David L. Russell -- On Neoliberalism And Its Hold On Education Reform

I know David via these intertubules. I read his comments at Students First and elsewhere, and agree with him and wish I were eloquent and kind and forceful like he is, but I just get forceful.

I asked him to write a guest post, and here it is. It's deep. This guy is serious and should be listened to when he talks about education reform, curriculum reform, and being smart about policy reform.
David L. Russell holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park, A Multiple Subject Teaching Credential from California State University, San Marcos, with a Mathematics Supplemental Authorization, and a Masters of Arts in Elementary Mathematics Education from Western Governors University. He has been teaching Middle School math for 9 years. Mr. Russell has been his school's Math Department Chair, has participated in and is currently a Team Coach in a Federally Funded research project to study and apply lesson study best practices, and is the Co-Chair on his District's Math Steering Committee.

The Problem:

When I left Engineering 9 years ago to become a middle school math teacher, I had some assumptions about the math kids were learning. I assumed math was taught as a continuum of interrelated concepts and skills and that the kids would be well prepared with the prerequisite skills and conceptual understanding needed to be successful in my class.

The first year I was in the classroom, I grew frustrated. Many middle school kids could not divide three digits by two digits. At first I thought it was the kids--"they must be lazy," I thought, and I got grumpy with them. Then I figured it must be those lousy elementary teachers afraid to teach math, and I got grumpy with them. Then I participated in a teacher in-service training where I "unpacked" the K -- 8 California math standards. Imagine my surprise that while mapping the standards for division I found a string of superficial, ambiguous standards that had unclear learning objectives and did not build conceptual understanding for kids. I spoke with K -- 5 teachers; they told me that they were using the text/curriculum with great fidelity. I looked at their texts only to discover that the "lessons" were presented in isolation of each other, most were algorithmic in nature and all together too fast for kids to learn very much. Finally using the 6th grade material I correlated the NCLB test questions back to the standards and the curricular texts. I discovered that the test questions were rarely supported by the text's lessons and the lessons were not aligned to the state standards. I was amazed. What I discovered was a complete systems failure, from standards, through curricular texts, to assessment. This was the reason why kids could not divide -- nothing matched.

The Players:

In Engineering efficiency and seamless integration are must-haves for success. I asked myself why American education was getting the math part so completely and utterly wrong. This disjointed system wasn't creating effective mathematicians, it was creating disinterested answer getters -- and poor one's at that! I assumed based on my analysis of the problem that others would know about this and that there would be uproar.

But that uproar wasn't there. Instead, the uproar was found in the current reform movement that is sweeping the media landscape. The national chatter about education reform paints a completely different picture why the professed "crisis in education" exists. The leaders of the reform movement propose the following solutions to "fix education": 1) change the laws to eliminate teacher tenure, 2) restrict collective bargaining rights of teachers, 3) reverse or eliminate an accounting procedure known as LIFO (last in, first out), 4) increase the frequency, evaluative scope, and punitive effects of high stakes testing, and 4) make charter schools easier to create and open under non-profit charter management organizations (CMOs) or for profit education management organizations (EMOs). But where in this dialog is the discussion about curriculum?

In discovering who the players are in the reform movement, the most extraordinary element I saw is the surprising number of ultra wealthy (in the billions wealthy) business leaders that have taken a very public, very vocal, and very expensive stance in supporting and affecting the paradigms defining national education reform. Among these wealthy business leaders are Bill Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad, the Koch Brothers, and the Walton Family Foundation.

The Agenda:

As much as I tried, I could not, in my mind, reconcile why these wealthy, powerful, and successful business people would concern themselves with the relatively minor educational issues of tenure, collective bargaining, LIFO, increasing high stakes testing, while championing charter schools, CMOs, or EMOs and ignoring the problems of standards, curricular texts, and high stakes assessment that are the more significant cause why kids struggle academically. The curricular concerns are kid centered, the others are not. Then in doing some research, I found out what was compelling the wealthy to ignore the curriculum and support the agenda of the reformers; it's called neoliberalism.

Although the word is rarely heard in the United States, American neoliberalism has for the past two decades been the dominant political economic trend adopted by political parties of the center, much of the traditional left, and the right. The effects of neoliberalism in America are glaringly apparent; the ultra rich have grown increasingly richer while the middle class is squeezed tighter and the ranks of the poor grow increasingly larger and poorer.

Associated initially with the Reagan revolution of "Reaganomics" and trickle-down theories, neoliberalism refers to a market-driven approach to economic and social policy whereby a relatively small handful of private interests (wealthy business leaders) control as much as possible in order to 1) maximize their personal profit through investing in the privatization of state companies and public services, 2) gain market advantage through loosened regulation of private economic activity, 3) eliminate "dependency cultures" through the reform of welfare programs and taxation systems, 4) introduce market-mimicking arrangements (competition) to those areas where genuine markets are inappropriate such as the public service sectors of police (think Minutemen), military (Blackwater), public roads (private toll roads), primary education (charter schools) and healthcare for the poor. Once a state-run industry is handed over to the private sector, there is little telling in how far privatization will manipulate that industry to fit their economic needs. Neoliberal capitalism in the United States has resulted in the deregulation of business and finance (think sub-prime mortgages, the housing bubble, credit default swaps and the bailout of Wall Street), the reduction of active government macroeconomic policy (The Federal reserve Bank controls the ebb & flow of capitol, not the Government), a big business and government attack against labor unions (Wisconsin), and relatively free movement of goods, services, and capital across national boundaries (NAFTA).

Neoliberalism works best in a formal electoral democracy, but when the population is diverted from the information, access, and public forums necessary for meaningful participation in decision-making. While neoliberal ideology criticizes state intervention, actual neoliberalism involves coercive, disciplinary forms of state intervention in order to impose market rule upon all aspects of social life. Large corporations have resources to influence media, sway opinion, and overwhelm the political process, and do so accordingly. In U.S. electoral politics, for just one example, the richest one-quarter of one percent of Americans make 80 percent of all individual political contributions and corporations outspend labor by a margin of ten to one.

Privatizing Education:

In the United States, the neoliberal agenda includes the privatization and decentralization of public forms of education. There are three conditions by which the neoliberal changes that benefit corporations but harm education are being implemented: 1) increasing individualization and a breakdown in social solidarity; 2) the ability of the state to socially construct a "crisis of failing standards" within the education system and subsequently retain legitimacy by appearing to take action to address these failing standards; and 3) state interventions in education in the interest of powerful corporations presented in the language of fairness and equity.

The cornerstone of the neoliberal agenda in education is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) which increased the role of the federal government in accountability like never before. NCLB raises standards while at the same time defining what those standards are spawning - a phony curricula designed to conform to the forms of knowledge the students would encounter on centralized tests. The competition based focus on raising test scores rather than teaching for understanding shifted teaching away from intellectual activity towards dispensing packaged fragments of information sent from an upper level of bureaucracy. Teachers are being deskilled as they implement curriculum developed by others.

Evidence gathered through a socioeconomic analysis of test scores shows that over time, NCLB has resulted in inequalities between and within schools. NCLB resulted in the intensified surveillance, control and policing of schools which are, coincidentally, mainly populated by African-American and Latino students. Neoliberal education reforms must therefore be understood for their utility for industry through the production of a docile, flexible workforce but also for the white supremacist culture protecting it from contamination by alien sub-cultures. Through neoliberal control of education, education?s social purpose of generating a critically aware, empathetic citizenry, freely engaged in democratic participation has been eroded.

The Evidence:

The current reform movement is nothing more than a political front for the neoliberal agenda to privatize education through coercion and hostage tactics. Cash-strapped state legislatures, hoping to win a chunk of nearly $5 billion in federal prizes, passed more education reform legislation in eight months than they had in the previous eight years. Reform in exchange for dollars became the new mantra, and the status quo - desperate to avoid widespread teacher layoffs - found itself uncharacteristically nullified in the political process - Democrats for Education Reform.

As venture philanthropists continue to invest in the privatization of education, the education super-structure from standards, through curricular texts, to assessment will be decided by investors. The quality and quantity, the very nature of the thought processes, critical thinking capabilities and understanding of the world children will develop will be under the jurisdiction of corporate entities who are by-and-large are the same brand of profit seeking venture capitalists who brought us the sub-prime mortgage and credit default swap schemes.

Reform in exchange for dollars is the new mantra as neoliberal hedge fund and venture capital entrepreneurs work to transform public education. Examples of this already exist. "The goal of the NewSchools Innovation Fund is to build entrepreneurial organizations that will test the hypothesis that entrepreneurs can act as agents for change, capable of influencing and possibly even transforming large public bureaucracies. In our first fund, NewSchools supported nine entrepreneurial nonprofit and for- profit ventures?" 2011 NewSchools Venture Fund.

At a higher level of government comes this confirmation of the neoliberal agenda: "To deliver those returns, developers cater to the largest possible market: large urban and suburban K-12 districts." -Joanne Weiss, Chief of Staff, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Harvard Business Review, March 31, 2011.

In Los Angeles about 20 senior jobs -- so far -- will be paid for by philanthropists and others. Eli Broad and Casey Wasserman, both charter school backers, had funded some positions for previous Supt. Ramon Cortines, who retired in mid-April. They will continue to assist current Supt. Deasy. Broad, who wants to create competition by starting publicly funded, privately run charter schools, and enforce accountability by linking teacher pay to student test scores, and to limit teachers' say in curriculum and transfer decisions, initially paid for one of Cortines' top aides. Under Deasy, that aide, Matt Hill, will move to the district payroll -- with a raise from $175,000 to $196,000 -- as "chief strategy officer." Broad also recently paid $250,000 for McKinsey & Co. consultants to assist with Deasy's transition. A Gates Foundation-funded grant from Harvard will pay for a data specialist. Deasy is a former top official at Gates. One new team member is widely regarded as a mayoral ally who shares his interest in charter schools. Maria Casillas, a retired senior L.A. Unified administrator who runs the nonprofit Families in Schools, will be Deasy's top parent and community liaison in a new position that pays $170,000 a year. Under Cortines, instruction was overseen by chief academic officer Judy Elliott, regarded as a rising star when she was hired at $200,000 a year. Elliott recently oversaw the selection of a new district wide reading program. She will now report to newcomer Jaime Aquino, who will earn $250,000 annually.

The Broad Foundation's website claims, "We take an untraditional approach to giving. We don't simply write checks to charities. Instead we practice 'venture philanthropy.' And we expect a return on our investment." The outside funding strategy worries Judy Perez, head of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents principals and midlevel administrators. "My concern always is where do the loyalties lie?" Perez said. "Broad basically has said a number of times publicly that he wants to dismantle Los Angeles Unified."

Evidence that the neoliberal takeover of public education exists at the State level as well: "Hedge fund managers have been wielding their money to influence educational policy in Albany [NY], particularly among Democrats, who control both the Senate and the Assembly but have historically been aligned with the teachers unions. They [hedge fund managers] have been contributing generously to lawmakers in hopes of creating a friendlier climate for charter schools. More immediately, they have raised a multimillion-dollar war chest to lobby for a bill to raise the maximum number of charter schools statewide to 460 from 200. But with their lobbyists, phone banks and door-to-door canvassers, the pro-charter forces are turning up the heat by invoking the deadline by which the state must apply for $700 million in education grants from the federal government in the competition known as Race to the Top, which promotes charter school growth as one of its many goals."  - Trip Gabriel and Jennifer Medina, May 9, 2010, New York Times.

People are angry with education and, based on the heated propaganda from national reform leaders, it is no surprise why. All across the nation people ask the rhetorical question "why can't Johnny read?" The truth is that Johnny and millions of kid's like him are pawns in the neoliberal agenda to privatize education by creating and maintaining a completely flawed systems designed specifically for failure. From standards, through curricular texts, to assessment, as more and more instruments of education are taken from educators and handed over to profit-driven corporations, the essential building blocks of failure are created and given back to schools thinly veiled as research based teaching tools. Additionally, through selective data analysis, neoliberalistic reporting agencies have given the state the ability to socially construct a "crisis of failing standards" within the education system. This "socially constructed crisis" subsequently justifies states imposing increasingly coercive and disciplinary forms of intervention in order to impose market rules of competition and efficiencies upon all aspects of educational life. In doing so, the state retains legitimacy by appearing to take action to address these failing standards. Since its inception NCLB has spawned a phony curricula designed to fail at teaching for sense making and understanding. Instead, NCLB constrained teachers to use dispensed packaged fragments of information sent from an upper level of corporate curricular/text bureaucracy.

With this caliber of profit driven, politically legitimized wealthy power players working against education, I wonder if kids will ever be out from under the destructive forces behind the neoliberal plundering of education for profits. America needs to stand up and shout their dissatisfaction with this pillage. Johnny can't read because from the venture philanthropists, it doesn't make financial sense for Johnny to learn how to read -- yet! If the American populace would stand up and demand an end to NCLB, RttT, and other heavy handed government programs, and insist that education be given back to the educators to manage, then kids will finally have the ability to attend a school with the academic and pedagogical freedom to teach for understanding and learning is valued above the profits of a few ultra wealthy. Then, perhaps, kids will finally learn how to read and divide three digits by two digits.

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