Monday, May 02, 2011

Deformed: Authoritarian undercurrents in education

When education scholar Harold Berlak paid a visit to a Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter school in San Francisco he was shocked. Berlak, an education reform skeptic, found a school that reminded him of a “humane, low security prison or something resembling a locked down drug rehab program for adolescents run on reward and punishments...” Berlak reported that the KIPP school resembled the scene out of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, in which students “...who resisted the rules or were slackers wore a large sign pinned to their clothes labeled 'miscreant.'" Other researchers have noted the authoritarian nature of a KIPP education. Instead of fostering a life-long love of learning the KIPP model promotes an atmosphere of compliance, conformity and reverence.

KIPP, a chain of about 100 charter schools, and its affiliated Educational Management Organizations (EMOs) are emblematic of the authoritarianism embodied in today's education reform movement. These schools embrace two main philosophies. The first is that they almost exclusively, serve poor, minority children, in effect creating segregated charter schools. The second is that KIPP employs an authoritarian approach to education, coercing students to bend to the pinched vision and “psychological sterilization” of the charter school manager's methods.

While scholars and commentators argue about the educational efficacy of KIPP's methods, the underlying authoritarianism floats just below the surface, like the unseen mass of an iceberg. What we can see above the surface – the corporatization, commercialization and privatization of the education process – masks a much larger effect lurking beneath: A creeping authoritarianism overtaking our public education system and simultaneously creating a populace less able to critically think in ways that might blunt the damage being done to democracy. Victories by education reformers in areas such as the implementation of high-stakes testing, replacement of regular public schools with charters, mayoral control of school districts, and attacking school teachers, are causing reverberations of increased authoritarianism that are more dangerous than the overt market-fundamentalist changes.

While KIPP and its cohorts can't be described as typical charter schools – there are too many of them of various styles – they are representative of the nature of the larger movement and its future. The authoritarianism found in schools like KIPP permeates nearly every aspect of the education reform movement – or perhaps more accurately, “deform movement,” including its genesis, theory, advocacy, promotion, implementation, and effects. It is a lose-lose proposition, destroying a functioning, if imperfect, educational system and replacing it with a worse one, while simultaneously shaping a populace less able to critically think all the while slowly removing local control of public schools.

The movement is a full-fledged attempt by plutocrats to subject public education to the kind of control and profit extraction that they enjoy over Wall Street and Washington. The methods and the effects of their efforts enhance authoritarianism and add a jolt of potency to conservative political tactics. Jonathan Kozol described the capitalists' excitement over the prospect of taking over public primary and secondary education in Harpers' magazine in August 2007:
Some years ago, a friend who works on Wall Street handed me a stock-market prospectus in which a group of analysts at an investment-banking firm known as Montgomery Securities~described the financial benefits to be derived from privatizing our public schools. "The education industry", according to these analysts, "represents, in our opinion, the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control" that "have either voluntarily opened" or, they note in pointed terms, have "been forced" to open up to private enterprise. Indeed, they write, "the education industry represents the largest market opportunity" since health-care services were privatized during the 1970s.

It is not democracy for a handful of plutocrats, who describe the size of profits to be gained from the privatization of public education as "The Big Enchilda," to decide how we educate our children. Though cloaked in concern for the education of poor and minority children, the end game goal is far more malign: a shrunken public sector and increased corporate profits. Which raises the question: what educational good can come from a system that is rigged for private financial gain?

How to tell big lies: Social dominators and authoritarian followers

The education deformers are very rich and very smart people. They know that to argue that public primary and secondary education should be operated in the interests of Wall Street would be political death, even in today's warped media and political environments. This necessitates a giant subterfuge on their part, a mass-hypnosis they perform on the public where their true aims must be concealed, to be masked by humanitarian arguments implying a motivation of compassion, not profit. The mask of compassion has the advantage of imbuing the movement's followers with a righteous certainty in their actions, inoculating them against the reality of the policies' effects.

People who lead authoritarian followers, called social dominators, are uniquely qualified to orchestrate the movement. They have no compunctions against telling big lies if they think it will advantage them. The audacious strategy is to pretend to care about those they had oppressed in the past. Cloaked in compassion for the disadvantaged, the deformers cleverly push their overarching strategies of de-unionization and privatization of public education as solutions to the admittedly poor academic achievement of some poor, minority, and inner-city children.

Since the movement is not actually rooted in education, but purports to be, the longer it persists the more intense the denial of its effects must become. By now studies have shown the deleterious effects of education deform yet it only picks up steam. Some resistance is now being formed, but the deform movement has already done desperate damage, setting education back decades.

Those authoritarianism and anti-democratic attitudes present at the top of the deform movement radiate through its every facet. Democratically local elected school boards are giving way to the authoritarian governance of private corporations. Discourse surrounding education reform is warped by deceitful advocates, politicians and scholars and their paid chorus. Schools are increasingly using models more appropriate to military or prison systems.

Wrapped in its lie, education reform is bringing other aspects of authoritarianism, such as resistance to diversity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the re-segregation of American schools taking place under the banner of school choice. Other changes may be more subtle but just as damaging in their cumulative effects, such as the competition that is replacing collaboration in the classroom. Curriculum has been narrowed and teaching the art of critical thinking has been reduced. Trained, professional, unionized teachers are being replaced by disposable Teach for America recruits.

In this nine-part series I will examine the authoritarian undercurrents present in the genesis, advocacy, theory, promotion, implementation, and effects of the education reform movement, and how that authoritarianism represents a fundamental threat to democracy itself.

Editorial cartoon by Avidor

Tomorrow: The danger to education and democracy posed by authoritarianism

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