The Benevolent Arrogance of Self-Insulated Power in Educational Policy

I just came home from the annual conference of the North Dakota Study Group, which was incredible in a number of ways. I hope to delineate some of this in future posts, but for now, I want to focus on the fresh way this conference helped me see the extension of power, and I’ll focus specifically on the power currently being extended through the tool of educational policy.

In a nutshell, current educational policy sustains and extends the power and privilege of those who currently benefit from our economic system and insulates them from the damage created by this policy. As Michelle Fine has written, “The dispossession of those living in poverty, communities of color and immigrants is intimately linked to the elite accumulation of capital, real estate, opportunities and bright futures for the young.”

Ideally, any policy is enacted in order to meet the goals of those who are affected by it. The general process in this ideal is that all of those affected are gathered, they dialogue, argue and eventually agree on goals and ways of enacting those goals for the benefit of all. In education policy, if this ideal were to be followed, that would mean community members, students, teachers, administrators all of those involved in an education system, would be included in the development of the policy and the carrying out of the policy.

Not so. In the strange world of neo-liberalism, which continues its ugly ascension, the primary purpose of education is to provide access to economic benefit. (I hope you can accept this assumption, if not, read more here.) Because this economic benefit is the primary value, who better to create economic policy than those who benefit most from the economic system? So representatives of power in this system get to write policy that will sustain and increase their power. Check out the background of any current educational policy and see who was involved. Rarely, if ever, will you see teachers or community members, particularly those members of underprivileged communities. Instead, you will see the tycoons of business and politicians. These outsiders arrogantly impose their policy on members of a community who are thus victims of that policy because their voices were not included in the creation of it. Worse, they become “accountable” to that policy. (See my previous post covering the process of deprofessionalizing teachers.) The resulting policy creates a rigged game, with test score measures that questionably determine future success, but without question measure socio-economic status, and are used to ‘rate’ schools and teachers. The scores are used to then blame and demonize those teachers, particularly in underprivileged communities, and then to destabilize schools, and thus their communities, which can then be further demonized because of their further destabilization. (See Paul Thomas’s analysis of this “no-excuses” approach to education reform, and the “culture of shame” it creates.)

As a quick example, parent trigger laws ostensibly are enacted to empower parents and protect them, and their children, from the effect of poor schooling. This language of empowerment hides the fact that the school is “poor” because the neighborhood is poor. It hides the fact that this empowerment of parents allows those with enough capital to move, thus pulling their capital from the community by moving to another school, thus further tearing apart the social capital of the community left behind, leaving it weaker and more vulnerable than before. Of course as a result test scores will slide, we can the further demonize these teachers and students, and the cycle can continue.

As another, somewhat different way in, I bring you the proposal of the Oxford Foundation in Michigan. Its founder, and the prime writer of its policy, is Richard McLellan. McLellan was appointed by billionaire governor Rick Snyder to explore some ways to flesh out the “anytime, anywhere” legislation that the governor hopes to put in place. Allow me point out the context from which both Governor Snyder and McLellan see the world. Both are white. Both are rich. Neither has any experience that I know of from which to see outside of the perspective of being rich, white, powerful business leaders. Both have a background in business and having been highly successful in that world. Snyder sends his children to an exclusive independent school that costs $18,000 a year. (I don’t fault him for this, but it is one more reinforcement of his limited, insulated perspective.) McLellan has been involved in Republican circles as a primary mover behind previous attempts to enact voucher legislation in Michigan, “…a leader in efforts in Michigan to expand school choice for Michigan students…,” and is a founder of the right-wing think tank, the Mackinac Center.

Given these facts, it should not have been hard to predict the kind of legislation the Oxford Foundation would come up with. (For an analysis of the plan, and a link to it, see this. As you read, ask yourself, who will most benefit from this policy? What will the effect be on struggling schools and communities? Who will be hurt? Who are the winners, and who are the losers?) My point here is not the legislation itself, but to critique the difficulty of escaping the self-insulation that power and privilege provide. I do not think that Snyder and McLellan are bad men intending to do harm. I do think they are ignorant men unable to see behind the wall that their perspective creates. I do think their arrogance is benevolent, but that doesn’t make it any less harmful.

These kinds of policies function insulate the policy makers from the effects of the their policy by benefiting them, and by allowing them, and the media, to demonize the victims of their policy. Unfortunately, these are only two examples from a growing plethora of options.

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5 responses to “The Benevolent Arrogance of Self-Insulated Power in Educational Policy

  1. Excellent read! I wish more administrators in our district possessed the clarity, passion and vision that I glean from this article.

  2. Pingback: Headlines, 2/18/2013 | EdGator

  3. It is the benevolence that reminds of CS Lewis: “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good
    will torment us without end for they do so with the approval
    of their own conscience.”

    Like racism and many other -isms, it is the well-meaning kind that hurts the most and does the most damage.

    Who is accountable for the accountability measures? Who is and will be held responsible when the measures fail? It’s that corrosive, soul-destroying, hegemony-making double bind that the poor and the marginalised cop and wear daily. They are held responsible TO the accountability measures and, when they fail, FOR them too. Miraculously. “If they only followed and did the ‘right thing’, tried harder etc…”

    I’ve spent a decade teaching in schools where kids were convinced they were stupid because a swathe of accountability indicators told them so. And every one of these is underpinned by the ‘common sense’ wishes of ‘good people’ for simple, ‘objective’ measures of evaluation, soaked in the un-problematised neoliberal paradox of promised ‘choice’ versus fear of unrealised potential. But the wish for simple, ‘objective’ measurement and policy response often carries the wish for simple reasons for failure and blame. Victims are usually the best for it.

    Bill. (Let’s) keep going. And thank you for writing, really enjoying your posts, your questions.

  4. Pingback: “No Excuses” and the Culture of Shame: Why Metrics Don’t Matter – @ the chalk face

  5. Bill – we need to help more people approach their reviews of policy with the kinds of questions you are surfacing. You really don’t need to be a policy expert to apply common sense thinking to understand the hazardous implications that will continue to exacerbate a separation of classes already well under way. When did we lose sight of the myriad benefits to everyone of an educated population? How do we not foresee the dangers of a growing under-educated population and the long term economic destabilization that comes with it – that will affect us all?

    Everyone needs to be engaged and using the democratic processes we have to create a better future – largely enabled by a strong educational foundation.

    Keep up your contribution!

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