Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Obama’s Neoliberal Educational Policy

with 5 comments

One of my biggest concerns with Obama is the way in which he seems to have completely bought into the neoliberal model of public schooling. Here he is, for instance, gleefully celebrating the 93 public school teachers who were fired.

I know that word (neoliberal) scares people away, but I think I use it appropriately here. The fetishization of consumer choice, the relentless drive toward efficiency (as measured by a set of supposedly quantifiable standards), the celebration of corporate style top-down educational leaders (Michele Rhee, Joel Klein, etc…) , the privatization of public goods (in NYC here, we’re shutting down public school, and sending the money to private charter schools, often literally letting them use publicly owned buildings), the drive towards a competitive model of public education, and the enthusiastic disciplining of workers…The overlaps between the neo-liberal turn and a certain style of educational reform are too clear to be ignored anymore. There is a reason the investment banking crowd likes charter schools so much.

So in this context I was happy to see from this New York Times article that some of the intellectual edifice surrounding charter schools and No Child Left Behind is starting to crumble. The article is about Diane Ravitch, a former big proponent of school choice, charter schools, and standardized testing. She has come to the conclusion that none of these achieve any discernable benefit, but are instead threatening public education.

There are two different issues here. The first is about education itself, the second is about the fight over publicly controlled resources and labor conditions. Towards the latter: in themselves, privatization and union-busting are clearly things that progressives should detest. But, I think, many progressives have allowed themselves to be guilt-tripped into acquiescing in them when it comes to public schools because we’ve been convinced that “competition,” “flexibility,” “standardization,” etc… are necessary to improve educational standards. To “hold bad schools accountable” and all that.

So what was most interesting about the article was Ravitch’s belief that “Accountability, as written into federal law, was not raising standards but dumbing down the schools.”

Last semester I lectured to a group of New York City Public School teachers on The Civil War. For my last assignment as I asked them to write a short paper about how they might use some of the things we discussed in lectures in their classroom. Almost to a person, they responded that they would love to talk about the books and topics we discussed in their class, but they couldn’t because they had to teach to the Regent’s Exam.

So, for instance, one day in class I went over various scholarly interpretations of the causes of the Civil War. One teacher told me that they wouldn’t be able to use any of it in their classroom, because the Regent’s exam had a multiple choice question about the Civil War, and every student just had to memorize “state’s rights and slavery.” (State’s rights! In New York!) In other words the testing, which was supposed to hold the teachers accountable and ensure their high standards, was literally preventing them from being creative, nuanced, or innovative in their classrooms.

Instead the model seems to be that teachers become replicable automatons, simply teaching discrete bits of data from mass produced curriculums in order that students pass standardized tests. Basically the Taylorization of the educational system.

Worse, from a historian’s perspective, it was teaching all these students that history is about memorizing a set of facts (years, names, etc..), rather than interpretation or critical thought, which after all are harder to test, or to explain how to teach. It is the ultimate triumph of one-dimensional thought.

To me, it just seems self-evident, that education is not a product like others that can be manufactured in the marketplace, measured by objective standards, and then sold to consumers. But this is exactly what the Obama type reforms are trying to do. Again, Ravitch: its an “effort to upend American public education and replace it with something that was market-based.”


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

March 3, 2010 at 15:50

5 Responses

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  1. Great post here. I actually remember reading some Diane Ravitch when I was a research assisant for Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom’s book on education, “No Excuses” the summer after my freshman year.

    Your story about teaching the Civil War is pretty telling. I agree with you that No Child Left Behind has been a failure, that teaching to the test can be stifling, that school choice and charter schools have not been especially effective. I agree with the principle that “education is different” and should not simply be treated with market principles.

    By the same token, however, I think teacher’s unions are “different.” As I had mentioned in a previous post, I don’t think the teacher’s unions should be eliminated at all. I think it’s important that they exist to fight for better pay, benefits, etc. But I also think they should probably compromise a bit and make it easier to fire incompetent teachers in exchange for more pay. Because there are too many incompetent teachers who still have jobs, but there are even more good teachers who are grossly underpaid and under-compensated, and too many smart and talented people who avoid the teaching profession altogether.

    I’m not just talking about instituting merit pay, but broader pay increases (doubling or tripling), so that the profession is given more respect and attracts the smartest and most talented individuals. Earlier in the 20th century, many smart young women, especially smart young Jewish women, dreamed of being teachers. They idolized their Irish teachers and wanted to be just like them. Or they simply saw this as a route to independence and respectability. Anzia Yezierska writes about this in her 1924 novel, “The Bread Givers.” We need to resurrect this mentality.


    March 4, 2010 at 10:10

  2. I disagree that consumer choice and market-based reforms in education need to go hand-in-hand with “making education quantifiable.” The “teaching to the test” phenomena is precisely why heavy government regulation of school curriculum is disgusting. There is absolutely nothing more antithetical to consumer choice than having a top-down curriculum that forces every school to teach the same standardized test material. Thankfully, I graduated from my public school right before it was ruined by standardization in Massachusetts.


    March 5, 2010 at 00:06

  3. Also, one of the linked articles was about the hedge fund crowd, not the i-banking crowd. World of difference.


    March 5, 2010 at 00:07

  4. Or let me put this another way — let’s think of another education market where students have more choice — try college education. Isn’t that a market where students have a lot of choice, and they make those choices without looking at assessments? Sure high school students & parents look at some quantitative factors, like whatever goes into the US News rankings, but in the end the choice has to do with a lot more than the quantitative factors. Doesn’t that choice make a lot of college students better off, more so than if everyone went to college at their local public school?


    March 5, 2010 at 00:18

  5. Peter? If I can call you Peter… This was a really great post. Well-argued, deeply thoughtful. This beleaguered, privatized, non-unionized TA gives it an A.


    March 5, 2010 at 11:20

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