Tag Archives: democracy

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:

Click to access Biesta_-_Accountability.pdf

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

Photo from here

Still Waiting for Democracy: When the State Takes Over From the State

If you’re paying attention to education matters in the state of Michigan, you know that Michigan’s Governor Snyder has come out with his plan for what is to become of Detroit Public Schools.  In a nutshell, it consists of creating two school systems, one that will exist only to contain and deal with existing debt, and the other to run as a debt free portfolio system  of common enrollment that will contain what is left of traditional public schools in Detroit, and charter schools.

There are some interesting quirks in this plan.  Most interesting to me is that this plan implicitly recognizes that the previous state takeover of DPS was a failure.  Governor Snyder’s response to this failure is this plan, which essentially is a state takeover of a failed state takeover.  ( Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity?)

As Detroit Data and Democracy points out, the consequences of the state takeover, originally in 1999, from the fairly elected DPS board of education have not been positive:

“…by 2002, the district was well into a cycle of decline from which it has not recovered:

  • A positive general fund balance turned negative, inducing austerity measures that impacted programming.
  • Cuts interrupted the academic progress the district had been making relative to the rest of the state.
  • With worsening academics, parents began to leave the district for charters and suburban schools.
  • The resulting enrollment decline led to a worsening financial position for the district, prompting further cuts.
  • Further cuts produced a further decline in academics, which led to more enrollment loss.”

Even the controversial Detroit Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren has made It clear that the state of Michigan is responsible for current DPS debt.

“John Rakolta, chief executive of Walbridge and another co-chair of the coalition, said Detroit Public Schools operated with a surplus in 1999, before the state took over the district. Its operational deficit is now $170 million and it has about $2.1 billion in accumulated debt, according to the report.

Rakolta placed the cause of this operation deficit at the feet of state government and state policies, saying it has been accumulated under the state’s watch.” (Emphasis added)

By all metrics, the quality of Detroit Public Schools has worsened under the care of the state of Michigan.  And yet, as an explanation of the historical context given as the rationale for continuing state control (from a FAQ released by the sate), Snyder (or his communication people) says: “First, the state initially took control of Detroit Public Schools under Gov. Engler.  After a time they were returned to the local school board for operation. Unfortunately the state was forced to step in and take over again under Gov. Granholm.” The word “forced” here certainly reveals a position, as if the state was a victim of external circumstances, even when the circumstances were self-created.  History does, in fact, matter. (Rule of thumb; historicize everything.)  The logic would dictate that now, using the same wording and assumptions,  the state, unfortunately, is “forced” to step in and take over from the state.

I don’t see such honesty anywhere in Governor Snyder’s recommendation.

Democracy, in this situation, is, at best, obtuse.  Points to consider:

1.  The democratically elected DPS board currently in exile is given a role- to run, along with the current Emergency Financial Manager, (don’t ask me how this might actually work) the debt ridden portion of the district.  Worse than its previous role as an appendage to democracy, it is now relegated to a new role as the large colon of democracy, the processing function of all of the feces that is left over. Have fun with that.

2. The school board that actually gets to do the role designed for traditional school boards will be appointed, four of the members will be Gov. Snyder appointees, and three will be Mayor Mike Duggan appointees.  After a period of seven years, these state appointed school board members will be gradually replaced by a properly elected school board.

Seven more years of waiting for democracy.

The implied narrative of the whole plan continues to be that the existing context of race driven poverty is completely irrelevant, and that the mostly black people of Detroit are not worthy of democracy.

In a curious article endorsing Snyder’s plan, the Detroit Free Press wrote a very telling paragraph,

“We hoped Snyder would honor Detroiters’ right to self-govern, recognizing the importance of an elected board. But the realities of Lansing, and the need to invest state funds in the district, mean that all-local control would be politically unpalatable to the outstate lawmakers’ whose support will be required to move this plan forward. This is a compromise that, at first glance, we can live with.”

Did you get that? Detroiter’s right to self-govern is “politically unpalatable.” A compromise the Free Press suggests we live with.

Wow.

Democracy has become politically unpalatable for some people in America.

Today.

Scary times.

Democracy is For Some People

” None of us is free until all of us are free.”  Martin Luther King

Let me start by being very clear.

I am a patriot. I am a believer in the stated ideological foundations of the United States of America.

I am a believer, for instance, in the ideal of democracy.

NOUN
a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives:
“capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world”

synonyms: representative government · elective governmentPowered by OxfordDictionaries · © Oxford University Press\

Yes, good old-fashioned democracy. The governing by the whole population “typically through elected representatives.”

And when I, as an idealistic citizen of the United States of America, see situations that undermine democracy I get a wee bit upset.

With this context in mind, let me bring you up to date on the establishment and recommendations of the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

First of all, let’s go back to the ideal of democracy and the fact that this coalition is making recommendations to the Governor of the State of Michigan, Rick Snyder.  Consider:

*  That the democratically elected Detroit Board of Education, in exile since the imposition of a governor appointed (i.e., not democratically elected) emergency financial manager, did not have a say in the recommendations.

*  That it is clear who did have a say- the members of the  Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren.

With all due respect, how were they picked?

Honestly, I’m not sure.  Everywhere I search, news articles say this coalition was “created” or mysteriously “formed.”

Duh. We know the coalition was created, and that, as a result of this creation, it also was formed. So much for investigative journalism.

Who created it?  The evidence suggests that it came from the Skillman Foundation.  It’s important to note that a foundation has co-opted, intentionally or not, the task of what was formerly given to democratically elected governmental agencies. A foundation has somehow taken, been given, or had this task land its lap.

To me, as a believer in the democratic principles supposedly inherent in these United States, that is a problem.

The coalition has 5 co-chairs, and for the sake of my framing, as an example, I would like to focus on one of them, John Rakolta.  Now, I don’t pretend to know John, his perspective or his intentions.  In fact, I think it’s important to note that, given all of the evidence since his involvement with the coalition, it seems that he has been open-minded and fair.  (See, for instance, his pointing out that the state is responsible for much of DPS’s debt accumulated while under the control of emergency management.) My gripe is not with John Rakolta, but with the usurpation of democracy that has placed John Rakolta as co-chair deciding the fate of public schooling in Detroit.

Rakolta is the white, very rich CEO of Walbridge Construction, a company that has been involved in a number of construction projects for the very poor, over 80% black Detroit Public Schools.  On the surface, it seems that this might be a conflict of interest.  On another level, the question comes to me, how does the CEO of a construction company (or anyone else for that matter) become a co-chair of this coalition? Who elected him?  Is this how a democracy is supposed to function?  According to the web-site of the Skillman foundation, the coalition is made up of, “…independent, diverse cross-section of Detroit leaders who came together to move swiftly to make recommendations for changes that will improve the city’s education system.” Who determined what a “Detroit leader” is? Who didn’t? Why is the decision-making process that has historically been made by elected school board members given over to unelected “Detroit leaders” as determined by a foundation?

DemocracyinAction

Again, I have no perspective on the intentions of Rakolta or anyone else involved with this project.  My question simply is, who put them in charge, and why do their recommendations trump the recommendations of others in a functioning democracy? Why do these chosen but unelected officials have more say than the fairly elected representatives of the citizens and parents in Detroit?

In trying to get at some answers it may get a bit complicated, so hang with me.

Let’s start by conducting a thought experiment.

Imagine that your local community (or use Grosse Pointe, or Birmingham, or Bloomfield as potential examples) had their locally controlled, democratically elected school board replaced first by an emergency financial manager, and then by a group of self-appointed citizens. How might that be accepted?

My guess? Not so well.

So why is it ok in a city that is 80% black with 40% living in poverty?

I’m stuck with the conclusion that it is ok because that city is 80% black, with 40% living in poverty.

Oh, did I play the race card? I’m sorry.

Let me be more subtle, then, and quote the all too common sentiment of Gary Naeyaert, the head of the Great Lakes Education Project, a pro school choice advocacy group, as printed in the Gongwer News Source,

“Enough is enough, and it’s about time we recognized that the Detroit Public Schools are academically and financially bankrupt, and they’ve lost the privilege of educating children in Detroit,” Gary Naeyaert, executive director of GLEP, said in a statement.”  (Emphasis added)

I’m guessing, then, that democracy is a privilege afforded to some, and not to others. Coincidentally, the places where that privilege is denied is in cities that are overwhelming black and poor, with eroded infrastructures that make financial and academic issues exceedingly difficult to address.  In other words, because of the organizing principles of poverty and race, because of the increased financial and academic stresses caused by such circumstances, despite the heroic efforts of many involved in working in such stressed conditions (to be fair, many of whom served as members of the Skillman coalition), all driven by the false narrative of “failing schools,” “they” deserve to have the “privilege” of democracy removed. It seems “they” haven’t earned it in these United States. Such an attitude might be likened to colonialism- that old idea that, since “they” obviously can’t make their own decisions, “we” need to “help them.”

Now many people will say that my analysis simply isn’t realistic. That, in the real world, such a lens simply isn’t politically practical. That it simply isn’t realistic to expect people to think this way.  Many people will say, what’s the beef?  Look at the results- the coalition actually made three huge, and, to me, surprise recommendations- to have the state of Michigan assume much of DPS’s debt, to dissolve the controversial EAA, and to return power back to the DPS board of education (kind of).

My problem, again, starts with the undemocratic nature of this process itself.  It is a process that wouldn’t be allowed, at this time at least, in other communities.

Let’s be honest. Democracy is for some people.

And it also is a process that concluded with a recommendation that retains control in an entity that is outside the auspices of democracy.  It is returning some power back to the board, but, in spite of the rhetoric, much of the actual and deciding power is recommended to stay with another newly created coalition, essentially creating a portfolio system.

“Regarding the coordination and oversight across the education sectors

  • The State establish a new, lean board/legislative body, the Detroit Education Commission, to coordinate and rationalize citywide education functions for all Detroit schoolchildren, with members appointed by the Mayor. The DEC will set and hold all schools to the same performance standard.”

In other words, the DPS school board will work under the umbrella and auspices of the Detroit Education Commission. So yes, democracy is reinstated, at least, you know, kind of. Right?

In a very real, very practical way, democracy is only for some people.

Honestly, I have no illusions that this will go away.  I have no illusions that Governor Snyder will reinstate democracy in Detroit.

But I do think we should all be asking ourselves an important question:

Is this what we should accept in these United States?