Waiting for "Superman": Private Markets and Public Education

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by Joseph Natoli

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took

—Sam Cooke, “Wonderful World”

“You wake up every morning and you know that kids are getting a really crappy education right now.”
“You think the kids are getting a really crappy education right now?”
“Oh, I don’t think they are. I know they are.”

—Conversation with Michelle Rhee, Washington D.C. public school Chancellor, in the film Waiting for "Superman"

On the current course we are on, we will see thousands of public schools turned over to private entrepreneurs. We will see an explosion of privatization.

—Diane Ravitch in an interview May 28, 2010, Economic Policy Institute

After decades of bad news about student achievement and polarized policy debates, he [Davis Guggenheim, producer/director, Waiting for "Superman”] knows it is a topic with the power to stupefy.”

—Trip Gabriel, New York Times Sept. 17, 2010

Let’s assume that when we think about things we do so in terms of, or relative to, what the predominating values of the moment might be. This is not an easy assumption to make at this moment because what we value is a personal determination of what anything means and how it is to be valued. But bear with me and think of your personal opines, verdicts, conclusions -- that is, your personal thoughts, as in a box within another box. A Chinese box arrangement with the bigger box you are enclosed within setting up the parameters of your thinking. And choosing. I know that accepting some enclosure of your free choice runs against the temper of the times but let’s say you are choosing to put aside that notion for the time it takes to read these pages. You are choosing to accept the notion that your “free to choose” is not so free, that, in fact, it’s in a box of choices you never made.

Let’s further assume, and get more reckless here, and say that the predominating values and meaning of the bigger box have all to do with market values or we now can call “the free play of the global market.” Let’s take the position of the Tea Party here and say that “free enterprise” is what can happen when government “gets out of the way.”

Now we are thinking about education. Why?

Perhaps it’s because President Obama’s “Race to the Top,” following on the heels of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind,” has caused us to think about it, that thinking encouraged by huge awards of Federal dollars to the “winners.”

Perhaps we are all thinking about it because a latest survey among the thirty OECD nations (think of all the industrialized nations) puts the U.S. in 25th place in math, 16th in reading, 20th in science and 25th in problem solving. We are perhaps embarrassed by this evidence that redefines our “American Exceptionalism.”

Perhaps the new film Waiting for Superman has us thinking about education.

Perhaps, closer to home, your child wasn’t the one out of twenty who wins a charter school lottery.

Perhaps we are thinking about it because public education is just another marketing frontier free enterprise wants to open.

Perhaps it’s all these reasons but now we are thinking about education.

This topic of the state of American education today has “the power to stupefy” for many reasons, which is the M.O. of stupefication, but first on the list might be: “How is the only superpower in the world failing so badly in educating its children?” Further down the list is what stupefies me: charter schools “receive public money...but are not subject to some of the rules, regulations, and statutes that apply to other public schools” AND they can be run by for-profit educational management organizations (EMOs) which use public funds to finance operations BUT charter schools remain mission-oriented while EMO’s are market oriented.” (Wikipedia “For-profit school” and “Charter School”).

The movie, Waiting for `Superman,’ takes on this stupefying topic but, in the words of Gail Collins, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times “seems to suggest that what’s needed is more charter schools, which get taxpayer dollars but are run outside the regular system, unencumbered by central bureaucracy or, in most cases, unions” but the film doesn’t tell us that only 17% of charter schools do a better job than public schools and one third do significantly worse.

So the topic is admittedly stupefying but perhaps this stupefaction serves some purpose in the way that similar confoundings of the Great Recession of 2008, Obama’s Stimulus and healthcare reform efforts, the salvaging of Medicare, the Constitutional “fairness” of a flat tax, the collapse of pensions and the fad of 401(k) retirement plans, the human contribution to global warming, the purposefulness of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush victories, the consequences of banks operating as investment houses, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, and so on, have left us ...at the Oracle of Glenn Beck, in the mamma grizzly bear cave of Sarah Palin, at the feet of Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.

I want to argue that when the stupefying level kicks up to a really Bullish level, privatization of all public schools, a privatization which no longer cloaks its for-profit status, will, like Superman, fly to our rescue.

We will no longer be stupefyingly confused as to whether a charter school is private or public, for profit or not, “right to work” entities (no unions) or not, responsive to public or private standards of curriculum and quality, accepting of “special needs” students or not. And so on.

Rather than waiting for Superman then we’re going to assume that a super force is already at work here and all we need do is follow through the consequences of our assumptions. We’ll play the hand out and see what thoughts we turn over.

Because you have accepted my two assumptions: one, that we think within the predominating values of the moment, and, two, the “free play of the global market” now establishes those predominating values, we can run past other ways of thinking about the present plight of American education. For instance, we need not think about putting God and the Bible into the classroom, or, taking sex education out, or, keeping Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn out of the school library, or, putting Intelligent Design “theory” alongside evolutionary biology, or, preventing gay couples from adopting and thus preserving “family values” which determine whether Johnny can read, or, pumping Mozart into the nursery, or, dropping art and music and replacing them with computer literacy. And so on.

We just need to focus on market values and how they shape our thinking about education.

First of all, markets seek a maximization of profits everywhere and at every time. As long as education remains mostly a public, tax payer supported enterprise, markets and capital investment has no hold. If public education were to turn private and IPO’s could ensue and profits could be distributed to shareholders, education would be a Dow Jones regular. At this moment, education is a frontier, a potential new market, yet to be fully opened although every form of privatization from charter and religious schools to Edison Learning and Waldorf Schools and a rising number of corporate ventures into education have appeared. The trick here is to turn “public” into “private,” a bit of legerdemain that is presently underway. This is what is deep down turning up the heat on the issue, or potential market, of education.

Recognition of this link between education and the market is, among so much that can be debated continuously, not debatable. It’s axiomatic the way one is a natural number is an axiom. Capitalism seeks to open new markets and thus accrue new profits in an axiomatic way, the way water will flow downhill, smoke will ascend, birds will fly, fish will swim and fires get hot.

There’s all the morality and humanitarianism that Ayn Rand was willing to recognize in this axiomatic flow. I mean nada. None.

I think once we accept this irrefragable aspect of the valuing set-up that holds the trump card in regard to whatever we care to think about, the more opportunity we may have to detour the machinery in all the directions rational, enlightened secular humanists like to talk about, starting with John Milton, Thomas Jefferson, Frank Costello, John Henry Newman, Walt Disney, J.S. Mill, Mae West, Leo Tolstoy, Horace Mann, Sun Ra, John Dewey, Wilhelm Reich, B.F. Skinner, A.S. Neill, Sam Cooke and Harpo Marx et al.

As long as education in the U.S. remains primarily publicly tax payer supported, capitalism has little interest in it beyond trying to privatize it completely or, next best, siphoning public money into private profit. There is no market interest in resolving the problem as to how an equitable and effective learning process can be created. Creative destruction, a tool of market growth, does not mean salvaging profitless systems. The power of seeking profit everywhere does not by-pass public education, looking back only to bemoan its sad state. This would be like the fox ignoring the chicken. What needs to be done from a private market point of view--and this is the view we are for the moment assuming holds sway--is to bring this profitless system to its knees so that total privatization will be welcomed by all as a remedy.

Stupefaction is the first step in this direction.

Creative destruction must be masked. The marketing campaign must seem to begin at the same place the public is at regarding this issue: we are all looking for creative solutions. We are all in sympathy with the legacy of democracy and public education, from Jefferson’s linking of public education and a free government to Horace Mann’s declaration that “education is the great equalizer.” No one is openly campaigning for “creative destruction” but it is happening nonetheless. It is happening axiomatically.

The strategic approach here is the same as applied to Social Security and Medicare: raise concern over the perilous present condition and the certainty of a fatal end unless something is done. We are all here interested in the retirement security of our children, something the present system is far too shaky to secure. Social Security has not only been presented – deftly the way Madison Avenue images a competitor’s product or service – as doomed but defined benefit pensions (percentage of salary and years of service) are now “viewed as a Jurassic, boring old benefit of yesteryear.” The Postal Regulatory Commission has just rejected the U.S. Postal service’s request for a stamp price increase leaving that public service in dire financial straits. The NEW York Times reported on Sept. 26, 2010 that a private company, Library Systems and Services, is now the fifth largest library system in the country. Amtrak has been kept on the barest minimum life support so that its failures remain observable to those who push for a nationwide high speed rail system to reduce our greenhouse gases.

The remedy waiting in the wings is, in every case, to close down any public enterprise which blocks profit making, levies taxes and, most egregiously in the eyes of American Individualism, puts the government in place of the individual.

Assuming that some movement toward privatization will create a competitiveness that will re-invigorate public education is like asking the tiger to take a bite out of the lamb to save the lamb’s life. It’s -- once again -- axiomatic here that “eat or be eaten” rules. Public education, like social security and Medicare, are small, fragile boxes within the bigger box of profit to shareholders.

How do we all as a nation feel the sting of the present abominable state of public education? If market values rule, and we are assuming here that they do, then a deterioration of public education should mean a disastrous future for the growth of every form of knowledge upon which market growth depends. Therefore, the market should be interested in the reclamation of public education, even if it can or cannot privatize the entire enterprise.

You have to assume that those who steadfastly move toward a “for profit” status for everything, everywhere, have themselves benefited and are benefiting from such a situation. Their wealth status exempts them from making use of public education; the wealthy have always followed a path of private education, from prestigious academy to the Ivy League. If one’s son or daughter is enjoying this privileged education, the dire state of public education matters little. The Harvard grad is not suffering in comparison with the OECD nations. Regardless of how bad the public schools are in comparison with schools in other countries, those taxpayers who do not use public schools feel no shame. They do not in fact take the matter personally. The parents whose children are sacrificed in degraded public schools make those personal connections. And because they value within a market way of valuing, privatization seems an answer, a remedy, to them.

But where are the scientists who discover new technology to come from if our public education fails, or, the effort to turn it all into a for-profit venture, fails?

We need to refer to our Euclidean-like axioms that may be operative here. What if all those countries whose students far exceed our own in math and science and problem solving are recruited to work for transnational corporations? What if they were hired to work in the U.S. but their education, most likely expensive, was not paid by American taxpayers? I am, and I hope not cynically, suggesting that globalized capitalism will make use of a globalized workforce and therefore the precarious state of American public education does not appear on the debit or credit side. It isn’t factored in.

The crisis in American public education is not a problem for globalized, trans-nationalized corporations. What it is, instead, is a profit-making opportunity.

If we were operating under the assumption that our thinking here was within some combination of Plato’s quest for the moral good, New Testament Beatitudes, Kantian critical reason and so on, we might argue for a redemption of public education in the name of a continued civil and solvent future. However, we have not been, since Reagan, into a free enterprise system that values long term investment. Returns, often astronomical throughout the `90s, were mostly short term ventures. The problem with the so-called Green Economy is that it exceeds the lifetime of any investor in terms of return. Investing in the future is a persuasive mantra for those who believe that an issue is not considered in the ways we have been considering it: within a market values rule box.

The current psychology in regard to competition and winning runs something like this: I’ve gotten mine, you get yours. And that extends to the next generation. It is considered a disservice, a form of Moral Hazard, to sacrifice now so that a future generation will profit. Investing in the future generation is a “commonwealth” problem, a social, nationwide concern, and not a market concern. Within our market values box, the future is very short: get in and get out. No one foresees the kind of long term stability of all kinds, from political and economic to environmental and judicial, which would deter market values from a reaping of all it can now and not later. The sanctity of the idea of educating the future generation is not a sanctity market values share. Aesop’s wolf can proclaim much to the contrary, but what he actually does is in his DNA.

Thus, actually doing something to improve public education rather than standing it up for a death-blow would be like taking a very long, profitless road when a short-cut to profit is in sight. Given the present state of crisis and concern, of stupefaction, and the likelihood that market conservatives will once again rule all branches of the government, for-profit education seems just ahead.

If we accept the assumption that we think inside a personally determined box which is itself inside a market rule larger box, we need to acknowledge that such a state of affairs has much affected conditions “here on the ground.” I mean that what we think comprises a good education has already been affected by market values.

An example: we think of “problem solving” and not “critical thinking.” A corporation has a “human resources logistics problem,” or a computer engineer has a programming problem, or an institution has a “cash flow” problem. And so on. The point is that in order to satisfy goals and objectives, certain problems that arise have to be overcome. Organizations come into being by solving problems. The problem solver is a corporate asset. Critical thinking, on the contrary, may create problems for an organization because it neither works toward any goal other than understanding nor accepts any limitations on its skepticism. We wanted to solve the problem of 9/11 terrorism and accepted a bomb solution. Critical thinking, or any interpretation of the event in the hope of understanding, which would then be the intelligent basis of action was suppressed. The Tea Party wants to solve the problem of Big Government, focused now on the so-called socialism of Obama. Critical thinking about the Great Recession of 2008 and the failure of a so-called “self-correcting” market displayed in that event is not part of any Tea Party candidate’s platform.

An example: “innovation” and not “imagination” is now part of what we are educating toward. Innovation brings new products and services to life and thus maximizes profit. Imagination may “innovate” nothing of use or profit. When we exercise the imagination the poet Shelley tells us in “A Defense of Poetry” we extend and deepen our capacity to understand others and sympathize with them and therefore legislate on behalf of not only ourselves but others as well. All the Fine Arts offer this exercising of the imagination. When you narrow the imagination to the dimensions of a particular need or demand – a voice activated gadget, a collapsible widget, a smaller cell phone, a bigger SUV – you are more of an advocate of computer literacy than music appreciation. That preference is already installed in what we think of as education.

An example: we know that the U.S. ranks 16th among 30 countries in reading but we no longer know what we mean by “reading.” More precisely, we don’t know if reading text messages, tweets, blogs and email deliver any deep level of either transmission or reception. And we don’t know whether we have already re-calibrated both the complexity of what we transmit and the complexity we can receive to a Tweet level. A generational observing serves here: those whose reading could descend no lower than the comics neither held comic books as a profound reading venture nor was comic book reading a widespread educational goal. The book was never endangered by comics. Millennials, however, are engaged in widespread hand-held device “reading.” They transmit and receive some abbreviated form of language as an effective means of communication. Printed page books join pensions in the Jurassic age and whether or not e-readers, like the Kindle, will entice Millennials from Tweets to Thackeray remains to be seen. But what we can see now is that “reading,” which we all seem to continue to cherish, is undergoing a major transformation.

Let’s say, quite polemically, that free enterprise requires instantaneous, reliable communication and that technology is offering that, and in some way education should further this, and that deep interpretations of Faulkner or close following of Kant or a long wrestling with the Federalist Papers or Supreme Court issues are not required. Technology is “innovating” toward voice-activated computers with no need to tap the alphabet and type words. We are returning to an oral culture status. Sarah Palin may be semi-literate but a future Sarah Palin can be completely illiterate and pass unobserved in a future where no one has to read beyond the level of Tweet.

An example: markets are more interested in numbers than words and yet education seems not to know how to teach the algorithm. The language of science is mathematics; the minion of science is technology and technology innovates the new products and services that lead to expanded profits. Words, on the other hand, are slippery, unreliable and possibly dangerous. The oral society that we are becoming prefers to hear Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck than read the New York Times or the New York Review of Books. Spectacle, images, views are what most powerfully reach us now, thus the popularity of YouTube. A picture may be said to be worth a thousand words but those whose literacy doesn’t go beyond pictures wouldn’t have a thousand words. Right now we are attuned to hear someone talk about what they’ve written than to read what they’ve written. In an age of spectacle the image makers of Madison Avenue, Hollywood and Silicon Valley rule. The kind of education market values pushes us toward pays only lip service to words and reading but values numbers and images. The irreconcilable problem here is how to educate around words and reading and retain what we traditionally consider to be education. The stupefying impasse here is that the market doesn’t want critical reading and thinking.

A revolution now taking place in regard to reading and education is not taking place in schools but in cyberspace as Millennials find their way to the world through Google and Wikipedia and YouTube and blogs and tweets – all delivered to something they hold in the palm of their hand. Institutionalized classroom teacher administered education is going Jurassic and that may be the fatal problem no one wants to face. Private enterprise already controls the technology and may hold on to a privatized education when it gets it -- if the profits prove large enough. The future of education then would be a competition between profit and greater profit, the free and public brand of education “creatively destroyed.”

Let’s now assume that the way we think about things, in this case education, is not held captive to market values. Let’s play out a different hand.

Let’s assume the 2008 Great Recession right up to the “Flash Crash” of May 2010 in which the Dow Jones dropped 600 points in five minutes for no reason that has been accepted initiated a skeptical attitude which extended to a market values approach to education. What would education mean then?

Such skepticism would summon immediately its own minion – critical thinking, the bedrock of that being critical reading. One reads not only to understand but to relate what one is reading to a wider cultural context. Following Jefferson’s notion that our democracy depended upon an educated populace, we would now place political literacy in a prominent educational position. Such literacy would preempt any satisfaction with, say, the Tea Party’s reading of the Constitution, the Federalist Papers and the continued history of States’ rights and Federal authority. Because understanding depends upon both an historical frame and a comparative frame, historical literacy and global literacy, which includes geographical literacy, become part of our skeptic’s education. What is left out in the present or poorly understood or a mere repetition of what has failed in the past can only be discovered through a knowledge of history.

The arts, music and literature are re-introduced in importance because we can only see through and go beyond the limitations of any value system, whether market based or socialist or religious or pragmatic and so on, via the imagination. “What is real today was once only imagined,” in the words of William Blake. To this list I would add philosophical literacy, sufficient to question the limitations and constraints of “free to choose,” personal responsibility, and individualism.

Market values have little interest in history which is no more than yesterday’s stock returns, yesteryear’s horse race. History may also, as it does, harbor values and meanings that directly oppose the supremacy of market values. And needless to say, if we educated and graduated critical thinkers, supermarket cereal aisles would be smaller, Obama wouldn’t be called both a socialist and a fascist, we wouldn’t be holding Creative Design and Darwin as equally valid theories, we wouldn’t be driving SUVs in the face of global warming, we’d be taking measures to reduce global warming regardless of a loss in profits to shareholders, we wouldn’t be blaming unions for keeping salaries at 1973 levels, we wouldn’t be repeating Viet-nam in Afghanistan right now, we would recognize the play of chance in everyone life and therefore adjust our notions of winners and losers accordingly, we wouldn’t follow Oprah in the belief that personal will puts checks in the mail --- we would at the end of this long list realize that we shouldn’t be waiting for superman when we think about education. We need to just look back and see what was meant by education before we went inside the big box of market values.

Joseph Natoli is the former series editor of POSTMODERN CULTURE for the SUNY Press (1990-2009).

Copyright © Joseph Natoli. All rights reserved.

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