The Fight Over Capitalist Interests in Public Education: Betsy Devos and Donald Trump are not Educators
If one were to argue that our most sacred public institution was up for sale after decades of suffering under a merciless political and social attack, most citizens would look around and wonder what sacred public institution was being pillaged. If one were to argue that masses of people had fallen for a false narrative, and had unwittingly aided the enemy, they might look to Russia or Iran to point a finger of blame. These same citizens might innocently be part of the attack because they fail to question the motives of politicians and civic leaders, hedge funds and think tanks. But all around them, in communities of every description, purges and attacks are taking place. Lives are ruined, and community history is drained along with the institution’s funding and brightest minds. And in some urban areas, weeds grow up around abandoned buildings that were once the heart of the neighborhood. What, might you ask, is the cause of this devastating and destructive force? How, you might ask, is it that I have never noticed the purges, the draining off of human capital, and the depletion of monetary funds?
Since the publication of A Nation at Risk, and the filming of Waiting for Superman, other media-related scare tactics have been employed, such as the Rotten Apple article in Times Magazine. The result is that the citizenry has turned against its public schools, the most sacred of institutions. Tenured teachers are described as lazy and shiftless, and a draconian system of deficit learning has replaced critical pedagogy. Standardized test scores have been weaved into funding, making it possible to divide and conquer the neediest of schools. Since No Child Left Behind (NCLB), every child is left behind in a maze of numerical comparisons, factored, ranked and sorted, and then compared to children from foreign countries where different values exist and equitable school funding is a reality, places where teachers are still highly regarded and professionalized. Because of profit margins and investment interests, the edreform community pursues harmful privatization policies that interfere with student literacy while passing down punitive mandates that cater to the citizenry’s contempt of public education, deceptively hindering critical pedagogies.
New catch phrases now pattern the educational landscape. Pointing out in his essay, Schooling in Disaster Capitalism, Kenneth Saltman writes, “[n]ebulous terms borrowed from the business world, such as “achievement,” “excellence,” and “best practices” conceal ongoing struggles over competing values, visions, and ideological perspectives” (43). He then activates his own critical perspective by asking, “Achieve what? Excel at what? Best practices for whom? And says who?” And we all can recount other education-based slogans: rigor, no excuses, whatever it takes, 100% college acceptance, school choice, charter and magnet, STEM, STEaM, and the list goes on. As Saltman insists, everything is based on individual achievement, and everyone is competing. And rather than treat them as school children preparing to live ethical lives in a democracy, they are now data, retention rates, and a dollar sign. He goes on to emphasize that prominent writers such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, support a “curriculum conducive to individual upward mobility within the economy and national economic interest as it contributes to a corporately managed model of globalization as perceived from the perspective of business” (43). In such a climate as this, who really has time for a critical pedagogy? If no one has time to teach the importance of questioning society and democratic practices, if nothing is more important than monetary power, then how will future citizens know whether or not they are enslaved to a consumer-based, profit-driven dictatorship?
After Hurricane Katrina, disaster capitalists, organized with the state government, began a systematic takeover of New Orleans Public Schools. Saltman eloquently describes the situation, “the destroyed New Orleans public schools sit slime-coated in mold, debris, and human feces, partially flooded and littered with such detritus as a two-ton air conditioner that had been on the roof and carcasses of dead dogs”, yet, reformers referred to this disaster as a “silver lining” and a “once in the lifetime opportunity”, even though thousands of teachers and students had been displaced, even killed, by the flood (35). The voucher legislation that made the privatization of public schools possible in a disaster (disaster capitalism) became a reality when, “[t]his voucher scheme was surreptitiously inserted into federal legislation by being rolled into a budget bill and it was aggressively supported by one of the richest people on the planet, Wal-mart inheritor John Walton of the Walton Family Foundation” (38). Even more shocking, the Katrina federal vouchers expand beyond the city limits of New Orleans. The entire Gulf-Coast region is included in this disaster-voucher legislation, including the entire state of Texas (40).
Knowledge that “disaster capitalists” are working to privatize the public trust for profits hasn’t slowed down the endless barrage of other ridiculous reforms and snake-oil type remedies concocted by businesses hell-bent on cashing in on the testing gold mine. Everyone in the education world knows about MAP testing, a week-long interruption of instructional time that allegedly measures student growth. Generally, charter schools use MAP so that they can support the profit driven scam supported by tax dollars. But teachers that proctor MAP will tell you that it is a blatant waste of funds and student time because the data is not reliable. Students know that if they miss the first few questions, then the computer-based program makes the remaining questions easier by shuffling the questions into a lower range. They also know the MAP is not used for a grade. Getting students to take the MAP seriously is like getting pre-schoolers to stand at attention during recess, futile. Not only that, the student data is stored—somewhere. Parents, whether they understand it or not, are actually providing student information to a private company.
But none of this would be possible without school principals that are willing to browbeat their teaching staff into submission. Privateers have found a way, through the charter school system, to train future principals into their own way of thinking. Sadly, many of these principals, at least in Texas, attend online classes through accredited universities that prepares them for the rather easy principal certification test. Many charter schools do not even require principals to have minimum credentials. The difference between the regular public school route to certification and the charter school route is quite different. Public school principals, at least in good suburban areas, generally spend years in preparation. First, they teach under a successful principal a minimum of five years. Then they become an assistant principal after completing graduate level course work in school leadership. Many principals work for years as assistants before they are considered for the top job. Some assistants never rise to the top. But at the charter school, and even at low-budget urban public schools, the quality of the principal is often overlooked. For example, some charter schools in Texas do not have a certified principal at the helm. Some struggling urban schools have brand new principals. Many of these principals are very young with no life experience, and very little teaching experience.
A teacher recounts the story of her ambitious principal that had only taught 6th grade math for 3 years before quickly climbing into an assistant principalship. She worked in that position for only a year before being promoted to full principal of an older building. The principal seemed to exhibit the qualities of a decent leader, somewhat fair, not too duplicitous, and energetic. But a new building was built, and the very next year they put her in charge without oversight. Now she finds fault in everyone, rarely listens to her well-educated staff, and uses an authoritarian approach that has built barriers rather than foster collaboration. She constantly darts around looking for reasons to attack various staff members, but if anyone in her administration has a complaint about a teacher, the teacher is immediately investigated or otherwise harassed. Even instructional time is not respected because front office staff has the upper hand and can call students out of classes just on a whim.
Two researchers from Seton University did a study that involved 365 teachers that had received the National Teacher of the Year Award “from their respective state or territory between the years 2006-2012” ( Goodwin, Babo 68 ). The teachers were asked to rate the importance of 21 behavioral traits that one would identify with an effective school leader. One of the most important attributes of a good school leader had to do with setting in place systems that contribute to an orderly, structured atmosphere. But most edreform principals have no training in organizational strategies, so the schools they operate are chaotic. Most of the time last minute policies and disciplinary codes are inconsistent or nonexistent. Student safety is not a priority, and an atmosphere of unfairness and favoritism is typical. It’s not unusual for charter schools and struggling urban schools to have principals that serve more as marketers and financiers rather than adults in charge of children. Because of this, they rarely keep up with valid research and methodologies, therefore they are unable to assist their fledgling, underpaid, and inexperienced teaching staff. The “intellectual stimulation” of teachers and staff scored high on the list of effective leadership behaviors (70). According to the teachers studied, a highly visible principal is important to the campus culture. But many edreform principals are busy attending marketing meetings and conferencing on the latest snake oil-money-making-product available from testing and software retailers.
If the emphasis is on education as a means to simply acquire wealth, then the benefits of a critical pedagogy are intentionally ignored. The harmony of a well-educated, literate society adept at decoding bias and naming itself is unwanted by the power hegemony. Teachers trained in rhetoric and composition are teachers trained to spread logic and reason. Teachers trained ethically with deep subject area knowledge would have the tools to resist market-based approaches to education. These are the teachers the struggling school needs to raise awareness about their plight and assist the fight out of poverty, rejecting the traps of social isolation and marginalization. But the edreform-charter-school-principal is only concerned with the balance sheet and the data. Even if the data is invalid and the variables are beyond measure, the charade continues supported by the engines of profit-based educational resource companies (snake oil remedies designed for passing standardized tests).
James Berlin (Purdue University) accentuates this premise when he asserts, “A literacy that is without this commitment to active participation in decision making in the public sphere, however, cannot possibly serve the interests of egalitarian political arrangements. For democracy to function (as we are now reminded in eastern Europe), citizens must actively engage in public debate, applying reading and writing practices in the service of articulating their positions and their critiques of the positions of others” (Berlin 101). Even though these lines were published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in Berlin’s book, Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures, over thirty-years ago, they are still undoubtedly true. The poor underclass has not achieved higher status nor has it gained civic power. Eastern Europe is still in a chaotic state, so we can still refer to it as an example of what happens when societies are divided. In fact, more recently, the middle class is shrinking and fewer people hold the majority of wealth and power worldwide. Our consumer based society has created unintended consequences for the world at large, and in countries like China more people are working factory jobs and living in urban areas. Overcrowding and pollution is widespread, but just as in education, the power elite largely controls the world’s dialogue and stream of information. The purpose of literacy is different than student objectives found in edreform classroom landscapes. As Berlin states, “rhetoric was invented not because people wanted to express themselves more accurately and clearly, but because they wanted to make their positions prevail in the conflicts of politics” (83). The charter school or poor urban English teacher of today is simply teaching to a test so that meaningless achievement scores can be recorded for the state’s approval. None of the emphasis is on the balance of power, the dialogue of a community, or the participation in politics. Students are mere spectators in the game of life, simply watching the power elite advertise its purported successes and revel in its materialistic rewards.
Because market based education reforms rely on standardized tests, we are beginning to see a rising up against the maltreatment and chaos perpetuated against students and teachers. Terry Eagleton, Marxist scholar, discusses the demise of rhetoric, and how top down education reforms have hampered student literacy. Eagleton argues that students are simply tools of the capitalist machine, not writers or orators seeking power, education, or personal expression via art (Eagleton 549). Eagleton deplores the manner in which capitalism has overtaken aesthetician and depth of meaning. And now we continue to elect or promote those who exhibit very little intellectual or rhetorical skill as demonstrated in our recent election.
If ever an argument could be made for education, our latest election underscores our deficit. After twenty-years of teacher witch hunts, standardized testing, and experimentation, absolutely nothing has changed. Student scores are flat, or in some states declining, and according to the numbers the most undereducated are responsible for electing the most orally gifted presidential candidate in history. While teachers are trudging back and forth to work trying to meet ridiculous mandates passed down by well-meaning, but ignorant, legislators, a new, positive movement engineered the strangest election in history. Well spoken, and intelligent, reality television star, Donald J. Trump the billionaire, graciously debated his way to the White House. His kind comments about blacks, women, Latinos, and disabled people endeared him to the well-educated and the intellectually deprived alike. He even managed to increase his sex appeal when a secret video was released that featured him bragging about grabbing women by the pussy. Nothing that he has said is in anyway rhetorically incorrect, or even illogical. He is the quintessential statesman, a true partner with Russian KGB goon, Vladimir Putin. We can only ponder what profit-based surprises President Trump’s new secretary of education will treat our students to in the near future. Surely, we can just build tunnels straight from our struggling for-profit urban schools into our high-tech for-profit prisons so that not a dollar can be wasted on teaching the humanities or literacy. Torn from the dungeons of a fantasy world from Hell, we can now witness how the lack of a critical pedagogy and the sell-out to profit-driven business has impacted the everyday thinker, a nightmare in real time.
Students and teachers are always at the whim of political winds, and now they have even more to worry about. But even though the focus of this dialogue has been on high school, post-secondary schools are not immune to the commercialization and privatization of education. Big companies are buying or renting property on public campuses, sometimes only signage, and sometimes entire buildings. They are donating huge amounts of money in an effort to influence college student spending habits and subject interests. Only the most ethical of universities is able to place a barrier between the politics of profit and the sanctity of critical pedagogy and the advancement of democratic decency. Henry Giroux, published author and professor, writes about the impact on higher education and the conflict of interest that is taking place between the motivations of profit, and the motivations of a critical pedagogy in his essay, The Attack on Higher Education and the Necessity of a Critical Pedagogy. Giroux insists that the takeover by profiteers of public education is a “backlash against civil rights era programs such as affirmative action and busing” (14). Schooling is now a battleground and conservative right wing groups are determined to “shift away from public considerations to private concerns” (14). He admonishes faculty that “allow themselves to become adjuncts of the corporation, or align themselves with dominant interests that serve largely to consolidate authority rather than to critique its abuses” a manifestation at all levels of education, especially now that positions are threatened with a removal of tenure and teacher unions are collapsing (12). He also points out that many teachers have “lost the language for linking schooling to democracy, convinced that education is now about job training and competitive market advantage,” a manifestation of market-based education reforms. He goes on to say, “Social criticism has to be coupled with a vibrant self-criticism and the willingness to take up critical positions without becoming dogmatic or intractable” (22). Currently our country is dealing with a faction of politicians and citizens that refuse to self-criticize or question their own dogma, and we are now on the slippery slope into a dark abyss which could end the progress we have made in the fight for human rights, climate change, and equitable healthcare. We may have lost our chance to teach our critical pedagogy.
Is it possible that a return to beautiful writing and speaking could perpetuate a return to a more empathetic and democratic time? Before the advent of the crass, poorly spoken electorate, the education reform slogans, testing snake oil, and Donald Trump, Scottish philosopher Alexander Bain labored to write his manual, English Composition and Rhetoric. In his section on persuasion he discusses how poetry can help persuade someone to behave in a moral fashion (174). Considering the state of our society, and the suffering that our students have endured since NCLB and the profit-driven testing frenzy, it seems a return to poetry is long overdue. As English teachers, we all know that the loudest voice is that of the poet. The speech is well enough, if it is done well enough, to sway the politics of a nation, but the poem, if it is done well enough, can sway the heart. I watch my students bent over their exams, and I teach to the test, but at night I go home to my bookshelves, my poems, my pets, and my comfortable life. I once taught in the charter school, and I proctored the MAP, the STAAR, the DA, the CA, and now and then I had time to assign a poem. And when I assigned the poem, my students were mystified by the voice so loud, yet so soft, speaking of something deeper than the test. Sometimes I had time to assign a short story, or I would assign a real essay to my students. And they were mystified by the intelligent voices, so different from the world they are accustomed.
Bain, Alexander. English Composition and Rhetoric: A Manual. Elibron Classics replica ed., Boston, Elibron Classics. 2005. p. 174
Berlin, James A. Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies. Urbana, National Council of Teachers of English. 1996. Pp. 83, 101
Eagleton, Terry. “The Death of Rhetoric.” Academic Questions 25.4 (2012): 546-551. ERIC. Web. 15 Feb 2016
Giroux, Henry A. The Attack on Higher Education and the Necessity of a Critical Pedagogy. Sheila L. Macrine Editor: Critical Pedagogy in Uncertain Times: Hope and Possibilities. New York. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. 12, 14, 22
Goodwin, Janet, and Gerard Babo. "What Expert Teachers Think: A Look at Principal Leadership Behaviors That Facilitate Exemplary Classroom Instructional Practice." Education Leadership Review of Doctoral Research 1.2 (2014): 65-84. ERIC. Web. 16 Dec. 2016.
Saltman, Kenneth. Schooling in Disaster Capitalism: How the Political Right is Using Disaster to Privatize Public Schooling. Sheila L. Macrine Editor: Critical Pedagogy in Uncertain Times: Hope and Possibilities. New York. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. 27-48
 I worked at such a school in Houston, Texas. My principal was 28-years old, and she was hired to run the school after my hiring in 2012. She had taught at a charter school in downtown Houston that was later closed for falsifying student records. Some of these records even included student schedules and semester grades.