 million barrels of oil every day and preparing eventual climate disaster in consequence.

Here it is important to consider the substance, or lack thereof, of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, as the link shows, favors "the rule of the market." But this is a mere philosophy of convenience, as the general pattern is one of socialism for the rich and laissez-faire for the rest of us. The neoliberals, then, don’t really believe in their philosophy — it’s just an excuse for corporate penetration of the world’s markets. So our world society, then, has put a philosophy of convenience in control of our most basic processes of "making a living," with the result that there is a spreading pointlessness to our everyday existences as human beings.

Back in 1984, toward the beginning of the neoliberal era of Reagan and Thatcher (and not too many years after Johnny Rotten & Co. came out with their song), the philosopher Jurgen Habermas lamented as follows:

Today it seems as though utopian energies have been used up, as if they have retreated from historical thought. The horizon of the future has contracted and has changed both the Zeitgeist and politics in fundamental ways. The future is negatively cathected: we see outlined on the threshold of the twenty-first century the horrifying panorama of a world wide threat to universal life interests: the spiral of the arms race, the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons, the structural impoverishment of developing countries, problems of environmental overload, and the nearly catastrophic operations of high technology are the catchwords that have penetrated public consciousness by way of the mass media. The responses of the intellectuals reflect as much bewilderment as those of the politicians. (pp. 50-51 of The New Conservatism).

Well, at this point the bottom has fallen out, and the future is not only "negatively cathected," it appears to be on the verge of disappearing altogether. Our three-decade grace period has expired, extended no doubt by the invention of the Internet but expired nonetheless, and in that interim we have done nothing of consequence to create another future to replace the one which disappeared when our nation put Reagan in the White House and brought neoliberalism upon the world. The normal function of the system is what we have left, and the normal functioning of the system didn’t need our productive labor (thus offshoring) and won’t need our consumer dollars (now that there’s a debt crisis). Some expanding symptoms include:

1) The shrinking educational system: as Arne Duncan runs his "Race to the Top" contest, 300,000 teachers face layoffs, so that’s the immediate issue: the longer-term issue is one of increasing tuition and increasing corporate dependency at colleges and decreasing budgets at public schools over the past three decades. See e.g. "The Lost Soul of Higher Education," recently out via the New Press. So, to review: children are our future, and here we are sacrificing them on the altar of educational poverty. Doubtless they will find it more difficult to consider the future than we currently do.

2) The complete inefficacy of the political Establishment’s approach to abrupt climate change. Nothing being proposed in Congress advocates what’s necessary: forcibly shutting off the world’s oil spigots and abandoning the world’s coal mines. Instead, Congress limits its diet to proposals which will hand out a few bucks to "alternative energy" while fooling the public into thinking that "carbon restrictions" have somehow been invented, thus maintaining "alternative energy" as a mere supplement to destructive fossil fuel energy. The concessions to "offshore oil production" should have taken the mask off. (NB: I have already written at length here on the flaws of cap-and-trade.) What has apparently got under the environmentalists’ skins is Congress’ refusal to consider alternatives to catastrophe as future options.

3) Entitlements reform: Now there’s a topic related to the future. When you retire, where does your Social Security go, when the "debt commission" is packed with Social Security looters?

4) The "shock doctrine" as applied, now, to Europe. They don’t really care whether or not Greece or Spain has a healthy economy; their main concern is that these countries pay off debts, and if their economies shrink to nothing as a result well that’s just too bad. The rest of the poorer half of Europe comes after that, and then it’s hard to tell who’s next. The rest of the world, of course, will eventually be obliged to run up the credit cards in order to maintain financial solvency while their economies are brought to ruin by financial speculators.

5) The persistence of pointless war. Our nation’s leaders no longer sing the praises of the wars they conduct, with any great demonstrations of how war actually achieves their great patriotic goals, or any open-air invitations to the media to show to the public what-exactly is being achieved through war. Perhaps there is the occasional assassination of "al Qaeda number whatever," but that is the sort of thing which would be accomplished by a program of targeted assassination, which would be different from war. We appear, then, to have witnessed the triumph of the concept of warfare as an ongoing Operation Speedy Express as practiced upon the obscure corners of the world (see e.g. Fallujah). And the rhetoric of patriotism is engaged in a rearguard defense of "the troops" against whomever is left to decry war as a scam, while the government continues to prosecute those evil whistleblowers as our wars are conducted in secret. Since the main purpose of these wars seems rather disconnected from any actual goal of "fighting the terrorists" and rather securely connected to the continued blank check that Congress continues to hand to the defense corporations (while in the same stroke keeping the military careerists in business), we have to wonder what pitiful trauma of global resource exhaustion will actually end them.

6) The continued, and reckless, across-the-board subordination of the natural world to the short-term profit motives of large corporations. As the fishing industry depletes the oceans of its natural endowment, so also the forests are removed for the wood industries and the gene pools of essential food crops are polluted by genetically modified organisms.

*****

Thus we can see how Habermas’s concept of how "the horizon of the future has contracted" has proceeded over the decades to the point at which one has to ask about whether the future is being considered at all. I suppose you have groups such as the Campaign for America’s Future — but there’s no vision of the future represented on that website except that the future will be "progressive," whatever that is. The problem is of course that the specter of systems exhaustion hangs over the whole world-society. Any future we imagine will have to confront that systems exhaustion. The future we currently imagine (if we imagine one at all) doesn’t do that, and so it’s a sure bet that our future will be imposed upon us as we operate as cogs in the existing system.

All of this tinkering-around-the-edges, let’s-ask-our-policymakers-to-do-something-nice "action" will be of little use except insofar as we might be able to cannibalize the social programs thus produced to create something better. As Stan Cox points out in his book Sick Planet, "we have to work from the beginning to develop smaller organizations and structures that are specifically intended as parts of a system to succeed capitalism" (p. 175). The problem, then, is that the vision of such a system is singularly lacking in our society. No future, no future, no future for you.

Earlier this week, Tom Engelhardt put out a "college commencement address" in which he suggests to the "Class of 2010" its future. Its message is quite apropos here:

I was born in a country that thought it could rebuild anything. You’re living in one lacking recuperative powers. Our resources are now being mobilized to fight two obscure and remarkably pointless, if destructive, trillion-dollar wars in distant Afghanistan and Iraq that most Americans pretend aren’t even going on. In the meantime, you have never been called upon to mobilize for anything. You have never been asked to sacrifice anything for the greater good. Even as nothing is being asked of you, your future is nonetheless being sacrificed. If you leave this campus and do nothing, your life will be far worse for it.

When I began, I said I wouldn’t want to be you. That’s because the task before you is grotesquely super-sized. You undoubtedly sense this, sense that somehow you need to free yourself from so much these years have taught you in order to imagine a future for us all.

Political economy in free-fall

6:09 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

(Reposted from DailyKos.com)

Flies are buzzing around my head
Vultures circling the dead
Picking up every last crumb
The big fish eat the little ones
The big fish eat the little ones
Not my problem give me some

-Radiohead, from the song "Optimistic"

So on today’s rec list we have NBBooks telling us of former IMF economist Simon Johnson, whose theory is that of the "doomsday cycle":

Simon shows how the 1980s Reagan Revolution transformed the U.S. financial system and set in motion a "Doomsday Cycle" that has not yet been stopped, but is still careening toward yet another economic cataclysm.

Doubtless you all read and heard this from MinistryOfTruth’s diary which reported on Michael Moore’s prediction of a second crash. At any rate, NBBooks’ diary only echoes another such, not rec-listed unfortunately, by gjohnsit about the worsening situation:

Right from the start of this crisis, our leaders have prescribed the wrong medicine for what ails us.

Of course, if you prescribe the wrong medicine in medicine, the patient dies. When do we admit this as a possibility? gjohnsit continues with his diagnosis:

The problem isn’t the ability of banks to get money. The problem is finding credit-worthy borrowers. Everyone from Wall Street to Main Street is already overloaded in debt after purchasing overvalued assets.

Of course, it’s even worse than this. No amount of further credit-worthy borrowing will save the debtors from debt peonage. Only a real transfer of wealth will alleviate their plight, and the winners in this game are not going to give up their gains.

Which brings me to the fundamental difficulty here. With all of the pretensions of economics to being a "science," why do we still have "economic downturns"? Shouldn’t they have fixed this little problem, and paved the way for indefinite prosperity?

Well, no. "Economic downturns" are in fact going to get worse in the future, and for the same singular reason as they’ve always happened.

To understand this one, singular reason, we need to go back to the fundamentals. Capitalism is based on exploitation, the exploitation of labor by capital. The expansion of the capitalist system has been through its steadily-increasing labor pool: increases in the number of people working for capitalists have allowed the capitalist economy to remain "healthy," thus "growth."

Invariably, however, the capitalist system runs into what are called crises of overproduction. Capital produces too many goods, which are caught chasing too little money. Apologists for the capitalist system love to praise its productive dynamism — well, this is the downside. There may be something in the stores, but who has the money to buy it anyway? This is the fundamental crisis of the system.

The fundamental cause of overproduction is that of a surplus of capital. When you have too many businesses out there looking to make a profit, they constitute too much of a drag upon the "economy as a whole." I’ve put "economy as a whole" in scare-quotes because the "economy as a whole" is the main fetish of economics as an academic discipline. Economists, you see, don’t really care about poverty or hunger or warfare or disease or ecological devastation, you know, the REAL concerns of the human race. They’ve got their priorities in ORDER, mind you, and so the real concern of the world is the "economy as a whole." That’s what they see us supporting, every day, when we go to work.

At any rate, the most glaring contradiction in economic logic is that the main drag upon the "economy as a whole" is the problem of the surplus of capital. Harry Shutt describes this in great detail in his books. Of course, for the propagandists of the system (see e.g. the Republican Party), the entrepreneur is God’s Representative On Earth, i.e. our savior. So they won’t listen if you tell them there are too many of these "entrepreneurs."

However, there are periodic instances throughout the history of capitalism (e.g. the Great Depression, the Panic of 1837 and so on) when there are "too many entrepreneurs" for a "healthy economy." So in these circumstances one of two things must occur:

1) A good chunk of capital must die — the capitalists must close their businesses, fold up their tents, declare bankruptcy, and join the working class, or:

2) The capitalists can "buy into" government. You’ve probably seen this method described in other places, and describing it is quite simple. If you’re a capitalist, you give your favorite lobbyists money so they can give that money to politicians. The politicians then enact legislation which keeps your businesses swaddled in profits. You can then pay your lobbyists more money. It’s a win-win-win all the way around, except for maybe the taxpayers who are footing the bills (and putting in the hours) to make all of this predatory activity possible. This is the way that "surplus" capital can maintain its lifespan far beyond the time when it really ought to have died.

Well, back in the old days of the boom-bust cycle, the periodic death of capital through economic busts (the panic of 1893, the panic of 1873, the panic of 1907 and so on) kept there from being "too much capital." Profit rates declined, businesses went under. Today, however, capital has bought into government so thoroughly that government will excuse any amount of business fraud in order to prop up the profit rates of those who are deemed "too big to fail."

At any rate, in the final analysis it doesn’t matter if the great masses of average men and women in America are up to their noses in debt, or if they are just simply too dirt poor — either way you’re going to have a dead consumer base and a shrinking economy, and when you have too much capital it will be a drag on what’s left of that little wealth actually possessed by the masses. Today, we have far too much capital, and the government can’t print money fast enough to keep it satisfied. Further legislation, moreover, is predicated on keeping capital well-placated, as (for instance) the Senate "health insurance reform" bill was structured through behind-the-scenes deals with the pharmaceutical industry and the insurers, and so we see one of its defenders here at Orange telling us:

Yes, this bill is a giveaway to the insurance companies. However, if you’re sick and don’t have health insurance, do you care about whether or not insurance companies are making a lot of money or not? No, of course not.

Well, perhaps you ought to care. Kudos to Broken Arrow for actually responding to this point rather than merely demonizing Left opponents of "health insurance reform" as "purity trolls."

*****

At any rate, I promised you that I was going to bring neoliberalism into this discussion. There is, at present, no countervailing force which will oppose the neoliberals in their domination of the Federal government. The "progressives," as I pointed out in this diary, are ideologically constrained to endorse "Left" neoliberalism and to passionately hate all apostates who dare criticize "Left" neoliberal legislation (e.g. permits for "humanitarian warfare," "health insurance reform," destructive "education reform"). Other ideologies, as I pointed out in the same desire, are all complicit with the neoliberal program. And the neoliberal program, of course, retains its rigidity even with the economic crisis: promote an ideology of "free markets" while at the same time channeling legislation to prop up the profit rate for "too big to fail" corporations.

What I didn’t say in the earlier diary is that, with the wheels greased by the Federal government and with all functional ideologies in American politics committed to neoliberal policy in some form or another, the whole system of political economy is in free-fall. The deal has been sealed: capital’s future will be assured no matter what, while the economy, the political system, and the fates of the masses are going down, down, down. Oh, sure, in a previous era popular upheaval might have stopped them, but today popular upheaval is confined to reactionaries such as the Oath Keepers, who are rightfully afraid of the Federal government (and thoughtfully adopting a number of survivalist moves) for reasons which are so totally hateful and wrong on so many levels.

Thus the comparison between the Great Depression and the current Great Recession falls flat, because the popular upheavals of the 1930s are only in evidence today among the least helpful segments of the population. This of course is a major reason why we can expect no FDR-like President to save us from the coming economic collapse — Barack Obama for the most part fitting the comparison made of him in Harpers to Herbert Hoover.

Another way to think about the difference between the 1930s and now is in terms of culture. During the 1930s there was what historian Michael Denning called a "cultural front" — in which intellectual figures such as John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, Kenneth Burke, and Richard Wright were actual socialists and not just mere liberals offering occasional plugs for John Kerry. What we have instead, today, is a cultural milieu dominated by corporate consolidation at all levels of industry, and a public school system which offers no serious resistance to government initiatives aimed at its privatization.

And educational privatization will merely be the last capitulation of the educational systems to the economic demands of a portion of the professional class it helped create. The educational systems of the 1960s, the Golden Era of the capitalist system, were (as Clark Kerr called them) "multiversities" which created an accelerating credentials race in which millions of people across America sought entry into higher-wage managerial positions through the acquisitions of increased numbers of Bachelor’s, Master’s, and even doctoral degrees. The universities, then, laid the ground for the managerial class whose job expectations were tied to the vast surplus of capital which dominates today’s global economy. If their privatization is now mandated by government, this is then perhaps the outcome of three decades’ of policies turning their operation into a credentials race. At this point who is left to defend the mere "pursuit of knowledge" against the corporations?

The worst aspect of this trend will be in our society’s total inability to deal with climate change. Our global society’s addiction to 85 million bbls/day (about three billion gallons) of crude oil (and an equal carbon equivalent in coal) will not be stopped by a government dominated by its handmaidenship to a vast surplus of capital. Thus we can expect some of the worst climate predictions of Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees to come true at some point.

Thus government, economy, and culture are all in free fall. The "leadership" of each is unanimously devoted to a further narcissistic concentration of power and money among a relatively small cadre of families at the top of enormous pyramids of wealth and power, to the detriment of all. Politics appears to be counter-productive because consolidated organization aims its combined might against dreams of a sustainable future. In such an environment, all pin their hopes on further capitalism, in which each hopes against the others to join a managerial "middle" class whose dreams of home ownership have since been compromised by the bursting of real estate bubbles.

Playing outdoors, the most fundamental of human aims, has been supplemented and in many instances replaced by watching expert millionaires and collegiate wannabes do the same on television. It was more fun when it was just playing outdoors. But do you see, now, why I want you all to imagine post-capitalism?

Education policy: Sam Chaltain’s “Big Picture”

6:44 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

Given President Obama’s declared intention to revisit NCLB for the next renewal of ESEA, it is clearly time for Kosers of all stripes to come forward with their proposals for changing the evaluative climate in which the schools operate. I do think there could be more along these line, but an exemplary proposal is now online: Sam Chaltain’s "The Big Picture On School Performance." This, then, is a critical review of that piece.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

Generally, education platforms are phrased abstractly, in terms of general ideals expressing educational aims. Sam Chaltain’s recent piece in Huffington Post, "The Big Picture On School Performance," isn’t all that different. Chaltain is the National Director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, which appears to be an educational initiative supported by progressive people — worth a look.

The revisitation of NCLB (as suggested by the Obama administration) is an important opportunity to save the public schools from the game of musical chairs which has guided them after 2001. Although I tend to agree with teacherken’s assessment of Arne Duncan — that "it could have been worse" — I do think we should regard now as the right time to start proposing education reforms, regardless of what the narrow visions of the "Race to the Top" happen to be, or of what Arne Duncan thinks.

Consider briefly Chaltain’s list of aims.

1) Achievement — now, one of the ways in which the Bush administration co-opted liberals into endorsing No Child Left Behind was the idea of "closing the achievement gap." The school systems tend to reproduce the American class structure because the wealthiest of American parents pass on advantages to their children, including the strategies and tactics for "school achievement." Thus, for the sake of promoting equity in American schooling, No Child Left Behind was promoted to liberals as a means of "closing the achievement gap" — reducing the disadvantage the children of poor parents have relative to the wealthy ones. Chaltain seems to want to broaden the definition of "achievement" beyond test scores — a meaningful goal if one’s baseline is the current constriction of school "achievement" into high test scores.

2) Balance — here Chaltain is apparently looking for a measure of the overall variety offered by the school environment to each student. Making "balance" as an "official" goal would improve schools which have sacrificed all of their other programs (e.g. music, PE, history, science, recess) in order to meet the "Adequate Yearly Progress" goals of the No Child Left Behind Act.

3) Climate — to briefly summarize the plan outlined by the Center for Social and Emotional Education (as recommended by Chaltain), to improve school "climate" is to:

(a) promote students’ social, emotional and civic as well as intellectual competencies; and (b) improve the school climate by working toward a safe, caring, participatory and responsive school community.

This would go a certain distance toward one of the aims I outlined in my first diary of this year on this topic: giving power over the schools to those who must live with the schools — the parents, the teachers, the students.

4) Democratic process — here Chaltain emphasizes, vaguely, "preparing young people to be active and responsible citizens in a democracy," though I would recommend going further and having schools eventually adopt the principles of "free schools." Democracy is meant to be applied. Teaching civics to young people without giving them any power over their own lives is likely to produce adults who participate anemically in empty "democracy," of which people can say that "it’s better than dictatorship."

5) Equity — this goal of Chaltain’s seems pretty carefully tied to 1) Achievement, though I would argue that, ultimately, Chaltain’s idea of "reducing the predictive value sociocultural and economic characteristics have on student achievement" will have to be accomplished by strengthening the safety net which assures the provisions of basic life-necessities for Americans. You aren’t going to get "equity" if some parents are struggling to make ends meet while others have adopted competitive parenting tactics in preparing their children for school.

*****

So there are Chaltain’s ideas for better goals for the schools, summarized, with some of my considerations added to the mix. In summary, Chaltain’s goals seem meaningful and proactive to me given the straitjacket that NCLB has made of schooling in America. Now it’s time to read and hear what you all think. Please comment below!

What happened to education politics?

2:36 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

^^^^^

Introduction: Autonomous political organizations and educational politics

Of recent I’ve put forth a number of diaries discussing the need for autonomous political organizations. An autonomous political organization would be able to be able to create a class coalition, to unite the poor to demand a fair share of the economic pie. An autonomous political organization would not care much about whether President Obama were an accomplished leader or a corporate shill, preferring instead to make up its own mind about policy regardless of what Obama thinks about any particular issue. An autonomous political organization, then, would be independent of the "Veal Pen" by which political organizations are constrained to avoid controversy.

Here I’m going to recommend that, if we are to have an autonomous political organization, it would best be advised to take a position on educational politics, in opposition to the corporate use of the public schools as a cash cow.

*****

Body: Education Politics and its Drab History in the Zeros

Generally speaking, educational politics has had a drab history over the past decade. Other than the No Child Left Behind Act, it hasn’t been eventful, and I don’t know of any progressive organizations which have taken it up in that timespan. There don’t appear to be many activists for progressive change in the public schools, either, at least not relative to the energy which has been focused on health care. Oh, sure, there are a few independent activists who have focused upon educational politics and have actually posted in the blogosphere, such as Susan Ohanian or Henry Giroux or the late Gerald Bracey. There are also a number of educational activists on DailyKos.com who post now and then: SDorn, for instance, or teacherken or Horse Philosopher. But there doesn’t appear to be a lot of coordinated progressive activism in educational politics these days. Perhaps that could change with the start of a new decade.

The last time I heard of any public education politics that was "happening," any public activism or anything really open for debate as regards our government’s conduct of our schools, was with Proposition 227 here in California. This initiative was promoted by millionaire Ron Unz and the "English Only" forces in the state. The so-called "progressives" waged a "battle" against Proposition 227 which consisted in trusting a statewide organization to do all of their work, and the statewide organization tried to defeat Proposition 227 without mentioning (never mind defending) bilingual education itself. Needless to say, this strategy didn’t work. Proposition 227 won.

What did this mean for California schools? Per the requirements of the ESEA and as modified by the Bilingual Education Act and various Supreme Court cases, California students were (before 1998) given a regime of "subtractive" bilingual education. Within this framework, education in the students’ native language, which in my neighborhood meant Spanish, was treated as a sort of remedial education to deal with a "learning deficit," the inability to speak, read, and write in English. (This, after all, is how the courts deal with bilingual education.) The biggest problem, then, with this version of bilingual education, was that it did not sufficiently value the ability to speak, read, and write in Spanish as a positive asset. These classrooms, then, segregated the Spanish-speakers from the population of students as a whole.

However, the state of California, before 1998, could not marshal the resources to sufficiently deal with its own bilingual education mandate. Before the passage of Proposition 227, it was estimated (I’m still trying to remember by whom) that maybe 30% of the "bilingual" Spanish/ English classrooms in the state of California actually had a teacher who spoke Spanish. For the most part, then, the classrooms used teachers who did not speak English, accompanied by instructional aides who spoke Spanish. After the passage of Proposition 227 the percentage of "bilingual" classrooms dropped to about 10%, so it can be said that Proposition 227 relieved the pressure on the state of California to produce bilingual teachers, at the cost of ditching 90% of its bilingual programs. Bilingual education (generally a source of trouble these days) in California was thus made to conform to Ron Unz’s notion that everyone in the public schools could learn (academic) English in a year if the curriculum were larded down with second-language content.

Proposition 227 thus fit firmly into a tradition which could be called "meat cleaver reform." With meat cleaver reform, the legislators putting out the reform (or who have been mandated to put it out) threaten to smash the schools into little pieces unless every student is educated to become a genius. The end result of meat cleaver reform, typically, is that the test scores come back, the students do not prove to be geniuses, and the schools are further blamed for not having created legions of geniuses. Was that what the schools were supposed to do?

The most prominent example of meat cleaver reform in America today is the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB. NCLB, an initiative of the Bush administration, imposed a high-stakes testing regime upon classrooms throughout the US. In this regime, all schools must worship at the altar of "Adequate Yearly Progress," or AYP, which (typically) means an increasing conformism imposed upon each teacher’s yearly curriculum to reflect the need to increase test scores. As NCLB’s critics show, the law requires of each school an increasingly onerous set of improvements in order to avoid being put in the "failing schools" category; the eventual result of increasing requirements in AYP will be to make the teaching profession into a great game of Musical Chairs, with increasing numbers of seats being removed as the game drags on. As FairTest points out:

The reality is that without adequate resources in schools and communities, children will continue to be left behind, as the Children’s Defense Fund points out. Turning schools into test prep programs leaves more children behind. By 2014, most schools will fail, because every year the bar goes up. While strong and consistent progress is possible, the goal of uniform proficiency by 2014 was never achievable, which the law’s architects knew. The impossible goal has served primarily as a club for beating up the nation’s under-resourced public schools.

As teachers are in real life different people with different talents, squashing these talents in order to make them all uniformly proficient at test preparation is not likely to make them all better teachers. However, the current administration’s emphasis upon charter schools reveals the ultimate plan at work here: the privatization of the public schools. Let the states fail, and proliferate the charter schools, and before you know it you will have public schools dependent upon private funders for their very existence as institutions.

No Child Left Behind passed in 2001 by a broad cross-section of the political class (Senate) (House) (and without a whole lot of debate). It promotes the educational objectives of the Business Roundtable, which isn’t shy about its connection. Justifying NCLB is a mythology about "global competitiveness," the idea that every student must score ever-higher on standardized tests if the national economy is to be "globally competitive" with foreign economies. As if the US has actually been "competing globally" as its corporations ship its jobs to low-wage havens throughout the world. Yep, that’s what we’ve been doing here in America, "competing globally." Uh-huh.

So what business does business have in schools? Well, if the schools have become test-prep institutions, the businesspeople can design the tests and the test-prep materials. As Gerald Bracey pointed out, "The law gifts testing companies over $2 billion annually. [vi]" Check out Bracey’s document on NCLB money, too. To a certain extent NCLB was borne of the cozy relationship between the Bush family and the McGraw family — that’s McGraw, as in McGraw-Hill, the prominent textbook-publishing corporation. It all came, as well, with the express blessings of the DLC — so they have their fingers in the school-business pie as well.

Don’t expect the Obama administration to save the schools from corporate takeover, either. Education Secretary Arne Duncan promotes more of the same, under the aegis of a $15 billion ‘Race to the Top’ fund. As this letter points out, "Race to the Top" seeks to connect teacher pay to test scores, but what is most firmly correlated to test scores is the socioeconomic status of the parents of the students. But, instead of raising the socioeconomic status of the parents of the students, the plan is to institute merit pay.

It’s not as if teachers can ask the Senate to save low-income schools from corporate predation, either: what we get from the Senate is bills like S2740, the LEARN act, which will also mandate more of the same. Take a look, for instance, at the comments section here, where all of the heavy hitters for the educational profession weigh in on the most recent attempt to legislate "excellence" upon schools which are uniformly suffering from one thing: the financial poverty of the parents of the student bodies.

Imagine what would happen at this point if all of this money, supposedly going to test-prep materials, to testing, to the enforcement of NCLB, to teacher merit pay and so on, were to go to parents of lower socioeconomic status, with the intention of improving their socioeconomic status and thus helping them prepare their children for success in school. Why, they might actually have a chance!

One might also ask why the current episode of neoliberal school reform is largely concerned with proliferating charter schools. Charter schools, after all, are a seemingly harmless innovation: allow individuals to design their own schools, within limits, and with the blessings of public school systems. There are doubtless quite a few good charter schools, and if I were still in the business of teaching in public schools I would be teaching in a charter school now. The easy answer is this: "charter schools" allow corporate business to skim profits off of the operation of schools, while at the same time removing debate about the operation of said schools from the public sphere. If anyone here has a more appropriate answer I’d like to know.

*****

Diagnostic Conclusion

So what is wrong with having business interests torture our low-income schools? Not a whole lot, if you don’t mind business raids upon the public treasuries, or if your kids go to a school with lots of money. The problems arise when you think of the real-life students in lower-class neighborhoods, the "future of America," which have to endure an educational process determined by intrusive policymaking amidst parental poverty, rather than by supportive parents with decent incomes and enthusiastic teachers full of purpose. The bottom-line malaise of our "ghetto" public schools was laid out in full color by Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation. Kozol’s book discusses the de facto segregation of the nation’s schools, by race and by class, and the conditions in the poorer schools, in which scholastic police states, school uniforms, high-stakes standardized tests, and desperation tactics are supposed to substitute for a decent average parental income.

And me personally? The actual complaints which I hear and read about public schooling are (for the most part) from the students themselves, especially from students of high-school age, who typically claim that public school is "boring." The one reform movement I know which has most specifically addressed the problem of "school being boring" is the Coalition of Essential Schools. The long-version rationale for the "Essential Schools" is given in Theodore Sizer’s books. If you want to investigate "school reform" in American high schools from the attempt to answer the "school is boring" complaint, you should go in that direction.

In the mainstream politics of schooling as a whole, however, schools are a diversion. None of the established financial interests who have been setting policy for the last decade really care about the education of children. Test materials are mere product, and once they are exchanged for your tax dollars the deal is done. The political class doesn’t care either — otherwise the patrons of the LEARN act would have bothered to find out how the standardized tests correlate most strongly with the socioeconomic status of the parents. As Walt Gardner points out in this editorial, "the goal of a healthier education system can be achieved only by the implementation of economic and social reforms aimed at narrowing the differences in the backgrounds of children whom schools serve." But those in power who control the reform agenda for the public schools have not even thought through the problem to that point — if they’re even interested.

If you really want to solve the social class problem, then, as well as the classroom problem, you have to get the lower classes to demand their fair share of the economic pie. Now, this is an activity which can be taught, and in school, too. The method by which it is done would optimally be called "revolutionary critical pedagogy," advocated by the likes of anti-capitalists such as Peter McLaren. It would wage what Antonio Gramsci called the "war of position." Of course one would not expect to see such a thing implemented as part of a legislative policy package from the current historic bloc — thus the war of position will have to remain an underground current of any mass movement to fortify the collective aspirations of working people. The real priority, then, is integrating "education politics" into the struggle to form a class coalition. Within this framework, explicit proposals for the schools should center around the return of control over the schools to those to whom they matter the most: teachers, students, parents. "Accountability" has typically meant the statistical disparagement of schools through manufactured data, without reference to the perspectives (or lack thereof) of those who actually use the schools, and of their parents. If one is going to change anything about the operation of the public schools themselves from a managerial perspective, why not change that?

And for "progressive" political institutions who crave autonomy from the "Veal Pen" and from corporate power as a whole? It’s really past time for them to take an interest in educational politics. America’s public schools are its future. Why leave them to NCLB and to the futile task of meeting AYP expectations every year, when they could be vibrant places of learning and growth?