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Obama’s View of Education Is Stuck in Reverse

Educational reform for the Obama administration “starts with testing and ends with data and more testing.”

President Barack Obama greets a group of teachers, students and school officials before giving an address about strengthening America's education system during a visit to Wright Middle School, November 4, 2009, in Madison. Wisconsin.

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Barack Obama views education as a high priority in his administration. Unlike in the Bush administration, he appears far more aware that public and higher education are important sites of struggle with enormous implications for young people, the existing social order, and the future. While President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have focused on public education, they have done so by largely embracing the Bush administration’s view of educational reform, which includes more testing, more empirically based accountability measures, more charter schools, more military academies, defining the purpose of education in largely economic terms, and punishing public schools that don’t measure up to high-stakes testing measures. For instance, his recent reforms aimed at higher education consists of providing 12 billion dollars to improve community colleges by developing new assessment tools and developing a standardized national curriculum. What comes to mind from this piece of reform is an attempt to upgrade bad secondary schools by adding computers and turning them into trade schools while producing an army of students prepared to take their place in low-skill, low pay service sector jobs.

As Dianne Ravitch has argued, educational reform for the Obama administration “starts with testing and ends with data and more testing.”(1) She rightly insists that Obama is simply giving Bush “a 3rd term in Education.”(2) Arne Duncan, by any educational standard, is a hard-wired disciple of free-market ideology, who largely views schools as a business and defines educational reform within the language of market-driven values and social relations. While he sometimes insists that education represents the civil rights issue of the century, his view of education is as far removed as one can imagine from the discourse of the civil rights movement. In fact, his language largely echoes the conservative market-driven values of both the Bush administration and the Chamber of Commerce. No emancipatory or liberatory goals at work in this discourse. Like Obama, he talks about education being important for democracy, but then he takes a right turn and reduces the purpose of education to preparing students almost exclusively for the workplace, with students defined largely as foot soldiers in the race for the United States to be an economic leader in the global economy. Of course, there is nothing wrong with students learning how to adapt and innovate to the demands of the world economy or learning vital work skills in general. What is wrong is when such a restrictive, instrumental goal becomes the only standard for defining the purpose of education. This is not merely a civically deprived vision of education, it is a dangerously narrow one as well. The discourse of standards and assessment dominate the Obama-Duncan language of reform, and in doing so erase more-crucial issues such as the iniquitous school-financing schemes, the economic disinvestment in poor urban schools, the ongoing reduction of teachers to testing technicians, the increasing racism and segregation of American schools, turning schools over to corporate interests, and the ongoing modeling of schools after prisons and the criminalization of young people. And these are only some of the problems.

Obama and Duncan want to treat teachers as low-skilled factory workers by creating market-based notions of reward and competitiveness, all based on a series of values that have been utterly discredited for causing the financial meltdown the country now faces. This market-based ideology being resurrected by Obama and Duncan has not only altered economic agendas throughout the world, but has also transformed politics, restructured social relations, and produced an array of reality narratives and disciplinary measures that normalize its perverted view of citizenship, the state, and the supremacy of market relations. In the concerted effort to reverse course, it is crucial for educators and others to take account of the profound emotional appeal and ideological hold of neoliberalism on the American public.(3) The success of a market ideology that has produced shocking levels of inequality and impoverishment, along with a market morality that makes greed and corruption ubiquitous, should raise fundamental questions about how viable such a philosophy is for educational reform in the United States. Obama’s vision of education is largely centered around an economic discourse and rationality tied to the past, to the world and business values of investment bankers, insurance companies, and various other institutions in a market-driven culture that viewed aiding society largely with contempt. What the Obama administration must understand is that the crisis in education is not only an economic problem that requires resuscitating the values of the Gilded Age, but a political and ethical crisis about the very nature of citizenship and democracy. Obama and Duncan, on the issue of educational reform, appear to be stuck in reverse.

We need a new language to define the meaning and purpose of public and higher education, one that makes democracy its defining principle of both learning and everyday classroom practices. Part of such a challenge necessitates that educators, students and others create organizations capable of mobilizing civic dialogue, provide an alternative democratic conception of the meaning and purpose of education, and develop political organizations that can influence legislation to challenge corporate power’s ascendancy over the institutions and mechanisms of civil society. In strategic terms, revitalizing public dialogue suggests that parents, young people, teachers, students and administrators take seriously the importance of defending public and higher education as institutions of civic culture whose purpose is to educate students for active and critical citizenship. Teaching strictly for tests, deskilling teachers and turning administrators into CEOs actually devalues the teaching and learning of those crucial civic and social skills and forms of knowledge that allow students to learn how to govern rather than be governed. Obama and Duncan’s view of education may be good for creating ardent consumers and disengaged citizens who provide fodder for a growing cynicism and depoliticization of public life, but it does nothing to create the educational conditions in which young and old can exercise the critical judgment and understanding necessary to confront corporate corruption, financial mismanagement, poverty, the collapse of the welfare state, militarism, the ecological crisis, and a host of other problems that generations of young people are going to have to confront now and in the future.

Situated within a broader context of issues concerned with social responsibility, politics and the dignity of human life, education should be engaged as a site that offers students the opportunity to involve themselves in the deepest problems of society, to acquire the knowledge, skills and ethical vocabulary necessary for modes of critical dialogue and forms of broadened civic participation. This suggests developing classroom conditions for students to come to terms with their own sense of power and public voice as individual and social agents by enabling them to examine and frame critically what they learn in the classroom “within a more political or social or intellectual understanding of what’s going on” in the interface between their lives and the world at large.(4) At the very least, students need to learn how to take responsibility for their own ideas, take intellectual risks, develop a sense of respect for others different than themselves, and learn how to think critically in order to function in a wider democratic culture. At issue here is providing students with an education that allows them to recognize the dream and promise of a substantive democracy, particularly the idea that as citizens they are “entitled to public services, decent housing, safety, security, support during hard times, and most importantly, some power over decision making.”(5) This is a view of education that treats teachers as critical and supportive intellectuals, not technicians, students as engaged citizens, not consumers, and schools as democratic public spheres, not training sites for the business world. It is also a view of education in which matters of power, equality, civic literacy and justice are central to any viable notion of education that addresses the future in terms of its democratic possibilities, rather than the bottom line.(6)

(1). Diane Ravitch, “Obama Gives Bush a 3rd Term in Education,” (June 15, 2009).

(2). Ibid., Ravitich, “Obama Gives Bush a 3rd Term in Education.”

(3). I take up this issue in great detail in “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?” (New York: Palgrave, 2009).

(4). A Conversation between Lani Guinier and Anna Deavere Smith, “Rethinking Power, Rethinking Theater,” Theater 31:1 (Winter 2002), p. 36.

(5). Robin D. G. Kelley, “Neo-Cons of the Black Nation,” Black Renaissance Noire 1:2 (Summer/Fall 1997), p. 146.

(6). See Henry A. Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux, “Take Back Higher Education” (New York: Palgrave, 2004); Henry A. Giroux, “Schooling and the Struggle for Public Life, 2nd Edition” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2005).

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