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

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Exploiting Fear to Steer Education Policy: It's Not Just for K-12 Anymore

Posted at Alternet October 31, 2013 as "Public Threat, Private Gain: How Scare Tactics Steer Education Policy to Benefit Corporate Interests."

For more than 100 years, K-12 education policy has been driven by fears of foreign domination. Now that ideology is taking over higher ed, and lining corporate coffers in the process.

In the fall of 2006, a special commission appointed by the U. S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings issued its report on proposed changes for colleges and universities in the United States. In language clearly intended to portray the university in business terms, the authors summarized what they learned during the hearings that led up to the drafting of the Spellings Commission Report
What we have learned over the past year makes clear that American higher education has become what, in the business world, would be called a mature enterprise: increasingly risk-averse, at times self-satisfied, and unduly expensive. It is an enterprise that has yet to address the fundamental issues of how academic programs and institutions must be transformed to serve the changing educational needs of a knowledge economy (p. ix).
The question of if such a transformation of American higher education should occur is obviously assumed in the report to be a settled issue—or at least it is a question whose relative unimportance should not stand in the way of moving forward on the how the university should serve the needs of the knowledge economy. This unquestioned assumption by the Commission would seem to signal a full reawakening of the technocratic educational agenda that began 100 years ago as an efficiency-based economic answer to a philosophical question regarding the purpose of higher education, which had been focused for the past 800 years or so on the educational mission of creating good people and citizens, rather than good servants of the knowledge economy.
Following its industrial efficiency metaphor, the Spellings Commission Report goes on to cast this ominous warning:
History is littered with examples of industries that, at their peril, failed to respond to—or even to notice—changes in the world around them, from railroads to steel manufacturers. Without serious self-examination and reform, institutions of higher education risk falling into the same trap, seeing their market share substantially reduced and their services increasingly characterized by obsolescence (p. ix).
In their enthusiasm to make their business metaphor literal in its application to higher education, the authors do not offer any evidence of the looming competitive threat to the prominence of American universities, nor do they explain how it is that students from around the world regularly opt for an American university education if they can get one.
While this kind of anxious rhetoric from policy elites has remained a standard line of attack in the K-12 school reform discussion for the past 100 years, such dire warnings are quite new to discussions of higher education reform—and quite troubling to those who view the university’s mission in broader terms than the corporate service model that the Spellings Commission advocated to counteract the fear of “other countries...passing us.” 
The history of K-12 reform movements in the United States has been regularly punctuated by similar alarmist rhetoric that goes back to the early 20th century. The first generation of scientific management enthusiasts argued that vocational high schools and industrial training schools for African Americans and brown immigrants would offer security against the chief economic threat from Germany, where educational system was based on the Prussian model for efficient sorting of students for future life roles. Elite education reformers inspired by Frederick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management attacked the liberal arts orientation of the school curriculum as outmoded, old-fashioned, and out of touch with the times. 
For reformers and eugenics enthusiasts such as Franklin Bobbitt, Elwood Cubberley and Edward Thorndike, economic prosperity demanded that waste be eliminated by sorting individuals using primitive IQ and achievement tests and targeting education based on the adult roles that students were qualified to occupy. As Stanford University’s Cubberley phrased it, educators need to move past the “the overly democratic notion that all individuals are of equal value.” By the time the first IQ tests had been developed and deployed by the “scientific” education reformers in the early 1920s, the differentiated vocational curriculums seemed poised to deliver the efficiency that the American economic engine required to cement America’s preeminent role as world leader. By the time the efficiency zealots’ ideas were reaching the masses, however, the Germans were in defeat, at the hands of the poorly educated English and American rabble.
Fast-forward to the 1950s, and we find a new generation of education reformers led by Admiral Hyman Rickover and history professor Arthur Bestor. The '50s reformers used new fears of foreign domination by the Soviets to steer K-12 schools toward a rigorous curriculum focused on math and science. Sputnik came to represent, for those who controlled the storyline in the media, another example of a nation’s educational system asleep at the wheel while a foreign nation, this time the Soviets, drove away with the prize of first place in the space race. The grave security threats posed by the space advance were played up for an American public already cringing in their fallout shelters, and it is not coincidental that the first huge infusion of federal dollars to beef up science and math teaching was named the National Defense Education Act [NDEA]. By the time the U. S. had landed the first man on the moon just 11 years after Sputnik signaled the apparent demise of American education, the superiority of Soviet schools was long forgotten as the reformers had won the curriculum controls they wanted.
Education reformers twice more in the years following the space race would play the foreign fear card. During the Reagan years, A Nation at Risk produced a groundswell of anxiety, enough to turn schools back toward the basics and away from the educational equity movement begun in the 1960s. It was President Reagan’s reminder to the American people that perhaps the schools had been charged with doing too much too fast that served to justify the turning away from the educational equality agenda just in time to save the American people from another foreign economic threat, this time the Japanese. For the '80s round of antiquarian reforms, an added element of accountability based on test scores was added to the back-to-basics game plan, thus assuring that those American minorities recently integrated into white schools would be called upon to show proof that they deserved the education that they had been denied since their ancestors’ arrival to the American shores in chains.
The rise of Japan, whose economic advances were construed as sure signs of educational collapse in the U.S., was once more forgotten just 10 years later, when the Japanese economic threat was eclipsed by an American economic boom such as the world had not seen.  And once again, none of the reformers credited the quick economic turnaround to the American schools, which, of course, would have made as much sense as blaming them for the economic demise 10 years earlier.
The most recent wave of foreign fear exploited by education reformers seeks to move schools further in the direction of an education agenda embraced by the modern-day efficiency zealots, or what Benjamin Barber calls consumer capitalists. To reinvigorate national economic advantage over China and India, 21st-century reformers once more go to the education solution, calling for more science, technology, engineering, and math teaching with nationally adopted curriculum and tests. 
What makes this round of foreign fear exploitation by education reformers unique is that higher education is as much the target as K-12 schools, signaling the coming of age of the K-20 technocratic agenda that is clearly visible beneath the thin veneer of exaggerated nation baiting represented by another generation of scare documents like “Tougher Choices for Tougher Times,” which was funded primarily by the Gates Foundation. 
[Or see "Rising Above the Gathering Storm."]Like its many predecessors, TCTT offers grave scenarios if its educational recommendations are not heeded.
The following paragraphs from Part 4 of our recently published book, The Mismeasure of Education, pick up the story and move it to where we are today. With Americans now spending approximately $700 billion per year on education, “K-20” schooling has come to represent a potential river of continuous revenue for corporate interests. It is of no small consequence to the greatest university system in the world that all Americans become keenly aware of what is at stake as corporatists move in to feed on higher education.
We write:
"Echoing the rationale used by reformers since the 1980s, the [Spellings] Report contended that its proposed changes to higher education would allow, in the end, the United States to gain “a heightened capacity to compete in the global market place” (p. xiii). The Report supported closer linkages between K-12 and higher education, and it called for the same accountability measures in higher education that were being promoted for the next generation of testing in K-12:
Student achievement, which is inextricably connected to institutional success, must be measured by institutions on a “value-added” basis that takes into account students’ academic baseline when assessing their results. This information should be made available to students, and reported publicly in aggregate form to provide consumers and policymakers an accessible, understandable way to measure the relative effectiveness of different colleges and universities (p. 4).
These recommendations met with a cool response from most colleges and universities, but by 2011 over 100 institutions of higher education, including the University of Texas, were administering and reporting student results on the College Learning Assessment (CLA). The CLA is given to students as entering freshmen and at the end of their sophomore year to measure the “value added” knowledge attainment after two years of college. Efforts to expand the use of the CLA have been strongly supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, the latter of which was formed in 2001 by the sale of the “nation’s largest private guarantor and administrator of education loans” to SLM, Inc. (Sallie Mae), which was the “owner and manager of student loans for 5.3 million borrowers (Lumina Foundation, 2007, p. 3) [From the ground up: An early history of the Lumina Foundation for education. Indianapolis: Lumina Foundation]. 
Both foundations have worked in concert since Lumina’s founding to push a variety of “advocacy philanthropy” aimed to increase college attendance among minorities and the poor and to advance 21st-century scientific management through technological applications to higher education planning, implementation, and delivery. In a study presented in 2012 at the American Education Research Association, researchers Cassie Hall and Scott Thomas found that,
There has been a shift in the focus of foundations toward issues of completion, productivity, metrics, and efficiency—foundations are focusing on broad policy issues, including the ways in which higher education systems are arranged, their funding structures, how they are held accountable, and how they manage their data systems (p. 12).
Hall and Thomas found Gates, Lumina, and other corporate foundations using strategies “to insert themselves in the public policy process” in ways that have paid great dividends in the corporate foundation exercise of power to steer K-12 public education agendas at the federal and state levels.  Hall and Thomas interviewed policy experts who expressed a common concern and a deep irony that the foundation accountabilists never seem to acknowledge:
The most disturbing element … is that, in America, we elect officials to determine the direction of the country, yet foundations are working to set the public policy agenda. Foundation officials are not elected, foundations do not pay taxes, and there are no accountability or transparency measures.  It’s not that they shouldn’t have a voice, but trying to direct government is another thing…(p. 31).
By seeding state government departments and university departments with lucrative grants, foundations such as Lumina and Gates effectively buy cooperation among public officials and knowledge workers who may, otherwise, question who stands to benefit most by increased college efficiencies in data collection, analysis, transfer, storage, and retrieval, or they may wonder about motives for programs supported by a foundation created with funds from the student loan business to increase access to college for students who must borrow heavily to attend.
This kind of narrow instrumentalist approach extended to colleges and universities bodes ill for the future of the economy, the nation, and the health of the planet. For even if foundation motives and “advocacy philanthropy” were entirely pure and without economic benefit for the companies that spawned the foundations or the cottage industries sprung up to promote foundation goals, there remains problems with this kind of social policy steering: 1) it weakens democracy by perpetuating anti-democratic control of public institutions, 2) it restricts the diversity of opinion and expertise that are required to solve the interlinking and systemic problems that threaten economic sustainability, the health of the ecosystems, and the continuation of civilization as we know it, and 3) it narrows educational priorities to serve productivity needs that constrict the growth of knowledge at a most importune time in human history. 
For those who view the schools’ and the universities’ core mission as foundational to creating and evolving knowledge and understanding to advance the autonomy and improved living for all people and cultures, the fixation by unelected plutocrats on a singular vision of what is fair for everyone except themselves expresses a level of arrogance for which no parallel exists in the national history.  Public education policy steering by billionaires offers a real and present danger to the purpose and functioning of democratic institutions, as well as the likelihood for the kind of ethical dysfunction and reckless self-aggrandizement that earned for Wall Street investment bankers a reputation as casino capitalists. Or when foundation sponsored research takes precedent over independent scholarly research by the National Research Council, as in the case of Gates-funded research prevailing as NRC warnings about value added assessments were dismissed, there is the open invitation to grave policy errors arising from tunnel vision and knowledge advocacy posing as independent judgment
These possibilities loom at a unique juncture in planetary history from which the future of most species will be determined by the choices, educational and otherwise, that we humans make in the near term. Our political, scientific, and cultural dilemmas will require many well-educated minds, spirits, and hands to make a sustainable road into the future, and the direction and the conveyance to get there should not be determined by opportunists with enough blind hubris to convince themselves, if no one else, that the destination and the vehicles have been pre-arranged by a few who stand to expand and concentrate their power by those crucial choices."
To read more fromThe Mismeasure of Education, purchase a copy online.

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