Friday, August 19, 2016

School Reform in the US and Italy: A Critical Analysis

It is very disturbing to learn that the same attack on teachers, public schools, and public education that has taken place in the US in the last 20 years is also taking place in Italy. In the US, this attack has been bi-partisan, endorsed by Democrats as much as Republicans, and implemented as aggressively by Barack Obama as it was by George W. Bush. It has been enthusiastically promoted by foundations and non profit organizations financed by some of the wealthiest people in the country such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, the Walton Family, Michael Bloomberg, along with new billionaires in the hedge fund sector. Initially, teachers and advocates for public education were caught by surprise by the sheer force of this attack. In the last 8 years, they have started to fight back, with resistance taking the form of the Save Our Schools Coalition, the Badass Teachers Association, United Opt Out and Network for Public Education, along with a wide array of local resistance groups. But the amount of money and political muscle the self styled “School Reformers” have at their disposal makes resistance difficult, especially since the Reformers have co-opted the language of Social Justice and Civil Rights to argue for policies which increase testing and reduce teacher power and autonomy. They have argued that it is “bad” or selfish teachers who are responsible for the persistence of racial and economic inequality in school performance, if not in the whole society.
Why has this top down, data driven approach to education policy, which devalues teachers and teaching gained so much currency? One part of it is sheer economic interest. The education market in the US is enormous, with total expenditures exceeding 600 billion dollars. Capturing this market for private investment is an irresistible temptation for economic elites who have seen opportunities in the housing market dry up with the onset of the global financial crisis. Opportunities to invest in testing, software, educational consulting firms, new charter schools that arise when public schools are closed, destabilized, or subject to centrally imposed testing and evaluation norms, are well nigh irresistible to tech firms and hedge funds who saw their profits drop when the market crashed. And given the high concentration of wealth at the top in the US, and end to restrictions of political contributions by very wealthy people, these groups have used their wealth to gain political influence at the local and national level by contributing to candidates who endorse School Reform Policies. There are cases when people have spend billions of dollars in local elections to get the candidates they want, not only in mayoral positions and in legislatures, but on local school boards. No doubt about it, Big Money and Profit, both in the short run and the long run, are the driving forces behind current education policies.
The long run considerations involve shaping the labor force of the future in the interests of Big Capital. Those shaping the economy of the future want to have a pliable, individualized low wage labor force that does most of its work in front of a computer, a labor force that is atomized, disorganized and unable to form or sustain unions or other means of self-organization and protection. One of the obstacles to their strategy of labor force socialization is education that builds relationships, not only between students and teachers, but between students and other students and thereby promotes collective action. Another problem is pedagogy which promotes critical or independent thinking. Getting rid of educational strategies which impart confidence and group spirit among students is essential to having a smooth adaptation from school to workplace, or for those who are recalcitrant, school to prison. The best way to do this is to minutely script teaching so that classes have no spontaneity, little group activity, no in depth reading or careful historical study, and little in the way of arts. To do that, dedicated veteran teachers, especially those that are members of unions, must be replaced by disposable teacher temps provided by groups like Teach for America.
Why do elected officials support a strategy which atomizes students and fill schools with stress? For them, the
Incentive is cutting costs. Getting rid of veteran teachers saves huge amounts of money, not only on direct expenditures but pensions. So budget and tax conscious representatives, whose political campaigns are funded by wealthy Reform advocates, think these cost cutting policies will help their political careers.
The combination of forces I have identified is very difficult to fight on the political level because most elected officials are bought off. It takes a long time, and lots of money and effort to elect pro public education officials to positions as Mayors, governors, and heads of local councils. It is happening, but very slowly. We are new to this and the Reformers have been doing it for 20 years
The only effective tactic in resisting implementation of reforms is the “Opt Out Movement”- organizing parents and students to refuse to take tests which have placed students under intolerable stress, made them hate school, and squeezed out activities that students love such as art, music, sports, school trips and special projects involving scientific or historical research. This movement has been particularly effective in New York State, where 22% of students refused to take state tests last year, and in New Jersey, where the number of those resisting exceeded 15 percent. In New York, the movement led to a reduction in the time allotted to tests and the use of testing in teacher evaluation and may even have led to reduced replacement of charter schools by public schools. This parent led movement is sweeping the nation and is also prompting student and teacher walkouts. It is an initiative which insists that schools must be wholistic in their approach, meeting the needs of students rather than employers or test companies and value teachers who build relationships with their students more than driving them to perform well on tests. The movement, which started in middle class communities and is spreading to working class communities has put Reformers on the defensive because it invokes powerful image of what schools at their best should do- nurture students and practice real democracy. I hope it can spread to Italy
Despite this powerful and much needed initiative, I don’t want to be too optimistic. Reformers and Profiteers will be looking to circumvent the Opt Out movement by promoting individualized “competency based” learning in front of a computer where students are assessed daily on their mastery of subjects and teachers are little more than computer tenders. They will claim this treats each student as an individual and promotes social and emotional growth.
However, parents and teachers will not be so easily fooled. They understand that relationship building, play, the arts and group projects are at the core of what makes school enjoyable and valuable to students and will insist that all those features remain in school, along with experienced teachers who love children and love their jobs.
They will fight for all those things, knowing their children’s future depends on them being decision makes and agents of history, not obedient drones of test companies and powerful corporations.