As a parent of three boys, I have had at least one child in the Boston public
schools for thirteen years. Currently my youngest son is in the 6th grade. I
would like to recount some of the things that he and I have experienced lately
which illustrate how people in the schools resist corporate values, and how
corporations use "education reform" against this resistance.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CORPORATE INVASION
The most obvious change in our schools in recent years has been the increasingly visible intrusion of private corporations. Here's how it happened in Boston. In 1992 there were drastic budget cuts, bitterly opposed by hundreds of parents and teachers who came night after night to public hearings literally screaming (many with tears in their eyes) at the School Committee for destroying successful programs and slashing already inadequate budgets. Nobody could understand why the budgets were being cut. It seemed crazy. But the cuts had a purpose which later became more clear.
Once the schools were made destitute, city politicians linked them to
corporations in "Public/Private Partnerships." Last year when my son
attended the Trotter Elementary school, one of its "partner"
corporations, Reebok, held a school assembly at which the company praised itself
for being competitive by hiring workers in the Mideast for lower than US wages.
Reebok even gave a marketing survey to the children to fill out. When I
complained to the principal, she was sympathetic, but lamented that the school
needed the gym equipment that Reebok donated, so she felt she had to let Reebok
do the assembly.
The budget cuts forced school principals to go begging to corporations and undermined their ability to resist the imposition of corporate values in the schools.
But inside the schools, people are resisting anyway. Last week my 6th grade son told me a wonderful story. One of his teachers announced to the class that he had been given Tommy Hilfiger book covers to pass out, but that he wasn't going to. He spent the class asking his students to say why they thought he objected, and talked about the problem he had with corporations advertising in the classroom. I wrote him a note saying "Bravo!"
A few weeks earlier, our Parent Council spent two hours with the principal and a teacher deciding how to spend $4000 available for awards to children. We made a long list of things to reward. The list included cooperating with or helping others, pursuing an interest, stretching one's ability, helping out at home, having good attendance, doing homework regularly, and lots of other things, not one of which had anything to do with being competitive.
At the time, we weren't thinking about resisting corporate values. But the corporations have been inundating the schools with the idea that our children should be taught to compete against each other. So in fact our simple act of rewarding children for cooperating and helping each other was indeed a form of resistance to corporate values.
Phrases like "teaching our kids to compete in the 21st century" are becoming almost a religious mantra that parents, students, and teachers are forced to read or listen to over and over again. The first announcement to parents from my 6th grader's school said that the mission of the school included "teaching our children to compete." Corporations want our children to see their futures through a corporate lens-as employees who must constantly prove their competitive worth to their employer's bottom line. They want our children to think that success in life requires that they demonstrate that they can and will work harder, faster, more skillfully, and for less pay than other people just like themselves. The idea of working together for each other's well being, as striking UPS workers or Canadian teachers recently did, is one which the corporations want to eliminate from our children's minds.
My son and I experienced this corporate agenda recently when he was invited to an award ceremony for a city-wide essay contest. We were told to report on a Saturday morning at 8 am to an elementary school in East Boston, where dignitaries would present the awards. We arrived with other parents and children to see huge banners hanging in the school auditorium-"Bell Atlantic," "Microsoft." After we waited for two hours with nothing to do or to eat, city officials spent a half-hour making the children practice how to shake hands with Mayor Menino and smile for the cameras. All but one of the prizes were backpacks and snowboards featuring the Lotus corporate logo. Children weren't allowed to pick up their prize until they had listened to speeches by Mayor Menino, Superintendent Payzant, Senator Kennedy, and Bill Cosby.
The Mayor declared, "I'm happy we're here giving our children the tools they need to compete in the 21st century." This theme was repeated by the other politicians. Surrounded by corporate banners, prizes with corporate logos, and politicians pounding home the "compete, compete" mantra, we all got the point. My son's teacher told her class the next day how awful the whole thing was. She probably wasn't thinking "I'm going to resist," but her statement was an act of resistance.
At a recent Parent Council meeting to plan a pot-luck supper, one woman
brought her children with her. When we settled on a date for the pot-luck, this
parent said she couldn't come because she had to work, but that she'd make a
dinner anyway! With this act of unselfconscious solidarity she gave her children
an example of values to live by, in the face of a corporate campaign to teach
them to compete. Resistance takes many forms.
HOW CORPORATIONS USE "SCHOOL REFORM" TO PRESERVE INEQUALITY
Widespread resistance to corporate values may go unnoticed by most people, but the corporations are keenly aware that people are a force which they must control if inequality and capitalism are to survive. I believe the current wave of "school reform" can best be understood as an effort to justify inequality in society and strengthen corporate power.
The Massachusetts Business Alliance spearheaded the drive for the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. Like similar laws around the country, it requires that, starting with the class of 2003, students must pass a statewide test in the 10th grade in order to graduate, no matter how good their school grades and attendance. Superintendent Payzant recently predicted that more than 50% of Boston's students would fail the test.
The new law is creating an atmosphere of panic. My 6th grade son and his classmates have already been warned twice by their teachers that they won't graduate from high school unless they pass a difficult 10th grade standardized test. Teachers and principals themselves are being told that they will be judged incompetent if their students don't pass the new standardized tests.
How does the new 10th grade test relate to the corporate invasion of public education? Massive student failure on the tests will be used to justify the fact that there are no good jobs for a huge proportion of our young people, and to whip people into line through fear. Our children will be blamed for the frightening future that awaits them.
What's the evidence the reforms in Boston are designed to fail?
First, any genuine effort to improve learning in the Boston public schools would include as a high priority reducing the number of students per teacher in the classrooms. My son's Boston public school 6th grade class has 27 students in regular subjects and 32 students in specialty subjects. This is in contrast to only 10 to 13 students per teacher in my older son's private school 9th grade classes.
Large class size is a recipe for low student achievement. Scientific studies bear this out. From 1985 to 1995 the Tennessee legislature conducted a rigorous statewide experiment to determine the effect of class size in early school grades.
Reporting on this study in "The Future of Children, Summer/Fall 1995", Frederick Mosteller, Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Statistics at Harvard University, writes "After four years, it was clear that smaller classes did produce substantial improvement in early learning and cognitive studies...The children who were originally enrolled in smaller classes continued to perform better than their grademates (whose school experience had begun in larger classes) when they were returned to regularsized classes in later grades... [T]he 17 economically poorest school districts improved their...rank among the 139 districts from well below average to above average in reading and mathematics."
Yet in Boston, where class size is larger than even the largest class size in the Tennessee experiment, Superintendent Payzant and the Mayor are silent on this issue. Instead of calling for honest reforms, the Boston Globe blames parents, writing in a Dec. 5 editorial: "No widespread educational breakthrough will take place until parents feel urgent about the need to banish incivility and neglectfulness from the home." (A Jan. 23 Globe editorial thought the size of advanced work classes could be increased without ill effect.)
Second, teachers and principals are not being allowed to discuss freely and convey to the public what they think should be done to enable them to succeed at their work. On the contrary, teachers and principals are being treated as if they have to be frightened into doing a better job. This insulting approach is calculated to destroy the morale of educators.
Third, the Stanford 9 test, selected to be the basis for the test that will evaluate whether students can graduate, is such an absurdly difficult test that the decision to use it can only be an attempt to increase the number of students who fail. [See box next page.]
Like the budget cuts in 1992, using the Stanford 9 test seems crazy. But from the corporate point of view it makes perfect sense. More students complete high school than ever before. More students than ever take the SAT test, hoping to go to college and get a good job. Average SAT scores of black students rose 55 points from 1978 to 1993.
The corporations on the other hand have been automating, downsizing, and shipping jobs overseas to eliminate the need for skilled workers. The fastest growing jobs are in low-pay service work like office cleaning.
The corporate and government elite fear the social unrest that would ensue if millions of students with high expectations and selfconfidence discovered that the corporations have no intention of using and rewarding their talents or letting them have a real voice in society. The elite need to increase the sense of inadequacy and failure in American students so they will accept their place in an unequal and undemocratic society.
Seen against the background of efforts to increase school failure, it becomes
even more clear that everything teachers and principals do to try really to
teach our children and raise their expectations in life are seen by the elite as
acts of defiance, to be crushed with budget cuts or undermined with attacks on
morale or thwarted with absurd tests.
FROM RESISTANCE TO REVOLUTION
The corporate elite are a small minority and their values are the opposite of most peoples' values. Things that most people consider immoral, like deliberately increasing the number of students who fail to graduate, are ruthlessly pursued by the corporate elite in order to control people and to justify increasing inequality in society.
When ordinary people have enough confidence in themselves and each other,
they can break the power of the elite and create real democracy. That confidence
will come in part from learning to see that the things we and our friends do
everyday, like the actions of the parents and teachers my son and I have had the
pleasure of knowing, are actually acts of resistance to corporate values and
have a revolutionary significance.
The standardized test selected by Boston Superintendent Payzant is the Stanford 9. It includes a math test which 10th grade students must pass in order to graduate, along with a reading test.
The 10th grade math test evaluates students on their ability to answer problems like these: 1. "Identify the equation for the line of regression for a scattergram." 2. "Determine a correlation, given a set of data." 3. "Given one side of a right triangle, an angle measure, and the graph of a trigonometric function, find the length of another side." (Trigonometry isn't even offered until the 11th grade!) 4. "Estimate the area under a curve; Solve problems using infinite sequences."
Of the 140,000 randomly selected American students who were given the "Stanford 9" to evaluate the test itself, 61 percent of the 10th graders failed it.
This is not the kind of test that one would use to determine who can graduate from high school unless one wanted to make sure that many fewer students would graduate.
I teach a refresher math course to physicians entering the Master of Public Health graduate degree program at Harvard University, and I know that many of these doctors don't know how to determine a correlation or identify an equation for a line of regression, so why should these topics determine whether a 10th grade student is qualified to graduate?
The test is designed to insure that many well-qualified young people never graduate high school.
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