SCHOOL REFORM AND THE ATTACK ON PUBLIC EDUCATION
The following speech was delivered as the Keynote Address to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents Summer Institute, 1997. The audience included about 275 school superintendents and assistant superintendents.
...I have two propositions I would like to put to you. The first is that the official education reform movement in Massachusetts and the nation is part of a decades-long corporate and government attack on public education and on our children. Its goal is:
--not to increase educational attainment but to reduce it;
--not to raise the hopes and expectations of our young people but to narrow them, stifle them, and crush them;
--not to improve public education but to destroy it.
My second proposition is that the education reform movement is part of a wider corporate and government plan to undermine democracy and strengthen corporate domination of our society.
This has been a disinformation campaign based on fraudulent claims, distortions, and outright lies.
Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, there have been numerous reports issued, each declaring U.S. public education a disaster, and each proposing "solutions" to our problems. The sponsors of the many reports are a little like the con-man in "The Music Man," who declares, "We've got trouble, right here in River City..." and the chorus repeats, "trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble..." He just happens to be selling the solution to all their troubles. How do you sell radical changes that would have been completely unacceptable to the public a decade or two ago? You tell people over and over that their institutions have failed, and that only the solutions you are peddling offer any way out of their "troubles."
In the past couple of years, several excellent books have been published showing in detail that these claims are false. My purpose in this talk is not to cover the ground that these authors have already explored, but to answer the critical question: Why are the public schools under attack?
But let's look just briefly at a couple of the key pieces of disinformation to which the American public has been subjected.
The supposed dramatic decline of Scholastic Aptitude Test scores was a fraud. These scores did decline somewhat over the period 1963 to 1977. But the SAT is a voluntary test. It is not representative of anything, and it is useless as a measure of student performance or of the quality of the schools. The scores began to fall modestly when the range of young people going into college dramatically expanded in the mid-sixties.
Did this mean that there was a lowering of student achievement during this period? Absolutely not. The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, or PSAT, is a representative exam, given each year to sample student populations across the country. During the period in question, PSAT scores held absolutely steady.
Even more notable is the fact that scores on the College Board Achievement Tests--which test students not on some vaguely-defined "aptitude," but on what they know of specific subjects-did not fall but rose slightly but consistently over the same period in which for the first time in the history of the United States or any other country, the sons and daughters of black and white working families were entering college in massive numbers.
Berliner and Biddle comment in their book, The Manufactured Crisis, "the real evidence indicates that the myth of achievement decline is not only false-it is a hysterical fraud."
How different would have been the public's understanding of what was happening in the schools if the media and the politicians had told the truth! How different if they had announced that, during the period of the greatest turmoil in American society since the Civil War, in which a higher proportion of young people were graduating high school and going on to college than ever before, at a rate unparalleled in any other country in the world, representative tests showed that overall aptitude and achievement were holding steady or increasing? How different would have been the history of these last decades for educators and parents and students-and for public education?
What about the claim that U.S. business has lost its competitive edge because of the alleged failure of public education? Anyone who has been watching the triumphal progress of American corporations in the world market in the last two decades or has watched the unprecedented returns on the stock market knows that these claims are preposterous. Let me cite a few specific facts here:
To understand this, I believe we have to look beyond education to developments in the economy and the wider society. In the past decades, millions of jobs have been shipped overseas. Millions more have been lost to "restructuring" and "downsizing." This trend is not likely to abate. The U. S. is presently enjoying its lowest official unemployment rate in decades-4.9%, or about 6.2 million unemployed at the peak of a long period of sustained growth. But even this large figure is deceptive, because it does not include the millions of people who have been reduced to temporary or part-time work, without benefits, without job security, and without hope of advancement. The number of "contingent" workers in 1993 was over 34 million.
The future for employment is even more grim. Computerization will eliminate millions of jobs and deskill millions more. This is, after all, the attraction of automation for corporations: it downgrades the skills required of most jobs, and thereby makes employees cheaper and more easily expendable. I was talking recently with a chemist who works at a major hospital in Boston. She expressed dissatisfaction with her job. She said that, when she began the job ten years ago, she actually did chemistry. Now, she says, her job has been reduced to tending a machine which performs chemical analyses. A friend of mine wrote a book on the effect of computerization on work. She interviewed a vice-president of Chase Manhattan Bank who was a Loan Officer at the bank. He sat there smartly in his three-piece suit and complained that "He doesn't really feel like a loan officer or a vice-president." Why? Because, after he gets the information from the person requesting a loan, he punches it into a computer-which then tells him if he can make the loan or not.
The transformation of work through computers has really just begun. In his book, The End of Work, Jeremy Rifkin estimates that "In the United States alone, in the years ahead more than 90 million jobs in a labor force of 124 million are potentially vulnerable to replacement by machines." As Rifkin puts it, "Life as we know it is being altered in fundamental ways."
Now, what does all this have to do with education?
There were two little incidents which happened to me in 1976-77, when I was an Education Policy Fellow working in the U.S. Office of Education in Washington, D.C., which gave me a clue as to how to understand the attack on education. The first was a conversation with a man who was at the time a very highly-placed federal official in education. He put to a few of us this question. He said, "In the coming decade of high unemployment"-referring here to the 1980s-"in the coming decade of high unemployment, which is better? Is it better to have people with a lot of education and more personal flexibility, but with high expectations? Or is it better to have people with less education and less personal flexibility, and with lower expectations?" The answer was that it was better to have people with less education and lower expectations. The reasoning was very simple. If people's expectations are very high when the social reality of the jobs available is low, then there can be a great deal of anger and political turmoil. Better to lower their education and lower their expectations.
A second clue involved a man whom many of you may know. Ron Gister, who was Executive Director of the Connecticut School Boards Association at the time, began a speech in 1977 with this simple question. He said, "Ask yourself, What would happen if the public schools really succeeded?" What if our high schools and universities were graduating millions of young people, all of whom had done well?
In an economy with over 6 million unemployed by official count, in which millions more are underemployed or working part-time or in temporary jobs, in which many millions of jobs are being deskilled by computerization and many millions eliminated, and in which wages have fallen to 1958 levels, where would these successful graduates go? What would they do? If they had all graduated with As and Bs, they would have high expectations-expectations for satisfying jobs which would use their talents. Expectations for further education. Expectations about their right to participate in society and to have a real voice in its direction.
I think you can see that, for the people at the very top of this society, who have been instrumental in shipping jobs overseas and restructuring the workforce and downsizing the corporations and shifting the tax burden from the rich onto middle-class and working Americans-the class of people, in short, who have been planning and reaping the benefits of the restructuring of American society-for this class of people at the top, for the schools to succeed would be very dangerous indeed. How much better that the schools not succeed, so that, when young people end up with a boring or low-paying or insecure job or no job at all, they say, "I have only myself to blame." How much better that they blame themselves instead of the economic system.
The reason that public education is under attack is this: our young people have more talent and intelligence and ability than the corporate system can ever use, and higher dreams and aspirations than it can ever fulfill. To force young people to accept less fulfilling lives in a more unequal, less democratic society, the expectations and self-confidence of millions of them must be crushed. Their expectations must be downsized and their sense of themselves restructured to fit into the new corporate order, in which a relative few reap the rewards of corporate success-defined in terms of huge salaries and incredible stock options-and the many lead diminished lives of poverty and insecurity.
If my analysis is correct, it means that you-public educators, every person in this room, and all the staff and colleagues you have worked with these many years-you are under attack not because you have failed -which is what the media and the politicians like to tell you. You are under attack because you have succeeded-in raising expectations which the corporate system cannot fulfill.
They are also attacking education for a second reason: Blaming public education is a way of blaming ordinary people for the increasing inequality in society. It is a way of blaming ordinary people for the terrible things that are happening to them. The corporate leaders and their politician friends are saying that, if our society is becoming more unequal, if millions don't have adequate work or housing or health care, if we are imprisoning more of our population than any other country on earth, it is not because of our brutal and exploitative economic system and our atomized society and our disenfranchised population. No, they say, it is not our leaders or our system who are at fault. The fault lies with the people themselves, who could not make the grade, could not meet the standards. According to the corporate elite, the American people have been weighed in the balance, and they have been found wanting.
Where does the education reform movement fit in this picture?
My first experience with education reform came in September 1977, when I became Washington Director of the National PTA. It so happened that I began my job on the same day that Senators Daniel Moynihan and Robert Packwood and 51 co-sponsors filed the Tuition Tax Credit Act of 1977. The Tuition Tax Credit Act proposed giving the parents of children attending private schools a tax credit of up to $500 to cover tuition costs. The sponsors cited the SAT report as proof that the public schools were failing and that private schools needed support.
Like many others in the public school community, I saw tuition tax credits as a real threat. I met with representatives of the NEA, the AFT, AASA, and others, and we formed the National Coalition for Public Education to oppose tuition tax credits. Over the next several months we organized a coalition comprising over 80 organizations with some 70 million members.
The Tuition Tax Credit bill was a serious threat to public education. The entire federal budget for public elementary and secondary education at the time was about $13 billion. The Packwood-Moynihan bill would have taken about $6 billion from the public treasury. At the time, nearly 90% of our young people attended public schools. The Tuition Tax Credit Act proposed to give an amount equal to nearly half of all the federal moneys spent on the 90% of children in public school to the parents of the 10% of children attending private school.
Aside from its budgetary impact, the bill would have meant a reversal of the federal role in education. The historic role of the federal government has been to equalize educational opportunity. Tuition tax credits, since they are a credit against income and go chiefly to upper-income parents, would disequalize educational opportunity. Federal funding of private education would have established and given official sanction to a two-class system of education, separate and unequal.
The Tuition Tax Credit Act had enormous media and political support. It passed the House in May, 1978. We were able to stop it in the Senate only in August, 1978 with tremendous effort , and then by only one vote. Like the Tuition Tax Credit Act that started it all, the official education reforms such as school vouchers, charter schools, school choice, school-based management, raising "standards," the increased use of standardized testing, the focus on "School to Work," and other reforms, are calculated to make education more sharply stratified, more intensely competitive, and more unequal, and to lower the educational attainment of the great majority of young people. They are calculated also to fragment communities and undermine the web of social relationships which sustains society, and so to weaken people's political power in every area of life.
Just look at some of the reforms:
PRIVATIZATION AND FRAGMENTATION: Public schools have historically been at the center of neighborhood and community life in the United States. In addition, the schools have been a public good which relies on the whole community for support and in which the whole community participates.
School vouchers, tuition tax credits, charter schools, and school choice attack community connections among people. They attack the idea of a public good and replace it with the competition of isolated individuals competing to achieve their own private interests. In this way, privatizing education or establishing separate charter schools will dramatically undermine the power of ordinary people to affect the direction of society.
Voucher and choice plans also legitimize greater inequality in America's schools, as students with better connections or more self-confidence choose better schools. Who can argue with tracking students into good schools or poor schools when the students themselves have apparently chosen their fate?
School-based management is part of this trend. Though school-based management is usually touted as a way of "empowering" parents and teachers at the local level and of cutting back on the costs of central administration, its real purpose-aside from undermining the power of organized teachers--is to fragment school districts and communities, and further to disempower them. School-based management makes every school an island. It encourages people to think only about their own school and their own place within it.
For years Massachusetts has ranked just after Mississippi as the state with the greatest inequality among its school districts. Vast inequalities still remain among Massachusetts schools. Sharply raising standards while not equalizing resources at a common high level, and using "high stakes" tests as the engine of reform, is setting many thousands of children and many school districts up for failure.
Establishing a statewide core curriculum and curriculum frameworks can be very useful steps toward educational quality and equity. My limited conversations with teachers who have seen these frameworks in various disciplines, however, lead me to think that they are being established at unrealistic levels that will assure massive student failure.
What was the sense of this proposal? The Business Partnership claimed that the plan was designed to allow students greater "personal flexibility" and "choice." In fact it had a quite different purpose. Minnesota at the time had the highest school retention rate in the country: fully 91% of Minnesota's young people were graduating from high school, and a high proportion of these were proceeding on to college. By encouraging tens of thousands of young people to leave school at age 16, the Business Partnership-comprising some of the largest Minnesota corporations, like 3M, ConAgra, and Honeywell-would have created huge new pools of cheap labor in Minnesota, to work in stock yards and assembly plants and flip hamburgers.
The Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 does not have exactly the same proposal, but the Massachusetts law moves in a similar direction. In 1998 Massachusetts will require that all students pass a "high stakes" test in the tenth grade to be eligible to graduate. At the same time, the schools will begin offering students a "certificate of competence" upon successful completion of the tenth grade curriculum. What will be the effect of the "high stakes" test, especially if dramatic steps are not taken to insure that the educational programs offered young people in many poorer or urban districts are dramatically improved? I suspect that many thousands of young people who would otherwise be graduating with a high school diploma will leave school instead with a "certificate of competence" after the tenth grade. (Only 48% of Chicago's young people recently passed the new "high-stakes" test required for graduation.) I suggest to you that the effect of the high stakes 10th grade test will be to lower the school retention rate, and that it has the same purpose as the proposed Minnesota reform: to enlarge the pool of cheap labor, and to make it seem as if it is our young people and not our system that is failing.
You may be aware that in 1995 for the first time in our history the gap between black and white high school completion rates was closed: 87% of black and of white young people between the ages of 25 and 29 have completed high school. Also, in the years from 1978 to 1993, the average SAT scores of black students rose 55 points. Are we now prepared to abandon these young people and undo this great progress?
I think that most educators-most people, in fact-are downright uncomfortable with the idea that the fulfillment of our human potential is best measured by the Gross National Product or the progress of Microsoft or General Motors stock on the Big Board.
In the 1950s, Charles Wilson, the former president of General Motors whom Eisenhower had appointed Secretary of Defense, declared, "What's good for General Motors is good for the country." In the 1960s, however, millions of ordinary people became engaged in the civil rights and the anti-war movements and the rank-and-file labor movement. People began increasingly to question the role that the corporations play in American society and began to question the Gross National Product as the real goal and measure of democracy.
Now come the corporate education reformers to tell us that the goal of human development is the success of Big Business! The education reform movement is trying to reassert the moral authority of business as the guiding light of human society and corporate profit as the measure of human achievement.
On a more concrete level, the "School to Work" program aims to shape every child to meet the needs of the corporations. What kind of terrible power are we giving these corporations, what gods have they become, if now we should sacrifice our children to them?
Let me hasten to point out that there is much that is being done in the name of reform that is good, and I am sure that each of you has programs in his own district which you could point to as education reform in the best sense. Education reform has two faces. The goals of the official "reformers" are destructive. Public education in the U. S., however, is a huge enterprise, involving millions of students and teachers and administrators. There is no way that this huge undertaking can be changed without the active involvement of tens of thousands of educators and others. These people-people like you and me and your teaching staff and other educators-do not share the goals of the corporations. Far from it: we genuinely want children and schools to succeed. So the effect of the massive involvement of educators at the grassroots has been, to one extent or another, to push reform in a more positive direction. In fact, I believe that the appointment of John Silber as Chairman of the Board of Education was precisely to put a stop to popular involvement in education reform. Silber's role is to put the genie of democratic education reform back in the bottle, so that the goals of the corporate reformers can be achieved.
It is important to see that the attack on public education does not stem from a "right-wing fringe," as some writers have charged, but from the most powerful corporate and government interests in American society. Business groups at the national level and in most states have led the call for vouchers and charter schools and new standards. President Clinton himself has made Charter Schools the focus of his efforts in K-12 education, and has made tuition tax credits the focus of new aid for higher education.
In the 'sixties and early 'seventies, at the time education was being greatly expanded, we experienced a "revolution of rising expectations," as people's ideas of what their lives should be like greatly expanded. These rising expectations threatened the freedom of elites in the U.S. and around to the world to control their societies. Beginning around 1972, both capitalist and communist elites undertook a counteroffensive, to lower expectations and to tighten their control. This counteroffensive took many different forms, all designed to undermine the economic and psychological security of ordinary people.
For example, the export of jobs and restructuring of corporations which have left many millions of Americans unemployed or underemployed did not happen by chance. They are government policies. Corporations were given tax incentives to move their operations overseas. The huge debts incurred in corporate buyouts were made tax deductible. The safety net of social programs instituted during the New Deal and Great Society was dismantled.
The gutting of these social programs was not a matter of fiscal necessity, as we were told, but of social control. David Stockman, while Budget Director for President Reagan, boasted that the Administration, by slashing taxes on corporations and the rich while vastly increasing military expenditures, had created a "strategic deficit" precisely in order to dismantle social programs. Why? Because programs such as food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children and unemployment insurance make people less vulnerable to the power of the corporations. A succession of presidents, Republican and Democrat, has continued to cut the social safety net, to make people more frightened and controllable.
The current supposed "crisis" in Social Security is a case in point. There is nothing wrong with the Social Security system that a few adjustments-such as removing the upper limit on salaries that are taxed- could not fix. Yet the government and corporations have mounted a scare campaign similar to the attack on public education to suggest that the Social Security system is near collapse and cannot survive without radical "reform," such as privatization. The goal is to make people feel insecure and vulnerable.
At the heart of the public education system, there is a conflict over what goals it should pursue. On one side stand educators and parents and students, who wish to see students educated to the fullest of their ability. On the other side stand the corporate and government elite, the masters of great wealth and power. Their goal is not that students be educated to their fullest potential, but that students be sorted out and persuaded to accept their lot in life, whether it be the executive suite or the unemployment line, as fitting and just. The goal of this powerful elite for the public schools is that inequality in society be legitimized and their hold on power reinforced. This conflict is never acknowledged openly, and yet it finds its way into every debate over school funding and educational policy and practice, and every debate over education reform.
A key question for us is, "What are we educating our students for?" The choices, I think, come down to two. We can prepare students for unrewarding jobs in an increasingly unequal society, or we can prepare our young people to understand their world and to change it. The first is education to meet the needs of the corporate economy. The second is education for democracy.
The goal of the schools must be education for democracy. With this goal we would substitute high expectations for low, cooperation and equality for competition and hierarchy, and real commitment to our children for cynical manipulation. With the goal of education for democracy I believe we could build a reform movement that would truly answer the needs of our children and truly fulfill the goals that led us to become educators.
There is no time for me here to outline a program of positive education reforms, although I have listed ten possible principles of reform on a separate sheet.
Let me say in general, however, that the process of formulating positive reforms should begin with a far-reaching dialogue at the local and state levels, involving administrators, teachers, parents, and students, about the goals of education. This dialogue should examine present educational policy and practice to find what things contribute to self-confidence and growth and healthy connections among young people, and strengthen the relationships of schools to communities, and what things attack this self-confidence and growth and undermine these relationships. A similar dialogue should be organized in every community and at every school. It might include public hearings, at which parents and teachers and others are encouraged to state their views on appropriate goals for education, and to identify those things in their local school which support or retard these goals. Superintendents would have to be both leaders and careful listeners at such hearings.
What conclusions can we draw from this analysis? I suggest several:
What can we do, as superintendents and educators? I have a few suggestions:
We will not be alone in this battle. The great majority of people in our schools and in our communities share the same fundamental beliefs about what our schools should be like and what our society should be like. We can build upon shared values of commitment to each other and to future generations, and shared belief in democracy.
For most of the twentieth century, the people of the world have been trapped between capitalism and communism. Neither of these systems is democratic. Neither has held much promise for most people. Now communism has collapsed. I believe our task as we approach the end of the twentieth century is to create human society anew on a truly democratic basis, in which human beings are not reshaped and restructured to fit the needs of the economy, but rather social and economic structures are reshaped to allow the fulfillment of our full potential as human beings.
David Stratman was the Director of Governmental Relations of the National PTA from 1977-79, and directed the National Coalition for Public Education in its defeat of the Tuition Tax Credit Act in 1978. He works now as a consultant to education organizations and school districts.
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