Diving into the Wreckage: Our Schools, Education Reform, and the Future Society

William Ayers

Multiple Choice Questions:
A typical American classroom has as much to offer an inquiring mind as does:

A) a vacant lot
B) a country road
C) a street corner
D) the city dump
E) the custodian’s closet
F)  none of the above

Analogy Test:
High-stakes, standardized testing is to learning as:

A) memorizing a flight manual is to flying
B) watching an episode of Hawaii Five-O is to doing police work
C) exchanging marriage vows is to a successful relationship
D) reading Gray’s Anatomy is to practicing surgery
E) singing the national anthem is to citizenship
F) all of the above

Education is a perennial arena of struggle as well as hope: struggle because it stirs in us the need to look at the world anew, to question what we have created, and to wonder once again what’s worthwhile for human beings to know and experience; and hope because it gestures toward a possible future, toward the impending, toward the coming of the new and the strange. Education is where we ask how we might engage, enlarge, and change our lives; it’s where we confront our dreams and fight out notions of the good life; it’s where we try to comprehend, apprehend, or possibly even transform all that we find before us.

What does it mean to be human in the 21st Century? What are we? Where have we come from, and where are we headed? Education raises these most fundamental questions again and again. It’s a yeasty and combustible brew and a contested space, an essential and natural site of conflict—sometimes restrained, other times in chaotic eruption—and it was always so. In this special issue of the Bank Street Occasional Papers, we will dive into the wreckage, engage the fight, and hope to reclaim the ground of education in and for democracy.

In the U.S. today, we are insistently encouraged to think of education as a product like a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screw driver—something bought and sold in the marketplace like any other commodity. The controlling metaphor for  the schoolhouse is a business run by a CEO, with teachers as workers and students as the raw material bumping along the assembly line while information is incrementally stuffed into their little up-turned heads; within this model it’s rather easy to think that “downsizing” the least productive units, “outsourcing” and privatizing a space that was once public is a natural event; that teaching toward a simple standardized metric, and relentlessly applying state-administered (but privately-developed and quite profitable) tests to determine the  “outcomes,” is a rational proxy for real learning; that centrally controlled “standards” for curriculum and teaching are commonsensical; that “zero tolerance” for student misbehavior as a stand-in for child development or justice is sane; and that “accountability,” that is, a range of sanctions on students, teachers, and schools—but never on law-makers, foundations, corporations, or high officials—is logical and level-headed. This is in fact what a range of wealthy “reformers,” noisy politicians, and their chattering pundits in the bought media call “school reform.”

The magic ingredients for this reform recipe are three: replace the public schools with some sort of privately-controlled administration; destroy teachers’ ability to speak with any sustained or unified voice; and sort the winners relentlessly from the losers—test, test, TEST! The operative image for these moves has by now become quite familiar: education is an individual consumer good, neither a public trust nor a social good, and certainly not a fundamental human right. Management, inputs and outcomes, efficiency, cost controls, profit and loss—the dominant language of this kind of reform doesn’t leave much room for doubt, or much space to breathe.

The forces fighting to create the new common-sense—school-reform-normal— are led by a band of dilettante billionaires—Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Walton, Eli Broad, the Koch brothers — who work relentlessly to take up all the available space. Preaching, persuading, and promoting, they often spread around massive amounts of cash to make their points. When Rupert Murdoch was in deep water in the summer of 2011, it came to light that Joel Klein, a leading “reformer” as head of the New York City public schools (and whose own kids attended private schools with small class size, well-resourced classrooms, opportunities for the arts, and more), was on Murdoch’s payroll. Apparently the two saw eye to eye on a core set of education principles: that charter schools needed to expand; poor instructors (the now-famous “lazy incompetent teachers”) should be weeded out; and the power of the teachers union must be curtailed. These new “marketeers” aim to create a certain kind of schooling aligned with a particular social vision.

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