Monday, April 25, 2011

Capitalist Education Reform: Democracy is the new "socialism"

           By Morna mcDermott, Baltimore Education Reform Examiner
Capitalism and democracy are not synonymous terms-while they overlap in American society they are often also at odds with each other.
Capitalism (particularly the free market version) is often based on the evolutionary notion of “survival of the fittest.” The most vulnerable are at greatest risk. The framework for this parallel is grounded in an ideology that presumes capitalism as “natural” and “given” rather than a social construction which, as such, is liable to be fraught with bias, prejudice and greed- human constructions which at times need to be checked. The assertion that capitalism is a natural state insinuates then that as in “nature” the weakest ones are thinned out of the herd. In socioeconomic terms, the so called “weakest” are those with the least economic or political power, namely: children, the elderly, those less educated, people living in lower socioeconomic conditions, minority groups (all of whom are often marginalized from the center of access to privilege and opportunity). They can’t fight back as easily so their needs are the easiest place to cut the fiscal budget.
Schools in a democratic society, free and open to all, are supposed to be sites where all children can receive access to privilege and opportunity. But instead they have become sites of tests and measurements. The democratic system of schooling has gradually been replaced with a capitalist one.
Democracy is grounded in collaboration and collective participation. A democratic process is one in which multiple voices and perspectives can be heard. It is an emergent dialogic process. It relies on fairness, not competition.
High stakes testing as a means for making schools “accountable” is a capitalist notion. It suggests that tests, in a one size fits all model, is offering “equality” across the curriculum, while ignoring factors such as poverty that directly influence the shape, scope, and outcome of that content delivery. In ideology-land, everyone has an equal chance to take and succeed on the test if only they “try hard enough.” They’re all learning the same material and taking the same test, right? This eerily parallels the myth of meritocracy, close cousin to free market thinking, which blindly wishes to assume that everyone has an equal chance to succeed regardless of the obstacles. Therefore, any failure must be on behalf of the teacher or the student themselves for most likely “not trying hard enough.” This mentality suggests that somehow teachers and schools are the greatest determining force in remediating social and economic ills, and denies the reality that existing problems with social and economic inequality are larger determining factors in shaping childhood development and classroom learning than testing.

A capitalist ideology is reflected in the notion of “I got mine. You can go get yours.” A democratic ideology is supported by the idea of “we are all in this together.” The policy makers who hold the power to cut funding choose programs which do not affect them directly. How many high ranking business men and public officials do you think worry about the arts being cut from their children’s high tax bracket public schools? How many of them do you think accept food stamps? How many live in food deserts or have limited or non-existent access to health care?
In contrast: How many of them will (and do) benefit from tax breaks to the big businesses and top 10% wealthiest people?
While Maryland spends millions of dollars on testing and test preparation for their Race to the Top, here is a list (below) of factors within Baltimore City, many of which are on the chopping block for the 2011-2012 budget. The same people who want to bring us standardized testing as the carrot for financial reward and privatization of schools are the same people who want to cut those programs that help alleviate those social conditions which most directly impact school performance. Race to the Top is self evident. The title says it all: Survival of the Fittest. Sucks for the rest of you. It entrenches the idea that fear and competition will be the remedies to socioeconomic problems and institutional racism. Let’s simply scare children out of poverty and social injustice.
According to a study presented at
To understand the problems of education in America, it is necessary to look at the way public schools are financed. The disparate funding for public schools and between states and within metropolitan areas has turned some public schools into meccas for affluent students and others into decaying infrastructures with overcrowded classrooms and soaring drop-out rates. (

So let’s examine the myth that budget cutting only eliminates those programs which have been “proven” ineffective. Current budget cuts are eliminating smaller programs in Maryland that have been supposedly “determined to be ineffective”—the logic being, why fund something that appears to not being work? Yet, the tests and textbook companies which eat up an enormous part of the educational budget seem immune to this scrutiny in spite of the fact that research has proven that tests effectively do not measure meaningful learning but rather simply test to show if kids can take tests. In fact research shows that high-stakes testing results in:
increase student grade retention and failure rates,
higher dropout rates
practices which are unfair to minorities
inappropriate labeling that can stigmatize children
As Peg, from pegwithpen blog, articulates powerfully in “I Cannot Feed You, But I Will Test You”ironically while we spend money on the testing of children we spend considerably less money for programs that help children develop the skills and learning they need. See her blog at:
Here are the grim statistics for Baltimore City between 2008 and present (and into the future):
Proposed budget cuts to park and recreation
The closing of city-run pools and recreation centers. Judy Atkinson, with the Roosevelt Park Rec Center, said that could be devastating. "It's gonna mean a lot more children out on the street that you're gonna have people with idle time on their hands."
Approximately 30% of all families with children under the age of 18 live in poverty (Census between 2005-2009). For women as householders with no husband present the rate goes to 35%. That is one-third, or one in three. Children living at 250% below the poverty level is 64%.
Loss of PE, AP level classes, art and music programs in “low performing” schools
State funding for arts education has already been cut from the 2008 level of $2.3 million to the $1.163 million amount in the Governor's proposed budget for FY 2011. This is almost a 50% cut from 2008. While surrounding counties like Ann Arundel Montgomery and Howard have arts and sports supplies in abundance, many city schools are lucky to find a few pots of paint and some old paper, a worn out playing field, and broken equipment. For students who don’t necessarily buy into schooling for schoolings sake, the arts and athletics are the reason they succeed and stay in school. It offers them a way to make sense of the world and a reason to attend school.
No, sorry folks, it didn’t go out at the end of the Civil Rights Movement. A passage from The Huffington Post by Sarah Neufield (2009) states: “(Baltimore) is one of the most segregated school systems in America... this must be one of the closest to absolute apartheid." For more on this issue see Howell S. Baum's book Brown in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism
Food deserts
Food deserts are pervasive around Baltimore’s economically challenged communities. Essentially families in these areas must travel a mile or more (usually without a car) to access healthy food choices in larger grocery store chains. The impact of nutrition on the development of a child’s mind and body significantly impact their learning and school performance. Everything from low birth weight in infants born to mothers with poor dietary habits, to incidences of “ADHD” due to the excess of sugar and artificial ingredients in high processed foods most available to them in corner stores and fast food chains.
Clean drinking water
Seems simple enough, but for many students in Baltimore City schools, they do not even have clean potable drinking water in their water fountains.
I am overlooking a myriad of other factors, but space in this article prohibits me from including them all. But these examples suffice to make the message clear. And as far as the line of “using data to drive” policy decision making goes I think the collapse of Fanny May, Freddie Mack, and AIG under the umbrella of free market (as the ideal proposed to “reform” schools in a business model) speak for themselves. Are these really the real results we want for our children? And they are ALL our children.
The writer is an Associate Professor of Education in Baltimore.

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