Alan Wieder : Race to the Bottom

Image from Diary of a Public School Teacher.

Race to the bottom:
Educating Obama

Inspiration and curiosity and breadth and depth in learning are often usurped by crowded and underfunded schools, high stakes testing, zero tolerance and incarceration, and the demonization of teachers.

By Alan Wieder | The Rag Blog | February 21, 2013

At about the same time that President Obama was reelected, The Oregonian in Portland ran an article in which a suburban Beaverton teacher told a reporter that she had 64 students in her high school biology class.

There are endless issues that need to be pressed as President Obama enters his second term. Some progressives are hopeful because there is no third term — and supposedly no further political ambitions. Considering both history and the associations that the President chooses, hopefulness from the left doesn’t represent reality.

However, there is both the need and the responsibility to put pressure on the President for social, political, and economic justice. One area where the Obama administration has been especially deficient is public education. Initially taking their cue from Bush’s No Child Left Behind, they have magnified the push for non-egalitarian, class, race, and gender biased education via their own program, Race to the Top.

Obama, through his appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education, has endorsed the post-neocon educational reform movement, or what some critics refer to as the “educational deformers.” Administration policy is akin to privatization because the deformers view education as a commodity.

Bill Ayers elegantly stated the present educational reality in his recent open letter to the President:

The landscape of “educational reform” is currently littered with rubble and ruin and wreckage on all sides. Sadly, your administration has contributed significantly to the mounting catastrophe. You’re not alone: The toxic materials have been assembled as a bipartisan endeavor over many years, and the efforts of the last several administrations are now organized into a coherent push mobilized and led by a merry band of billionaires including Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Walton, and Eli Broad.

Unfortunately, Obama administration educational policy corresponds directly with the President’s choice of Wall Street over Main Street, in spite of his contradictory assertions during his battle with Romney and his recent State of the Union address. For school children and teachers, it means that inspiration and curiosity and breadth and depth in learning are often usurped by crowded and underfunded schools, high stakes testing, zero tolerance and incarceration, and the demonization of teachers.

In These Times published an article by Leonie Haimson that is wonderfully titled, “Educate All Kids Like Sasha and Malia.” Haimson argues that the current administration is “pauperizing, standardizing, digitizing and privatizing education” even though the President would never do the same to his own daughters.

She warns that although Obama has criticized “teaching to the test,” his administration has done just that by demanding teacher evaluation through student test scores. In addition, Haimson argues that punitive policies like school closings and mass teacher firings condemn poor children to unequal education.

Barack and Michelle Obama’s children attend the Friends School and they went to the University of Chicago Lab School before he became President. Both of these institutions honor teachers and provide a teaching and learning environment that includes small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities for exploration and experimentation by teachers and students. Standardized testing is not a religion and teachers are respected rather than demonized.

But the schools that President Obama’s children attend are not the model for his Department of Education or the deformers that they have embraced. The irony is so great because the President and everyone else understand that good teaching and student learning have nothing to do with privatizing schools or high stakes testing or any of the other false measures that the federal government has foisted upon state legislatures. Government educational policy is economic and ideological — not evidential — in spite of government and deformer assertions to the contrary.

Another article that speaks to this issue is “How to Destroy Education While Making a Trillion Dollars” by Robert Freeman. The author stresses three assertions.

First, lower the costs so you can jack up the profits. Since the overwhelming cost in education is the salaries of the teachers, this means firing the experienced teachers, for they are the most expensive. Replace them with “teachers” who are young, inexperienced, and inexpensive. Better yet, waive requirements that they have to have any training, that is to say, that they be credentialed. That way, you can get the absolute cheapest workers available. Roll them over frequently so they don’t develop any expectation that they’ll ever make a career out of it.

Second, make the curriculum as narrow, rote, and regimented as you can. This makes it possible for low-skilled “teachers” to “teach.” All they need do is maintain order while drilling students in mindless memorization and robotic repetition. By all means avoid messy things like context, nuance, values, complexity, reflection, depth, ambiguity — all the things that actually make for true intelligence.

Third, Proliferate franchised, chartered McSchools with each classroom in each McSchool teaching the same thing on the same day in exactly the same way. Develop the lesson literally once, but distribute and reuse it thousands of times with low-cost proctors doing the supervision.

Thankfully, teachers and their allies are fighting for smaller class sizes, limited standardized tests, enhanced arts programs, equitable financing, and strong teacher contracts that protect intellectual freedom, collegiality, and collaboration, as well as bread and butter issues.

And one had to have been in exile the past month not to be aware of the brave stand of teachers in Seattle who have refused to administer the statewide standard examination. Less known is the recent boycott of standardized testing by students, with the support of their parents, in Portland. The latter is lead by a student at Lincoln High School.

Everyone cites teaching and learning in Finland because it is a country where teachers are empowered. But there are great teachers throughout the United States who are ready to lead based on very different values and outcomes than those the Obama administration supports. They are the people who teach America’s children while simultaneously and selflessly fighting for progressive teaching and learning. Education is not a commodity.

Maybe our protests and our actions should remain naïve. Maybe we should be pounding Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as the current administration with Leonie Haimson’s words:

“Educate All Kids Like Sasha and Malia.”

[Alan Wieder taught at the University of South Carolina for over 20 years and wrote academically on racism and education. His forthcoming book, Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid will be available in June through Monthly Review Press in the United States and Jacana Media in South Africa.]

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One Response to Alan Wieder : Race to the Bottom

  1. Anonymous says:

    The lack of an equal playing field for all students means that we no longer live in an educated society. Limited investment in our youth adversely effects every aspect of our lives. We need less market fundamentalism and more social planning according to the Scandinavian model.

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