So, Now What?

It certainly wasn’t Obama’s education policies that led me to support him. Between Obama and the Republicans there is little daylight. Both sides of our “great” political divide have fallen under the spell of the education “reformers,” the corporatists who want to wrest control of education (and education dollars) from the public sector, making it into a free-market entity. To do this, they need a number of things. First, they must make education into a product that can be counted, quickly assessed, packaged, and distributed. Second, they need to wrest control away from the public and its elected representatives, placing it, instead, in the hands of those who can create ‘bottom-line’ mentalities of profit and quantification. Finally, they must create a new ‘top-down’ culture within educational institutions, one where decision making is not impeded by unions or ‘shared governance’ of any sort.

Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is wholly committed to this process, which is manifest most notably in the charter-school movement, in the older No Child Left Behind and the Obama replacement Race to the Top, and in organizations like Teach For America, StudentsFirst and the Broad Academy. Even were Duncan to be replaced in a second Obama administration, the general goals would probably remain the same.

Those of us interested in real education reform, that is, in taking what is still the best and most flexible system of education (from kindergarten through graduate school) in the world, repairing it, and improving it, are really going to have to go to work now. We can’t rely on the president, no matter how fervently we supported him (or didn’t). We can only rely on ourselves.

One of the strategies of the “reformers” has been to institute change through the top, to wrest control of educational institutions through domination of local school boards, state departments of education, and college and university boards of trustees. For the most part, they have succeeded in doing this. What they haven’t managed, so far, is to successfully turn this control into an alteration of institutional cultures within our educational environments.

There are two main strategies for doing this. In K-12 situations, it is through replacing the public schools with charters, a new type of educational institution designed for top-down control and no public financial accountability (not beyond those normally associated with the marketplace, at least). On the college level, the rise of for-profit institutions, also with little public financial accountability, is doing much the same thing. The for-profits remove the concept of the professor, replacing it with the “facilitator,” someone helping students along through previously designed pathways. These instructors, the logical extension of the adjunct professor who works only part-time and can be dismissed at will, needn’t have attained the level of expertise of “real” professors for they are not involved in course and degree design and have no role in governance.

To mold our schools neatly into a free-market model, “reformers” have latched onto the idea of quantifiable and transferable (there would be no difference, no matter the situation) assessment. Here, again, the teacher is removed from the equation, for judgment has no place in multiple-choice, either/or, or rubric-driven assessment–and judgment is at the heart of teaching, and of real evaluation. Even test creation is taken away from those who can best make useful instruments in particular fields and is given to specialists–not in subject areas, but in test creation.

There are a number of things we can do in response. One, obviously, is to support organizations like the AAUP. The network of unions and teacher and faculty organizations still has a great deal of power (witness the Chicago teachers’ strike) and can gain more–if we work together. Another is to increase our activity and profile in the public arena where we need to be constantly pointing our the successes of our educational systems–making clear that the ‘failed school’ meme is nothing more than myth, speaking generally of American education. Also, we need to engage the power structures in our schools directly, making it clear that we teachers are the experts, not the administrators, and that success depends on us and on their cooperation with us. We can’t let boards operate without direct input from faculty; in fact, we must insist upon it–and we can, if we work as a whole.

There is much more we can do, of course (not to mention teaching well–ultimately, the best revenge). But these can certainly be a start.

Oh, and though we might not be able to change Obama’s education plans and policies, we can certainly make our voices heard.

And we might–just might–even have an impact there.

2 thoughts on “So, Now What?

  1. I disagree strongly with the notion that there’s no difference between Barack Obama (and the Democrats) and Mitt Romney (and the Republicans) on higher education issues. Let’s start with financial aid: Obama fought to increase Pell Grants, reduce student loan rates, and made the sane move for direct student lending to reverse the idiotic privatization of government-guaranteed loans. Let’s move to for-profit colleges, where the Obama Administration has cracked down on them to the dismay of Republicans. Let’s talk about funding for higher education and research, where the Democrats are clearly better. Let’s go to the Supreme Court, where Obama is almost certain to appoint justices who are more likely to protect academic freedom. I don’t defend everything Obama has done, but the “no difference” argument seems untrue.

    • I wondered if anyone would pick up on some of that. I am not sure, however, that governmental financial aid is doing more than attract more “venture capitalists” to education… it’s easy money to pick up. And I think that the crack-down on for-profits is more show than reality (the economy is hurting the for-profits much more than the government). With funding for research, again, the way it is done now is simply a set-up for profits somewhere. As to the Supreme Court, I am not so sure that a concern for academic freedom would be high on any list of qualities made by either a Republican or a Democrat. All of that aside, the real reason I say that there is no difference is that both Democrats and Republicans are placing their trust, for education policy, in essentially the same places–and none of those places are directly related to teaching.

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