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Chartering Disaster: Why Duncan’s Corporate-Based Schools Can’t Deliver an Education That Matters

Public schooling is more and more being shaped by a pedagogy of containment, security and conformity that undermines critical thought.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan addresses the opening session of the first federal Bullying Prevention Summit August 11, 2010 in Washington, DC.

Part of the Series

In Arne Duncan’s world, the language of educational reform is defined primarily through the modalities of competition, measurement and quantification. Competition is now one of the most important registers organizing and defining schools and classroom pedagogical practices – no doubt made obvious by the name of Obama’s educational reform policy “Race to the Top,” with its allusion to Wall Street values and casino capitalism. Within this discourse, there seems to be little understanding, as Stuart Hall has argued, “that there is a limit to the good that can be produced by individual competitiveness.”[1] Of course, competition itself is not the problem since competition can be healthy in a number of areas. The real issue is when competition becomes, as Christopher Newfield points out, “the sole organizing principle of society.”[2] And when that happens in educational policies such as those pushed by the Obama administration, one consequence is that the ultimate agent of schooling is modeled after the unattached individual competing for financial rewards, status and a job in the workforce. But there is more at work here than the vulgar instrumentalization of the curriculum, homage to an unchecked mode of market competition and the crude reduction of teacher work to thoughtless methodologies and techniques. There is also a neoliberal agenda in which public money is channeled into the hands of wealthy individuals and corporations. In addition, there is the ongoing infatuation with privatization and the push for charter schools, largely used to siphon off and privilege middle-class students, while promoting forms of tracking and social dumping that often mark underfunded public schools.[3] There is also the push for governance structures shaped in the image of a largely disgraced business culture, whose aim is to restructure the administrative apparatus in public schools as part of a broader political project to weaken the power of faculty and unions, while placing unaccountable power in the hands of corporate elites.

As the forces of privatization merge with the destruction of public housing in many urban areas such as Chicago, charter and privatized schools become the beachheads for gentrification and the emergence of gated communities. Moreover, the values that produce such spaces are now replicated in the schools themselves as they are filled by administrators, teachers and students who do not “know how to share public space to common advantage”[4] or who have not learned how to deal effectively with racial and economic differences.[5] Gaining ground since the 1980s, these reform measures represent the triumph of neoliberal ideology and policies over public education, formerly viewed as a repository of democratic ideals, values and practices. Rather than challenge reform measures whose heritage has more to do with fighting desegregation than fostering democratic modes of schooling, Obama and Duncan have simply legitimated and further extended them. The elements of such a reactionary educational policy are well known: unrestrained individualism in all realms, unbridled competition and corporate values as the master metaphors for educational change, all of which signify a gross perversion of democracy and anything approaching an empowering education. Duncan, in particular, appears to have no language for addressing problems, values, issues and goods that cannot be measured and quantified or are not subject to the profit-making dictates of the market. If public schools have the potential to be vibrant spaces for engaging young people in critical dialog, exchange and creativity, such potential is absent from Duncan’s view of schooling. In fact, it is fair to argue that Duncan ignores, if not disdains, a long tradition in American life extending from Thomas Jefferson to C. Wright Mills and Hannah Arendt in which it has been recognized that citizens are produced, not simply born, and that public schools are the crucial political site where socialization for a healthy democracy takes place.[6]

Increasingly, students are being subjected to a stripped-down notion of schooling, making it more difficult for them not just to think critically, but also to imagine a world beyond the gospel of competition and profit and the economic calculus of financial gain and loss. Public schooling is more and more being shaped by a pedagogy of containment, security and conformity that undermines critical thought, teaching and dialog while emphasizing market values that often create what William Black calls a “criminogenic environment” – one that promotes and legitimates market-driven practices that include fraud, deregulation and other perverse practices.[7] Black claims that the most extreme pedagogical expression of such an environment can be found in business schools, which he calls “fraud factories” for the elite.[8] He writes:

We now have the entitlement generation as CEOs. They just plain feel entitled to being wealthy … with no responsibility, no accountability. They have become literal sociopaths. So one of the things is, you clean up business schools, which right now are fraud factories at the senior levels, right? They create the new monsters that take control and destroy massive enterprises and cause global economic crises, cause the great recession.[9]

These same values described by Black now drive the reform movement shaping public education. What is disturbing about Duncan’s position is that he rarely makes reference to the corruption, fraud, scandals, greed and criminal behavior in the larger society often associated with the ruthless, business-culture model he has adopted as a model for public education. There is no mention or the slightest bit of self-reflection in Duncan’s view of education to indicate that the values driving his call for the reform of public schools share an uncanny alignment with the values that gave us the Enron scandal, the Madoff Affair, “liar’s loans,” the subprime mortgage crisis and the larger economic recession. Duncan’s indifference functions like an autoimmune system that, instead of protecting life, has turned on the body politic, destroying its life-supporting organs and functions.[10] His political and ethical indifference to the death-dealing values that define the business culture to which he is so attached blinds him to the corruptions, illegalities and scandals that now fill the air like the volcanic ash that put Europe in a crisis in the early part of the summer of 2010.

Some of these corrupt practices are obvious and can be found in recent reports of school administrators and teachers in Georgia, Indiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, Virginia, and other states doctoring test results in order to get either salary bonuses or promotions.[11] They can also be found in the desperate attempts by many schools to mimic market-based values by resorting to financial incentives in which they sell not only baked goods to raise money, but also test points for grades.[12] In Chicago and Washington, DC, students in some schools have been paid to get good grades, as if quick financial gain is the most important motivation for learning. In reality, it may pose a serious threat to forms of teaching and learning that enable critical thinking, active citizenship and a heightened imagination. Would it ever occur to students educated to believe that financial gain is the best motivation for learning to question an educational system in which “disciplines such as history, literature, classical studies, and philosophy would be valued only to the extent that they sell themselves as tools of the growing economy”?[13] Would they be able to recognize the importance of values that cannot be commodified or treated solely in terms of their exchange value on the market? Where do matters of honesty, civility, trust, compassion and responsibility for others enter into this discourse?

Clearly, money has the power not only to corrupt, but also to make those educational nonreformers who view it as the most important force for influencing students either stupid or disingenuous. Exchanging grades for money does more than teach students the wrong lessons; it also makes clear that selling out education has now become standard fare.[14] What is rather startling about these stories is that they mimic the same values and practices of Wall Street bankers who shamelessly and without apology engaged in destructive and exploitative financial practices in order to reap large short-term profits, practices that eventually led to the economic meltdown and unbearable hardship and suffering for millions of people around the globe. One would think that schools, of all institutions, would be the last establishment where matters of motivation and teacher merit would be connected primarily to monetary rewards. It appears that Obama and Duncan do not recognize in their own reform policies the unapologetic appropriation of casino capitalism so flagrantly exhibited in the practices of high-flying venture capitalists, who eagerly search out schools as part of their efforts to generate quick and lucrative profits, or who bundle together financial transactions that are bound to fail and then bet against them at the expense of their own investors. Do Obama and Duncan not see a connection between the values that informed the banking and financial industries, who swindled poor people with subprime mortgages, and the incentives behind their own reforms?

The corrupting nature of these market-oriented values on higher education was recently made clear in a “Frontline” television documentary that highlighted a number of educational entrepreneurs, who were in the business of buying failing universities and schools, injecting them with larger amounts of capital, and then turning them into for-profit schools. When asked how he makes such schools successful, one such entrepreneur, Michael Clifford, responded that it took “money, management and marketing,” and that his financial backers make profits so large from these deals that he was embarrassed to provide a figure.[15] What he doesn’t mention, however, is that for these schools to be profitable, they do away with tenure, hire teachers on short-term contracts, charge inflated tuition rates and promote aggressive marketing campaigns to secure students who have to take out huge federal loans in order to attend these schools. The problem is that, for the schools to be profitable, they have to attract an endless stream of students, and they do this by making it easy for them to secure government-backed loans, which, for many students, are almost impossible to repay, leaving them saddled with thousands of dollars in debt. Moreover, the pressure for growth has resulted in the use of questionable high-pressure recruiting techniques to attract students who cannot succeed or graduate and eventually drop out. The largest for-profit school, the University of Phoenix, spends 20 to 25 percent of its total revenue on marketing, while only spending 10 to 20 percent on faculty.[16]

In some cases, students are recruited on the basis of fraudulent claims such as being told that the degree program in which they are enrolling is accredited, when it is not. Argos University-Dallas is being sued by a number of students who were told that the university’s graduate psychology program was going to be accredited by the American Psychology Association. It never received the accreditation, leaving the students with worthless degrees and huge debts.[17] Moreover, enrollment counselors are paid solely through the number of students they recruit, which gives them incentive to use often questionable tactics to recruit such students and hook them up for a quick loan. For instance, Drake College of Business, a for-profit higher education company recruited young people from homeless shelters, while charging them over $15,000 annually in tuition fees.[18] Many of these students defaulted on their loans, providing a profit windfall for Drake. In fact, it has been estimated that “the default-rate at for-profits could be as high as 50 percent.”[19] When Duncan was asked in the “College Inc.” documentary about the loan scam and default rate for these students, he answered tepidly that it was “something we need to watch.”[20] Indeed! But if there were any doubt expressed by Duncan about for-profit schooling, he rescinded it in a later luncheon speech in which he insisted on the “vital role” that “for-profit institutions play in providing job training for students.”[21]

Profit once again trumps the needs of students as Duncan enshrines market-driven forces while overlooking the havoc and hardship imposed on students who fall for the high-pressure recruiting tactics and the instant loans. In the “College Inc.” documentary, one former recruiter stated, “If our numbers started dropping, trainers would come around and start telling you to up your outgoing calls anywhere from 300 to 450 calls a day to meet these quotas, to get those applications.”[22] Even more disturbing is that the “Federal aid to for-profit colleges has jumped to $26.5 billion in 2009 from $4.6 billion in 2000.”[23] Yet, the American taxpayer is subsidizing the loans given to students while private investors are reaping the profits on the defaulted loans. Daniel Golden, an education reporter for Bloomberg News claims, “The taxpayers are essentially funding this industry. Something like 75 percent of their revenue comes from federal grants and loans.”[24] The University of Phoenix now gets “86 percent of its revenue from the federal government, up from something like 48 percent ten years ago.”[25] It is also worth noting that taxpayers have made John Sperling, the founder of the University of Phoenix, a billionaire and have financed the millions in revenue he has handed out to his top executives. Not only are the financial costs of these colleges often much higher than their public counterparts but they also aggressively recruit vulnerable working-class and poor minority students using dubious tactics. Once again, the students who attend these schools are often disproportionally saddled with a heavy debt load, especially if they drop out. As Zygmunt Bauman points out, “Students have been forced/encouraged to live on credit – to spend money which at best they might hope to earn many years later (assuming the prosperity and consumerist orgy lasted that long). The training in the art of ‘living in debt’ and living in debt permanently, has been incorporated into the curriculum of national education.”[26] These are the same predatory neoliberal policies, values and motivations that are also driving the privatization, voucher and charter school crowd that has a strong supporter in Duncan.

The people who are leading the charge for charter schools might as well be taking their cues from the wealthy entrepreneurs investing in for-profit universities. As reported recently in the New York Times, many hedge fund managers now have their sights on charter schools “because they see an entrepreneurial answer to the nation’s education woes.”[27] What is left out of this alleged concern with the problems of public education is the market-addicted infatuation with the cult of privatization and the lure of easy profits. Charter schools allegedly “appeal to the maverick instincts of many who run hedge funds.”[28] One wishes that such statements were merely fodder for late night comics. Instead, they reveal how little these rich, business tycoons and corporate moguls have learned from the financial crisis for which they are responsible. These Wall Street gamblers, whose corrupt and “naked speculation … drove financial markets off a cliff in 2008,” want to use the same disparaged values that sank banks and wiped out the savings and jobs of millions of Americans to develop charter schools and promote educational reform.[29] In the stories surrounding the charter school movement, the incessant search for new markets to invest in surfaces as the main factor influencing its supporters, and certainly not social values or civic conscience. One charter school advocate for Wall Street indicates what appears to be the real motive behind the hedge fund managers’ obsession with charter schools. He writes: “It’s the most important cause in the nation, obviously and with the state providing so much of the money, outside contributions are insanely well leveraged.”[30] Hedge fund managers believe that charter schools are a hot cause and, allegedly, “appeal to the maverick instincts of many who run hedge funds.”[31] But there is more at stake here than fashion and inflated testosterone levels, there is also the usual suspect, greed. Of course, in addition to accessing a money flow that requires little accountability, there are also opportunities to break unions, employ cheap and overworked teachers and organize curricula and classroom pedagogy to teach business values and principles that legitimate the investors’ own casino capitalist approach to public goods such as education.

Some advocates of privatization who call for the destruction of public schools are quite clear about how they view the role of charter schools. For example Andy Smarick, a think-tank wank at the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute, argues that closing allegedly bad public schools – code for all public schools – need to be subject to the “creative destruction” of market forces and that charter schools provide a way station to implementing that goal. Put simply, charter schools should be allowed to fail so they can be then taken over by private industry. As for reforming public education, he argues:

The beginning of the solution is establishing a clear process for closing schools. The simplest and best way to put this into operation is the charter model. Each school, in conjunction with the state or district, would develop a five-year contract with performance measures. Consistent failure to meet goals in key areas would result in closure…. The churn caused by closures isn’t something to be feared; on the contrary, it’s a familiar prerequisite for industry health.[32]

David Harvey has a better term for this process, he calls it “accumulation by dispossession,”[33] and Ken Saltman in his analysis of how market forces capitalize on disaster in education uses the apt phrase “smash and grab privatization.”[34] Unlike Smarick and his ilk who want to replace markets with a market-driven society, Harvey, Saltman, and others make it clear that, after the endless corporate scandals of the last two decades extending from Enron to American International Group (AIG) to the current shameless behavior of BP in the Gulf, what is good for the health of an industry actually may be bad for democracy, the environment and everyone else.

There is a lot of money to be made in supporting charter schools, as seems evident in the number of hedge fund managers, wealthy Americans and Wall Street executives now lining up to support them. Unprecedented numbers of wealthy foundations – what one prominent educator calls “The Billionaires Boys Club,” which includes the Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and the Broad Foundation – “are committed now to charter schools and to evaluating teachers by test scores.”[35] It is worth repeating that the reasons are not always philanthropic. New York Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez wrote an important article indicating that a piece of legislation called the New Market Tax Credit, passed under the Clinton administration in 2000, gave banks and equity funds an enormous federal tax credit when they invested in charter schools.[36] The unsavory business practices, Ponzi scheme corruption and hardships that have been endured by schools as a result of these tax breaks and financial investments are explained by Gonzales. In an interview with Amy Goodman, he states:

What happens is the investors who put up the money to build charter schools get to basically or virtually double their money in seven years through a thirty-nine percent tax credit from the federal government. In addition, this is a tax credit on money that their [sic] lending, so they’re also collecting interest on the loans as well as getting the thirty-nine percent tax credit. They piggy-back the tax credit on other kinds of federal tax credits like historic preservation or job creation or brownfields credits. The result is, you can put in ten million dollars and in seven years double your money. The problem is that the charter schools end up paying in rents the debt service on these loans and so now a lot of the charter schools in Albany are straining paying their debt service – their rent has gone up from $170,000 to $500,000 in a year – huge increases in their rents as they strain to pay off these loans, these construction loans. The rents are eating up huge portions of their total cost. And, of course, the money is coming from the state. One of the big issues is that so many of these charter schools are not being audited. No one knows who are the people making these huge windfall profits as the investors. Often, there are interlocking relationships between the charter school boards and the nonprofit groups that organize and syndicate the loans.[37]

As a strong advocate for charter schools, Duncan rarely acknowledges that such schools are fraught with problems, in spite of the many red flags now being brought to the public’s attention. For example, there is increasing evidence that charter schools are no better or worse than public schools in terms of student achievement.[38] Moreover, in many instances they produce egregious amounts of fraud, corruption and criminal behavior and, increasingly, they exploit the labor and professionalism of teachers who work in these schools. Regarding the latter point, John Funiciello points out, “The toll [taken] on teachers in charter schools by long hours and lack of job security has not been much discussed or analyzed, but a clue might be found in a study by a pair of Vanderbilt University researchers [that] showed that charter school teachers were 132 percent more likely to leave their jobs, than teachers in traditional schools.”[39] We get a hint of why in a statement by one founder of a charter school in New Orleans, who told a Times-Picayune reporter, “the teachers in his school, founded in 2008, are paid for a 50-hour week, but that they often put in 60-70 hours. He also said that none of his teachers is married – and, they don’t have children.”[40] It gets worse. Diane Ravitch, the renowned educational theorist and former assistant secretary of education for the administration of President George H.W. Bush, also indicates that the “Philadelphia Inquirer reported that at least four charters were under federal criminal investigation for nepotism, conflicts of interest and financial mismanagement. The managers of other charters in Pennsylvania created private companies to sell products or services to their schools or placed relatives on the payroll. One charter, the Inquirer found, paid millions of dollars in rent, salaries and management fees annually to a for-profit company owned by the charter’s chief executive officer.”[41]

There is more to be said about Duncan’s support of charter schools beyond even his unwillingness to recognize the limits of charter school performance, the drawbacks of turning public money and governance structures for public schools over to private investors, the growing evidence of corruption and fraud and the increased hardship for teachers, students and parents that often accompanies charter school development. Duncan’s silence on these issues stems from his willingness to view schools like a business and those who run them as CEOs whose job is similar to managing corporate portfolios. But at work here is something even more pernicious than Obama’s and Duncan’s support for educational reforms that represent a deep distrust of public values and disregard for the notion of schooling as a public good: there is also the broader element of a neoliberal project that view charters as an interim measure on the way to ending public education and replacing it with publicly funded private schooling. While there are individuals and groups who advocate for charter schools as part of an attempt to strengthen public education, they often fail to realize that once a public school is transformed into a charter school, it then becomes easy to close and replace with private services.

We get a hint of these concerns and the political project that drives them in a recent op-ed by Charles Murray, a firm supporter of charter schools. Writing in The New York Times, Murray claims conservatives should no longer defend charter schools based on the achievement of higher standardized test scores. He now claims that test scores prove very little and that the real defense of charters should be issued on the “basis of … shared parental calculation.”[42] Charters should be endorsed as part of a larger movement to create schools that replace “the progressive curriculum used in the country’s other public schools” with a more traditional curriculum.[43] It is becoming daily more evident that the unapologetic conservative justification of parental “choice” is code for organizing schools in opposition to the landmark United States Supreme Court desegregation ruling in the 1950s (Brown v. Board of Education). Murray’s support for charter schools, vouchers and other elements in the neoliberal knapsack of reforms exemplifies this type of separatist logic, one that, in this case, comes from an ideologue who has utterly disavowed notions of democratic equality in favor of a commitment to what he calls the “cognitive elite,” a category of people that excludes the working class and minorities. Given that Murray has argued for the inherent genetic superiority of whites, is a primary architect of social policies that favor the dismantling of the social state and is an apologist for racist modes of segregation, it is not surprising that educational policies favoring vouchers, charters and privatization are compatible with his sectarian notion of schooling.

Yet, more is at stake in the promotion of charter schools than a retooling of public education as an adjunct of the corporation or as a gated institution and bulwark against minorities of class, color and ethnicity. There is also a more capacious attempt to dismantle public schooling as a public good within the broader context of American society being systematically refashioned through the domination and rule of corporations, religious bigots and the rich and powerful.[44] The discourse of “educational reform” promoted by the Obama administration really veils a movement that is attempting to disinvest in the public schools and to dismantle the social state. While Duncan may not go so far as to support the end point of neoliberal policy with its destruction of all things public, he certainly plays a formative role in legitimizing and asserting the values that underpin this neoliberal anti-public ideology.

Educational Casualties

Again and again, but particularly in recent years, it has been noticed that intellect in America is resented as a kind of excellence, as a claim to distinction, as a challenge to egalitarianism, as a quality which almost certainly deprives a man or woman of the common touch. The phenomenon is most impressive in education itself. American education can be praised, not to say defended, on many counts; but I believe ours is the only education system in the world vital segments of which have fallen into the hands of people who joyfully and militantly proclaim their hostility to intellect and their eagerness to identify with children who show the least intellectual promise.[45] Richard Hofstadter

The first effect of Duncan’s educational policies is the sabotaging of the formative pedagogical culture, governance structures, and democratic values necessary for educating young people to think critically, embrace democratic civic values and be willing to intervene in the world in order to expand and deepen the processes of justice, equality and democratization. The first casualty of Duncan’s stripped-down notion of reform encompass more than the capacities students need to live in a just society, extending even to those elements absolutely crucial to any viable democracy – the ability of citizens to be able to think for themselves, to question authority and to dialog critically with the diverse traditions that enrich American society. Obama and Duncan have defaulted on their responsibility to address schooling as one of the most crucial institutions the nation has for educating young people, to maintain and improve upon its democratic institutions. What is striking in their educational reform efforts is the degree to which the imagination has been left out of their approach. Conceiving of education as anything beyond thinking, reading and relating within the dull confines of memorization, empty drills and punishing social relations, does not appear of even remote interest to the current administration, such that one is left wondering if it has the slightest clue about educational reform.

The second, equally insidious casualty involves the skills and purpose of those who teach and foster critical thinking among young people. Continuing the educational legacy of the Bush/Cheney regime, Obama and Duncan seem intent on stripping teachers of the autonomy, decent working conditions, power and creative tools that would enable them to think and act imaginatively in their classrooms. Removing the pedagogical conditions necessary to foster teacher autonomy in the classroom leads inexorably to the deskilling and dumbing down of existing and prospective teachers. In Duncan’s corporatized world, teachers are reduced to cogs and limited to teaching standardized lessons, memorization and test-taking skills in an effort to get schools to “Race to the Top.”

But the current administration is not content with just preventing existing teachers from thinking critically and acting creatively. It wants to go further by also attacking any vestige of critical pedagogy and education. Indeed, it seems quite terrified of those modes of critical education that might create future generations of teachers who view their role as more than corporate drones and drab accountants who eagerly embrace teacher-proof lessons and gleefully collect and assess knowledge that is empirically-based and marketable. The depoliticization of teachers means making sure they do not have access to any critical notions of theory, literacy, pedagogy and knowledge. Consequently, conservatives are increasingly developing alternative paths of certification for teachers in an effort to narrow their education to the learning of classroom skills, methods and techniques. At work here is an attempt to transform teacher education programs into simplified forms of instrumental training.

Within this model of reform, teaching and learning are viewed primarily as corporate-based management problems divorced from matters of agency, experience, ethics, theory, history and politics. Anti-intellectualism fuels and works alongside attempts to reconfigure education in utterly instrumental terms, limiting the meaning of education to the narrow and reductive demands of economic development, the acquisition and disposal of commodities, the branding of identities and the legitimation of a life in which all interpersonal and social relations tend to be subordinated to logic of consumerism.[46] Such moves are both poisonous for democracy and severely proscribe any humanistic understanding of education, but they explain how a liberal arts college in Maine recently chose to advertise itself quite shamelessly as the “Home of the Guaranteed Job.”[47]

The third casualty of the Obama-Duncan reform movement are those students who are marginalized by class and race. All students are increasingly subjected to curricula that initiates them into corporate values, but such an education can provide the right credentials and opportunities for only a very select group of privileged students. Not all students are from the privileged precincts of the rich and famous; in fact, few students are positioned to benefit from this type of education. Those who are marginalized by virtue of their race and class are often, instead, subjected to a punishing form of pedagogy, one that dumbs down the curricula and forces students to submit to harsh disciplinary tactics such as zero tolerance policies, while also subjecting teachers to performance-based measures and students to the memorization and regurgitation of information as part of the misguided aims of high-stakes testing. These are the students who now constitute a major part of the human waste industry, often pushed out of schools and eagerly marched into the military or prisons. Yet, while such an education bears down disproportionately hard on some students, it does a disservice to all students, as it does little to educate anyone to be able to recognize anti-democratic forces in the culture or provide the knowledge and skills they need to actively participate in critically engaging and shaping affairs of public importance. Duncan likes to describe his educational reforms as part of the legacy of great civil rights movement. And there is an equalizing impulse in such reforms, but one that has less to do with civil rights and more to do with the practice of standardization, conformity and training, and for many poor white, black and brown students the protocols of harsh disciplinary practices. In the end, such reforms largely initiate all students into the values of the corporate factory, which as Stanley Aronowitz points out, may be one of the nation’s most authoritarian institutions.[48]

Under the regime of high-stakes testing, the reality of the society in which most young people live is ignored or viewed as a threat to canonical knowledge. The dreams, experiences, cultures, knowledge forms and modes of literacy that exist and flourish outside of schools are viewed as either worthless forms of knowledge or subject to the most superficial attention – making schools all the more alien and oppressive to this generation of young people. Finding themselves in schools that resemble prisons and classrooms that actively remove any vestige of joy, critical learning and meaningful knowledge from the educational experience, students are blamed for their academic failures, while school authority and the larger system that drives it go unmentioned and unaccountable for the fate of these students. Money now follows how students perform on high-stakes testing, which means there is a transfer of huge amounts of public money to publishers, testing organizations and large consulting companies.[49] It also means “that school districts where the affluent live get more than their share and make up for state budget deficits by raising local property taxes and soliciting annual subventions from parents, measures not affordable by even the top layer of wage workers and low-level salaried employees.”[50] This surely is a system that promotes a race to the top, but one that neither begins with a level playing field nor attempts to create one.

Beyond the social inequities, corporate corruption, deskilling of teachers and commercial vulgarization of curricula produced by the corporatization of public and higher education, the Obama-Duncan reform movement will inevitably contribute further to removing education from the realm of democratic politics and ideals by undermining the critical formative culture that makes dissent, dialog, thoughtfulness, public values and a commitment to democracy even possible. This speaks to a real crisis in education – one that takes on a certain urgency in light of the fact that, when 73 percent of young people were surveyed in 2009, they responded that their top goal was being financially wealthy, as opposed to only 37 percent who supported that position in 1971.[51]

The culture of intemperate greed unleashed in the late 1970s has taken a terrible toll on the civic skills and imaginations of an entire generation, putting the future of democracy itself in danger. Education now suffers from a democratic deficit and is getting worse. The mission of public and higher education and the role of teachers in American schools and the institutions that educate them deserve more than to be forced to acclimatize to a market-based culture in which anything that cannot be quantified, measured and consumed is viewed as useless, especially if it fails to set individuals in competition with each other and does not lend itself to making an immediate profit. Removed from democratic ideals, education is aligned with an order of privatization increasingly positioned at odds with all public institutions that promote the social foundations of human solidarity.

From a Pedagogy of Technique and Containment to Critical Pedagogy

Any viable notion of school reform has to recognize that public schooling in the United States now suffers from a crisis of vision, power and pedagogy. Schools are no longer viewed as democratic public spheres but as credentials mills, training centers and discipline factories. Clearly, schools must reaffirm their role as foundational institutions in preparing students for citizenship in a global democracy. Education is essential not just for educating students for the workplace, but also for teaching them the skills of civic courage, leadership and social responsibility. This means any viable reform movement must first recognize that the genuine purpose of education is not training, but providing students with the capacities necessary for self-determination and the motivation crucial to maintaining the conditions for an aspiring democracy.

Second, genuine educational reform must address not merely the democratic mission of schooling, but also its fiscal crisis. Within a society racked by massive inequalities in wealth and income, schools suffer from such inequities and reproduce them in the lives of students who are poor and undeserved. In the midst of an inadequate funding scheme based on property taxes, schools fail too many poor white, brown and black students, while foregoing any commitment to the mutually determining registers of equity and excellence. In the midst of a recession, the corrosive effects of a damaged and underfinanced public school system are now crossing over into the suburbs. Even wealthy suburban parents are digging into their own pockets to provide school supplies, fund extracurricular programs and hire teachers.[52] American schools cannot begin to address the class divide, race-based disparities or the challenge of providing the intellectual culture and practical competencies needed by students in a democracy without rectifying how education is funded. Needless to say, this is not merely an economic issue, but a profoundly political one and it goes to the heart of how we define federal budgets, government policies and priorities and the importance of the social state as the fundamental mechanism for promoting the common good.

The third element of educational reform must address how teachers should be treated as intellectuals and work under policies that give them individual and collective power over their working conditions along with salaries commensurate with the importance of their professional status and public roles. Teachers matter in a democratic society; the degree to which they are currently devalued, overworked and underpaid contribute to the erosion of the educational conditions and formative culture necessary for a viable democratic society. Corporate ideologies, values and management practices devalue teachers, degrade instruction and demean students.

Fourth, a careful consideration of how learning happens in the classroom is central to making schools, teaching and learning meaningful, imaginative, critical and transformative in the lives of young people. While I have outlined the first three elements of reform above, I want to conclude with a commentary on the crucial importance of incorporating critical pedagogy into classroom teaching and learning, if educational reform is going to make a difference for democracy. We have heard a lot of talk among so called educational reformers about access to equal opportunity, parental choice, privatization, teacher quality and smaller classrooms, but rarely is the issue of pedagogical theory and practice a subject of debate.

Teaching for many conservatives such as Duncan is often treated merely as a set of strategies used in order to teach prespecified subject matter. In this context, teaching becomes synonymous with a method, a technique or the practice of a particular set of skills. The role of the teacher in this approach has more to do with a clerk offering a grab bag of techniques than a critically informed teacher willing to do more than “serve up well worn and obvious truths that reinforce both common sense, the self-evident and existing relations of power.”[53] Critical pedagogy rejects this notion that teaching can be reduced to a set of prepackaged techniques implemented regardless of the contexts in which they are used. Critical pedagogy views education, instead, as a political and moral project attentive to matters of agency and to the history and specificity of the contexts in which students learn. Learning is always political because it is connected to the formation and acquisition of agency. For this reason, pedagogy can never be viewed merely as a method or disinterested practice simply because it always represents, whether consciously or not, a deliberate attempt on the part of educators to influence how and what knowledge and subjectivities are produced within particular sets of social relations.[54] As a political project, critical pedagogy illuminates the relationships among knowledge, authority and power, drawing attention to questions such as who has control over the conditions for the production of knowledge, values and skills. It raises important questions about the kind of life presented to us in the classroom and whether it enables students to be autonomous, self-determining and capable of self and social critique. Moreover, it sheds light on the ways in which knowledge, identities and authority are constructed within particular circuits of power and whether such relations neutralize or make visible the meaning and challenges facing an aspiring democracy.

Ethically, critical pedagogy stresses the importance of understanding what actually happens in classrooms and other educational settings by raising questions regarding what knowledge is of most worth, what it means to know something and desire knowledge, and what future is being imagined within particular modes of pedagogy. It also takes seriously the important relationship between how we learn and how we act as individual and social agents. In this instance, critical pedagogy is concerned with teaching students not only how to think, but also how to assume a measure of individual and social responsibility – namely, what it means to be responsible for one’s actions as part of a broader attempt to be an engaged citizen who can participate individually and collectively in society in order to expand and deepen the possibilities of democratic public life.[55] There is no such thing as a disinterested pedagogy. Nor should there be since a noncommittal pedagogy is an impossibility. Rather than forfeiting the responsibility that comes with authority, critical pedagogy embraces it as both an object of ongoing self-reflection and a source for critical agency. Authority in this instance is used to provide students with the pedagogical conditions necessary to enable them to face the responsibilities and choices they have to make in society about their role in addressing human misery, suffering and a sustainable future in which the struggle for equality, reason, freedom and justice is ongoing. Critical pedagogy at its most ambitious offers an approach for educators to foster the conditions that enable students to think critically, take risks and reflect on the connection between the knowledge they gain and the obligations of civic and social responsibility. At the same time, critical pedagogy encourages recognition that effective learning is not about passively receiving knowledge as a commodity or a predesigned method.

Pedagogy is not merely about providing information for consumption – what Paulo Freire called banking education – it is about actively engaging classroom knowledge through critical dialog, judgment, argument and analysis. Public schools and the pedagogies they invoke need not be limited to learning how to take tests and mastering instrumental methodologies designed to produce and use empirical data. They can be about creating spaces that unsettle and inspire, problematize common sense and make knowledge meaningful, challenge authoritarianism both in and out of the classroom and empower students to be informed and critical of the world around them. Such pedagogies can evaluate students through the protocols of writing essays, doing research papers, working collectively on projects, learning how to read and use the new media critically and productively and connecting what they learn not only to their immediate environment, but also to those times and places that exist far removed from their own experiences. This orientation of critical pedagogy toward social justice through transformative personal and social analyses may be one reason why it seems to be viewed as dangerous by Duncan and many of his supporters, including David Steiner, the current commissioner of the New York State Department of Education.

If critical pedagogy is considered dangerous by Duncan and his followers, it may also be because it is, in part, about recognizing the importance of different educational contexts and how these contexts affect the conditions for both teaching and interacting with students. Critical pedagogy is context sensitive and makes the issue of specificity central to the practice of teaching. In doing so, it recognizes that the current emphasis on the standardization of curricula, knowledge, teaching and social relations does an injustice to the different narratives, issues, histories and experiences that students bring to schools. Such outside forces operate in classrooms within different cultural, economic and political contexts, and it makes no sense to ignore them given the unique resources, insights and opportunities they present for teachers.

Critical pedagogy begins with an understanding of students as individuals with enormous capacities to be critical, knowledgeable, imaginative and informed citizens, workers and social agents. Consequently, schools are viewed as a crucial resource in a developing democracy and teachers are valued as the front line of academic labor responsible for educating young people in the ideals, goals and practices of a sustainable democratic society. This is a vision of schooling that should be valued and defended by Americans as part of an ongoing attempt to stop Obama and Duncan from reducing public and higher education to models of economic development and a source of profits for the exorbitantly rich and powerful, asset-stripping corporations. Young people deserve better; an aspiring democracy demands more, and Obama and Duncan should work toward an educational reform movement that embraces public values, democratic ideals and critical teaching over the market values and lifeless pedagogies that are so closely allied with standardized curricula, privatized education, charter schools and high-stakes testing.


1. Stuart Hall cited in Len Terry, “Traveling ‘The Hard Road to Renewal’: A Continuing Conversation with Stuart Hall,” Arena Journal, No. 8 (1997), p. 49.

2. Cited in Isabelle Bruno and Christopher Newfield, “Can the Cognitariat Speak?” E-Flux 14 (March 2010). Online here.

3. One of the best books written on the charter schools movement is Danny Weil, “Charter School Movement: History, Politics, Policies, Economics and Effectiveness,” 2nd edition (New York: Gray House, 2009). See also his critique of how charter schools drain funds from the public school sector: Danny Weil, “Neo-liberalism: The Leveraging of Charter Schools with Pubic and Private Funds,” Dissident Voice (November 24, 2009). Online here. Another important critical source on the charter school movement is Kenneth J. Saltman, “Urban School Decentralization and the Growth of ‘Portfolio Districts,'” Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (East Lansing: Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, June 2010).

4. Tony Judt, “Ill Fares the Land,” (New York: Penguin, 2010), p. 216.

5. Kenneth Saltman, “Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools,” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2007).

6. Michael Roth, “Education for a Democracy,” Tikkun 9:4 (July/August 1994), p. 51.

7. Bill Moyers, “Interview with William K. Black,” “Bill Moyers Journal,” (April 23, 2010).Online here.

8. Moyers, “Interview with William K. Black.”

9. Ibid.

10. I am taking this concept from Jacques Derrida, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides – A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” “Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues With Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida,” ed. Giovanna Borradori (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), pp. 85 – 136.

11. Trip Gabriel, “Under Pressure, Teachers Tamper With Test Scores,” New York Times (June 10, 2010), p. A1.

12. Associated Press, “North Carolina: No Test Points for Cash,” New York Times (November 12, 2009), p. A25. See also Lynn Bonner, “District Nixes Cash-for-Grades Fundraiser,” News Observer (November 11, 2009), Online here.

13. Martha Nussbaum, “Being Human,” New Statesman (June 2010). Online here.

14. For an excellent commentary on this issue, see Svi Shapiro, “Cash for Credits: Education in a Time of Hardship,” Tikkun (in press).

15. John Maggio and Martin Smith, “College Inc.,” “Frontline,” (transcript) (Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation, 2010). Online here.

16. Maggio and Smith, “College Inc.”

17. Ibid.

18. Daniel Golden and John Hechinger, “For-Profit N.J. College Halts Recruiting of Homeless,” Businessweek (May 5, 2010). Online here.

19. Maggio and Smith, “College Inc.”

20. Ibid.

21. Cited in Andrea Fuller, “Duncan Says For-Profit Colleges Are Important to Obama’s 2020 Goal,” Chronicle of Higher Education (May 11, 2010). Online here.

22. Maggio and Smith, “College Inc.”

23. Golden and Hechinger, “For-Profit N.J. College.”

24. Maggio and Smith, “College Inc.”

25. Ibid.

26. Zygmunt Bauman, :Living on Borrowed Time: Conversations With Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo,” (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), p. 20.

27. Nancy Hass, “Scholarly Investments,” New York Times (December 6, 2009), p. ST1.

28. Hass, “Scholarly Investments,” p. ST10.

29. Zach Carter, “Financial Reform Makes Headway; Jobs and Social Security in Jeopardy,” Truthout (June 15, 2010). Online here.

30. Hass, “Scholarly Investments,” p. ST10.

31. Ibid.

32. Andy Smarick, “The Turnaround Fallacy,” Education Next (Winter 2010). Online here.

33. David Harvey, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism,” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 159-160.

34. Kenneth J. Saltman, “Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools,” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2007).

35. Ravitch cited in Amy Goodman, “Leading Education Scholar Diane Ravitch: No Child Left Behind Has Left U.S. Schools with Legacy of ‘Institutionalized Fraud,'” Democracy Now! (March 5, 2010). Online here. What Goodman and so many other liberals seem to miss in their slavish adulation of Ravitch’s new liberal credentials is why they and she have ignored leftist critics of education for so long – a position that is also evident in liberal journals such as The Nation (its recent issue, June 24, 2010, on educational reform does not include one prominent leftist educational critic). Ravitch’s newly found liberalism is spelled out in greater detail in her book, “Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” (New York: Basic Books, 2010). While Ravitch criticizes venture philanthropists such as Gates, Broad and Walton for promoting neoliberal educational policies, she does so in defense of a larger conservative attempt to restore Western-based curricula marked by fixed disciplines and traditional core knowledge. There is little in this position that recognizes the importance of the knowledge that young people experience daily or the broader cultures and modes of literacy that shape their lives. As Stanley Aronowitz reminds us, teacher authority must be earned by recognizing the traditions, historical and popular, that shape kids’ lives, though this should not suggest either romanticizing such experience or doing way with teaching the best of the canon. See Stanley Aronowitz, “Against Schooling: For an Education That Matters,” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2008). Another insightful and critical argument against the casino capitalist philanthropists can be found in Kenneth Saltman’s work. Unlike Ravitch, he does not blame progressive education for the system’s current failings, and he takes up the current reform movement now bankrolled by “the billionaires club” as part of the neoliberal assault on both schools and democracy itself. See Kenneth J. Saltman, “The Gift of Education: Public Education and Venture Philanthropy,” (New York: Palgrave, 2010).

36. Juan Gonzalez, “Albany Charter Cash Cow: Big Banks Making a Bundle On New Construction as Schools Bear the Cost,” New York Daily News (May 7, 2010). Online here.

37. This is excerpted from the transcript of the following interview: Amy Goodman, “Juan Gonzalez: Big Banks Making a Bundle on New Construction as Schools Bear the Cost,” Democracy Now! (May 7, 2010). Online here.

38. Trip Gabriel, “Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools Is Mixed,” New York Times (May 1, 2010), p. A1.

39. John Funiciello, “Who Supports Public Education?,” The Black Commentator 79 (June 10, 2010). Online here.

40. Funiciello, “Who Supports Public Education?”

41. Ravitch, “Death and Life,” p.134.

42. Charles Murray, “Why Charter Schools Fail the Test,” New York Times (May 5, 2010), p. A31.

43. Murray, “Why Charter Schools Fail.”

44. This theme has been taken up by a number of authors recently. See, for instance, Chris Hedges, “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America,” (New York: Free Press, 2006); Henry A. Giroux, “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed,” (Boulder: Paradigm, 2008); and Sheldon S. Wolin, “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism,” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

45. Richard Hofstadter, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), p. 51.

46. This issue is taken up brilliantly in Zygmunt Bauman, “Consuming Life,” (London: Polity, 2007).

47. Kate Zernike cites the case of “Thomas College, a liberal arts school in Maine that advertises itself as Home of the Guaranteed Job! Students who can’t find work in their fields within six months of graduation can come back to take classes free, or have the college pay their student loans for a year.” See Kate Zernike, “Making College ‘Relevant,'” New York Times, (January 3, 2010), p. ED16.

48. Aronowitz, “Against Schooling.”

49. For an historical account of the struggles over standardized testing, see Mark J. Garrison’s “A Measure of Failure: The Political Origins of Standardized Testing Albany,” (SUNY Press 2009). For an excellent contemporary take on the relationships between standardized testing and neoliberalism see David Hursh, “High Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning,” (Lanham, MD Rowman & Littlefield 2008).

50. Aronowitz, “Against Schooling,” p. 22.

51. Zernike, “Making College ‘Relevant,'” p. ED16.

52. Derrick Z. Jackson, “Public Education’s Dire Straits,” (Boston Globe, June 12, 2010). Online here.

53. Zygmunt Bauman, “Afterthought: On Writing Sociology,” (Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies 2:3, 2002), p. 361.

54. See, especially, Paulo Freire, “Pedagogy of Freedom,” (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999).

55. These issues have been explored in Roger Simon, “Teaching Against the Grain,” (Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 1992); Henry A. Giroux, “Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life,” 2nd edition (Boulder: Paradigm, 2005); Henry A. Giroux, “Theory and Resistance in Education,” 2nd edition (Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 2001); Joe Kincheloe, “Critical Pedagogy Primer,” (New York: Peter Lang, 2008); and Deborah Britzman, “Novel Education,” (New York: Peter Lang, 2006).

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