Why Flint’s Water Crisis May Be a Boon for #EdReform

Let me start with some background information.

My home state of Michigan has a law that allows an Emergency Manager to be put in place. This  Emergency Manager has dictatorial control. Decisions that were previously made by a democratically elected city council or school board are given over to an appointee of the governor.

If you are a citizen of a country that purports itself to be a democracy, you may have some obvious concerns about this.

If you are a fan of human rights, there are even more.

One of the decisions that the Emergency Manager of Flint has made is to end its contract with Detroit Water and Sewage Department and instead pump water from the local and polluted Flint River for its residents. The good news is that it saves some money. The bad news is that this move is poisoning the residents of Flint.

According to the Detroit Free Press“Mona Hanna-Attisha, a researcher at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, analyzed blood-lead level information collected as part of a routine screening process, and found that the percentage of Flint children with elevated blood-lead levels has increased significantly since the city started pumping water from the Flint River in April 2014. In some ZIP codes — those considered most at-risk — the percentage of kids affected by lead has doubled.”

And how much lead is safe in children?

“The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that there is no safe blood-lead level for children. Lead poisoning causes a host of developmental and behavioral problems in exposed children. It is irreversible.” (Emphasis added)

Which, to me, calls forward a seemingly obvious question: What is more important, economic efficiency or human lives?

I guess we know where the Flint Emergency Manager and Michigan governor stand, because they don’t quite seem to be accepting the data.

“Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Angela Minicuci told the Free Press on Thursday that the increase was ‘seasonal and not related to the water supply.'”


Despite the state’s efforts to discredit the Hurley data, the state’s own data show that there are a higher percentage of kids in Flint with elevated lead levels in their blood after the switch.” (Emphasis added)

So, any level of lead in the blood of a human is unsafe, and yet, the state is arguing that the increase in lead in the bodies of children in Flint is seasonal, as if:

1. Such an increase can be rationalized.

2. The state and its governor can wash its hands of this particular situation.

detroit-water-shut-off-400x240 (1)

And what does all of this have to do with education reform?

Remember, the way that our current crop of top down, data driven education reformers imagine education is via the vehicle of wishful thinking that assumes that teachers and students are alienated individuals who work in isolation from social systems. This logic thus suggests these teachers and students are responsible for their own success and failure. The way to reform is then to reward the successes of these individuals, and to punish their failures. Failure leads to school closures, which leads to privatization (and its corollary of profit-making for some) often in the form of quasi-public, directly for-profit charters. Distractions offered by the social context that they work within, such as poverty or the poisoning of their water sources, are irrelevant because responsibility for success and failure lies completely within the control of the students and teachers involved.

So, forgive my simplification, but the formula goes; low test scores leads to profit for some.

Now, if an entirely evil person were to develop a plan that would ensure low test scores, thereby ripening the potential for profit, what might this person do? Maybe slip something into the children’s water source to  decrease their cognitive ability? This would ensure low test scores, create “school failure,” and allow for all of the profit-making such school failure leads to. (Because of the underlying assumptions explained above, it would also wonderfully and magically point all blame to the victims themselves.)

Can you spell F…l…i…n…t?

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that Governor Snyder is an evil person with an evil plan. I do not pretend to know his intentions.

However, his intentions are irrelevant to the people who are suffering under his policies. What is relevant is the effect that his policies are having on communities. What is relevant is how his policies actually function. And the effect of his policies is exactly what is spelled out above. If his intentions include  helping and supporting people, then it seems  that he would begin to take responsibility for the damage his polices are having.

It seems he would take responsibility for the imposing autocratic decision-making processes where once there was the accountability offered by democracy.

It seems he would take responsibility for the dismantling of  our schools, and for the poisoning of our children.

Meanwhile, the rest of us need to see the connections between water and schooling- between the suffering of our children and the “failure” of our schools. We have to stop seeing poverty, ecological health, mental health and education as separate categories and start to understand that there is truly one issue that works across categories:  Exploitation for the sake of profit.

This is what we must resist in all of the forms we find it.

Photo credit

Symptoms and Schools

Schools either replicate the illnesses of our social system, or, in the best possible sense, can serve as resistance to, and provide of vision of alternatives to our current social system. Recognizing that school takes place within a broader context, and recognizing that the broader context influences school, allows educators to be intentional about behaving in ways that increase health, or not.

In this interview, Canadian Dr. Gabor Mate, an expert in addiction, stress and childhood development, helps us to see these connections.

“I’m intending to write a book tentatively called Toxic Culture: How Capitalism Makes us Sick. That’s the working title. My contention is that the very nature of the system in which people live their lives is a significant source of illness. Now there are obvious factors like environmental pollution, toxins, and then of course there are the social determinants of health that you write about in A Healthy Society: the impact of poverty, the impact of inequality, the impact of history and continued racism. ….

But I’m going to go beyond even that and say that even the people who are not on the wrong end of economic inequality or systemic racism are still made ill just by how we live our lives. The stress that we live under, the competition, the aggressiveness, the uncertainty, the loss of control that we experience in our lives. The gender inequalities, these are not just social phenomena, they have an actual impact on community health. The isolation people are experiencing.

The question for educators then, is in what ways does an education reform policy that is based on unfair competition (in that it ignores social circumstances),that ignores the fundamental importance of a healthy context of relationships supported by community, in what ways does such an approach add to the stress and alienation our children experience? In what was does an approach to education reform that objectifies and reduces the value of our children to their test results exacerbate the suffering of our children and our teachers while interfering with their learning?

These are the kinds of questions that need to enter into the discussion. Because, regardless of how hard we try, we can’t ignore our humanity and the humanity of our children. Regardless of our attempts to look away, the symptoms that Mate talks about  will continue to point to the direction we need to move in.

What’s the Organizing Force of #EdReform?

Truthout has an excellent new article on the role that the “Non Profit Industrial Complex” has played in the rise of charter schools, and in the demise of community agency. Robert Skeels, the author of The Nonprofit Industrial Complex’s Role in Imposing Neoliberalism on Public Education, rightly points out that as most charter schools are managed by either private corporations or non-profits, they are actually private schools. As such, they represent a loss to the commons of the local. Here Skeels touches on the implications:

“It is important to use the phrase ‘privately managed charters’ because the deep pocketed charter advocacy NPICs continually bombard the public with the mendacious phrase ‘public charter schools.’ By definition if a charter is run by a non-profit, then it is not public. The United States Census Bureau frames this issue best: ‘A few “public charter schools” are run by public universities and municipalities. However, most charter schools are run by private nonprofit organizations and are therefore classified as private.’ (US Census Bureau vi). The more of our schools that are handed over to these private sector organizations, the less agency our communities have, and the more control those espousing neoliberalism have over our lives. Our rulers don’t just want exclusive control over the governance and finances of our schools, they want to control both what is taught and by whom.” (Emphasis added.)

In states like Michigan, over 80% of the charters are run by for-profit agencies, and the number of charters continues to increase,  so Skeels’ point is important to remember and consider. And in reading the article we find that his use of the word “rulers” above is not mere hyperbole.  Skeels does an excellent job of connecting the dots between our children and what he calls “the Broad/Gates/Walton Triumvirate.”

“In exhaustive survey of what these three mega-foundations have done to undermine public education nationwide (e.g. The Gates Foundation’s machinations behind the malignant Common Core State Standards) exceeds the scope of this essay.”

Skeels goes on to explicate the machinations of this triumvirate in Los Angeles, a pattern that is recognizable in most urban cities in the U.S.

Most interesting to me is the link specifically between the Common Core and *neoliberal practices.”  I’ve written about this connection between standardization and economic efficiency previously:

“Again, why standardization?

Because it allows for economic efficiency, predictable outcomes and technocratic control.  This is what allows for the creation of income. However, we must recognize the purpose for which standardization has historically been used, and the contextual boundaries that it is now leaping over. We must continually ask, what do we want for our children?” (Also see here.)

Skeels recognizes that the Common Core Standards, funded and supported largely by the Broad/Gates/Walton Triumvirate, impose a neoliberal agenda on schools while at the same time using their power to remove contestation of this agenda from the public. Such contestation between goals and means is supposedly a core principle of a democratic societies.

Very sneaky.

Very effective.


However, Skeels goes one step further in helping us to see institutional racism behind this agenda, and, through the free market value of “choice,” the resegration and increased inequity this “choice” has brought with it. He quotes the scholar Antonia Darder:

“The rhetoric of choice effectively capitalized upon discourses of ‘high-risk’ students, ‘achievement gap’ anxieties and victim-blaming notions of deficit – all of which have served well to legitimate racialized inequalities and exclusions. Hence, the charter school movement, driven by the logic of the ‘free market,’ became an extension of former mainstream efforts to ensure class imperatives and the continuing segregation of US schools. The slippery use of language here effectively captured the imagination of conservative voters and detracted focus away from the increasing wealth gap. Yet, the rub here is that charter schools encourage the merging of public and private enterprise, distorting or blurring any separation or distinction between the public and private spheres and the moral responsibility of the state to provide for the educational formation of all its children. In the process, the glorification of the free market simultaneously legitimizes the covertly racialized ethos of the capitalist economy and its persistent reproduction and perpetuation of educational inequalities, in the first place. Devoid of institutional critiques of racism, current educational discourses posit a false portrayal for the persistence of school segregation and school failure.” (Emphasis added.)

Ah yes.

What do our schools still do?

They reproduce our societal inequities.

What does the free market do best?

It reproduces societal inequities in a manner that is more efficient and profitable to those of privilege. (See, for instance, the noted triumvirate above).

Ta-Nehesi Coates writes, “I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life…”

Among other things, it has become obvious that the organizing force of the “white frame” leads to class inequities, concentrated poverty, the state sanctioned murder of people of color and to a history of segregation that continues.

It also has less obviously led to the the neoliberalization of our schools.

The sad part is, we are much more concerned with profit than with children. If we cared about children, our approach would reflect what has been proven to work.

So what’s the answer?

Darder again:

“If our goal is to eliminate educational failure, we must create a system of federal funding to states determined by the actual needs of their people and effectively linked to ameliorating poverty, the only approach that has been shown, time and again, to improve academic achievement. In contrast, initiatives like the Common Core standards are market driven and thus more likely to echo existing inequalities than to eliminate them. National education standards like Common Core simply codify what all children should learn, with little attention paid to the unequal playing field of American society. Despite its liberal overtones, the Common Core initiative reproduces what the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire called the banking model of education, debilitating because it narrows what constitutes legitimate knowledge, while excluding those who are outside of its boundaries. Such national policies create a smokescreen of homogeneity and educational equality, which do not create equality.”

When will our actions and policies elevate children over profit?

*I struggle, like many others, with the clunkiness of the word “neoliberal.”  However, I still have not found one that works better. And since reading Wendy Brown’s wonderful work, Undoing the Demos, I feel a little better about it.

Photo credit to Doris Mercado Melon.

Goodmen Project: Remaining Human: Learning to See the White Racial Frame

Remaining Human: Learning to See the White Racial Frame

Remaining Human: Learning to See the White Racial Frame

“Every single day folks are dying. Not being able to take another breath. We are in a state of emergency. If you don’t feel that emergency, you are not human.” Patriss Cullors

We have a problem.

People of color are being murdered by police,  put in jail, and kicked out of schools, all at rates that are disproportionate to whites.

And we can no longer view this from what Joe Feagin calls “the white racial frame.” Because this view is the problem.

Before I go into what the white frame is, I want to very clear about what it is not.

It is not limited to the personal. The white frame does not depend only on individual racial prejudice for its existence. It is not limited to your or my personal beliefs, or biases, or stereotypes. When we talk about the white frame, we’re not talking only about any single personal point of view. We’re not only talking about prejudiced people.

So there is no need to get defensive. It’s not about you.

In American Racism in the “White Frame,” Feagin says,

“To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society. Most mainstream social scientists dealing with racism issues have relied heavily on inadequate analytical concepts like prejudice, bias, stereotyping and intolerance. Such concepts are often useful, but were long ago crafted by white social scientists focusing on individual racial and ethnic issues, not on society’s systemic racism. (Emphasis added)

Yes, personal prejudice matters. But the white frame, and thus the root issues, remain  much bigger than prejudiced individuals.

Feagin continues, saying the “…white frame is made up of two key types of subframes: The most-noted and most-researched are those negatively targeting people of color. In addition, the most central subframe, often the hardest to ‘see,’ especially by whites, is that reinforcing the idea of white virtuousness in myriad ways, including superior white values and institutions, the white work ethic, and white intelligence. This white-virtue framing is so strong that it affects the thinking not only of whites, but also of many people of color here and overseas. Good examples are the dominant American culture’s standard of ‘female beauty,’ and the attempts of many people of color to look, speak, or act as ‘white’ as they can so as to do better in our white-dominated institutions.”

As a simplification, This “white racial frame” is a conglomeration of different “bits” of information that work together to influence a view of the world, and thus policy and institutions, that benefit one race at the expense of others.

This is crucially important to understand and to see, especially if you hope to remain human, as Cullors, a leading figure in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, alluded to in the quote above.

This white frame works in subtle ways, and depends on this subtlety for its existence. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva says in Racism Without Racists?,

“In contrast to the Jim Crow era, where racial inequality was enforced through overt means (e.g., signs saying ‘No Niggers Welcomed Here’ or shotgun diplomacy at the voting booth), today racial practices operate in ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ fashion.” 

It’s hard to see, particularly for people privileged by their race- that is, white people- because this privilege offers the freedom from having to think about race. People of Color don’t have this freedom. They are confronted with the effects of their race daily. So seeing the white frame at work necessitates thinking deeply about how race functions, and this requires seeing from perspectives outside of the white frame.

To help make this concrete, let me explore an example from the #BlackLivesMatter protest at Netroots Nation gathering. As some background, Netroots holds an annual convention of progressive writers and thinkers. This year, both Mike O’Malley and Bernie Sanders were interrupted  by the #BlackLivesMatter activists during their presentations. The disruption itself offers a powerful example of activists resisting and refusing to allow their perspectives to be silenced by the white frame. As Cullors said in the protest, “It’s not like we like shutting sh*t down, but we have to. We are tired of being interrupted.” This protest itself was disruption of the white frame that allowed for other perspectives to be heard.

I found the O’Malley presentation to offer a particularly salient example of O’Malley understandably struggling with the white frame. When he realized this disruption was taking place, O’Malley generously shifted from the center of the stage to allow space for the activists.

When the activists allowed O’Malley’s presentation to continue, he responded in a way that shifted the frame right back to whiteness.

“Black lives matter…white lives matter…all lives matter.”


What’s wrong with this? Don’t all lives, in fact, matter?

Of course. But, in order to see the white frame, we need to learn the ways in which language functions- we need to see what language does. And what does the phrase “all lives matter” do? It shifts the focus away from, in this instance, black lives, and the particular way that black lives are situated in our society, to a frame that dilutes black lives in whiteness.  In When We Fully Claim Black Lives Matter, We Move Closer to All Lives Matter, john a. powell puts it this way:

“The universal aspiration is a society where all lives matter. But if we just proclaim that and stop there, we are ignoring the reality in America. All lives do not matter in America and some of this difference is how whites and blacks are differently situated not only in our geographic and psychic structures, but also in relationship to police and other institutions. Blacks lives have been constrained and cut short.

When one replaces ‘Black Lives Matter’ with ‘All Lives Matter,’ one may be slipping into a false assumption that we are all similarly situated. We are not.”

I don’t use this example to beat up on O’Malley. I certainly don’t think this is evidence that O’Malley is a racist. Again, the white frame is not about any single individual. His fellow Democrat candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, have also struggled with this same phrase as they stumbled into this unfamiliar territory. And all three candidates have since showed signs of change as they learn and grow. I hope the same for the rest of us. White people, myself included, are bound to make mistakes and embarrass ourselves as we struggle with seeing the white frame. It’s when we stop struggling with it that we should be worried.

To help see this white frame a little more clearly at work in this example, let me quote Eclectablog’s Chris Savage. He was present at the protest, and bravely shares how he came to see what happened from a perspective outside of the white frame.

“I, like many of the others there, was initially irritated by the protestors. I was there to hear the candidates and was frustrated that they weren’t being heard. Even a bit angry, in fact. ‘These are your allies,’ I thought. ‘Why on earth are you attacking them? Why are you disrupting an event where the people there are sympathetic to your cause?’

Frustration. Anger. Being silenced.




Talked over.


Every single one of these emotions that ran through my white privileged brain in the first few moments of the protest until I was slapped across the face with what I was being forced to confront. Every single one of these emotions are felt acutely and painfully every single day by racial minority groups in our country. But, instead of being inconvenienced by not being able to hear a politician speak, they face them in the context of being slaughtered in the streets by the police officers who are tasked to protect them, incarcerated in astonishingly disparate numbers, and blamed for not being able to escape from the prison of poverty that holds far too many of them in bondage.” (Emphasis added)

Here you can see Savage’s perspective shifting from his experience as a white man, his white frame, to the perspective of others. He moves from being selfishly annoyed, to being empathetic to the experience of others in a way that he wasn’t as the protest began. This is the move that makes the white frame visible.

And once you begin to see the white frame, you see it working everywhere.

With this in mind, if we look at education, all you have to do is find any situation where there is comparison or competition, and then look at who benefits from this comparison/competition, and who loses. This is where Feagin’s “white virtues framing” is the clearest.

It is at work:

* Whenever there is talk of the “achievement gap” rather than the equity gap.

* Whenever you hear the language of “failing schools” rather than underserved communities.

* Whenever students are viewed in terms of their deficits rather than their abilities.

* Whenever ranking systems of any kind are used- who ends up on top? Those who are leveraged with social capital. And on the bottom. The others.

* In the biased tests used to sort students and schools.

* Whenever an emergency manager is imposed over a democratically elected school board.

* When “the problem” with school is viewed as a “teacher problem,” thus erasing the conditions and context that students exist within.

* Whenever you see a “turnaround” district established, such as Michigan’s EAA.

And on and on…

We need to learn to see empathically from other perspectives in order to allow for the contrast that makes the white frame visible.

Because the first step to making change is seeing accurately the depth of change that needs to be made.

What It Is That We’re Up Against: Market Speak

Again, and always, its important that our language as educators accurately reflect our purpose, and that we think deeply and clearly about what our purpose is. Into the void of our lack of awareness and intention, the market will creep. All of education is in the process of being reduced to economic ends, and we see the damage of this all around us.

Why get a college degree?  “I want a good job.”

Market speak.

Why reduce teacher pensions? “Efficiency.” (This word, by the way, represents an abstract fill in the blank answer for virtually anything. What it means in practice, no one really knows.)

Market speak.

Why teach to standards? “College readiness.” And why be ready for college? “To get a good job.”

Market speak.

What does our president have to say? “America’s prosperity has always rested on how well we educate our children – but never more so than today. This is true for our workers, when a college graduate earns over 60 percent more in a lifetime than a high school graduate.  This is true for our businesses, when according to one study; six in ten say they simply can’t find qualified people to fill open positions.”

The purpose of education reduced to American Prosperity.

Market speak.

So when you hear the language of business creep across its borders into the context of education, which was formerly treated as a common good and therefore public, know that the market is reducing you and the students you work with to capital with a price on it. And, because it limits our humanity to its market value, know that it is dehumanizing. So either directly address it, or run like hell.

Is education to be “run like a business”? Nope. Should any head of any so-called educational institution be given the title of a CEO? Not. Should any of our superintendents be trained by a foundation that has as its tag line, “Entrepreneurship for the public good…” Hell no.

This creep of the market into everything, called neoliberalism, is reshaping all before our very eyes- our institutions, our language, our way of relating to each other, and it is crucial to understand the ways, mostly difficult to detect, that it functions.

Importantly, this reduction of all to the market, this neoliberalism, makes the mistake of confusing economic health with democratic health. It makes the mistake of confusing the market, (that is, profit) with the political (that is, a commonly determined purpose). It makes the mistake of making democracy disappear. Democracy has no market value. Or worse. Authentic democracy can be very bad for the market.

In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown explains this very well:

“More than merely saturating the meaning or content of democracy with market values, neoliberalism assaults the principles, practice, cultures, subjects, and institutions of democracy understood as rule by the people…

The claim that neoliberalism is profoundly destructive to the fiber and future of democracy in any form is premised on an understanding of neoliberalism as something other than  a set of economic policies, an ideology, or resetting of the relation between state and economy. Rather, as a normative order of reason developed over three decades into a widely and deeply disseminated governing rationality, neoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized. In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus, which itself has a historically specific form. Far from Adam Smith’s creature propelled by the natural urge to ‘truck, barter, and exchange,’ today’s homo oeconomicus is an intensely constructed and governed bit of human capital tasked with improving and leveraging its competitive position and with enhance its (monetary and nonmonetary) portfolio value across all its endeavors and venues. These are also the mandates, and hence the orientations, contouring the projects of neoliberalized states, large corporations, small businesses, nonprofits, schools, consultancies, museums, countries, scholars, performers, public agencies, students, websites, athletes, sports teams, graduate programs, health providers, banks and global legal and financial institutions.” (Emphasis added)

Yes, it can be difficult to see, difficult to hear, but you will catch it in seemingly innocuous phrases, and sometimes you can catch it in your own thinking.

Why are evaluations now “competitive” with the erasure of tenure?

Market speak.

Why are inundated with “Value Added Measurements”?

Market speak.

Why do we need standards? (Again, see Obama quote above.)

Market speak.

This is what we’re up against.

(For an interview with Brown, see here.)

Accountability and the Erasure of Democracy

We hear a lot about the need for “accountability” in education, but I’m not sure anyone knows what this word means in practice, or what an authentic means of being accountable might look like.  If this word is going to be thrown around so much, then it’s time for those throwing it to think deeply about how it functions.

And in thinking deeply about the role of accountability in education, we need to recognize the increasing, and mostly unconscious creep of economic utilitarianism beyond the bounds of economics and into all aspects of life. Essentially, this spread is represented by the ideology of market fundamentalism, which says that all value is reduced to the single value of economics. That is, all is commodified, has a price, and can thus be measured in terms of its efficiency, which is translated into its ability to reduce costs, to add monetary value as the ultimate value that can then be measured as profit.  As an example of this, see this recent editorial in the Detroit Free Press, which fundamentally uses the ideology of the free market to ask the question, ““Is a College Degree a Lost Cause These Days?” Within the article as part of its set up, the author quotes President Obama, and develops from there.

“Even President Barack Obama has poked fun at the humanities, observing in a 2014 speech that ‘folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.’

Obama later insisted his ‘glib’ comment wasn’t meant to throw shade on liberal arts majors. But it reflected an emerging consensus that U.S. colleges and universities are failing to provide many students with the skills they need to succeed in the 21st-Century workplace.”

The underlying assumption of this thinking is that the purpose of a college degree is reduced to its value on the market, its ability to translate into a job for the holder of the degree, and its ability to propel the economy.  I don’t want to go too far into a richer vision of college of higher education here, other than to note the hidden assumptions of this kind of language. (And to be fair,thankfully the author of the article does go on to, at least,  gently critique these assumptions, first of all within the parameters of economic utilitarianism, and then by suggesting, almost as an afterthought, that education may have an impact on a democratic citizenry.)

The language of accountability is language which unconsciously and uncritically propels these assumptions. And because it does so in a way that is unconscious, it serves to continue to hide these assumptions.  It presents the world of economic utilitarianism as an unquestioned given.

And it is well past time to question.

conditionsecosystem for market fundamentalism

Thankfully, in Education, Accountability, and the Ethical Demand: Can the Democratic Potential of Accountability be Saved?, Gert Biesta has done a lot of this questioning and should be trusted as a guide. (See the link below to the full article.)

Biesta starts with a paragraph that shows that the current mode of accountability has reconfigured the relationship between the state and its citizens from a political relationship to an economic relationship, that is, “..state as provider and the taxpayer as consumer of public services.”

This seems subtle, but nonetheless, this shift is crucial to understand.  A political relationship is one where citizens work together in a mutual relationship. A consumer relationship, one determined by economics, is one in which a consumer is recipient of services, and therefore to be served in ways that are measurable so that consumer choices can be made clear.  It thus becomes necessary for the provider of those services (the state in the case of education) to quantify its services in order to provide information to the consumer so that proper choices can be made.  A political relationship, on the other hand, is one that suggests accountability and responsibility are mutual.  A teacher has accountability in this relationship to a context of mutual relationships- the students, the parents, the community and the ways that the community is served by the education of its members. In an economic relationship, the consumer is a passive recipient, and one imagined as outside of the bounds of community. The single consumer is to be served, and the values of this service are inherently economic values. That is, the consumer is a recipient of the state’s services, one with the need for “choice of” state services, and whose “vote” and democratic responsibility is reduced to his/her choices. The implication is that as a recipient of services, the consumer is not engaged as a member of the state, and determines the values of these services within the context of the value of how he/she will economically benefit from these services.  The connection between the consumer and the broader community is obscured, and the value of the education to the broader community is wiped clean. Along with this, because of the importance of the availability of consumer information in a market of choice, the value of an education must be quantifiable. As a result, the “accountability” of education to its consumers is reduced to the single, but easily measurable, dimension of test scores. Why do students want to “do well” in school? In order to receive the grades and test results to that will allow them into a “good” college so that they can earn a marketable degree.

Pure economics.

Pure individualism.

Biesta writes, “Crucially, the language used is an economic language that positions the government as provider and the citizen as consumer. Choice has become the key word in this discourse. Yet ‘choice’ is about the behavior of consumers in a market where their aim is to satisfy their needs; it should not be conflated with democracy which is about public deliberation and contestation regarding the common good.”

It is important to recognize that in this shift from citizen to consumer is the fact that the purpose of education is completely obscured and uncontested. There is little room, if any, for the conversation of outcome. Why should someone be educated? In ways does the broader context of relationships benefit, not just the relationship between consumer and the state, but the relationships of a community? These questions disappear because outcomes are assumed and the focus thus becomes on the process of acquiring these easily quantifiable outcomes of economic value.

Biesta again: “To put this point differently, according to the logic of the market, the relationship between the state and its citizens is no longer a substantial relationship but has turned into a strictly  formal relationship. This reconfiguration is closely connected to the rise of the culture of quality assurance, the corollary of accountability….Quality assurance is about efficiency and effectiveness of the process itself, not about what the process is supposed to bring about. In this light, it is easy to see why the …government’s constant emphasis on ‘raising standards’ is ultimately vacuous: it lacks proper (democratic) discussion regarding which standards or ‘outcomes’ are most desirable. The same problem underlies much of the research of the ‘school effectiveness and improvement industry.’ These studies mainly focus on the effectiveness and efficiency of processes, without addressing the far more difficult normative and political question regard what these process ought to bring about.” (Emphasis added)

So we have a situation where consumer “choice” is “driving the market” of education. At the same time, this current shift allows no place for the most important question of purpose. There is no discussion of what we hope to bring about with an education, and, because of the unquestioned assumptions and constraints driven by an “accountability” system which can only measure efficiency and limits the purpose of education to the attainment of test scores, we have created an education that has as its purpose the creation of consumers.

Is this what we want?

And just as importantly, is democracy being lost as a result?

Biesta suggests that democracy is being lost. (And the evidence of current zeitgeist would certainly do the same.)

“The role of parents and students in the ‘accountability loop’ is indirect: they can ultimately hold the government accountable for the ‘quality’ of the public services it delivers. But this relationship is itself apolitical in that it positions citizens as consumers who can ‘vote’ about the quality of the services delivered by the government but who do not have democratic say in the overall direction of content of what is being delivered (if delivery is an appropriate concept in the first place).” (Emphasis added)

So there is input through “choice’ that parents have in the processes of education, and the efficiency and quality of these processes. (However, I would go further in saying that the processes of education, that is the pedagogy, is also obscured when the information used to determine such choices is reduced to the dimension of easily quantifiable test scores.) Importantly, though, what is lost in the shift from citizen to consumers, is the choice of purpose, what is the direction we want to education to go? For what purpose do we want our children to be educated? This question is no longer available for contestation.

“The core problem is that while many would want the culture of accountability to emphasize accountability to the public, it actually creates a system focused on accountability to the regulators and the like, thereby removing the real stakeholders from the accountability loop.’ In this respect, the current technical-managerial approach to accountability actually produces economic relationships between people and makes democratic relationships difficult if not impossible to establish.”

What does this look like? What’s the end game of the language of accountability? It creates a system that conflates economics and democracy, and, in doing so, privileges economics at the expense of democracy. It allows democracy to be sacrificed to the god of “economic efficiency” with the allowance of little to no contestation of such shifts. It allows, for instance, the democratically elected Detroit Board of Education to be completely marginalized and replaced by an Emergency Manager. In a very real way, the voice of the people is eliminated and replaced with the voice of consumers and profiteers who are alienated from the context of political community.

According to an analysis featured by Diane Ravitch, this is ultimately what this shift to accountability looks like in Detroit:

“While falling enrollment is often cited as a reason for “right-sizing” the district, the loss of students is the inevitable outcome of starving the schools of funding and relentless attacks on teachers’ jobs and conditions by the Democratic-run city. In the past three years alone, the district cut over a half billion dollars in operating costs, including increasing health care premiums, cutting per-student funding, freezing pay steps for teachers and closing schools. This is not enough, however, and Snyder and his Democratic Party accomplices aim to fully convert the new district into a system of charter schools, which remain outside of public oversight and are a lucrative source of income for politically connected business hucksters.”

Unless we all quickly take responsibility for democratic spaces that are disappearing under the illusion of accountability, this will also be what your local school district looks like.

Please take the time to read all of Biesta’s piece here:


For a richer alternative view of the purpose of higher education, see William Dereshiewicz’s Excellent Sheep.

Photo from here