"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Universal Public Education Is Dead: The Rise of State Schools

Universal Public Education Is Dead: The Rise of State Schools

Poet Adrienne Rich in Arts of the Possible made this claim on the cusp of No Child Left Behind (NCLB):
“Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally ‘gifted’ few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable.” (p. 162)
Starting with the politically corrupt A Nation in Risk in 1983 [1], political leaders partnered with the corporate elite to drive the public away from universal public education committed to democracy and human agency and toward "the perpetuation of a class system" that serves the state, a corporate state.

Today, a decade after the commitment was codified as NCLB, universal public education is dead [2] and what we have now is the rise of state schools

The Rise of State Schools

More than thirty years, however, before Rich's bold and accurate commentary on public education, Paulo Freire warned against the danger of authoritarian schooling:
"Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the 'banking' concept of education, in the which the scope of action allowed to the students extends as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits....For apart from inquiry, apart from praxis, individuals cannot be truly human....In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as process of inquiry."
Fulfilling fully Freire's warnings about banking education and ignoring his call for problem-posing education as individual empowerment and as essential for democracy, NCLB codified the accountability era, entrenching standards- and test-based state education to replace universal public education.

U.S. schools under the jurisdiction of state and federal governments are now scripted processes that view knowledge as static capital, students as passive and empty vessels, and teachers as compliant conduits for state-approved content.

The accountability paradigm is antithetical to human agency and autonomy and thus to democracy, but it serves the needs of the status quo and the ruling elite; in effect, accountability paradigms driving compulsory education are oppressive:
"Problem-posing education does not and cannot serve the interests if the oppressor. No oppressive order could permit the oppressed to begin to question: Why? While only a revolutionary society can carry out this education in systemic terms, the revolutionary leaders need not take full power before they can employ the method. In the revolutionary process, the leaders cannot utilize the banking methods as an interim measure, justified on grounds of expediency, with the intention of later behaving in a genuinely revolutionary fashion. They must be revolutionary—that is to say, dialogical—from the outset." (Freire, 1993)
If our commitments to education lie within our commitments to democracy and human autonomy, then we must set aside the accountability regime of scripted curriculum as "standards" and reducing all teaching and learning to outcomes as test data.

Instead, we should build schools that are problem-posing, as Freire explains, wherein students are student-teachers and teachers are teacher-students with both in dialogue and partnership in forming the questions and seeking the answers.

The accountability paradigm fixes knowledge as authoritarian capital, above even the possibility of being challenged. In problem-posing classrooms, students and teachers read and re-read the world as well as write and re-write the world.

To read and write the world is to unpack and examine the world as it is, bound by the context of time and place at the moment of the reading and writing. But this is mere observation; if we stop here—even if we are rejecting the banking concept of education—we are failing action, which requires re-reading and re-writing.

Re-reading and re-writing the world acknowledges that being as a human is always becoming, and these acts embrace the perpetual cycle of re-reading and re-writing as essential for both human agency and democracy. Teaching and learning are reciprocal and on-going, not hierarchical and ends to attain, possess.

A decade after enacting NCLB as federal education legislation and as we seek ways in which to intensify the accountability paradigm with national standards, to increase national testing, and to reduce teaching to simplistic metrics such as VAM, we are ringing the death knell for universal public education and embracing state schools that accomplish personal and social devastation, as Rich anticipated: "The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable."

[1] See Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(8), 616-621; Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A Nation at Risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle Review, 49(33), B13.

[2] See Ravitch, D. (2010/2011). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York: Basic Books.


Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

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