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Labor and Education Activists Must Challenge Private Tech Takeover of Schools

It’s time we pushed back against the industry premise that education’s purpose is to prepare workers for the job market.

A student with Powell Hall in the background on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on January 7, 2022, in Los Angeles, California.

Too many education activists have implicitly accepted the conventional wisdom that education’s purpose is preparing workers to compete for jobs in the global marketplace. Such a curriculum tends toward using standardized testing based on metrics set by international finance and governance organizations.

Though there are important exceptions, many teachers, administrators and parents, accustomed to tests driving everything in education, have passively accepted the replacement of their involvement in deciding what is taught and how with the regime of standardized tests. Market-based standards are embedded in software and tech platforms that are now omnipresent in schools, a process intensified and accelerated in some schools during the shift to online learning in the pandemic. Except for the alarm raised by a handful of activists and researchers, little challenge has been made to districts adopting software based on standards set far away, by unelected, unaccountable corporate “leaders” and the politicians they buy. Many don’t realize the danger of student data being bought and sold by ed tech companies for huge profits. The Democrats and GOP have shunned strict regulatory controls, which would curtail the public/private partnerships that are the newest source of profit-making in education. Activists have yet to mount a sufficient challenge to this new frontier of privatization and corporate control of schools.

The new front to destroy public education is quite clear to those waging the war. Having named the goal of education as “teaching new skills for the 21st century,” which Wall Street and Silicon Valley moguls assume they can determine, the Google Research Project on the Future of Education provides the solution: “greater collaboration between educational providers and the private sector.” Under this vision of education, students will have to be exposed to “future career options much earlier” than they are now. This will further narrow the curriculum to numeracy, basic literacy and technical skills, enforced with software and platforms produced by the private sector. This approach sees virtual learning as a substitute for traditional school activities only children of affluent parents will have (arts instruction; physical education replaced by e-sports; and play) and recess as a time to assess “social and emotional learning” with predetermined rubrics in software that records student data, which can be bought and sold.

A glib December New York Times business section story about what in 2022 “gives us hope for 2023” dismissed apprehensions about robots replacing humans. Jobs won’t be lost, we are told. We’ll enjoy having “grunt work” made easier. But a noteworthy NYT story the same week reported on illustrators discussing how artificial intelligence (AI) has changed their work. One artist noted the focus on technology “replacing a job or a person” misses what really happens: The technology doesn’t replace jobs nor eliminate tedious tasks. It’s constructed to wring creativity and skill from work, “taking complex ideas and reducing them to a set of essentializing characteristics” that can be completed by AI.

What will this process look like in education? We can’t be sure. One fly in the ointment for the elites planning our future is their inability to control capitalism, globally. For one, the financial collapse of many tech startups that aimed to make big money from schools wasn’t in their plan. Another question is how much and how fast education activists will understand and respond to these newer forms of privatization and the growing role of education technology. What we can be sure of is that AI is being developed to transform teaching and learning in ways not yet registered by most activists. Describing how AI can individualize test prep, another New York Times article explains what’s being enacted under our noses: AI can address large classes and “overworked and overwhelmed teachers, a deficiency of resources” by individualizing instruction, based on “computer code,” helping teachers to “adjust” their teaching strategies. AI is being used to transform test preparation. As of now, this technology has been primarily focused on SAT prep. But since pre-K–12 schooling is now configured by standardized testing, we are a small step away from these technologies being brought into schools to replace teachers or direct their teaching.

Moving From Defense to Offensive Struggles

But this is not a foregone conclusion, as we can look for hope in education workers across the nation who flexed their muscles in 2022. They used the strike, even when not legal, to defend the dignity of their work and fight for better salaries, benefits and pensions. Union members in Sacramento and Minneapolis showed the power of unions to win social and emotional supports for students who have been most impacted by the pandemic. In higher education, graduate workers, contingent faculty and full-timers organized unions and won contracts from coast to coast. More than 48,000 teaching assistants, tutors, researchers and postdoctoral scholars, organized in different locals, joined in striking across the massive University of California system, effectively closing it down in the nation’s largest higher ed strike ever.

The need for a living wage, including benefits and pensions, was a primary spark of militancy among education workers in early childhood, college and university institutions. Despite having credentials that are supposed to ensure some measure of economic stability, people who teach and support students’ educational success are drastically underpaid; some can’t afford housing or health care. In the K-12 sector, the average teacher salary is lower today than it was a decade ago. Many who work in the education sector are no longer willing to abide by salaries, benefits and pensions that degrade them as people and workers. Despite intensified social, emotional and time demands made on them during the pandemic, education workers found the energy to fight for what they and students deserve. Teachers across the U.S. used strikes to force school boards to improve conditions in schools, which includes protecting teaching as a sustainable career.

Though this linkage is seldom made by activists or pundits, economic issues can’t be separated from attacks on teachers, teaching and schools. Social conservatives have manufactured panic about curricula, countering ideological ground won in Black Lives Matter by fanning fears about “critical race theory.” Legislation rolling back social gains of transgender youth in schools is part of the right’s attacks on reproductive freedom and gender equality. The economic and ideological policies reshaping schools emerge from the right’s war on democracy and public education’s role in making our society more just, humane and equitable. Key to eroding schooling’s democratic purposes is the destruction of teaching as a profession and weakening teachers’ organizations, because for all their weaknesses, teachers as an occupational group are the most stable force defending public education.

What the movement did last year was largely defensive. Meanwhile, our opponents have taken the offensive, pushing legislation that privatizes schools with strategies to which we’ve become accustomed — charter schools and vouchers — and with support from liberal and moderate Democrats. Bipartisan efforts have made financial assistance contingent on “private-public partnerships,” which, along with software and platforms, is presented as the only practical solution to the underfunding of public services. What’s being planned for us is not inevitable, though we are encouraged to think it is.

Inspired by the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators, who won leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union and made history with their 2012 strike, another generation of teacher activists has been building reform caucuses in their unions, aligning themselves with movements for economic and social justice in schools and communities. They made a difference in 2022. One of the most important victories occurred in Massachusetts when radicals in the Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) caucus who won leadership of the Massachusetts Teachers Association organized members, along with faith-based and community groups, into the “Raise Up Massachusetts” coalition. Their campaign changed the state constitution to create a 4 percent surcharge on annual income over $1 million. Funds raised will support public education, public transportation, and maintaining roads and bridges.

This “social justice” current in teachers’ unions stands in contrast to the dominant mindset in the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which accept the status quo of capitalism and refuse to even name the system. They address crisis conditions with passivity or by accepting or welcoming policies that imperil public education, like new forms of privatization. Another difference is failing to identify our most important allies: parents and students in communities and schools neglected because of racism and class disparities. Activist teachers in Los Angeles — who have been inspired by and working with students — have demonstrated an alternative, using their union’s power to push back on the school-to-prison pipeline and create racially just schools under the slogan #studentsdeserve.

Though we are subjected to consistent misinformation by the media and politicians about our options, in fact we can shape what is “normal” with our ideas and activism. This has been demonstrated so clearly by movements for social justice that have challenged capitalism’s status quo in the past few years. In 2022 we saw an invigorated teacher union movement. What we expect of the movement and the support we provide will shape our future. Our enemies have vast resources, power and arrogance. What they lack is our strength: knowledge of the transformative power of struggle, an unblinkered critique of the status quo, and the passion to win what we need and deserve.

This article is written in honor of my lifelong co-thinker, Michael Seitz.