Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Don't Look Behind the Curtain: The Education Reform Switcheroo

If you haven't yet read the New York Times article on what school choice has meant for the children of Detroit, please do. I could not read the piece without tears coming to my eyes and my blood coming to a boil. As I have said in previous posts and as many others have been saying for years, school choice will destroy public education. It has already done so in Detroit.

The Times piece lays bare the true motivation of corporate education reform: to try to get people to focus on schools as the problem, so that they won't look behind the curtain at the real problem facing the country - income inequity. As the historian and social theorist, Michael Katz, put it in the 2003 update to his great book, The Irony of Early Education Reform, "education has been used in America as a way out of public dilemmas - as a painless substitution for the redistribution of wealth." Education reform always fails because it is not meant to succeed; it is only meant to distract us from the real issue. 

I have been in education long enough to have been through several reform movements. In 1976, I was appointed to a Pennsylvania commission called Project 81. Project 81 was a five year plan aimed at strengthening high school graduation requirements in the state through "competency-based education.". The governor and legislature of Pennsylvania, had determined that schools were not being held accountable enough and that graduation requirements needed to be strengthened (sound familiar?). As a representative of my school district on the commission, I attended conferences, met with teachers from across the state, listened to the best minds on competency -based education and assessment, wrote reports and provided input to the commission. I was sincere, naive and hoping to make a difference. 

Millions of dollars were spent, hundreds of man hours were accrued, but by the end of 1979, Project 81 was not going anywhere. I asked a state official what had happened and this is what I was told, "Project 81 was always a political response to pressure from some people in the public and the government. There is a new governor in place now and the interests have moved elsewhere. Project 81 was never going to effect real change."

The Times had another story today that I connect to the Detroit story. although the connection may not be obvious. It is the story of Sunderland, England, a small depressed city in the northeast where 62% of the residents voted to leave the European Union, even though the EU has poured millions into the region and provided the economically depressed area with a car manufacturing plant to replace jobs lost when the shipping industry shut down. The people of Sunderland were convinced to vote for Brexit, against their own interest, because some political leaders distracted them with appeals to nationalism and xenophobia. 

And so it is with modern corporate reform efforts. They are designed to appeal to our desires for good schools, to our American faith in competition, and to our desire to wash our hands of the problems of the inner city. Most of all they are designed to distract us from the real issue of growing poverty and inequity, because these are problems that can only be resolved through income redistribution and that would cost the 1% money. Education reform is a genius move, because not only does it distract, but it provides the 1% with another market for making money. 

Look how that has worked out in Detroit.

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