American Education is being Deliberately Destroyed - But Why?
We are indeed living in strange times, evidenced by the snarky exchanges between the current GOP presidential hopefuls. Apparently, observable reality is only for sissies and ‘egg heads’. The most bizarre assertions are being served up for public consumption with little regard for factual integrity. Rick Santorum explained to Glenn Beck: “Colleges are indoctrination mills. 62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it”. In Michigan, Santorum said: “President Obama wants everybody in America to go to college - What a snob!” An opportunity to snipe at the man he hopes he will one day run against is understandable. But why disparage institutions of learning? To understand what’s going on here, we have to look at two Americas: the one before the 1960s and the one after.
It was accepted since colonial days that government had a responsibility to educate its citizens. The vast majority of us regard education as a path to self-actualization, a better career along with its rewards or, perhaps, a mode of personal empowerment. We see the benefits of education going to those who receive it. But the purpose of education has always been viewed differently by America’s elite. To them, your education is something that exists to serve their ends. Before the 1970s, the education of the masses was mutually beneficial, that is, it provided to students what they wanted while simultaneously providing to the ‘masters’ what they wanted. The system’s wheels continued to turn because all interests were being served, more or less. The 1960s witnessed a change to that long-standing arrangement.
Public education had always been a critical component of the traditional authority structure. Teachers had all the rights and responsibilities of Loco Parentis and were supported both by parents and their school administrations. School prayer, viewed by many as simply ‘giving God his due’ also functioned to bolster a teacher’s bona fides (witness candidates touting religious credentials in pursuit of less-than-godly economic agendas). But the status and authority commanded by teachers did not come with autonomy. Teachers were obligated to teach not only subjects, but also values that were dictated by the state and given credence by the teacher’s demonstrated agency on behalf of God. The fulfillment of some of these obligations was overt. Through the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, children would ideally learn to respect and obey the authority figures that represented their country. Other mechanisms of control were more subtle. The teaching of history was less about utility to the students and more about indoctrination. Public school history texts extolled the virtues of military conquest and heroes of European ancestry to the exclusion of other perspectives or narratives (Let’s start with Columbus). Such practices were extremely useful in furthering the objectives of the state by shaping children’s values and attitudes from their earliest years and continuing for as long as they stayed in school.
But the 1960s ushered in a change in the national consciousness that challenged the existing contract between the greater population and traditional authority figures. Quoting from ‘The Crisis of Democracy’ published by the Trilateral Commission in 1975:
“People no longer felt the same compulsion to obey those whom they had previously considered superior to themselves in age, rank status, expertise, character or talents”
This new paradigm affected virtually every dimension of American society including the classroom. Supreme Court decisions Engel v. Vitale in 1962, Murray v. Curlett in 1963, and Abington Township School District v. Schempp in 1963 abolished state sponsored prayer in the public schools. The psychological melding of a teacher’s authority with God’s inerrancy was dispelled. A new spirit of egalitarianism had taken hold which also greatly diminished the power of teachers – particularly when they espoused values that seemed antiquated to their students. Of course, those were precisely the values the state wanted teachers to inculcate. But schools still had a vital function to play. The U.S. economy was a powerhouse of technological innovation and manufacturing. This required a steady stream of educated workers, engineers, and scientists. The contribution of the American education system, at all levels, was indispensible – but not for long.
The G.I. Bill, free public schools (elementary through college), and large government expenditures in support of university research fueled the industrial boom and benefited all strata of society. The wealthiest 1% of America simply had to invest in the other 99%. But the economy that ran through the 1960s had begun to vanish. By the 1970s, manufacturing was giving way to service industries as so-called ‘globalization’ found American companies relocating production to wherever labor was cheapest and regulations fewest. With good paying jobs vanishing at home, one of the contradictions of capitalism soon became apparent: If consumers are economically strapped, they can’t buy the products companies manufacture. Fortunately for the corporations, they could solve their problem by exploiting foreign markets.
The devaluation of Americans both as workers and consumers eventually lead to what is known as a FIRE economy - Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate. No longer did the prosperity of the wealthiest 1% hinge upon hefty investments in an educated populous. Fortunes would now be made running hedge funds, trading on derivatives, making credit default swaps, securitizing financial risks, investing in real estate, etc. Success was measured by short-term profit; not long term prosperity. The wealthy class would send their children to private schools while pontificating about how to remedy public education. Multi-billionaires Eli Broad and Bill Gates amply demonstrate that great wealth and business acumen do not educational expertise make. No one on the front lines of pedagogy can abide their endorsement of ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) and ‘Race to The Top’ (R2T). Unsurprisingly, both catastrophic schemes got a ‘thumbs up’ from the Wall Street Journal. The decision had been made that education for the masses was only useful when comodified and privatized for the enrichment of corporate executives and stock holders. To that end, publically funded education would be made to fail in order to facilitate its takeover by business interests.
Another important reason had emerged to demonize unionized public workers (especially teachers). The cabal of CEOs and elected officials that threw America’s industrial economy ‘under the bus’ needed a red herring to divert the public’s attention. There had to be an ‘other’ held responsible for the malaise of the U.S. economy and the destruction of the middle class. Unionized workers were recognized as the perfect scapegoat. As the story goes; not only are they paid more than similarly educated private sector employees (a ‘stat’ which has been roundly disproven), but in the case of teachers, they’re actually no good at what they do. The government, endorsing this assault, responded to these baseless attacks with NCLB and R2T - a system of non-education plagued by Campbell’s Law:
“The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
In other words; with teacher’s rewards and punishments based upon student test scores, the ostensible objective of improving education is supplanted by the de facto objective of inflating scores – by any means. Further, by equating ‘test prep’ with education, the art and science of teaching is reduced to a mere technical operation. Once achieved, high standards for teachers are no longer necessary and the sheer number of ‘qualified’ applicants can then be used to drive down salaries. Overt contempt for teachers, unions, and public education as a whole is on display here in vibrant color.
The contribution of public education to the American economy cannot be overestimated. More than any other institution, it has been responsible for an affluent and growing middle class (read middle class as democracy). Why would anybody want to destroy that? Why would anybody want to destroy Social Security – one of the most successful and efficiently run programs of all time? The answer is to be found in their commonality. What they represent is an ethos of mutual support and caring. We long ago decided as a society that we had a moral responsibility to ensure each other’s well-being through collective sacrifice. We did this fully aware that some of us might not personally receive the benefits for which we paid. But American capitalism has reached a point where the ethos of mutual caring has become anathema to the objectives of those at the highest rungs of power and privilege. They prefer to atomize the rest of us into units of consumption, for that is what serves their needs. By proselytizing to a religion of ‘every man for himself’, they remove the possibility of oppositional unity - the only thing they really fear. If they can destroy public education at all levels, they will have manifestly increased both their power and their ability to hang onto it.
Tactics of War
Corporate-backed political figures are using a variety of tactics to weaken and destroy the public education system. Their actions, undertaken with abject insouciance, inflict incalculable harm on the most fragile communities. A relentless assault continues despite mounting opposition by the public. Any number of their tactics might be observable in your neighborhood.
1. Strategic underfunding of schools:
The national debt ‘crisis’ is only a problem, not a crisis – and easily solvable. It was deliberately created and is now being exploited to justify the defunding of (among other things) public education at all levels. The so called ‘crisis’ can be solved in several ways - here are two: A single-payer health care system (not socialized medicine, as in the U.K.) is already supported by the majority of Americans and would eliminate the national debt. Letting the Bush tax cuts expire, a move also supported by most Americans, would do the same, though not as quickly. We could even do both. The national debt is a ploy. We have a revenue problem, not a debt problem. Public education costs aren’t responsible for the mess and defunding public education to clean it up is immoral.
2. Humiliation of teachers:
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration released the names of 18,000 city teachers along with a ranking system that claims to quantify each teacher’s impact on the reading and math scores of their students on statewide tests. N.Y.C.’s Department of Education concedes that the data are statistically useless. Still, the Obama administration is urging other school districts to follow suit. This is a tactic to pit the public against teachers as well as teachers against teachers. Every opportunity should be taken to expose this for the deception it is.
3. Race to The Top, and other blackmail:
Race to The Top is a race to the bottom. Schools in pecuniary straits are asked to choose between hostile, counterproductive performance-based standards or denial of funding. Talk about lose-lose. The real crime here is that if the schools were appropriately funded in the first place, we might get the educational improvement they allegedly seek.
4. Propaganda masquerading as news:
CBS News reported that of 30 comparable countries, the U.S. educational system came in at #25. Education consultant Mark Schneider said: “We have world-class expenditures but not world class results.” He went on to say “…the most important ingredient in what works is the quality of a student’s teacher.” Then, Amy Wilkins, identified as an educational expert, pointed out that top performing countries recruit teachers from the top of their college classes - South Korea from the top five percent of graduating college seniors. What’s the message? First - that taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth from public education. Second – whatever the problem, it’s all the teacher’s fault. Third – The kind of teacher we need is the kind we won’t pay for; therefore the current system is hopeless. Hey – CBS! I’ve got some experts for you!
5. Unelected school boards – corporate henchmen on a mission:
Chicago’s unelected school board recently voted unanimously to close all 17 schools on the grounds of ‘underperformance’ despite vehement objections from parents. (Are they suggesting they have someone who knows how to fix the problem? Why aren’t they sharing? ) The schools are then reconstituted by firing everybody from the principal down to the janitors and replacing them with ‘their people’- typically not very experienced but very cost effective. This is done in absence of any input from or knowledge about the communities they purport to serve. Is educational improvement really the objective?
6. Principal cum CEO:
Once, a school principal had to be a master educator – able to walk into a classroom and fully understand the educational environment. This required many years of teaching experience. A principal had to be familiar with the student population; their strengths and weaknesses, cultural values, etc. In short; they had to know a lot of things you just can’t pick up on the way to a degree in Business Administration. Nevertheless, experts in maximizing profits are assuming the helm at charter schools. Their educational credentials are often nothing more than ad hoc ‘learn school admin in 6 weeks’ type programs. Professor Aaron Pallas of the Columbia Teachers College put it like this: “There is a lack of deep knowledge of how schools work, and that is one of the problems, especially in a large, complex system. There’s something special about education, and especially public education, that requires a deeper understanding of the teaching and learning process that I think is lacking in a lot of the school leaders that we are producing today.” Do you think educating your son or daughter is just like running a muffler shop?
7. The irrelevant parent:
Parents are welcome to comment – then go home. Many if not most of the school closings in the interest of converting from public to charter have been strenuously opposed by multitudes of parents. Though it is their children’s education that is at stake, their input is irrelevant. The parents always seem to be on the wrong side of things. Even in these tough economic times, they still overwhelmingly support teachers unions and especially their collective bargaining rights. No wonder they’re being ignored.
8. Unchecked student skimming by charters:
As pointed out by Diane Ravitch (see below): “Most charters skim the most motivated students out of the poorest communities, and many have disproportionately small numbers of children who need special education or who are English-language learners. The typical charter, operating in this way, increases the burden on the regular public schools, while privileging the lucky few. Continuing on this path will further disable public education in the cities and hand over the most successful students to private entrepreneurs“. I can’t think of a better way to skew the data.
Truths and Consequences
High-stakes testing is the perfect strategy to create a permanent underclass in the U.S. A public backlash criticizing the limited scope of such tests prompted a broadening of tested competencies. However; no empowered parent would ever accept their child’s education being reduced to test topics – regardless of the number. A quality education exploits a child’s natural intellectual curiosity. Nurturing a love of learning requires providing opportunities for expressions of creativity. In a nation of great ethnic and cultural diversity, respect for others must also be taught as must citizen responsibilities within a participatory democracy. How will they test any of these? Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a historian of education. From 1991 to 1993, she was Assistant Secretary of Education in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. In 1997, she was appointed by the Clinton administration’s Secretary of Education Richard Riley and reappointed by him in 2001.
In a recent article, she pointed out these (and other) ‘inconvenient truths’:
1. No high-performing nation in the world got that way by privatizing public schools, closing those with low test scores, and firing teachers.
2. Every testing program - the SAT, the ACT, the NAEP, state tests and international tests - shows the same tight correlation between family income and test scores. Children in affluent homes have educated parents, more books in the home, more vocabulary spoken around them, better medical care, more access to travel and libraries, more economic security - as compared to students who live in poverty, who are more likely to have poor medical care, poor nutrition, uneducated parents, more instability in their lives.
3. Charter schools don't get better results than regular public schools. Studies show that, like any deregulated sector, some charter schools get high test scores, many more get low scores, but most are no different from regular public schools.
4. Merit pay has been tried in the schools again and again since the 1920s and has never worked. An exhaustive study of merit pay in the Nashville schools, conducted by the National Center for Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt, found that a bonus of $15,000 per teacher for higher test scores made no difference.
5. Milwaukee has had vouchers for low-income students since 1990, and now state scores in Wisconsin show that low-income students in voucher schools get no better test scores than low-income students in the Milwaukee public schools. The federal test (the National Assessment of Educational Progress) shows that - after 21 years of vouchers in Milwaukee - black students in the Milwaukee public schools score on par with black students in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana.
6. There is a large body of research by testing experts warning that it is wrong to judge teacher quality by student test scores. These measures are considered inaccurate and unstable. A teacher may be labeled effective one year, then ineffective the next. Such measures may be strongly influenced by the composition of a teacher's classroom, over which she or he has no control. Further, there is no long line of excellent teachers waiting to replace those who are (in many cases, wrongly) fired.
7. Although elected officials like to complain about our standing on international tests, students in the United States have never done well on those tests. When the first international test was given in the mid-1960s, the United States came in 12th out of 12. Over the past half-century, our students have typically scored no better than average and often in the bottom quartile on international tests.
8. American schools where less than 10% of the students were poor scored above those of Finland, Japan and Korea in the last international assessment. American schools where 25% of the students were poor scored the same as the international leaders Finland, Japan and Korea. The U.S. is #1 among advanced nations in child poverty. More than 20% of our children live in poverty and this is far greater than in the nations to which we compare ourselves.
Michael Potash works for Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
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