School Reform or Permanent Underclass?

By Diann Woodard, AFSA President
Originally published on The Huffington Post

The recent spate of resignations by heads of school districts in Chicago, Washington and New York City who advocate the so-called business model of school reform has predictably been followed by new appointees as ill-prepared for the challenge of improving student performance as their predecessors.

The common theme in the message of these departing chancellors and the politicians who appointed them is that controversy equals success, with little or no evidence to support the rhetoric, an increasingly disturbing trend among policy elites who are joined at the hip by their neo-liberal proclivities for privatizing public services and empowering corporate domination of policy making.

In New York, for example, Joel Klein, an anti-trust lawyer who had been appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, was replaced by Cathleen P. Black, herself a media executive like Mayor Bloomberg, with no experience as a public school educator.

As with the postmortem on Michelle Rhee’s departure from Washington, the departing New York chancellor was praised by his political benefactor for “stirring things up. That was his job,” the Mayor crowed, “and the great beneficiaries of that stirring were our children.”

Apparently the experience was less stirring for parent groups in New York, such as Class Size Matters, whose leader Leoni Haimson contended, “He’s leaving us with a legacy of classroom overcrowding, communities fighting over co-located schools, kindergarten waiting lists, unreliable school grades based on bad data, and our children starved of art, music and science — all replaced with test prep.”

Klein had “been a political load a while,” opined a source in the Bloomberg administration speaking on condition of anonymity, but echoing a complaint made about Ms. Rhee, whose contentiousness was widely cited as a contributing factor in Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty’s defeat.

Even the test prep proved problematic in New York, as the once-flaunted improvement in test scores proved a ruse when it was revealed they had been inflated. Corrections brought them back to the level where they were when the chancellor took office eight years ago.

Championing Phony Mantras

The mindless reiteration of the corporate-driven message on school reform is reminiscent of the free-trade mantra that corporations and policy elites routinely promote. Globalization, they claim, will prove a boon to workers when in fact it continues to result in the exporting of good-paying jobs while Wall Street profits wildly from cheaper foreign labor. In similar fashion, the push for privatizing public schools is pitched as a boon to our children, to which one can only ask, “Which children?” since the “preferred” option of charter schools is as selective as it is detrimental to the viability of our public schools.

Indeed, the policy elites seem bent on educating an elite population of students whose parents have the wherewithal to seek private alternatives, ipso facto evidence that their children already enjoy the preeminent source of improved performance that many children lack — engaged and caring parents.

The penchant of these elites to champion controversy over demonstrable achievement offers evidence that they’ve concluded the cost of hiring teaching teams and investing in reduced class sizes, let alone financing programs for children with special needs, has become politically unpalatable.

Or is possible that the architects of this brave new world of “school reform” aren’t really concerned with nurturing “good citizens and the next great minds,” but rather with creating a system of “natural selection” in which precious few will be well educated while the great majority of children are left to become numb workers devoid of caring for others and therefore unaware that they will always remain a permanent underclass?

Wanting in experience, the business model reformers are at best blind to the need for educating the whole child. They either cannot see, or dismiss, the hands-on grasp of math that learning music provides; or the value that learning art has for giving children an avenue of expression or an understanding of the importance form has in shaping our capacity for organized thought.

More than their inexperience, the business reformers are limited by their preoccupation with serving the interests of — surprise, surprise — business, a self-interested priority that reduces children to little more than cogs in the nation’s economic machinery.

As McMaster University Professor Henry Giroux, author of Youth in a Suspect Society, wrote recently: “There is a larger script here that points to the increasing power of corporate leaders and a business elite to eviscerate from public schooling any vestige of public values, democratic modes of governance, teacher autonomy, critical thinking and a vision of schooling as a space in which to teach students to be critical thinkers and engaged citizens.”

The danger, of course, in the rush to privatize education is not only that educating students holistically is being sacrificed on the altar of management efficiency, but also that the business world’s love of cheap labor is inducing decisions that devalue the importance of educating thinking citizens.

Children are not commodities to be valued by market principles, nor do classrooms lend themselves to the rigidities of standardized preparation for tests. They are dynamic environments, each of them as individual in character as the students in them. And teaching is an art form, not a set of quantifiable measures on a checklist.

Instead of recommending how we can overcome the challenges induced by pop culture and the perversions of contemporary media to educate the whole child, today’s would-be reformers are insisting that education fit a business model that is as ill-suited to the task at hand as the agrarian model once was to the industrial age.

Unless their approach is resisted, we will soon find ourselves with a two-tier education system in which a small percentage of our children will have the benefit of quality learning and the rest will be left to muddle through beleaguered and underfunded public schools. There can be no shorter route to the demise of our democracy.