The other name for school “reform”

February 2, 2011

When Karl Marx described the despotism of the modern workplace, he could have been describing schools in the era of education "reform."

FORMER NEW York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein recently compared teacher pensions to a Ponzi scheme, siphoning precious money from students. "Children currently in our schools," Klein wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "as well as future students, will be high among those paying the price."

And yet, after only eight years of work, and just before he published the above critique, Klein cashed in his own pension: $33,000 a year for the rest of his life. Hypocrisy, thy name is Joel.

But in truth, the former chancellor is just a servant. Today's education "reform" really originates with a group of billionaires. Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton Family (owners of Wal-Mart) have decided that the number of zeroes in their bank accounts qualifies them to remake the nation's schools in their own image.

As Joanne Barkan's research shows, all those zeroes buy a lot of press, a lot of "research" and a lot of energy spent to promote free-market oriented "solutions" for the schools. So it's no surprise that the latest buzzwords in education (especially "data," "accountability" and even "value-added") are recognizable as yesteryear's corporate-speak.

Teachers, parents and their allies have called these trends out under various titles: privatization, deregulation or neoliberalism. But 160 years ago, an educator (by avocation, not profession) gave it another name: capitalism.

If today's educational "wisdom" is a product of capitalism, then perhaps it's time for teachers to investigate the ideas of the man who subjected that system to rigorous examination: Karl Marx.

EDUCATION HISTORIAN Diane Ravitch calls Gates, Broad and their ilk the "Billionaire Boys Club." Marx called them "the bourgeoisie."

Whereas the kings and queens of yesteryear lived and ruled on the basis of tradition, the bourgeoisie embodied a much more restless social system. "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products," wrote Marx in The Communist Manifesto, "chase the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere."

So we shouldn't be surprised to find this set drooling over the prospect of "nestling" in the public sector, particularly the K-12 education "market." As Jonathan Kozol wrote in Harper's:

Some years ago, a friend who works on Wall Street handed me a stock-market prospectus in which a group of analysts at an investment-banking firm known as Montgomery Securities described the financial benefits to be derived from privatizing our public schools.

"The education industry," according to these analysts, "represents, in our opinion, the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control" that "have either voluntarily opened" or, they note in pointed terms, have "been forced" to open up to private enterprise.

Indeed, they write, "the education industry represents the largest market opportunity" since health care services were privatized during the 1970s...From the point of view of private profit, one of these analysts enthusiastically observes, "the K-12 market is the Big Enchilada."

It is precisely for the purpose of helping Rupert Murdoch to his bite of the education "enchilada" that Joel Klein slid easily from the chancellor's chair to his new role as CEO of News Corp.'s educational division.

But what of the teachers? Aren't they more "professional" than "proletarian"?

"The bourgeoisie," Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto, "has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers."

After 2010, we must add to the list of halo-stripped occupations: the teacher.

As critics of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation, and of Barack Obama's version ("Race to the Top"), have so clearly articulated, the trend toward higher stakes testing and other "accountability" measures inevitably narrows the curriculum, increasingly threatens any sense of the intrinsic joy of learning and stifles the development of creativity and critical thinking (which is precisely why schools for the wealthy avoid the mandates like the plague).

After a long day of jumping through various "accountability" hoops, a co-worker of mine's lament reminded me of Marx: "It's a sad thing when you turn teaching into just a 'job', but that's what they're making it," she told me. "They're taking the heart out of it."

"The bourgeoisie," Marx noted, "cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society."

In those words, Marx put his finger on precisely what's happening in education--the relationship between teacher and student is being revolutionized. The student is, increasingly, evaluated not by the human being he or she speaks to every day, but by a harried, low-wage test scorer (sometimes hundreds of miles away) paid per test or worse, by a machine that scans the student's bubble sheet.

From distance grading, it is only a short step to distance learning. We're not just talking about streaming lectures and virtual classrooms, but even teacher robots! For those flesh-and-blood teachers who remain, there is a distinct feeling that we are forging our own metaphorical chains.

Think about the drive to promote mayoral control of schools to destroy teachers' unions, the pressure to teach to standardized tests and the growing problem of micromanagement as you read Marx's 160-year-old description of the changing nature of work:

Modern industry has converted the little workshop of the patriarchal master into the great factory of the industrial capitalist. Masses of laborers, crowded into the factory, are organized like soldiers. As privates of the industrial army, they are placed under the command of a perfect hierarchy of officers and sergeants.

Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is.

OF COURSE, that's not the end of the story. Marx didn't just describe despotism of the modern workplace. He saw the potential of the workers to do something about it:

But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men [and we should add: women] who are to wield those weapons--the modern working class--the proletarians.

The embittering assault on public education has created a response. All over the country, education workers are discussing these "reforms" on their lunch breaks, are writing articles and blogging, organizing conferences, pickets and protests.

But if capitalism is the problem, what are we to make of Marx's alternative? "Communism" has come to mean command economies run by a bureaucratic state machine. But for Marx, it meant something altogether different.

Marx imagined a world where the workplace was organized and run, not as a "perfect hierarchy" but as a democratic, cooperative enterprise. "In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms," he wrote, "we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all."

Imagine schools run and controlled, not by billionaires, distant bureaucrats and magazine publishers, but by teachers, parents and students. Instead of "enslaved by the machine," teachers would be co-managers of their own workplaces. In isolation, this would mean only limited progress. But imagine that every workplace was organized this way, and the Pentagon's budget was at our collective fingertips.

It boils down to this: things would be better if they were run by us, not by them. Not because we're better people (although you could make that case), but because we actually do the work--we don't have anyone to oppress or exploit.

"All previous historical movements were movements of minorities," Marx argued, "or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority."

That's a simple idea, but a dangerous one. Teachers of the world, unite!

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