Friday, September 9, 2011

Epic Fail: Why The Meritocracy is Not Good For Economic Democracy

By Catherine Liu

While UC Chancellors have their annual chortle over rising SAT scores and UC elitism, UC professors and lecturers on the ground have found, like blog commenter TB, that a larger and larger proportion of UC freshmen arrive on campus requiring remedial education in basic academic skills. How is it possible that incoming freshmen are getting higher than ever scores on standardized tests, but are so much less academically equipped to deal with college level learning?

The mis-education of California is no accident: it has been highly profitable for the privately held, for profit segments of the education industry. Educational Testing Services, purveyors of the SAT’s and California’s STAR tests for K-12 students, swears up and down that one cannot teach to their tests. Tell that to entrepreneur Stanley Kaplan, who started a mom-and-pop-shop doing exactly that. Today, the conglomerate that bears his name is worth $2.8 billion and is a for-profit educational services provider owned by the Washington Post.

Disaster capitalism keeps creating a wealth of opportunities for entrepreneurial education reformers. David Sirota just wrote a powerful piece on public education: The Shock Doctrine Comes to Your Classroom . Sirota’s thesis is that the financial crisis has been a golden opportunity for rapacious for-profit companies in the education industry to divert public education funds into their own swollen pockets. Instead of paying teachers and building school infrastructure, administrators are spending more and more of their budgets on standardized tests and other instruments that produce big profit margins, but little pedagogy. The New York Times has recently taken note of what critics of education reform have been repeating over and over again: radical reforms and gadget fetishism do not produce measurable improvements in classroom learning. Sirota focuses on the darker side of the technophile narrative in public education: even as public education budgets are shrinking, the share that goes to high tech and for profit testing companies keeps growing.

Critics of standardized tests from David Owens, Nicholas Lemann and Ralph Nader to Diane Ravitch have shown that academic skills suffer in a high stakes testing atmosphere. And yet, the stakes keep getting higher. High stakes standardized testing encourages cheating, gaming the system, siphons public funds into the pockets of the testing industry and its test prep subsidiaries while undermining teacher autonomy and creativity. The more economically beleaguered the school district, the more administrators are focusing on test results and teacher performance. The recent cheating scandal in Atlanta public schools is just one sign of what high stakes testing encourages in teachers and administrators fearful of losing public funding for their schools.

The on-going crisis in education offers politicians a short cut to consensus. By most measures, American public education has been a 20th century success story, but ever since the 1983 Reagan commissioned report, “A Nation at Risk,” presidents love embracing crisis while empowering administrators to repair the broken US public school system. Its failures are ascribed to teachers, unions and seniority rather than inadequate housing, poor health care and economic deprivation.

Diane Ravitch was one of the original authors of “A Nation at Risk.” Its findings incensed countless tweedy Cold Warrior types, among them Allan Bloom, and contributed in no small part to launching exhausting skirmishes over political correctness and canonical subversion during the Culture Wars of the 1980s. In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education , Ravitch comes out squarely in defense of the dignity of teaching as skilled labor. After years on the battlegrounds of policy and education reform, she came to the realization that policy makers and politicians had no real intention of improving American schools. They much preferred to keep teachers off balance and real debates over academic content off the pedagogical agenda. Ravitch denounces politicians, philanthropists, principals and callow administrators who are willing to consult with everyone from Bill Gates to Simon Cowell about education reform, but don’t care to ask experienced teachers what is needed in order to produce improvements in classroom learning. For Ravitch, the demonization of schoolteachers has created a toxic atmosphere in schools across the nation.

Zealous reformers and private foundations keep producing solutions to the problem of educating children from impoverished families. Rather than feeding students a hot lunch, or paying their parents a living wage, or providing their schoolteachers with basic supplies like paper, pencils, crayons, paints or even adequate ventilation, reformers would like to “innovate” and be “entrepreneurial” on the backs of poor children. As I argue In my book, American Idyll: Academic Anti-Elitism as Cultural Critique, the pseudo-elitism produced by standardized testing is actually a fig leaf for increasingly irrational forms of economic polarization.

As the Obama administration has underwritten policies of austerity and reform in its educational agenda, Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine theory obtains once again.

But we have to go back to Ronald Reagan’s standoff with the air traffic controllers union in 1981 to understand the full import of demonizing unionized workers. After declaring the air traffic controllers’ strike illegal, Reagan fired nearly 11,000 stirkers, outlawed their union and banned the fired workers from ever returning to their jobs. Reagan’s breathtakingly hard line excited the business world. Alan Greenspan praised the President’s decision as a victory for “employers’ rights.”

In 2011, public school teachers are the entitled working “elite” seeking benefits and a living wage at the expense of an imaginary commonweal of freeholders. Earlier this year, when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tried to outlaw teachers’ unions, business interests thrilled to see another politician brave the ire of schoolteachers and union members in what was once one of the most progressive states of the nation.

Teaching is a craft, but administrators prefer to think of it as an industrial process that can be made more and more “efficient.” In Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century, Harry Braverman demonstrated that monopoly capital seeks to discipline labor by imposing increasingly stringent constraints on workers through relentless rationalization of the work process: Frederick Winslow Taylor’s drive for efficiency degraded industrial labor even as it deskilled the laborer. The highly successful implementation of Taylorism generated new sources of profit for factory owners, but the post-Fordist managerial will to power has not ceased its tireless efforts to define all human activity through narrower and narrower metrics of efficiency.

The problem is, successful teachers are rarely remembered. Their successes are not celebrated with monuments or in song; each one of us who was educated in the American public school system is living testimony to their legacy. It is impossible to quantify their successes according to the metrics put into place by No Child Left Behind and now Race to the Top style reformism. To the managerial ethos, craftsmanship has to be undermined: a skilled worker is a potential rebel and dissenter, a troublemaker. When Diane Ravitch realized that education reform movements aspired to no more and no less than the degradation of work conditions in public schools, she began a tireless campaign in defense of teachers and their unions.

We can still find John Dewey and Maria Montessori infused pedagogical practices alive and well in private schools where artisanal pedagogy flourishes in the standardized-testing-free ambience of intellectual and creative inquiry. Dewey and Montessori did not consider their educational innovations luxuries: their theories were developed in the classrooms that prized community and cooperation, not competition and exclusion. It is of course, the saddest of all ironies that the laboratory schools where their intellectual and experimental work took place are now almost exclusively private schools charging prohibitive tuition. Yes, these schools provide a few precious scholarship places for the needy and the worthy. Philanthropy does not build the democratic ethos prized by Dewey. An ill-conceived and fundamentally corrupt meritocracy will only fan the flames of popular resentment of education and academic inquiry.

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