Exposing Education Reform's Big Lie: It Is Jobs and Political Mobilization, Not Schools, Which Lift People Out of Poverty
Dr. Mark Naison
Once again, a major cheating scandal has been uncovered in an urban school district. What happened in Houston ten years ago ( but not before it’s allegedly miraculous test score gains helped spawn No Child Left Behind) has happened in Atlanta. A state investigation has uncovered systematic falsification of test scores by teachers, principals, and district administrators in a district where careers could be made or broken by those results, leading to the resignation of the district superintendant and potential suspensions, and possibly criminal indictments, or scores of teachers and principals
To regard what took place in Atlanta as an exception to an otherwise unblemished record of probity in administering standardized tests would be like regarding Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme as an aberration in an otherwise healthy financial system. In each instance, unscrupulous individuals took the basic tenets of a flawed system to an extreme. In the case of Madoff, he provided clients with high returns based on non-existent investments, rather than flawed ones ( subprime mortgages packed into Triple A bonds); in the case of Atlanta, officials decided to invent impossible results rather than browbeat and terminate teachers and principals when they didn’t achieve them.
Let us be clear- the Atlanta scandal is the logical outcome of a national movement, supported by government and private capital, to radically improve school performance and hopefully lift people out of poverty, through a centrally imposed and rigidly administered combination of privatization, competition, material incentives and high stakes testing. You would think that a movement which commands such widespread support, and extraordinary resources, has a history of proven examples, either in the US, or other nations, to guide its implementation.
But the truth is that there is not a single time in American history- with the exception of the ten years following the end of slavery- where you can point to educational reform as a factor which lifted a group out of poverty, or allowed an important minority group to improve its status relative to the majority population. The kind of “heavy” lifting required to do that, with that one exception of the Reconstruction Era during which activists founded schools for a people once denied literacy, has come, not from top down educational reform, but from bottom up political mobilization, coupled with changes in labor markets which radically improve earning opportunities for the group in question.
Let us look at the one moment in the 20th Century where the African American population not only experienced a rapid improvement in its economic status, but improved its status relative to whites, the time between 1940 and 1950. During those ten years, black per capital income rose from 44% of the white total to 57%. This income growth was not only a result of wartime prosperity, and Black migration from the rural to urban areas, but a result of the protest movement launched by A Phillip Randolph in 1941 to demand equal treatment for Blacks in the emerging war economy, as well as the enrollment of Black workers in industrial unions. Randolph’s march on Washington Movement didn’t lead to the desegregation of the armed forces, but it did lead President Roosevelt to issue a proclamation requiring non-discriminatory employment in defense industries and to create a Commission to enforce this decree. While huge pockets of discrimination remained, African Americans, women as well as men, found work in factories throughout the nation producing ships, aircraft, and motorized vehicles and were enrolled in the unions that represented the bulk of workers involved in war production.
In Detroit, in Los Angeles, in Youngstown, in Pittsburgh, in Richmond California, Black workers, many of them newly arrived in the South were earning incomes four to five times what they would have made as sharecroppers or tenant farmers and had union protection in their places of employment. This economic revolution spawned a political revolution, with nearly 500,000 African Americans joining the NAACP, and a cultural one as well, with rhythm and blues becoming the music of choice for the emerging black working class, inspiring clubs and radio stations and small record labels to cater to this rapidly growing black consumer market.
Though educational opportunities for blacks did improve in this period, it was changes in the job market, fought for, and consolidated by grass roots political movements, reinforced by strong labor unions, that were the primary engine of change.
There is a lesson here that activists and educators should consider. If you want to improve economic conditions in Black and working class neighborhoods, then it would make more sense to raise incomes, either by unionizing low wage industries, or demanding that tax revenues be directed into job creation, rather than trying to legislate magical improvements in schools based on results on standardized tests.
Children living in impoverished communities cannot be magically vaulted into the middle class by pounding information into their heads and testing them on it relentlessly . However, their parents, and older brothers and sisters, can be lifted into the middle class through jobs that offer decent incomes and security coupled with opportunity for personal advancement through education.
School Reform is the American Elite’s preferred response to poverty and inequality, a strategy that requires no sacrifice, no redistribution nor any self-organization by America’s disfranchised groups. Every day, it is proving itself a dismal failure
It’s time that a new strategy be launched that focuses on jobs, economic opportunity and the redistribution of wealth, one linking civil rights groups, unions, and people living in working class and poor communities who have watched wealth and opportunity be siphoned out of their communities by the very wealthy- the same people, ironically, who are the biggest supporters of School Reform!