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Too Cool for School

A radical critique of public education falls flat.

Alejandro Quinones / Flickr

Neoliberal education reform is plagued by a contradiction in its commitments — schools need autonomy to be responsive to communities, yet most charters are run by non-educators with no stake in these communities.

Insulated from public, democratic bodies, charters are operated by “charter management organizations.” These organizations often manage multiple schools and are governed by unelected boards in which philanthropists vastly outnumber teachers or parents. Few charter schools are unionized, so educators have little say in the governance of the school. As the public school system is slowly dismantled, school-by-school, charters open in their place. Naturally, this has caused tension between neoliberal reformers and teachers.

This tension is one of the “teacher wars” Dana Goldstein discusses in her new book. This week, Malcolm Harris reviewed the book for the New Inquiry. His essay, though, is not so much a review as a hastily compiled collection of neoliberal criticisms of the educational status quo.

Harris ponders, “Is it possible that the American public education system is a really bad idea? And can I even say that without becoming a tool in an anti-worker corporate agenda?”

To answer his first question, no. Public education is an idea that needs to be collectively revisited, re-imagined, and reformed by teachers, students, and parents. It can vitally contribute to human flourishing and the realization of creative potentials.

To answer his second question, also no. Give Harris the benefit of the doubt: his intent is not to be “a tool in an anti-worker corporate agenda.” However, when an agenda is being tirelessly pushed by some of the wealthiest, most powerful people in the world, folks carrying the same message to a different audience only aid their cause.

If Harris’s goal is a leftist critique of public education, he falls flat. He comes off sounding more like Michelle Rhee than a radical. In some ways, he’s even worse than that neoliberal reformer par excellence. Both say that the system is not worth saving, that it should be dismantled. But at least the “edupreneurs” know what they want — a system where private interests, often with political clout, hoover up public funds with little-to-no democratic oversight. Harris’s alternative is effectively a question mark.

The closest Harris comes to an alternative is his partial endorsement of virtual schooling: “When it comes to imparting basic knowledge — the kind of skills measured on standardized tests — well-tailored computer programs could do it at least as well as the average human instructor.”

Harris has no evidence to back up this claim. In fact, there is ample research showing the opposite: virtual schools just recreate many of the problems of traditional schools in terms of serving low-income and minority students, and do so while comparing “less favorably to traditional public schools in various measures of student achievement and school performance.”

Harris doesn’t stray far from the mindset of the neoliberal reformer when he asks, “Why would anyone talented want to be a teacher?” which is a twist on the old cliché, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Again, Harris’s attacks on teachers make him an unwitting accomplice of neoliberal reformers who favor slash-and-burn reform.

Harris mentions what some call the “super teacher” narrative, in which teachers sacrifice their lives for their disadvantaged students. He argues that idealized depictions — as exemplified in popular films and children’s books — represent some sort of trade-off between teachers and popular culture. Teachers earn low wages, but are canonized in the media.

Yet the protagonists in these “super teacher” movies like Freedom Writers and Dangerous Minds are foils for the rest of the teaching force, who are portrayed as lazy and protected by unions and tenure. These movies are in fact anti-teacher, advancing the idea that the only way to be effective in the classroom is by sacrificing any life outside of the classroom.

If we traded better wages and working conditions for the chance to be personified as the union representative who tells Viola Davis to stop trying so hard in Won’t Back Down, we’ve been swindled. (That anti-teacher movie received $2 million from private foundations, reform groups, and the US Chamber of Commerce.)

Harris cites what he refers to as a “beautiful phrase” once uttered by George W. Bush — “the soft bigotry of low expectations” — to characterize a passage from the Autobiography of Malcolm X. In the passage, Malcolm X recounts a story about a teacher who told him he couldn’t be a lawyer because he was black. (I would describe that as real, hard bigotry — not soft bigotry.)

It’s worth recalling that when Bush uttered the phrase during a 2000 speech to the NAACP, he wasn’t referring to teachers who discriminated against students, but a school system not driven by data. This was a speech that sold the bipartisan “No Child Left Behind” law, which made schools more streamlined, more authoritarian, and far less student-driven.

It is the very teachers unions Harris lambasts that are leading the charge for a more equitable, racially just education system. This year, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers consulted with parents, families, and community partners during contract negotiations, resulting in an agreement that includes many student-centered initiatives. The Chicago Teachers Union’s actions are guided by a document it produced called “The Schools that Chicago’s Students Deserve,” which outlines a progressive vision of public education and decries the “apartheid-like” status quo. Teachers unions in Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles created similar documents after engaging with their communities.

Last year, Seattle teachers, supported by their union and joined by parents and students, led a successful boycott of standardized testing. Teachers and their unions are now playing a central role in the blossoming opt-out movement. Teachers unions stand in solidarity with, and often actively participate in, campaigns to raise the minimum wage and close the school-to-prison pipeline.

Although there is much more work to be done, social movement unionism has become the model.

As the Left looks to a recharged teachers union movement to fight for educational justice, there will surely be people who want to tear it down, to pronounce it futile. Those of us who are doing the work and organizing for better public schools just have to write off people like Harris as another roadblock — and a small one compared to the powerful interests that really wish to destroy us.

Kenzo Shibata was a contributor to Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook, a joint project of Jacobin and the Chicago Teachers Union’s CORE. The booklet can be downloaded for free and print copies are still available.