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The Assault on Public Education: Confronting the Politics of Corporate School Reform


reviewed by Seungho Moon - December 01, 2011

coverTitle: The Assault on Public Education: Confronting the Politics of Corporate School Reform
Author(s): William H. Watkins
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752541, Pages: 224, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com


The Assault on Public Education: Confronting the Politics of Corporate School Reform, edited by William H. Watkins, interrogates the ways in which neoliberalism and corporate school reform have become tools to attack American public education. Drawn from the “critical studies” tradition—that is, a broader application of critical theory to capitalist hegemony—this collection of essays by nine authors addresses “Who benefits?” and “Who loses?” (p. 3) in a time when neoliberalism widens, not narrows, the economic, political, and cultural inequity in American public education. The book aims to “re-imagine” and “create” public spaces to educate students who value democratic dialogues, collaboration, and equity.


Major contributions of the essays are the powerful case studies that elaborate the causes and the consequences of the privatization of education. Readers can investigate the outcomes of corporate school reform in Oakland, Chicago, and New Orleans public schools, such as raising costs on education, using tax dollars to realize profits for corporations, and implementing outcome-oriented goals in education. This book debunks the myths that elites, the rich, or outside experts can “save” the lives of the underprivileged through competition-based school reform. Rather, under the guise of equality, choice, and accountability, current corporate-oriented school reform supports meritocracy, for-profits in education, and survival of the fittest. The real lessons of Neoliberalism are that “the poor subsidize the rich” (p. 99) and that “one group’s reform can be another group’s calamity” (p. 100). The nine chapters of this book provide concrete examples of social inequity resulting from neoliberal, corporate-model, and venture philanthropy-initiated educational reform.  


Watkins, in both the introduction and the first chapter, “The New Social Order: An Educator Looks at Economics, Politics, and Race,” analyzes the reconstruction of social order from current economic, political, and racial discourse in the current public school reform. He investigates the current social order undergirded with techno-globalization, the corporate intrusion into education with neoliberal ideology, militarism, and political economy. In chapter 2, “Neoliberal Urbanism, Race, and Urban School Reform,” Pauline Lipman examines how consumption-based development and neoliberal urban restructuring have influenced Chicago Public School reforms. She elaborates the basic mode of operation for neoliberal urbanism—that is, destroying an existing institutional arrangement and then creating a new infrastructure for capital accumulation. For example, a multi-income and multi-racial community seemed to be an ideal project for minimizing social inequity. However, it practically gentrified the poor urban district evaded by the middle class.


In chapter 3, “The Rise of Venture Philanthropy and the Ongoing Neoliberal Assault on Public Education:  The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation,” Kenneth Saltman interrogates venture philanthropy-initiated public school reform. He explains that private money from philanthropists is used to direct public educational debates, to enable corporate takeover of public institutions, and to promote corporate ideologies. He posits that the current public subsidy in the form of tax incentives generates more support for private interests and counters that private foundation wealth should be nationalized and channeled into public institutions. Similarly, Alfie Kohn, in chapter 4, “Test Today, Private Tomorrow: Using Accountability to ‘Reform’ Public Schools to Death,” describes how the corporate privatizers utilize the rhetoric of freedom, choice, and democracy and construct narratives of failure to justify the testing regime and their reform plans. In chapter 5, “The Neoliberal Agenda and the Response of Teachers Unions,” Jack Gerson addresses major corporate strategies that result in dismantling public education: attacking teacher unions and setting up high standards for test scores in order to generate another racialized discourse of pathology—that is, students from underprivileged communities should receive help from experts.


In chapter 6, “The Role of Religious Right in Restructuring Education,” Malila Robinson and Catherine Lugg extend the analysis of privatization to the sociopolitical agenda of the religious right (e.g., its understanding of choice, freedom) in reshaping public education. Ann Winfield, in chapter 7, “Resuscitating Bad Science: Eugenics Past and Present,” reviews current school reform practices from the lens of eugenics: the assumption that “some people are worth more than others” (p. 143). She articulates how this bad science (eugenics)—grounded in the binary of superior/inferior—has been recurring in public educational reform in order to support a liberal desire of outside experts of the rich/elites to rescue the poor/at-risk youth from failing at schools. Kristen Buras, in chapter 8, “It’s All About the Dollars,” addresses Louisiana Parish Schools reform. This chapter is comparable with chapter 2 on the Chicago Public Schools, regarding the negative impacts of current school reform. Buras argues that post-Katrina school reform policy, with the emphasis on free market ideology, has destroyed the infrastructures of public school systems by implementing budget cuts, eliminating retirement plans for veteran teachers, and supporting the corporate models of charter schools with public funding. In the final chapter, “Re-Imagining Public Education,” Watkins concludes with a review of his ideals for public education and reform, which aim to the public good, the recognition of diversity, and good education for all students.


The Assault on Public Education clearly elaborates the metaphor of a Trojan Horse (i.e., neoliberal ideology) in Troy (i.e., American public education), and perhaps the authors believe that Greek soldiers are already out of the Trojan Horse and destroying Troy’s citizens. This book enables readers not only to reflect on the danger of privatization of public education, but also to ponder the purpose of public education. Watkins postulates that advancing equity and social justice through public education should be the ultimate goal of school reform.  


I agree with Watkins’s and the other authors’ arguments that “an equitable system of funding public education” should be the priority of any educational reform agenda (p. 190). Current business-oriented educational reform hinders the pursuit of a more equitable and just education. However, the controlling environment was prevalent in public education, even before neoliberal ideology invaded public spaces with corporate-model school reform. Discourses on effectiveness, control, and surveillance are salient in public education since it has been “institutionalized” due to industrialization, urbanization, and the social engineering movement. With his explication of panopticism—the principle of invisible control—Foucault (1977) posits similar principles of surveillance among schools, hospitals, barracks, monastery, and prisons. In the panopticon, examination, normalizing judgment, and optimal profits are dominant disciplines that are circulating and being practiced.


The privatization of public education is definitely detrimental to the pursuit of democratic community and equity. Yet an in-depth examination of the foundations of public education is indispensable to interrogate why the business model has been accepted so quickly in current school reform. We need to examine political, socioeconomic, and cultural influences in the construction of public education. For example, why have Thorndike’s and his descendants’ behavioristic approaches (followed by learning sciences) been recurring in the infrastructures of public education? Why are progressive educational ideals (e.g., those of Dewey and his followers) drastically silenced (Lagemann, 2000)? The privatization of American education flourishes on a foundation that assumes “desirable” education is compatible with outcome-oriented pedagogy, behavioristic approaches in learning, and making efficient future workers for the advancement of the U.S. economy in the global market. Challenging the privatization of public space should be the very beginning of interrogating the current direction of American public education. However, the investigation of current school reform needs to pay more attention to historical, political, economic, and cultural inquiries on what is recognized as valuable knowledge and who decides what to teach and what to assess. These questions will enrich “complicated conversation[s]” (Pinar, 2011, p. 47) on what knowledge should be considered valuable and should be taught in public schools for our ongoing search for a just society.


Derrida (2001) reminds us that democracy is always yet-to-come. Our efforts to achieve the ideal of democracy are always “in-the-making” (Miller, 2005, p. 227), neither pre-given nor ready-made for us. Watkins’s book will contribute to these endless efforts to work in-the-moment to challenge current problems that hinder our pursuit of equity, justice, and democracy. In the process of reviewing the current school reform movement, readers will be able to challenge neoliberal ideology that reproduces the principles of efficiency, productivity, and competition. Furthermore, readers can pose questions about who is and is not indeed recognized when corporate-model reform is implemented in public education.  


Because of the guise of neoliberalism, not all students, their parents/guardians, and educators can see the hegemony embedded within corporate-model school reform, nor the nightmarish (Pinar, 2011) educational practices that result from the hegemony. Watkins’s book provides an important lens to challenge the current educational reform belief that high standards and accountability are considered as the means to advance U.S. public education. Valuable case studies enable readers to debunk the myths of choice, accountability, and predictability, and to re-imagine the equity and social justice that public education aims to achieve.


An Assault on American Education will be meaningful to every reader by providing a deeper analysis of the dangers of current business-oriented school reform, educational policy, and their implementation. Among others, teacher educators, pre-service and in-service teachers at both undergraduate and graduate levels, educational researchers, and parents/guardians will learn important perspectives on rethinking current school reform policies. In addition, politicians, philanthropists, and other interest groups will be able to imagine what can be otherwise—to borrow Greene’s (1995) theory of imagination—in their (non)participation in current public school reform.


References


Derrida, J. (2001). On cosmopolitanism and forgiveness (M. Dooley & M. Hughes, Trans.). New York, NY: Rutledge.


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison (A. Sheridan, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.


Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essay on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.


Lagemann, E. (2000). An elusive science: the troubling history of education research. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Miller, J. L. (2005). Sounds of silence breaking: Women, autobiography, curriculum. New York, NY: Peter Lang.


Pinar, W. F. (2011). What is curriculum theory? (2nd. ed). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 01, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16615, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 9:11:32 AM

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About the Author
  • Seungho Moon
    Oklahoma State University
    E-mail Author
    SEUNGHO MOON is an assistant professor in Curriculum Studies at Oklahoma State University. He has been involved in assisting Small Learning Communities (SLCs) via the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA) project at the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST), Teachers College, Columbia University. His recent publications include, “The Note of Discord: Examining Educational Perspectives between Teachers and Korean Parents” (Teaching and Teacher Education), “Re-visioning into Thirdspace: Autobiographies on Losing Home-and-Homeland” (Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy), and “Rethinking Culturally Responsive Teaching for New (Im)possibilities of Multicultural Curriculum Studies and Policy” (Multicultural Education Review). His book review on “Second Language Learning and Identity: Cracking Metaphors in Ideological and Poetic Discourse in the Third Space by Mika Yoshimoto is published with the title of “(Im)Possibilities of ‘Undoing’ Identity in a Third Space” (Journal of Curriculum Theorizing). His current research encompasses the engagement of poststructuralist theories on school reform and curriculum studies, diversity and equity, aesthetic education, and narrative inquiries.
 
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