Free Market Schooling

“This is a perilous moment. The individualist, greed-driven free-market ideology that both our major parties have pursued is at odds with what most Americans really care about….Working families and poor communities need and deserve help because the free market has failed to generate shared prosperity — its famous unseen hand has become a closed fist.” Bill Moyers and Michael Winship, and I, agree. But the public seems just as suspicious—if not more so—about public institutions as the private ones. Thus the relative lack of alarm over the extraordinary shift in “ownership” of our public schools. We are witnessing more federal intervention at virtually all levels of schooling, more power in the hands of private wealth, and more “market-driven” decisions — at the same time! And there is almost no well-funded opposition, except for teacher unions who are then villainized as being anti-reform, self-interested, too protective of their bad apples.

What epitomizes the latest “true reform” is that it cuts off both teacher professional and parent/family judgment about what goes on in publicly-financed schools. Above all in urban areas, but overtime perhaps to rural and suburban communities too.

Even vouchers are creeping back; but there is no need for vouchers if the same interests and ideology can be served without any clear legislative decision to abandon “schooling as we know it.” It has been slipped in—first as an experiment to shake off old habits. A charter here and there with a new idea that could appeal across geographic boundaries would open up our thinking, courage real innovation—influencing all schools. All it needs is: a friendly Mayor, a friendly President and weakened unions.

Let many flowers bloom, managed largely by private companies, including school chains serving as many pupils as the average school system does now, working under a broad state-wide and federal oversight and boards/trustees selected by the school’s “founders.” Caps? None, they argue. Only proponents of the current “drop-out factories” would want to slow this replacement down, charter fans say.

Meanwhile let there be a national grade-by-grade definition of what young people should know and in what sequence, and back it up with a nation-wide standardized system of testing. (Hardly what the Constitution had in mind.)

The big difference? Everyone studies the same things. What is at stake is who chooses the school’s leadership, its staff, pedagogy, textbooks, sequence, and rules of operation. If money is saved that money becomes profit. Private individuals/groups—some for profit and some not-for-profit—some more inclined to listen to their teachers and families, some less so will run the show. But whether they listen is up to them.

At a time when all the usual and very expert regulatory bodies failed to supervise far fewer banks and investment houses, why assume that regulators can protect hundreds of thousands of schools that serve, above all, our least advantaged students. It is an idea that no one has ever proposed openly, each step along the way having been viewed as just offering slightly more flexibility, openness, opportunity, etc.

And I fell for it myself. Instead of getting the entrepreneurship to open up schools with progressive ideal such as mine, or even those with other particular visions we are getting versions of the old story—vocationalism disguised as academics or academics disguised as vocationalism — organized so that they do not need highly expert employees.

Note, that in the “charter world” this latter mainstream model now has a name — “the no excuses” schools. Three-strikes you’re out, zero tolerance. Shape up or ship out.

We will clearly still need a public sector for the square pegs—those kids who charters kick out—plus, perhaps, public schools for the highly selective winners, those who do not ‘need’ silent hallways and lunch periods, “no excuses policies”, or  rote learning pedagogies focused narrowly on reading, writing and arithmetic.  The  new privately managed charter schools would serve the large majority of  ‘at risk’  children with a regimented 19th century education iin the name of  closing the test-score gap.

In the Harvard course on charters that I attended recently all this came to me as though I had not noticed it before. It seemed starker and clearer. “Those children” need it, “they” are not like “my” or “our” children. I had not as bluntly confronted this language since I began teaching in 1962 when I heard it from both left-wing and traditional conservative teachers. It was the original reason I started Cental Park East and then CPESS in East Harlem—to counter that claim. To show that what was needed was a more intensified progressive education, not a more intensified reform school model. And then to my surprise we hit a moment in history when the idea spread like wild-fire. In 1985, when Ted Sizer’s book appeared, there were literally thousands of schools interested across the country. Not, mind you, “systems,” but principals, teachers and families who wanted or had to stay in the pubic system but wanted something very different. Within less than a dozen years the Coalition itself multiplied a hundred fold, and several other like-minded nation-wide alliances began on a scale similar to the Coalition, alongside smaller geographic coalitions in regions and states based on similar progressive views.

Following Annenberg’s shot in the arm, (we had relatively little support from foundations), increasingly impatient with our snails pace. (In fact, Ted Sizer’s original idea was to model only 15 schools over a decade)—to prove it was not utopian. It was the foundations who insisted they would only support the work if we went whole hog.

Test scores were okay—but the score gap remained fairly stable, and the “bureaucrats” with private money had had “enough.” The bureaucrats with public money never bought in, except on the far edges: District 4 in NYC, some integrated sections of a few other districts, sprinklings of public “pilots” in Boston and Chicago, and in a few states like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

But our short-lived spree did not outlast our generation; the new crew of reformers coming from elite universities and colleges, backed by connections to the truly rich, and eager to make their mark in history bought into another utopian grand scheme. And as I listened to the young man who was on the platform with me I saw in him the same enthusiasm and care that I had had—for a very different idea. He took it for granted that the kind of schooling that had worked for him could not work for the kids he was determined to educate well. And by educate well, he, at least, had the same aspirations that I did. Feisty, well-informed and skilled grownups who would defend and extend democracy and equality to our beloved country and planet.

I left both discouraged and elated. If he was right, I would be delighted. If he was wrong, we would “just” have to wait until the new wave of reformers discovered it. Meanwhile, we “just” needed to stay alive until the period of bottom-up reform came around again. Meanwhile, what both sides needed was to thoughtfully explore how we spread sufficient mutual respect and trust to learn from—not convert—each other. That is why I like democracy—it rests, in the end, on persuasion not mandates


One Response

  1. I was in the class you visited. I would like to begin by saying I think you made a few assumptions about our class. I wish you could see the discussions in some of our classes, because I would say that in the most part most of our class agrees with a lot of your ideas. Many of them are as “horrified” by “no excuses” schools as you were.That being said, I personally disagree with some of your views. I understand your desire to give all children the opportunity to an education that is equal in style and philosophy. However, part of the point of having school choice is that there is no one philosophy that will work for all students. Its interesting that each side of this debate seems to think that the other side is wrong because they have only been exposed to middle-class children and schools. While one side would argue that traditional middle-class suburban style schools won’t work for all because some students need much more support than the middle class kids who are already exposed to so much educational material at home, the other side would argue that we are showing prejudice toward lower-class kids who we give a different type of schooling. I’m reminded of a speaker who came in earlier, who had said that he used to scorn individual charter school reform to advocate for whole system reform, until a parent basically said “curse you middle-class white liberal, what about my daughter now?” So I guess as much as we would like to turn around the whole system, there is also importance in creating some successful schools right now, regardless of the theory of education used.Speaking from my own background, I was a little more desperate to get into college than most. I agree with you that pursuing a college education isn’t for everyone. However, I found it irritating when people made this argument to me. When people say “college isn’t for everyone,” it should be a decision based on personal choice rather than stereotype. I often felt that people were trying to convince me that it was my personal choice not to go to college, even though I desperately wanted to go because I felt that it was my only route to success. In college, I did not know how to dress or act like a college student, and quite a few of my peers and some of my professors blatantly told me that I didn’t belong there. These were education students who almost exclusively believed in progressive education, and almost exclusively came from middle class suburbs. While in theory they believed that every student deserves the same type of education, they were unaware of the practical needs that some students have and others don’t. If I didn’t know how to dress professionally, they assumed it was a lack of intelligence and drive. I did not gain my feet in college until I met a professor who was willing to answer all the “obvious” and practical questions that I should have already known the answer to. Given that experience, I see nothing wrong with saying that different kids need different levels of support. You implied in your blog that I personally (as a member of that class) would not send my kid to a “no excuses” school. I would reply that it would depend on who my kid is and what his or her needs are (clearly I don’t have a child). I had a foster brother who joined the military upon graduating high school because he had problems with self-control and needed the external structure. I love him and I would send him to a “no-excuses” school, especially if it meant he could have developed the necessary self-control earlier (preferably without joining the military). Many other students would not enjoy or do well in these schools. I feel better knowing that the option for such a highly structured, successful school is open for those who see the route to college as a life-and-death situation, and who otherwise would not see college as realistic.I apologize for the long response, but I enjoy the thought you put into your views on education and wish I could discuss them more with you. I will follow your blog posts with interest.

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