The Struggle for Control of Public Education: Market Ideology vs. Democratic Values
reviewed by Ash Vasudeva - 2002
Title: The Struggle for Control of Public Education: Market Ideology vs. Democratic Values
Author(s): Michael Engel
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1566397405, Pages: 208, Year: 2000
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The afterglow of the 2000 presidential election – where sanguine, popular notions of democracy were confronted by the harsh reality of partisan political interference and charges of voter-intimidation – provides the perfect setting to examine the state of democratic schooling in public education. If Michael Engel is correct, the prognosis is not good.
Engel’s timely treatise paints a picture of public education where democratic values are subordinated by market ideology. According to Engel, the ideology of the marketplace, almost entirely unopposed during the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st, promotes educational policies and practices that are narrowly tied to economic goals. Engel highlights the insidious influence of market-ideology on four high-profile educational policies: school choice, educational technology, restructuring, and curriculum.
Engel condemns most school choice policies because they "destroy the concept of public education as a community enterprise … [and] pit families and schools against each other in a battle for survival of the fittest," (p. 69). Similarly, he critiques the market-based aspects of educational technology (unduly focused on increasing human capital in service of corporate interests); school restructuring (concentrates power in the hands of a few while parceling out low-level decision making to parents and teachers); and curriculum reform ("[students] become objects to be controlled and manipulated toward the ends dictated by the market economy," p. 172).
These examples underscore Engel’s core concern, and the central premise of this book, that market-ideology fails youth by constructing an educational system that "reduces them to commodities rather than developing human beings. Their value is measured in dollars, not in their humanity." (p. 35). In short, Engel decries the "predominance of educational policies that literally devalue young people, or more precisely, see their value only in terms of a return on investment," (p. 41).
Yet, as the book-title makes clear, Engel sees democratic values as a bulwark against the corrosive elements of market ideology. Engel suggests that such values, manifest in the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and John Dewey, set an alternative course for schools. Rather than being shaped by marketplace demands, a democratic school, Engel argues, is one that "tries to enable people to create their own world collectively rather than fit into one that is created for them … As such, people are valued for who and what they are, not just what they can produce or return on a financial investment," (p. 65).
Engel’s deep support for democratic schools does not blind him to the limitations of like-minded educators, both past and present. For example, while he lauds the child-centered ethos of the "free schools" movement of the late 1960s, he notes that "Often they ended up as stereotypical representations of white, middle-class, college-educated teachers’ attempts to impose their highly abstract concepts of individual freedom on children from low-income black and Hispanic families, who were not happy to wait until their sons and daughters felt like learning how to read," (p. 36). Similarly, Engel’s critique of the postmodern movement includes Landon Byer and Daniel Liston’s observation that such scholarship can "foster an insularity and narcissism of discourse," (p. 40).
Although Engel takes a hard look at previous and current attempts to develop schools guided by democratic values, his lens for the future appears a bit softer. In addition to advocating for a revamped civics-education curriculum, Engel has high hopes for people who might be considered unlikely heroes in the quest for democratic schools: members of local school boards and teachers unions. While few could argue with Engel’s assertion that "educational activists who want to pursue a democratic agenda for the schools therefore need to consider active participation in school board elections" (p. 215), a more probing analysis might consider why the positions taken by school boards typically reflect dominant cultural values (e.g., market ideology) instead of values held at the margins of the mainstream.
All told, Engel’s book is an excellent, thorough, and well-written account of how educational reforms are subtly (and sometimes explicitly) shaped by market ideology, and why these reforms may be harmful to youth. The great contribution of this book is it’s unflinching recognition of how ideology informs policy. While policy discourse is often dressed up to appear coldly logical and eminently rational, Engel peels away this rhetoric to reveal the true choices we are making about schools. Refreshingly, Engel states that "It is not possible to offer empirical or quantitative evidence that a democratic school system is somehow superior to one based on market models. Rather it is a choice of values that leads one in one direction or another…" (p. 65). It is a lesson and a reminder to which everyone involved in educational policy – teachers, researchers, parents, and even the President of the United States – should pay considerable attention.