Reform School

Capitalists will constantly seek to reshape schooling because their labor supply can always be more efficient 

BY the time most public commentators are old enough to publish a book, they have put enough distance between themselves and their compulsory education that the particular ways in which it sucks are hard for them to recall. At 20, education reformer Nikhil Goyal is an exception to the rule. In his Schools on Trial he captures the particularities of a kid’s frustrations with rare vividness. A typical sentence: “In both prisons and schools, you are cut off from the rest of society, stripped of your basic freedoms and rights, like free speech and free press, told what to do all day, and surveilled dragnet style.” This description of compulsory schooling reads like heresy in print but will be immediately confirmed by anyone actually living it. School sucks, remember?

Whether or not school—with the sucking—is worth it isn’t usually a question for serious debate. We’ve come around to the idea that individual students shouldn’t have to experience psychological or physical bullying from their peers as part of their education, but there’s no amount of collective child dissatisfaction or unhappiness that could force adult policymakers to reconsider making kids go to school. It’s the bedrock of our democracy; you’re not supposed to enjoy it.

The common idea across most of the American political spectrum is that compulsory state-funded education is the liberal way to create a knowledgeable and engaged democratic citizenry. Without it, children would either be left to work or would never bother to educate themselves. The specter of illiterate future generations is invoked by both school reformers and defenders of the current system. Although there are many people within the public education system who believe in the noble goals of civic pedagogy, that’s not what America’s schools were built to do. Goyal argues convincingly that, before compulsory schooling, unenslaved Americans were not only extraordinarily well-read by international standards but widely covetous of learning. Compulsory schooling was not introduced to solve the problem of uneducated, unengaged, or unthinking masses. If anything, the opposite is closer to the truth.

In 1837, Horace Mann, the founder of American compulsory education, established the Massachusetts Board of Education, the first such agency and one which would become the model for the nation. But Mann didn’t want a more intellectually engaged population—literacy in the state already stood at 99 percent. Social control was a serious concern for Western elites after a series of failed revolutions, and Mann was very impressed by the system he saw on a visit to Prussia. He returned with a plan for public education.

“Compulsory schooling evangelists,” Goyal writes, “which included many industrialists and financiers, in fact, wanted to ‘dumb down’ the American population to create docile followers, not potentially troublesome freethinkers who questioned authority.” There’s no real controversy as to Mann’s intent or the founding ethics of the American education system, and its origins in German tyranny have been detailed by other critics of compulsory schooling like John Taylor Gatto and Jonathan Kozol. The system was profoundly anti-democratic by design. Whatever else it has become, compulsory education was originally built to produce a rigid class hierarchy of adult workers and ensure obedience to the Kaiser.

But the needs of elites change over time, and so must the schools. By the early 20th century, industrialists had become obsessed with the idea of efficiency and scientific management. Concerned as always with their labor source, the business community wanted to reshape the schools, but first they sought to undermine public confidence in the schools they already had. Goyal describes the first school reform movement this way: “The business community began its assault by bashing the state of public schooling, employing statistics on the ascending illiteracy rates, low student achievement, and the number of children who didn’t finish high school as evidence of failing schools.” Successful, they ported metrics like average achievement, work speed, and most importantly cost-per-pupil, into the discussion about pedagogy.

A century later, these sorts of metrics still rule American education. The amount of data produced by American students has increased, and they now measure themselves through ever more standardized tests. Still, the same class interests that created American compulsory education and reinvented it once are not satisfied. Here’s how Goyal describes today’s corporate education reform movement:

It is a movement being bankrolled by foundations, Wall Street hedge fund managers, other kinds of billionaires, advocacy groups, and think tanks. They want to send public education off to the guillotine. They champion a free-market, neoliberal orthodoxy, which includes closing schools, privatization, vouchers, charter schools, Common Core standards, high-stakes standardized testing, abolishing locally controlled and elected school boards, performance-based pay, and firing and admonishing teachers. They strive to profit off of schoolchildren and believe that schools should be run more like businesses and corporations.

In the light of the history Goyal lays out, this reform movement seems not so much a threat to the American public education system as very much in the tradition. The ruling class corporate reformers are a persistent feature, and they can be relied upon to come up with new ways to tailor (and Taylorize) education to fit their needs.

What are American public schools for? Despite as many different perspectives on the question as there are people who’ve passed through them, American public schools are for American economic progress in today’s global economy. If education was once meant to produce good Prussian monarchists, and later to battle the Soviets, these days the justification is an internationalized labor market. On the White House issue site for K-12 education, here’s how the President introduces the topic: “In today’s global economy, a high-quality education is no longer just a pathway to ­opportunity—it is a prerequisite for success. Because economic progress and educational achievement are inextricably linked, educating every American student to graduate from high school prepared for college and for a career is a national imperative.” It’s not so different from the mission of, say, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Center for Capital Markets, which seeks to “advance America’s global leadership in capital formation.”

The Obama Administration cites four key objectives in its reform agenda, and they’re worth examining in detail because they map very well onto the larger corporate reform movement:

• Higher standards and better assessments that will prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace.

• Ambitious efforts to recruit, prepare, develop, and advance effective teachers and principals, especially in the classrooms where they are most needed.

• Smarter data systems to measure student growth and success, and help educators improve teaching and learning.

• New attention and a national effort to turn around our lowest-achieving schools.

Of course no one calls for reform to lower standards, but assessments designed to measure future workplace success are somewhat specific. This first plank ­establishes the direction for the following three. The second plank calls for “effective” teachers and principals where they’re most “needed.” Since efficacy and need are determined by the assessments and standards in the first plank, that means bringing staff who will produce more future workplace success to schools that aren’t producing enough. The data systems in plank three are an update to the scientific methods imposed on schools a century ago, to guide the path from assessments to standards. In plank four, schools that don’t meet the standards will be “turned around,” presumably so that they face achievement.

What exactly is “workplace success,” and can everyone achieve it? Here’s what President Obama told students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia, in 2009: “No matter what you want to do with your life—I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.”

In this formula, the president implies that with hard work everyone can get a good job. This is the premise for a lot of public education rhetoric, and it is 100 percent false. It may be technically true that in the American system anyone can get a good job, but that doesn’t mean most people aren’t out of luck. Anyone can win the lottery, but everyone certainly can’t. America is still a class system, and by design, most people—no matter the average level of education or job skill—will have to sell their labor to property owners in order to feed and house themselves. Those property owners are the same people that have spent the past hundred years shaping the education system and scientifically reducing labor costs.

So which is it? Is the American public education system meant to increase average wages by training all students in job skills, or is it meant to decrease those same wages by providing employers with a glut of well-prepared potential hires? It can’t be both.

In the second half of Schools on Trial, Goyal looks at alternative schools that prioritize student freedom and self-determination. These anecdotes are a good antidote to the idea that our current schools are the only, best, or even a good way for kids to spend their time. These experimental schools are alternatives, but Goyal knows they’re not very realistic at a structural level. Public schools are held to increasingly rigid standards which are all geared toward workplace success. Private schools may have more freedom but can only be so broad in their impact, and any energy that goes into them doesn’t go into the public system.

The subtitle for Schools on Trial is very carefully worded: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. Goyal doesn’t say that freedom and creativity can fix our educational system because, upon close historical examination, our educational system is not broken—at least not any more than it’s supposed to be. Students can always be more effective future workers, and the enduring corporate education-reform movement and its lackeys in both political parties are always ready for a new push. At the end of the day, in a capitalist system, public education will produce wage laborers, and the American education system does a good job at producing the wage laborers that employers require. If it didn’t, employers would be forced to increase pay and train the skilled workers they need themselves.

Goyal thinks education should be about human flourishing, and it’s hard to disagree. But in the American economic system, flourishing is a question of competition. If everybody grew two feet taller I’d be better at basketball, but my odds of making the Knicks wouldn’t increase. Our national malpractice, as Goyal puts it, doesn’t begin or end with education. You can’t set children up to compete to exploit or be exploited for the rest of their lives and promote the values of joy and comradeship and learning at the same time. Luckily, America only needs one of the two.

In the middle of the Egyptian revolution, a video interview with an extraordinarily well-spoken 12-year-old named Ali Ahmed went viral. The boy spoke with a passionate intelligence that clearly outmatched pundits. Asked about the draft Constitution (which he had read closely online), Ahmed said, “I can beat my wife up and then tell you this is discipline. This is not discipline. This is abuse and insanity. All of this political process is void, because the parliament in the first place is void. Popularly and constitutionally void.”

The interviewer can’t believe what he’s hearing from a child. Schools don’t teach these kind of skills. His command of knowledge was colored by a sense of immediate responsibility, not just for himself but for his society, that we associate with adulthood:

Interviewer: Who taught you all this?

Ali Ahmed: I just know it.

Interviewer: How do you know it?

Ali Ahmed: I listen to people a lot and I use my own brain, plus I read newspapers, watch TV and search the Internet.

Interviewer: So you see that the country is not doing well and it has to change?

Ali Ahmed: You mean, politically or socially?

When President Obama talked to students about responsibility at Wakefield High, he told them, “at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world—and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.”

But American success is not only a limited quantity; it’s a low standard. A nation of Ali Ahmeds might not be suited to produce the kind of workplace success the employers at the Chamber of Commerce have become accustomed to, but that’s because his education has pointed him toward more important concerns and much greater responsibilities. 

School’s Out Forever

The hope is that every student has a teacher or two over a decade and a half that really makes them question and think, but either way, we silently acknowledge that they’ll spend the majority of their young vigor-filled lives quivering at the arbitrary mercy of petty kooks and jowly tyrants.