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Friday, April 01, 2005
Saving Public Education - Saving Democracy
E. Wayne Ross, Kathleen Kesson, David Gabbard, Sandra Mathison, & Kevin D. Vinson
The Washington Post's recent mea culpa over its participation in the broader media's complicity in the Bush administration's reckless revival of naked imperialism in Iraq belies the fact that investigative journalism in the mainstream press died in the 1970s. The corporatization of the media that reduced "reporting" to "regurgitating" the official statements of politicians and their trained handlers, of course, began much earlier. While Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism reveals the extremes to which private and state power will go in colluding to control the public mind, many of us on the left have always been aware of the corporate media's propaganda role in advancing the interests of the state and private power.
That elements of the broader public have grown more sensitized to these issues should not surprise us, given just how brazenly and consistently the Bush administration has lied. Even after Bush declared "mission accomplished" in his flight suit on board the USS Abraham Lincoln, when Paul Wolfowitz smugly told Vanity Fair that the administration had used Weapons of Mass Destruction as the "bureaucratic reason" for invading Iraq, the mainstream media scarcely reported his statement. Understanding the standards of American journalism, Washington BBC correspondent Ian Pannell correctly predicted that Wolfowitz's remarks would not likely have any political consequences in the US.
The public, of course, has good reasons to be concerned about the press and the role it plays in a democratic society. Though the enforced, two-party system of "representation" goes a long way toward making democracy meaningless, access to information and ideas remains crucial to the public's capacity to organize and resist. The internet, along with the boost it has given to a resurgent independent media, has greatly expanded that access. Hence, the level of popular dissidence may be greater now than at any other time in US history. The growing influence of the internet and independent media may also be responsible for what limited questioning of official power we've seen in the mainstream news rrganizations.
As Thomas Jefferson observed, the health of democracy depends on an educated and informed citizenry. While the internet and independent media sources deserve much credit for helping to mobilize significant levels of organized popular protest in recent years, we should recognize that these outlets are essentially reactive. That is, they respond to issues and events in the immediate present. In this regard, they differ little from the mainstream media or even their right-wing counterparts. There is, however, an institution that plays a more formative role in shaping the public mind - our system of public schools. Though children today grow-up in a media-saturated world, we should not underestimate the potential of schools to help young people grow into adulthood with a discerning mind that will enable them to more critically evaluate the messages they receive from whatever news outlet. And yet, with so much media attention focused on the horrors of the Bush administration's "war on terror" and the surrounding scandals, the press - including progressive groups - has virtually ignored how the state and private power have colluded over the past twenty years to strip public schools of their democratizing potential. In the twenty-one years since the Reagan administration's National Commission for Excellence in Education released A Nation At Risk, no high-minded bastion of journalist integrity in the mainstream press has recanted its parroting reportage of the Commission's claims. Numerous books and professional articles have appeared in the interim to discredit those claims, but none of them have received any serious or sustained attention from the media. Neither has the media reported the miserable failure of educational privatization pioneers such as Christopher Whittle (CEO of the Edison Project) to rescue troubled schools through the wondrous powers of the business model of management.
The strongly bi-partisan No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has similarly received no scrutiny that would alert the public to its insidious policy implications. In the first place, this legislation set ridiculously high standards that simply defied common sense. NCLB requires schools and teachers to insure that all students perform at or above grade level within a three year-period. This outrageous requirement includes children with learning disabilities and behavioral disorders no matter how profound. By definition, then - getting these kids to perform at grade level, NCLB holds teachers accountable for doing what medical science has never accomplished; namely, curing mental retardation.
NCLB also holds teachers accountable for bringing the performance of children from the most poverty-stricken homes up to grade level. While Rod Paige, Bush's homebred (former superintendent of Houston's public schools) Secretary of Education, chastises anyone who dares to criticize these "high expectations" and "rigorous standards" as "racists," one must pause to wonder when policy makers discovered their new faith in the remedial powers of schools. After all, the prison industry has long used third-grade reading scores to project how many new cells they will have to construct over the next twenty-year period.
While the policies of NCLB never receive any attention in the press, there has been some considerable recent outcry by Democrats and others because of the Bush administration's refusal to fund this legislation at its originally planned levels. No one stops; however, to examine the policies themselves, or to listen to teachers' complaints concerning how this high-stakes-testing model of school/teacher accountability pressures teachers to adopt the most intellectually stultifying (drill and kill) teaching methods that remove the joy of teaching from them and any potential joy of learning from their students.
Beyond the fact, as revealed for us by Michael Moore's treatment of the Patriot Act in Fahrenheit 9-11, that the vast majority of our representatives in Congress
never bother reading the legislation that they sign into law (What does this imply in terms of accountability?), the truth about NCLB goes beyond any ineptitude on the part of its architects. NCLB sets impossible standards for a reason. Public access to institutions of learning helps promote the levels of critical civic activism witnessed during the 1960s and 70s that challenged the power of the state and the corporations that it primarily serves. The current reform environment creates conditions where public schools can only fail, thus providing "statistical evidence" for an alleged need to turn education over to private companies in the name of "freedom of choice." In combination with the growing corporate monopolization of the media, these reforms are part of a longer-range plan to consolidate private power's control over the total information system, thus eliminating avenues for the articulation of honest inquiry and dissent. In the end, as evidenced by Secretary of Education Rod Paige's recent characterization of the National Education Association, anyone who contests state-corporatism will be labeled a "terrorist" or, in more Orwellian terms, a "thought-criminal."
While the progressive press and media are perfectly legitimate in pushing their corporate counterparts for greater integrity in their coverage of issues and events, we believe that progressive news and cultural organizations of all varieties owe the public an even greater responsibility to report on the corporate and state assault to privatize public education. We ground this belief in recognition of one very important distinction between the corporate-owned media that progressives have grown so fond of critiquing and public schools. While both the media and schools function as major institutions in the dissemination of knowledge, information, and ideas, the mainstream media will continue to be privately owned and operated. Therefore, the public will always find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to influence their editorial policies. Public schools, on the other hand, are public. That is, insofar as they continue to be operated under public control, the public can wield considerably more influence over the policies that impact the educational practices within public education than it can ever hope to wield over the corporate media. This, in our view, offers the best explanation for the growing movement to privatize schools. Privatization would effectively transfer the control of schools from public hands to corporate hands.
We want to believe that public schools serve us, the public, "We, the people." We want to believe that schools strengthen our democracy, our ability to meaningfully participate in the decision-making processes that impact our communities and our lives. Educational resources need to be directed towards increasing people's awareness of the relevant facts about their lives, and to increase people's abilities to act upon these facts in their own true interests. For the past twenty years, however, significant efforts have been made to resurrect a statist view of schools that treats teachers as mere appendages to the machinery of the state and seeks to hold them accountable to serving the interests of state and corporate power. Linked as it is to the interests of private wealth, this view defines children's value in life as human resources and future consumers. In order to combat this movement, progressive media outlets must begin doing more to alert the public to the disastrous consequences it holds for our schools, our children, and our democracy. Progressives everywhere must begin doing more to demand that our institutions of public education foster critical citizenship skills to advance a more viable and vibrant democratic society. They must push for schools to become organized around preparing young people for active, democratic citizenship through engagement with real-world issues, problem-solving, and critical thinking, and through active participation in civic and political processes. Informed citizenship in a broad-based, grassroots democracy must be based on principles of cooperation with others, non-violent conflict resolution, dialogue, inquiry and rational debate, environmental activism, and the preservation and expansion of human rights. These skills, capacities, and dispositions need to be taught and practiced in our nation's schools.
Progressives must also push harder to ensure that all schools are funded equally and fully, eliminating the dependence on private corporate funds and on the property tax, which creates a two-tiered educational system by distributing educational monies inequitably. Promoting greater equality in educational opportunity must also include demands for universal pre-k and tuition-free higher education for all qualified students in state universities. The past two decades have witnessed the increasing involvement of corporations in education in terms of supplementing public spending in exchange for school-based marketing (including advertising space in schools and textbooks, junk fast food and vending machines, and commercial-laden "free" TV). We believe that students should not be thought of as a potential market or as consumers, but as future citizens. We must call for the elimination of advertising in schools and curricula and of the marketing of unhealthy products on school grounds.
As suggested above, the current system uses "carrots and sticks" to coerce compliance with an alienating system of schooling aimed at inducing conformity among teachers and students through high stakes testing and accountability. This system alienates teachers from their work by stripping it of all creative endeavor and reduces it to following scripted lesson plans. We believe that teaching is a matter of the heart, that place where intellect meets up with emotion and spirit in constant dialogue with the world around us. Advancing a more democratic vision of education requires us to work toward the elimination of high stakes standardized tests, and the institution of more fair, equitable, and meaningful systems of accountability and assessment of both students and schools.
The current system also alienates students by stripping learning from its engagement with the world in all of its complexity. It reduces learning to test preparation as part of a larger rat race where students are situated within a larger economic competition for dwindling numbers of jobs. We believe that excellence needs to be defined in terms of teachers' abilities to inspire children to engage the world, for it is through such critical engagement that true learning (as opposed to rote memorization) actually occurs. Students living in the 21st century are going to have to deal with a host of problems created by their predecessors: global warming and other ecological disasters, global conflicts, human rights abuses, loss of civil liberties, etc. The curriculum needs to address what students need to know and be able to do in the 21st century to tackle these problems- and it needs to be relevant to students' current interests and concerns.
Progressives must also work diligently to enlist broader and deeper levels of public support for teachers. Teachers matter. Teaching is a public act that bears directly on our collective future. A broader movement in support of democratic and egalitarian reforms in education must include a commitment to ensure that teachers begin receiving salaries commensurate with other professions. At the same time, we must restore and expand teachers' control, in collaboration with students and communities, over decision-making about issues of curriculum and instruction in the classroom - no more scripted teaching, no more mandated outcomes, no more "teacher-proof" curricula. Local control of education rests at the heart of democracy; state and nationally mandated curriculum and assessment are a prescription for totalitarianism.
Children of immigrants make up approximately 20 percent of the children in the United States, bringing linguistic and cultural differences to many classrooms. Added to this are 2.4 million children who speak a language other than English at home. Those of us struggling to defend the public's welfare in public schools need the support of the wider progressive movement to ensure that the learning needs of English language learners are met through caring, multicultural, multi-lingual education. Citizens in a pluralistic democracy, after all, need to value difference and interact with people of differing abilities, orientations, ethnicities, cultures, and dispositions. Our nation as a whole needs to discard outmoded notions of a hypothetical norm, and either describe ALL students as different, or none of them. All classrooms should be inclusive, meeting the needs of all students, together, in a way that is just, caring, challenging, and meaningful.
Because they do not increase the market value of children, arts programs have never been funded at sufficient levels. Under pressure to increase student achievement rates (test scores), school districts in many areas of the country have eliminated art and music classes from their curricula to give students more time to spend preparing for standardized tests. Progressive elements in our society have always supported these programs. We must, however, do more in order to reverse these economically-driven assaults on the arts in schools, hopefully expanding students' opportunities to learn and excel in the fine and performing arts, physical education and sports, and extra-curricular clubs and activities, in order to develop the skills of interaction and responsibility necessary for participation in a robust civil society.
In the end, whether the savage inequalities of neoliberalism--which define current social and national relations as well as approaches to school reform-- will be overcome depends on how people organize, respond, learn, and teach in schools. With the help of the progressive press and other media outlets, those engaged in the larger struggle for social, political, and environmental justice can, and must, renew their commitment to educational justice and a democratic vision to guide the functioning of our nation's schools. Concurrently, teachers and educational leaders need to link their own interests in the improvement of teaching and learning to a broad-based movement for social, political, and economic justice, and work together for the democratic renewal of public life and public education in America. Collectively, we must make these commitments and act upon them soon, while public control still exists over the public schools. That control will not last unless we do.
E. Wayne Ross (University of British Columbia), Kathleen Kesson (Long Island University), David Gabbard (East Carolina University), Sandra Mathison (University of British Columbia), and Kevin D, Vinson (University of Arizona) are co-editors of Defending Public Schools (published by Praeger).
NOTE the authors have requested that any distribution of the above statement include the final paragraph which identifies their editorial role for that one work
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