Letting school “reformers” off easy

October 14, 2010

WHILE I agree with the general sentiment of the recent letter "Right to be angry about our schools," I think the author, Jesse Alred, falls into some large pitfalls our side should avoid when confronting the corporate campaign against education.

It's important to note how Alred discusses prominent "reformers" on the other side of the education debate. When mentioning the Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who recently fired 241 teachers based on their students' test scores, Alred simply comments that "though her policies are misguided," Rhee is right to be "outraged at how our society allows kids born to affluence to dream big, and how it represses the dreams of working-class and minority children."

This validates Rhee's outrage, while ignoring her complicity in crushing working-class children's dreams in Washington, D.C. At best, it lets her off the hook and, at worst, plays into the way she uses her supposed concern for poor and Black youth to push through policies that further devastate and segregate our schools.

As D.C. parent Leigh Dingerson explains in the new edition of Rethinking Schools:

Chancellor Rhee helicoptered into Washington in 2007 promising to change the culture of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Many cheered. But we weren't counting on the new culture coming straight out of Goldman Sachs.

Suddenly, decisions were being made at the top and carried out with atomic force. Parents have been treated like consumers--informed about options and outcomes but denied a seat at the table. The district's teachers have been insulted in the national media, fired or laid off in record numbers, and replaced by less-credentialed and less-experienced newcomers. The model views teachers as a delivery system, not as professionals.

High turnover is not just the result--it's the goal. Principals, too, are isolated and expendable. The district lauds the educational mavericks--principals whose "crusades" are described as "relentless" and "methodical"--those who see themselves as an army of one. We are becoming a district where the frontline workers are demoralized, people are looking out for themselves, and trust is all but gone.

Chancellor Rhee is the army of one at the top of the district's lurching reform. An articulate and supremely confident 39-year-old, Rhee is, for now, the movement's national poster child. Pundits debate her occasionally tactless comments in the media, but there has been little analysis of the reform model itself and how its "my way or the highway" culture affects students, parents and teachers.

We should share Dingerson's conclusion that Rhee's model "is reform based on the corporate practices of Wall Street, not on education research or theory," and that "on top of the upheaval and distress Rhee leaves in her wake, the persistent racial gaps that plague D.C. student outcomes are only increasing."

Calling Rhee's policies "misguided," while maintaining that her heart is in the right place, seems similar to defending the right of Wall Street executives to be angry about the economy, while ignoring their role in creating the crisis. Rhee is the head of a major urban school district and has the power to shape the debate around education reform. Yet she has chosen to use her platform to push through policies that further devastate working people's lives and directly attack teachers.

THERE IS also an important gap in the solutions that Alred offers for fixing education. While Alred gives a hefty list of reforms at the end of his article that would certainly help close the "achievement gap," such as "inflating wages for the bottom-third of wage earners," "higher tax rates on the wealthy" and "protecting and expanding health care reform," all of these are reforms that would be enacted at a state or federal level. Superintendents like Rhee would rightly claim to have no control over those policies.

Again, this let's the corporate deformers off the hook. We should be demanding that superintendents like Rhee spend more money on proven solutions like reducing class sizes and hiring more teachers and support staff, rather than increasing the flow of money going to the standardized testing industry. We should demand that education reforms involve the participation of parents, students and teachers and are not dictated from the top.

Closing the gap between the education that the wealthy receive and the education the majority of us are forced to endure necessarily involves much more than narrowing the income gap and providing health care and social services for everyone. Under capitalism, education is set up to serve the interests of the capitalist class.

In most educational environments, students today are motivated through external rewards and learn to respect the authority of a teacher. Knowledge itself is divided into specialized subjects because, under capitalism, we specialize work. For example, in most high schools civics and economics are split up as if the economy had nothing to do with politics. This "hidden curriculum" is passed through the very structure of capitalist schooling.

But as pioneering authors Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis write in their 1976 Marxist critique Schooling in Capitalist America, "The authoritarian classroom does produce docile workers, but it also produces misfits and rebels. The university trains the elite in the skills of domination, but it has also given birth to a powerful radical movement and critique of capitalist society."

We need to help transform education into a liberatory and democratic experience. This requires connecting the resistance emerging against the privatization of public education to broader social movements--and ultimately, to the fight against capitalism. This struggle should include both the larger reforms Alred calls for in his letter, as well as the smaller education-based reforms that we can win in the shorter-term: ending the lay offs of teachers and support staff, reducing class sizes, getting rid of standardized tests, etc.

As Alred rightly points out, we should all be angry about the state of public education in this country--but we also can't be afraid to direct our outrage at deformers like Rhee.
Adam Sanchez, Portland, Ore.

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