Monthly Archives: February 2013

Market Driven Reform- It’s Worse Than You Thought

Umair Haque is an economist who writes for the Harvard Business Review. He has a wonderful book that I highly recommend, Betterness: Economics for Humans. In his work, Haque argues that the paradigm that we use to think and talk about the economy is dated and harmful. He writes, “We don’t have a working, generally accepted measure of real prosperity, just a gauge of industrial output. Hence,’business’ can contribute to GDP, but quietly and chronically fail in terms that matter to humans, like jobs, fulfillment, trust, happiness, and so on…As Robert F. Kennedy put it several decades later: ‘Gross national Product measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.'”

I have written often about the ways in which this market driven paradigm has co-opted and controlled the education reform movement, so much so that we now use the term, “the corporate education reform movement.” (See my previous blog posts on this here, here and here.) Our argument has been that the market driven paradigm doesn’t work in the public realm. And this is true. However, Haque’s argument goes even deeper. The market paradigm also doesn’t work in the market. Not only are we misapplying a paradigm, we are falsely assuming that the paradigm is applied correctly even within its appropriate framework. Haque points out that our measure of “success” is simply too one-dimensional, even within the single dimension of the market. He makes the strong argument that we desperately need to rethink the purpose of “business.” If it doesn’t help us reach our human potential in some way, shape or form, then we are wasting our time with it. “Here’s the larger paradox…: the more ‘business’ we do, the more our potential, our potential to enjoy an authentically good life, and our potential to create all the many different kinds of capital seems to diminish.” If this is true, and I think it is, then the so-called “real world” that we educators are always preparing our students for, is a world that will simply lead to their diminishment as humans, the diminishment of their communities and of the earth itself.

Tough stuff.

Haque calls for a radical leap into a different paradigm, one he coins from the ancient Greek goal of the good life, “eudaimonia.” This refers to a life that isn’t “…an easy, comfortable, materially rich life, but one that was authentically, meaningfully rich: rich with relationships, ideas, emotion, health and vigor, recognition and contribution, passion and fulfillment, and great accomplishment and enduring achievement, exactly what ‘business,’ ‘output,’ and ‘product’ seem so achingly deficient at producing. That conception of prosperity is very different than the one we know today.”

As educators, we have to be very conscious of why we educate. What do we want for our students? To what degree are we preparing them for a market paradigm that will lead to their own diminishment? To what degree are we culpable?

Think about it.

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.

A Paradigm Shift

Grace Lee Boggs on a democratic, Deweyan approach to education reform, vs. top-down, corporate education reform:

“The mainstream media has created the myth that community people are waiting for Superman, the White House, or state-appointed Emergency Financial Managers to resolve the escalating crises in our schools. The truth is that concerned parents and citizens, especially in deindustrialized cities like Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, are beginning to resolve this crises by making a paradigm shift in the U.S. concept of education. John Dewey, this country’s most important social philosopher, advocated this paradigm shift many years ago. His vision of a more democratic educational system was widely known and discussed prior to the Second World War. But as long as U.S industry was flourishing, it was marginalized. The U.S. educational system, Dewy explained, is too top-down. It is undemocratic. It disempowers children, stifles their natural tendencies to explore, to manipulate tools,and to construct and create. It is a sorting mechanism with standards, goals, tests, and sordid comparisons, rooted in an attitude of acquisitiveness or capitalist ethos. It separates the school and schoolchildren from the community.”

From page 57 of the Detroit Reader.

I would suggest that not only are concerned parents making this shift, but concerned students are doing so also. (Familiarize yourself with Nikhil Goyal.) With the ability students now have to use technology in order to make connections outside of the realm of institutional boundaries, Dewey’s approach to authentic learning is not only just as relevant, but is occurring whether we educators are involved or not. More and more, students are engaging the world (though too often without guidance, mentoring, and an understanding of context) outside of the institution of schools. The question is, will educators in schools break free from the constraints of the top-down approach in time to support students, and to help them engage the world in meaningful ways, or will educators continue to reinforce outmoded silos and superficial “achievement,” even as the time wasted doing so becomes more and more obvious?

Courage all, courage…

Learnification Part 1: Making Bank Off the Banking Concept

I first read the term ‘learnification’ when reading Corey Steeve’s paper, (De/Re)-Constructing Teachers and Their Work. Steeves quotes Gert Biesta in defining the concept: “Biesta described the discourse of learnification as ‘the translation of everything there is to say about education in terms of learning and leaners.'” ‘Learnification’ occurs whenever discourse reduces all of the complexities of ‘education’ down to the simplicity of ‘learning.’ And doesn’t this seem fairly harmless? At first, I rebelled against ‘learnification’ as a negative concept. Who can be against learning or learners? For instance, I have spent much of my time arguing that we educators need to design experiences that allow students to own their learning. Now all of a sudden that’s a bad thing?

On deeper thought, though, it is clear that the discourse of learnification is a huge problem, mainly because the assumptions it hides are very dangerous. Steeves continues, “Biesta argued that learning is an ‘individualistic concept.’ Whereas the concept of education ‘always implies a relationship: someone educating someone else and the person educating thus having a certain sense of the what the purpose of his or her activities is.'”

So Steeves (and Biesta) points out the differences in the discourse between ‘learning’ and ‘education.’ Learning is individualistic and abstracted from the context of purpose. Education is communal and situated in connection to a purpose.

Now, you may be asking yourself, so what? What is the purpose of making these angels of theory dance on the pin heads of educational reality? Why? Because it makes a political difference, meaning a difference in our lives together. Stay with me now.

Traditional teaching is simplistically and conventionally imagined as the transmission of content. (A la Freire’s banking concept.) Teachers instruct students in such a way that students have an understanding of the content being transmitted. Back in the pre-tech olden days, teachers were the main, or only, source of this content. We all know that content now is available ‘anytime, anywhere.’ So if a teacher’s job is to serve as the source of content, then teachers are becoming obsolete. ‘Learnification’ works under this assumption, while, at the same time, hiding it: Teachers are the delivers of content+ content is available anytime, anywhere= teachers are obsolete. Under this formula, the learner and his/her learning are abstracted from the context of both relationship and purpose. So the question of ‘learning for what purpose?’ becomes irrelevant. Will Richardson’s question of ‘why school?’ becomes irrelevant. And teachers, those whose task, I would tentatively argue, is to master the skills of relationship and continually help students to situate content within context, become irrelevant. The discourse of learnification allows humans to be replaced with any of the variety of on-line content delivery systems that operate much more ‘efficiently’ (i.e., cheaper) than your average teacher, and they don’t require health care or retirement benefits. The idea of ‘common good,’ of learning for citizenship, ( for that matter, of learning for any greater purpose other than of the economic benefit of a self) in such an individualistic conception of learning becomes irrelevant.

The problem with learnification is not in allowing students to direct their own learning. It is in allowing students to direct their own learning in a vacuum– and we all know that a vacuum is a space asking to be filled. In the case of learnification, the vacuum is filled by corporate entities, the free market of neo-liberalism, that has its own agenda. That agenda is the making of money. Students then become a source of income, and this income is unquestioned through the process of learnification, and the mantra of ‘any time, anywhere’ which reifies content abstracted from context, has room to grow like cancer. (Please take some time to read up on the scary way how this concept of ‘anytime, anywhere’ is being translated politically in Michigan here.)

Just as importantly, learnification allows for the assumption (allows because it assumes no assumptions) that the purpose of schooling is for the benefit of our economic system. Alternative ways of imagining education- the development of the whole person, including the social and emotional aspects of being human, the development of the dispositions needed in a civil democratic society, and the ability to critically analyze a topic along with the context in which it appears- simply disappear. Such visions aren’t necessary when the goal is simple stamping that will certify a student for participation in our economic society. (And, because economic health is the ultimate value abstracted from all other contexts, there is no need to ask the question of, for instance, economic health for what/whose purpose?) Again, this way of imagining education fails to understand context- that economics, culture and the overall social good are all connected.

Yes, the discourse of learnification matters. It’s not by accident that it literalizes the banking concept.

We Live in an Era of Anti-Education

This goes under the question, what is education for?

“We live in an era of anti-education. We focus on skill-and-drill, tests and accountability, and higher education as a marker of status (elite colleges) or mere job training (lesser colleges). We have forgotten education as a force for equality in the sense of making everyone count and enabling everyone to fully participate in our society. We have forgotten education as a force for drawing out of each of us our best selves in the service of an intellectually and morally good life and good society.”

James Paul Gee in The Anti-Education Era

Well said.