Accountability, Democracy, and the Political Economy of Education

by Harvey Kantor - 2015

More than 30 years ago, The National Commission on Excellence in Education declared the nations economic future at risk because of a rising tide of mediocrity sweeping over the nations schools. Since then, a coalition of businessmen, politicians, philanthropists, and educational policy makers have put in place a series of reforms designed to reverse this tide. Culminating with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 and continuing with President Obamas Race to the Top in 2009, this movement rejected the redistributive liberalism that guided educational policy in the 1960s and 1970s. It has called instead for a transformation of public education in accordance with market-oriented principles through the implementation of performance benchmarks, competitive pressures, and rewards and penalties for success and failure.

That this call for reform has resonated so broadly speaks to the triumph of the idea that the chief purpose of schooling is an economic one. Common school reformers like Horace Mann typically justified public education as much for its broader civic and moral purposes as for its economic ones. Since the turn of the twentieth century, however, the former has been eclipsed steadily by the latter. Arguments about the civic and moral purposes of education have not disappeared, of course. Mainstream reformers still refer to them. But today they have been subordinated to the belief that the chief purpose of education is both to equip students with the skills they need to compete in what has become an increasingly precarious labor market and to make the nation more prosperous and economically secure and that the public schools are not doing a very good job meeting either of those goals.1

One undeniable strength of this reform movement is its focus on the poor performance of low-income students and students of color relative to the performance of more affluent students and its belief that school achievement should be unrelated to ones ethnic, racial, or economic background. Another is its belief that the stultifying effects of bureaucracy inhibit innovation and must be reformed.2 This discontent with business as usual and belief that all children can learn no matter their socioeconomic background is one reason why the current reform movement has won support not only from political and economic elites but from many liberal advocacy and some prominent civil rights groups that one might assume would be opposed to it. As the essays in this issue of Teachers College Record demonstrate, however, these commitments are also invested in a set of strategies and a pinched philosophy of democracy in education that make their realization problematic.

One reason for the authors skepticism is that studies of the school turn-around strategies reformers have pushed to improve low-performing schoolssuch as expanding public school choice, transforming regular schools into charter schools, firing teachers and replacing school staff, and attaching rewards and sanctions to teacher performancedo not find that these strategies have done much to improve the academic performance of poor students and students of color relative to more affluent students, at least not on a sustained basis. Nor do most studies find that that these strategies have encouraged students to think deeply and critically. Rather, in more cases than not, they have worked to narrow the curriculum to a focus on tested subjects at the expense of nontested ones and to transform learning into the acquisition of discrete bits of information at the expense of the acquisition of more integrated, critical thinking skills. Under NCLB, this has especially been true in schools with large numbers of low-income, non-English speakers, special needs students, and students from marginalized racial and ethnic groups.3

From an instructional perspective, there are several reasons why these strategies have not produced more positive results. Not least is their near exclusive reliance on test-based measures of success and failure, which has encouraged districts to focus excessively on test preparation. But equally problematic are two other assumptions on which these strategies are based. One is that more money is not the solution to inadequate performance; the other is that monitoring teachers more closely and sanctioning them for inadequate performance will improve the quality of teaching and learning. Neither of the assumptions is entirely without merit. Many schools have not always used their resources wisely, and too many teachers have been complacent about poor performance, especially in schools with large numbers of underperforming low-income, African American, and Latino students. As David Cohen and Susan Moffitt have pointed out, however, although more money is not a panacea and teachers in underachieving schools can surely benefit from pressure to raise expectations for their students, teaching and learning is unlikely to improve absent more resources or simply by firing incompetent teachers and hiring new ones, as the most common turnaround strategies assume. This is not only because low-achieving schools are chronically strapped for funds but also because these schools typically have the least skill, knowledge, capable leadership, and community resources to reform practice, which the turnaround strategies advocated by mainstream reformers do little about except to insist that their students produce test scores comparable to the rest of the student population.4

What most concerns the authors of these essays about the mainstream reform movement, however, is not the ineffectiveness of its reform strategies to raise test scores or even the narrow and fragmented kinds of teaching and learning it has encouraged, especially in schools with low-income children and children of color. Their deeper concern has to do with what this movement has meant, as David Tyack has put it, for democracy in education and education in democracy.5

Why this should be the case is not immediately clear. At first glance reforms like charter schools, choice, access to private educational services, and, most recently, parent trigger laws, would seem to make schools more democratic by removing the constraints of geography from the educational options students have to choose from and by expanding parental control over the kind of education their children receive. But while these reforms appear on the surface to empower parents and students, these essays make the case that they have actually eroded the opportunity for them to participate in decisions about their schools and compromised the opportunity for students to acquire the kinds of skills they need to participate meaningfully in a democratic society. Indeed, taken together, they argue that by imposing sanctions such as school closures for failure and by implementing remedies such as replacing school staff, converting regular schools into charter schools, and expanding individual choice, the current movement has not only done little to reduce achievement gaps between affluent and low income children but, just as important, threatens to undermine longstanding commitments to local control over education and to preparation for meaningful participation in democratic politics.

It would be wrong to conclude from this that what Michael Katz has called democratic localism flourished prior to the current moment in school reform,6 or that the school curriculum once fostered an active civic culture. To the contrary, the history of the politics of education in the first half of the twentieth century is in large part a story of the efforts by businessmen, political elites, and their professional allies to install a system of corporate style governance designed to buffer the schools from popular pressure and to shape the curriculum to minimize disagreement and instill respect for individualism, private property, and free enterprise.7 By demanding community control, the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s sought to open up this system to greater participation from below and to institute a more active conception of citizenship. More often than not, however, public officials responded to these movements by integrating them into the system of city trenches from which they had so long been excluded and by domesticating their curricular demands to limit the kind of critical dialogue that a deliberative democracy demands.8 Since then, there has been no attempt to implement a system of genuine democratic localism in any major urban school system, except in the 1980s when the Chicago Public Schools put in place a plan to give substantial control to local school councils. But this experiment too was soon undermined by business pressure and by a return to mayoral control.9

The present is not simply the past writ large, however. What is different today is the attempt to substitute individual choice and competition for ownership and control by state and local government and to reduce the curriculum to what can be measured on standardized tests.  Although business leaders and their professional allies in the first half of the twentieth century successfully reengineered local school governance to limit popular participation and to purge civic education of any subversive content, the idea that schools should be publicly owned and administered and should serve broad public purposes remained firmly in place throughout the first three quarters of the twentieth century. As a result, though local bureaucracies stymied innovation and school boards were often unresponsive to popular input, the possibility remained open for groups outside the system to demand greater participation in the life of the schools and to debate school policies. By contrast, as these essays point out, by redefining school governance around the principles of individual choice and competition at the expense of more collective forms of deliberation and by reducing teaching and learning to test-based measures of success and failure, mainstream reform today threatens to render the possibility for democratic deliberation (and the possibility of a broad civic education) a thing of the past.

As Michael Katz and Mike Rose have pointed out, this preference for market-oriented remedies is part of a larger shift in thinking about the legitimacy of government and the role of public and private responsibility in addressing social and economic problems. In practice, the line between private and public responsibility for education has always been porous. Not only were African Americans long compelled (for good and for ill) to rely on private philanthropies for school funding that state and local public officials refused to provide, but affluent communities have often supplemented public budgets with private money when tax revenues have been insufficient to pay for the educational services they desired for their children.10 Nevertheless, since the rise of the common school in the mid-nineteenth century, the idea that state and local governments should take responsibility for educational provision not just for poor children but for children from all classes has been the basic organizing principle of educational policy. In the 1960s, the Great Society extended this responsibility to include the federal government as well. Over the last third of the twentieth century, however, this belief in the value of public responsibility and control lost whatever luster it once had.11 Equated today with inefficiency, incompetence, and resistance to change, the idea of public ownership and control has been superseded by the belief that schools would run better and more efficiently if they were run according to principles of competition, accountability, and individual choice, as private enterprises supposedly are run.

There are several reasons why this flight from the public in public education has occurred. But perhaps most important has been the dramatic change in the social ecology of cities and suburbs, their effects on the demography of public education, and the failure of public policies to address them. Among other things, these include the post-World War II migration of African Americans out of the rural South to inner cities, the more recent growth and in-migration of Latinos and Asians, and the retreat of the upper middle class to economically segregated communities and to private or selective public schools and school programs. Together with the flight of investment from low-income, Black, and Latino neighborhoods, these changes have confronted public schools with problems of racial segregation, poverty, and cultural and linguistic diversity that public school bureaucracies have been recalcitrant to address.12 As a result, the affluent have become disconnected from public schooling, public space and public institutions have become equated with the poor and socially marginalized, and support for the idea that schools should be publicly controlled has given way to the idea that economic and social inequalities might be better addressed by shrinking the government and remodeling school governance in accordance with business models of organization and market-oriented principles of behavior.13

This disillusion with the idea of the public has produced and been abetted by a change in the policy landscape surrounding education. For most of the twentieth century, this landscape was dominated by organizations of professional educators, such as the AFT, NEA, CCSSO, NASB, and AASA. After 1960, they were joined by advocacy groups representing the providers and recipients of federally funded educational services. Though the former were resistant to popular input, and the latter often functioned as little more than special interest groups, they all had strong ties to public education. By contrast, over the last thirty years, these organizations have been overshadowed both by political and business leaders no longer willing to leave responsibility for education to state and local school boards, and by a new array of venture philanthropies, private foundations, education think tanks, and profit-making educational management organizations. Some of these newly influential groups, such as the Education Trust, are nominally liberal. As these essays point out, however, their policy agenda does not differ significantly from the prescriptions of other, more conservative, groups, such as the Business Roundtable, the National Alliance of Business, the Gates, Broad, and Walton Foundations, the Heritage Foundation, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, that are enamored with business and market-oriented solutions to social problems. Together, they have capitalized on the popular perception that the public schools have become dysfunctional bureaucracies that both hinder economic development and ill-serve the poor and students of color to discredit the traditional professional educational organizations and reorient the policy agenda around more competitive, market-based policies such as choice, for-profit charter school networks, and test-based measures of teacher performance.14

As Katz and Rose have written, this movement has been driven by a rhetoric that portrays anyone who challenges it, like the authors of these essays, as naïve defenders of the status quo.15 But none of these authors are complacent about the current condition of education, especially for low-income children and children of color. Rather, they object to the way the dominance of this market logic has distorted the purpose of public educaton and to the damaging effects of the strategies being imposed on local communities to support it. They believe instead that reform must begin by supporting parents, students, and teachers in low-income communities to work together in democratic fashion to examine the problems facing their local schools and to identify strategies for improvement, by focusing on the quality of teaching and learning (including opportunities for a critical civic education) rather than on technical fixes, and by developing broader measures of success and failure than performance on standardized tests.

The authors are surely right to be skeptical of reforms imposed from above on local communities and to worry about the future of civic education in a regime based on standardized tests. But there is also a tension between local control and democracy, as some of the essays in this issue acknowledge. Although democracy, in theory, privileges local control, not only has local control often fostered religious, cultural, and linguistic intolerance in the classroom and promoted a sanitized version of democracy and citizenship in the curriculum, but white, middle class communities have often appropriated the language of local control and the neighborhood school to legitimate their opposition to school desegregation and to the construction of low-income housing developments in their midst.16 Disregard for local contexts in mainstream reform today has too often silenced parents and teachers while the imposition of test-based measures of success and failure on local schools works against the possibility of a broad civic education. But, from the perspective of history, as David Tyack has observed, we would be wise to recognize that whether control should be centralized or localized depends on the issue at hand.17

Indeed, if local control has not always fostered democratic outcomes, neither does centralization necessarily preclude them. Many of the conditions that limit the realization of democracy in the schools today, for examplemost notably class and racial segregation, economic inequality and insecurity, disinvestment in poor communities, and the unequal distribution of resources between poor and wealthy districts and between statesare not susceptible to purely local solutions but require centralized action. If reforms like NCLB represent an unwarranted imposition of federal priorities on local districts, so did school desegregation, the war on poverty, and the Great Society, which, for all their shortcomings,

improved the lives of millions of low-income, African American, and Latino children and provided space for an extraordinary degree of political engagement by the poor and people of color.18

The problem with the current movement is not just that it precludes democratic localism but that in rejecting the redistributive liberalism that informed policy in the New Deal and Great Society, it has also rejected the idea that public policy has any responsibility at all to address the connection between poverty, income inequality and insecurity, racial discrimination, and unequal educational achievement. As a consequence, fundamental questions about the political economy of education, the race and class based disparities in economic and educational opportunities it generates, and what government has a responsibility to do about them have disappeared from mainstream discussions about educational policy. Instead, policy talk in education today is framed by a market-oriented rhetoric that focuses on technical questions such as how to manage schools more efficiently, how to measure achievement more precisely, how to make teachers work harder, and how to manipulate incentives to maximize individual choice for parents and students.

The authors of these essays make a good case for the need to stimulate more community participation in educational reform. The fact is, however, that schools are bound by the social and economic conditions that surround them. This does not mean poor children cannot learn or that schools in low-income communities cannot be improved. There are ample examples referenced in these essays and elsewhere to show they can. It does mean, however, that if we are serious about fostering democracy in education, we must also work to create the social and economic conditions around the schools that will make democracy in education and education in democracy real and sustainable, including the provision of truly universal health and child care, the implementation of family allowances and a living wage, and the redirection of investment to serve public purposes rather than the accumulation of private wealth.

Social and education policy has strayed far from this agenda. But there are signs of dissatisfaction. Not only have efforts to privatize the welfare state run into strong opposition but also the shortcomings of NCLB have raised doubts about the desirability of the choice and accountability agenda in educational policy. Given the denigration of the public and the rhetoric of anti-statism that dominates debate today, mobilizing this discontent around a renewed vision of public responsibility for social welfare and a commitment to establish conditions both inside and outside the schools that will reduce racial and economic disparities in opportunity as well as engage students in challenging intellectual work is no easy task. Without such a commitment to economic security and educational equality for all citizens, however, providing more opportunity for members of low-income communities to deliberate together in the name of democracy will simply grant them control over their own poverty without the resources they need to improve their schools and their childrens life chances.


1. On the evolution of this idea in the twentieth century, see Harvey Kantor and Robert Lowe, The Price of Human Capital: The Illusion of Equal Educational Opportunity, in Michael B. Katz and Mike Rose, eds., Public Education Under Siege (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), pp. 7584.

2. Mike Rose, Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us (New York: The New Press, 2001), p. 4; Michael B. Katz and Mike Rose, What is Education Reform? in Katz and Rose eds., Public Education Under Siege, p. 222.

3. On the effects of NCLB and standardized testing, also see Paul Manna, Collision Course: Federal Education Policy Meets State and Local Realities (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2010), chapter 6; Wayne Au High Stakes Testing and Curricular Control: A Qualitative Metasynthesis, Educational Researcher 36 (2007), pp. 258267.

4. David Cohen and Susan Moffitt, The Ordeal of Equality: Did Federal Regulation Fix the Schools? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), p. 3537.

5. David Tyack, Seeking Common Ground: Public Schools in a Diverse Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), chapter 5.

6. Michael B. Katz, Reconstructing American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), chapter 2.

7. The best history of this transformation is still David B. Tyack, The One Best System (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).

8. On the system of city trenches, see Ira Katznelson, City Trenches: Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States (New York: Pantheon, 1981); Ira Katznelson and Margaret Weir, Schooling for All: Class, Race, and the Decline of the Democratic Ideal (New York: Basic Books, 1985). On the political history of the school curriculum, see Jonathan Zimmerman, Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), chapter 5; Joseph Moreau, Schoolbook Nation: Conflicts Over American History Textbooks from the Civil War to the Present (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005), chapter 7.

9. On Chicago, see Michael B. Katz, Chicago School Reform as History, Teachers College Record 94 (Fall 1992): 5672; Dorothy Shipps, School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880-2000 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), chapters 35. On centralization and popular challenges to it, also see Tyack, Seeking Common Ground, chapter 5.

10. On philanthropic support for African American education, see James Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988); on the use of private sources to support public education in affluent communities, see Erika Kitzmiller, The Roots of Educational Inequality: Germantown High School, 1907-1997, Ph.D. diss. University of Pennsylvania, 2012.

11. Katz and Rose, Public Education Under Siege, p. 231.

12. Harvey Kantor and Barbara Brenzel, Urban Education and the Truly Disadvantaged: The Roots of the Contemporary Crisis, 1960-1990, in Michael B. Katz, ed., The Underclass Debate: Perspectives From History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), pp. 366403.

13. On popular disillusionment with the idea of public control also see Katz, Chicago School Reform as History, p. 66.

14. Janelle Scott, The Politics of Venture Philanthropy in Charter School Policy and Advocacy, Educational Policy 23:1 (2009): 106136. Harvey Kantor and Robert Lowe, Bureaucracy Left and Right: Thinking About the One Best System, in Larry Cuban and Dorothy Shipps, eds., Reconstructing the Common Good in Education: Coping With Intractable Dilemmas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), pp. 130147.

15. Katz and Rose, What is Education Reform in Katz and Rose, eds., Public Education Under Siege, p. 223; Rose, Why School? p. 49.

16. On the malleability of the terms community, neighborhood, and local control, see Jerald Podair, The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites and the Ocean-Hill Brownsville Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press 2002), chapter 8; Suleiman Osman, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (New York: Oxford, 2011).

17. Tyack, Seeking Common Ground, p. 155.

18. Annalise Orleck and Lisa Gayle Hazirjian, eds. The War on Poverty: A New Grassroots History, 1964-1980 (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2011); Robert Bauman, Race and The War on Poverty: From Watts to East L.A. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 6, 2015, p. 1-10 ID Number: 17883, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 3:53:08 PM

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