Saturday, June 16, 2012

How education is coming under ruling class control

Several colleagues who write for this blog have criticized our current administration on the grounds that it is turning CSU into a junior college or that the administration lacks experience in a doctoral-granting institution. I disagree with this way of criticizing the administration. I suggest here that if we put what is happening at CSU in the context of changes in Chicago (and other) public schools and in national policies toward education, we get a better understanding. I believe that education is changing, that throughout the system politicians and policy-makers wish to seize greater control of the schools and weaken the powers that have accrued to faculties. This seems to be happening at all levels except perhaps the most prestigious research-1 universities.

Recently the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) published a document “The Schools Chicago Students Deserve” (SCSD), which can be found here: I commend this report to you. What it shows, conclusively to my mind, is that current reforms of public education in Chicago (and much of what is occurring nationally) are not aimed at improving student outcomes. There is considerable research showing what does improve student outcomes: smaller class sizes; strong pre-school and early childhood education, especially for the most disadvantaged; a varied curriculum, including art, music, performing arts, physical education, and recess; strong support services such as school nurses, social workers, psychologists, and counselors to help the most troubled students; and clean, adequate physical facilities. None of what is known to help students is being pursued by the Emmanuel/Brizard administration (nor by the Daley/Duncan administration that preceded it). What is pursued instead is a series of reforms that evidence shows to make no difference or to make things worse: increased charter schools, small schools, and closings and turnarounds. Please read SCSD if you can possibly find the time.

What does it mean when they do not do what is shown to improve student performance and outcomes and instead do what is known not to work? To answer that question I believe we need to ask what difference the changes do make. Charter schools are almost invariably non-union; so they weaken the power of teacher organization. The trend is to eliminate veteran teachers, particularly black teachers, using the stereotype of the time-server who cares only about their salary not the children; this is a racist insult to the many veteran teachers who have devoted their lives to helping the most disadvantaged black children in the neighborhoods with the greatest chaos and dislocation—students who will also not do as well on tests or persist as much in school despite the efforts of these often-highly-dedicated teachers. They replace these veteran (often black) teachers (who are at the higher end of the pay scale) with younger, whiter, greener, teachers who may lack formal credentials and usually lack union protection (and can be pushed around and made to do whatever they are told) and who can be dismissed and blamed when outcomes do not improve. The curriculum comes under ever-tighter administrative control; teachers lose opportunities to experiment and innovate with a curriculum in which they can believe. Instead, with a “scripted curriculum” they are given not only a textbook but day-to-day instructions about what they must teach (“On Wednesday March 3, cover pages 35-47 of the text; explain the events leading up to the Boston Tea Party and its consequences”).

These changes reflect efforts over the past thirty years to bring education under more direct federal control, to establish a national curriculum for the schools, and to fit education into the “strategic objectives” of the United States as a world economic and military power whose world position is under challenge from both Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of new economic powerhouses such as China. The latest of a long series of such reports (I have seen earlier reports but cannot recall them), entitled “U.S. Education Reform and National Security,” was issued recently by the ruling-class Council on Foreign Relations (CFR, publisher of the prestigious Foreign Affairs); the primary directors of the project were Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice. You know who Rice is, but Klein was in the White House Counsel’s office and then was Assistant Attorney General under Clinton before becoming Chancellor of New York City’s public schools under Bloomberg. So these are both big ruling-class players. Their report can be found at Their policy recommendations continue the trend of taking administrative control of education out the hands of teachers (who, of course, must be incompetent and have no knowledge of the problems).

I think we get a better sense of what is happening at CSU if we put it in the context sketched above. After Sputnik, there was a rush to expand education, especially in engineering and the sciences, but the sixties saw a huge growth of higher education generally. Woodrow Wilson Fellowships and other such programs were hugely expanded to increase the U.S. professoriate, which also accrued greater prestige and pay. This trend ended many years ago and now higher education is under huge financial and other constraints. Like the public schools, there will be an effort to insure that public higher education is providing a “bang for the buck.” This means greater oversight and control from non-academics, particularly at low-prestige places such as CSU. As with public school teachers, it is assumed we don’t know shit about what we are doing, that we are just out for our paychecks and pensions, and that they know best how to help students.

There is a name for the trend that dominates both public schools and CSU: it is fascism. When capitalism is in crisis (does anyone care to deny that one?), capitalist ruling classes seek tighter control of social institutions to advance capitalist economic interests and imperial military power. These twin patriotic goals are assumed in the CFR report. We teachers are in the ruling class’s crosshairs.

You may not agree with this analysis, but I thought it important to add it to the conversation. Where we will agree is the need for more resistance to these changes from faculty, students, and campus workers. La lutte continue.

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