- Is the corporatization of education something new or has it been around for a while?
The struggle for the heart and soul of public education is long-standing and constant. Here we live in a capitalist society where the inevitable conflict between the interests of the majority—or even the 99% —and the wealthy plutocrats is always in play, and where powerful private interests are always angling to make a profit—and succeeding in different ways at different times—off of anything and everything. But we are witnessing today a phenomenon that was unthinkable just a few decades ago: the attempted wholesale destruction of public education and the selling off of the schools to private managers and profit-makers.
This is part of something much larger: capitalism in its zombie-phase—dying and dangerous. Look around and notice that every part of the public square and every public responsibility is suddenly for sale (parks, highways, parking spaces, housing, police, prisons, as well as schools); notice also all the frenzied advertisements on TV and radio pushing a range of drugs for invented ailments (Low-T? Acute Shyness Disorder?), each with a bizarre but apparently obligatory warning about side-effects (shortness of breath, hearing loss, double vision, rectal bleeding, impotence, increased risk of stroke, cancer, or heart disease!!); notice the language that perverts the fundamental meaning of basic human needs (the housing market, the health care or food industry, the education business).
And by the way, when did public become a 4 letter word? Here we have this dramatic fiscal and ideological make-over of the public square, the grotesque shredding of budgets for public education and social services while millionaires and corporations enjoy unparalleled tax breaks, politicians choosing to transfer the economic pain onto the already burdened poor and working classes (dressed up in drag as austerity) as if the economic crisis were natural and inevitable, and as if we were truly engaged in shared sacrifice. On every measure of social life, inequality gaps are swelling, jeopardizing our collective human security in terms of health, infant mortality, crime, fear, violence, civic participation, wisdom, voting and any sense of a shared fate. The wealthiest 1% own at least 25% of privately held wealth; there are more Black men in prison today than were enslaved in 1850; and financial assistance to higher education is in jeopardy for low income youth and shamefully unavailable to students who are considered “undocumented.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.
2. In what ways is it profitable for corporations to invest and take control of the educational system? Why do they want to control it?
Short answer to the second part of this question: profits.
Short answer to the first part (and you can add ferociously to this list): buses and buildings, fuel and food services, security, curriculum materials, text-books, and on and on and on, and perhaps most powerful and profound today, the super-profits from test prep, testing materials, and a multi-billion-dollar testing industry driving every aspect of school life.
At the dawn of 1900s W.E.B. Du Bois published The Crisis, a magazine committed to chronicling the ongoing exploitation of the African American community. Brilliant man, he understood that our country would not likely attend or respond to the cumulative structural neglect and mis-education of Black children until a profit could be made or until the people revolted. More than a hundred years later, the perverse mingling of poor people’s pain with corporate profit is an American tradition, evident in predatory lending, housing foreclosures, the money being made from the prison industrial complex, and the proliferation of for-profit charter schools.
As the logic goes, the public sector is inefficient, corrupt, greedy and in need of radical reform, takeover and salvation. Leeching onto the pain of structural disinvestment in poor communities, this message resonates for some with justified outrage over about generations of mis-education in low income communities. But while corporations and market logic promise to save poor people from the inefficiency of the public, crucial political questions of participatory democracy, racial and ethnic justice, schools and universities as a resource in community life, the autonomy of knowledge, questions of community/youth/educator power, and accountability slip off the policy table and media headlines, into a neo-liberal wastebasket.
Beyond this, there are large (and largely veiled) ideological reasons that incentivize corporate control: the history that’s taught (and the geography that’s not taught), the orientation to society, the framing of social and political and economic issues, and so on, all contribute to a sense that corporate culture and capitalist domination are natural, that the US is the best country on earth and the only exceptional, indeed indispensable nation, that the lives we are living are inevitable, and that everything around us is the best we can hope for. Big letter message (in the deathless phrase of Margaret Thatcher): there is no alternative.
Of course it’s not true; there are in fact zillions of alternatives. But schools dominated by corporate thinking discourage the search for original choices and suppress free or different thinking and open questioning.
3. We see that other countries, like Mexico, are following a policy of privatization of the educational system without precedence. Is it possible that the United States establishes a pattern and other countries are following that pattern?
It seems that way, yes. It’s a sad new instance of the old colonialist way of doing things. And remember, colonialism—then and now—is only partly established with guns and tanks and war planes; it always relies on mis-education and mystification to accomplish its dominance. Wherever you encounter an invading army you will find linguists, ethnographers, reporters, and, yes, even teachers embedded in their ranks. Men with guns are only one part of the aggression and the assault; the other part is capturing the minds of the conquered.
4. Why is the status quo so afraid of the humanistic part of education?
If the humanistic part of education includes the capacity to question and challenge the wisdom of the status quo, there’s the answer. And frankly, a serious encounter with literature and the arts (beyond castles-in-the-sky and admiring their beauty) risks a lot for those in power: students and youth may begin to see the world as if it could be otherwise; they may decide to strike out in unconventional directions; they may develop deeper social imaginations and begin to question everything they have inherited and all that is before them. Art, after all, urges voyages.
5.Last week we saw in Seattle a rejection of the standardized test. Are we sure that these tests really measure the level of knowledge? What other ways to evaluate students can we find if we eliminate this kind of tests?
Standardized tests are a sham designed to sort winners from losers, and then to convince the losers that they alone are responsible for their failures—they got what they deserved.
There are many alternatives, but here’s one: Imagine a school or a classroom that set (after much discussion throughout the community with parents and students and teachers and others) as a condition of graduation or promotion the development of a portfolio to be presented and defended formally in a two hour meeting to a committee consisting of a family member, two peers, an advisor, a community member, and two teachers (one chosen by the student). The portfolio would include items agreed upon in that rich discussion above, and might include, for example, the two best essays the student had written; an original piece of art; a critique of a piece of public art; an annotated list of the best 5 books the student had read in the last two years; a physical challenge achieved; a record of activism or community service; a description of an internship undertaken in the past year; a critical analysis of a film, a concert, or a performance attended; a photo or drawing of a secret place; a reading biography projected 4 years forward (What do I have to read next to become an educated person?); a projection of work plans for the next 2 years; a description of future formal and informal education plans; an interview with an elder about his or her life (questions can cover the territory but must include: What is your mama’s name and where was she from? What was your mama’s mama’s name and where was she from? How did you get here? What are you working on now?); a hypothetical letter to an area high school or university recommending a friend and classmate for admission; a treasure map; a board or computer game the student invented; oh, and yes, of course, a listing of classes, grades, and test scores. Note: The last item is not the be-all and end-all of becoming educated.
6. Grading the students is a way to make them compete with each other. Is competition healthy in our educational system?
7. In the political and economic system where we live, what is the purpose of education?
Sorting, and rewarding a few while punishing many more.
8. Are there any positive aspects of the current educational system in the US?
Yes, mostly the students and families and teachers.
9. Do we need to reform the current educational system or do we need to reinvent a new educational model?
Both/and, but I’m skeptical of “models” existing out there somewhere. Let’s look inside ourselves for answers.
We might create here and now an open space where we expect fresh and startling winds to blow, unaccustomed winds that are sure to electrify and confound and fascinate us. Winds that tell us we are alive. We begin, then, by throwing open the windows. In this corner of this place—in this open space we are constructing together—people will begin to experience themselves as powerful authors of their own narratives, luminous actors in their own dramas, the essential creators of their own lives. They will find ways to articulate their own desires and demands and questions free of the suffocating models brought on by the experts. In this space everyone will live in search of rather than in accordance with or in accommodation to.
Imagine a school or a classroom where asking, framing, and pursuing their own questions becomes the central work of both teachers and students; where the question of what is worthwhile to know and experience is taken up as a living challenge to focus all student activity; where we would practice participatory democracy; where all the themes, implicit and explicit, are built on a foundational idea that we are swirling through a living history, that nothing is guaranteed or foreordained, that we are, each and all of us, works-in-progress; and where every day we acted out the belief that the classroom, far from being a preparation for life, is indeed life itself. Building community and trust and traditions and engagement would then become central lessons of a successful school.
10. Where is the current educational system leading?
Greater inequality and greater division, less justice and less participation—but we can prevent it if we get smart, pay attention, open our eyes, rise up and resist.
11. With the economic turmoil in Europe, the house and financial crisis in the US, how has the current educational system been failing?
One failure is that people don’t widely understand the economic turmoil, the financial crisis, or the housing collapse even though they impact us all. We need a deeper and fuller popular education.
12. Does the current educational model play a servitude role in the neoliberal system?
Yes. Schools serve societies: kingdoms teach fealty, autocracies teach obedience and conformity, theocracies teach submission and reverence. An aggressive military power (such as the US) glorifies the life of soldiers as myth and symbol, inserts military language and routines into the common culture and idiom, teaches the beneficence of conquest and the good intentions of the mighty.
13. What should be the role of teachers in the process of educating children?
Teachers in a free society should be students of their students, co-learners, community-builders and organizers, coaches, allies, intellectuals who are curious about the world and good at asking questions, and moral agents who can nourish and develop a spirit of compassion and caring.
We might insist on recasting the entire discussion about teachers union: we assume that good working conditions are good teaching conditions, and that good teaching conditions create better learning conditions—and the pathway toward good working conditions must include (not exclusively, but definitely) the independent and collective voice of the teachers.
14. It seems that there is more money for sport activities than for the humanities, why is that?
I don’t know, but I’m reluctant to accept the terms of the question or to see these in opposition. A good school should have abundant resources for arts and humanities, and a program of sports and games that allows full participation. Sports and games are part of the humanities and everyone should play. Now, big-time, profit-generating, varsity sports that take up all the available budget and space—that’s another thing.
15. Why the concept of bullying has become quite important in our days and what is the role and classification of violence in the schools?
I’m not sure why, but we should resist seeing school conflicts, or the inevitable pushes and pulls of learning to live together, as criminal justice issues: Keep the police out of the schools, and disrupt the school to prison pipeline, and create peer restorative justice panels for youth that take the inevitable conflicts of social life and turn them into teachable growth moments.
1. Can you give us your analysis of last year’s teachers’ strike? What was at stake? Did the Teachers Union lose an opportunity to reform the public school educational system?
An important moment in the long struggle to save public schools from the troglodytes.
2. What are the key issues facing public education today?
The biggest obstacle facing education reform today is the accepted frame or the established terms of the discussion—the dull but insistent dogma of fashionable common sense. Whenever any two-bit politician gets to a microphone and says, “First we need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom,” he has not only framed the debate, he’s won. What can I say? “No, please leave the lazy teacher there for my grand-daughter!” If I get to the microphone first, I might say, “Every kid deserves a thoughtful, intellectually grounded, morally committed, caring, compassionate, well-rested and well-paid teacher in the classroom.” That’s a re-framing, and I win this one.
A flattering portrait of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in the New Yorker in 2010 perfectly reflects the dominant frame in today’s school reform battles: “there are, roughly speaking, two major camps,” writes the essayist. The first he calls “the free-market reformers,” the second, “the liberal traditionalists.” This unfortunate caricature is dead wrong, and it leaves out a huge range of approaches and actors, notably it omits those who argue, as John Dewey did, that in a democracy, whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what the community wants for all of its children. Arne Duncan as well as the Obama children and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s kids all attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where they had small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the far limits. Oh, and a respected and unionized teacher corps as well! Good enough for secretaries, mayors, and presidents, good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere. Any other ideal for our schools, in the words of Dewey, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”
In schools focused on the needs and dreams of the broad community, we would be inspired by fundamental principles of democracy, including a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being. We would rally around the idea that the full development of each is the condition for the fullest development of all, and conversely that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each.
If we think of education as a product like a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screw driver—something bought and sold in the marketplace like any other commodity—and if schools are businesses run by CEO’s, and if teachers are workers and students the raw material bumping along the assembly line as information is incrementally stuffed into their little up-turned heads, then it’s rather easy to think that “downsizing” the least productive units, “outsourcing” and privatizing a space that was once public is a natural event; that teaching toward a simple standardized metric, and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately-developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the “outcomes,” is a rational proxy for learning; that centrally controlled “standards” for curriculum and teaching are commonsensical; that “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior as a stand-in for child development or justice is sane; and that “accountability,” that is, a range of sanctions on students, teachers, and schools—but never on law-makers, foundations, corporations, or high officials—is logical and level-headed. This is in fact what a range of noisy politicians, and their chattering pundits in the bought media call “school reform.”
The magic ingredients for this reform recipe are three: replace the public schools with some sort of privately-controlled administration; sort the winners relentlessly from the losers—test, test, TEST! (then punish); and destroy teachers’ ability to speak with any sustained and unified voice. The operative controlling metaphor for these moves has by now become quite familiar: education is an individual consumer good, not a public trust or a social good, and certainly not a fundamental human right. Management, inputs and outcomes, efficiency, cost controls, profit and loss—the dominant language of this kind of reform doesn’t leave much room for doubt, or much space to breathe.
In this metaphoric strait-jacket, school learning is a lot like boots or hammers; unlike boots and hammers, the value of which is inherently satisfying and directly understood, the value of school learning is elusive and indirect. Its value, we’re assured, has been calculated elsewhere by wise and accomplished people, and these school masters know better than anyone what’s best for these kids (for other people’s children) and for the world. “Take this medicine,” students are told repeatedly, day after tedious day; “It’s good for you.” Refuse the bitter pill, and go stand in the corner—where all the other losers are assembled.
Schools for obedience and conformity are characterized by passivity and fatalism and infused with anti-intellectualism and irrelevance. They turn on the little technologies for control and normalization—the elaborate schemes for managing the mob, the knotted system of rules and discipline, the exhaustive machinery of schedules and clocks, the laborious programs of sorting the crowd into winners and losers through testing and punishing, grading, assessing, and judging, all of it adding up to a familiar cave, an intricately constructed hierarchy—everyone in a designated place and a place for everyone. In the schools as they are, knowing and accepting one’s pigeonhole on the towering and barren cliff becomes the only lesson one really needs.
The forces fighting to create this new common-sense—school-reform-normal— are led by a merry band of billionaires—Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Walton, Eli Broad—who work relentlessly to take up all the available space, preaching, persuading, and promoting, always spreading around massive amounts of cash to underline their fundamental points: dismantle public schools, crush the teachers unions, test and punish. When Rupert Murdoch was in deep water in the summer of 2011, it came to light that Joel Klein, a leading “reformer” as head of the New York City public schools for years (and whose own kids, of course, attended private schools), was on Murdoch’s payroll; according to the New York Times, the two saw eye to eye “on a core set of education principles: that charter schools needed to expand; poor instructors (the now-famous “lazy incompetent teachers”) should be weeded out; and the power of the teachers union must be curtailed.” The trifecta!
And, of course, these imaginary reformers create a fictional opposition, as foolish as a straw man without a brain, and just as easy to knock down.
So imagine escaping the logic and the metaphoric strait-jacket of the “marketeers,” wriggling free, Houdini-like, and swimming to the surface of the tank for a sweet kiss of life, that first breath of air: inhale…exhale…keep on breathing. And don’t get entangled in that silly, simple-minded binary of “reform” vs. the status quo. Let yourselves be free—think beyond what’s proscribed.
Here is a standard we might bring into this debate: What if this school/classroom/experience was for me, or for my child? That would not be the end of the matter, but a healthy and clarifying starting point for discussion. If it’s not OK to cut the arts programs or sports or clubs or science for my child, how can it be OK for the children of others? If I want teachers for my kids who are thoughtful, caring, compassionate professionals—completely capable of making clear and smart judgments in complex situations—how can I advocate for teachers who are little more than mindless clerks for the children on the other side of town? We should be highly skeptical of reformers who claim to know what’s best for other people’s children—whether Gates or Bloomberg or Bush or Obama—when it would be unacceptable for them, or for their precious ones. This kind of hypocrisy is endemic among the current crop of reformers, and this kind of test can be easily applied.
3. In today’s world, what is the meaning of public education? What should be the real aims of an education today?
Education in a democracy—at least theoretically and aspirationally—is geared toward and powered by a particularly precious and fragile ideal noted above: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and creative force; each of us is born free and equal in dignity and rights, each endowed with reason and conscience, each deserving, then, a community of solidarity, a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. In order to be true to that basic ethic and spirit of democracy, school folks must find ways to build on this foundation, assuming that their complex and difficult and yet deeply satisfying task is to create spaces that are happy, healthy places for children, spaces that help students achieve both individual and social fulfillment and well-being. School people who willingly dive into this contradiction realize (as noted above) that the fullest development of each individual—given the delicious stew of race, ethnicity, origin and background, the tremendous range of ability and disability—is the necessary condition for the full development of the entire community, and, conversely, that the fullest development of all is essential for the full development of each.
We might also align with the notion that education is a fundamental and universal human right: something every child deserves simply by being born; a moral obligation of the community; a phenomenon resting on the twin pillars of enlightenment and freedom, and principally directed to the full development of the human personality.
Now when the marketeers talk of “the market working its magic,” we can ask specifically and concretely how centrally-generated standards and an extensive testing regime, for example, or eliminating the arts, or replacing career teachers with a steady parade of short-timers, particularly in urban and low-income areas, does anything to improve education for each and for all. We can challenge the sterile notion that schools must be in every respect subservient to the market, or that the singular purpose of education is to produce workers, feed the economy, or win some trader’s war with China or India. And we can resist privatization, defending the public square and a culture of the commons—in schooling no less than other places.
So who is framing the debate today, and what do they want? All the noisy proponents of market competition in public education have managed to push their ideas onto the agenda by force of power and wealth, certainly not based on any moral suasion or even the paltry results that their schemes have produced. But the project continues, mainly because it is pure dogma—faith-based and fact-free. We need to challenge that freight train with evidence and argument and a vision consistent with our deepest democratic dreams. Organize, link up with their natural allies and fight back!
The full development of each is the condition for the fullest development of all, and conversely that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each—this is what we should work toward. A battle of all against all—this is what we have, and what we should resist.