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Neoliberalism Goes to School
by Scott Ellison
...just as modern mass production methods require the standardization of commodities, so the social process requires standardization of man, and this standardization is called ‘equality.’ –Eric Fromm (Brookfield, 2004. p. 161)
In popular debates over education policy, it has now become quite common to see terms such as neoliberalism and neoliberal education reform bandied about in political debates in order to describe this current era of education reform. The neoliberal descriptor is indeed apt, but there is a problem with its common usage. Unfortunately, it is all too often the case that this terminology is used as a substitute for analysis, a pejorative shorthand used alongside terms such as corporate reform and privatization.
This unfortunate use of terminology obscures the reality that neoliberalism represents a dynamic political ideology, with a specific intellectual and political history, that has come to dominate not only debates over education policy but the political discourse and major institutions of American society. This chapter will attempt to flesh out what is known as neoliberal education reform by tracing three overlapping, mutually reinforcing societal trends that have fundamentally restructured the landscape of education policy over the past 30-40 years.
The first section will trace the development of a political convergence around a set of education policy reforms in the United States informed by neoclassical economic theory and globalization practices that have radically shifted education policy talk and implementation to the political Right. The second section will examine the power dynamics behind this political convergence by examining the emergence of an increasingly assertive business and philanthropic community that has constructed a private superstructure around public education policy in order to transform America’s schools. The third section will look at how economic globalization and orthodox neoclassical economic theory entered into popular discourse and how these ideas came to define both the “why” and “how” of public education.
It is, of course, not possible to give an exhaustive account of the broad transformations taking place in the politics of education policy over the past 35 years in the space provided here. However, what will be made evident in the chapter that follows is that the No Excuses school model can be viewed as the paradigmatic institution of an education reform movement shaped by neoliberal ideology.
Or, to be more precise, the KIPP charter school model is one very prominent manifestation of an on-going political project to remake American society in the image of an imagined marketplace of rationality and human liberty. Unpacking this political project will amplify the analysis in the chapters that follow to provide new perspectives on the KIPP model.
The purpose of public schooling is often treated as being self-evident or commonsensical: to transmit to the young the skills and knowledge they will need as adults. This may seem rather straightforward, but it papers over the complexity of the question. The kinds of knowledge and skills we believe young people will need to enter into adult life are predicated on a specific set of assumptions about the nature of social reality, in terms of ‘what is’ and what ‘should be,’ and the nature of the individuals who inhabit it.
This is not a trivial point to consider. As John Dewey (1944) went to great pains to point out, the ends and means of public education are reciprocally determined, each informing the other. That observation is nowhere more true than current debates over public schools and reform.
In the second decade of the 21st century, the intended outcomes of public schooling are conceptualized from an economic perspective. Leaders and public intellectuals may offer hollow platitudes to citizenship and human development, but it is increasingly the case that the ultimate goal of public schooling is to produce good workers for a social reality defined by economic globalization.
The common sense answer to the question of why we educate is so that young people can prepare for the workplace. In the modern parlance of education policy, the task of schools is to prepare children to be “college and career ready” competitors in the global economy. The politics of the shifting discourse in and around public education takes us back to the Reagan Era and to what David Berliner and Bruce Biddle (Berliner & Biddle, 1995) referred to as the manufactured crisis emanating from A Nation at Risk (ANAR) (1983).
The Manufactured Crisis and A Nation at Risk
Published in the format of an open letter to the American public, ANAR painted a dire picture of American education, and it identified a litany of ills threatening the nation, including 1) low academic achievement of American students in comparison to their international peers, 2) low student achievement on standardized assessments (particularly among minority populations), 3) a lack of “higher order” skills among high school graduates, 4) falling achievement of college graduates, 5) the large number of functionally-illiterate adults, and 6) a workforce lacking the skills for a high-tech economy.
The picture that emerged from ANAR was an education system in crisis, and this tragic situation was attributed to several causes. First, ANAR singled out high school curricula as being "homogenized, diluted, and diffused to the point that they no longer have a central purpose..., a cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses" (NCEE, 1983, p. 18).
ANAR painted a picture of a high school curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep, allowing students to earn a high school diploma without having mastered even the basics of learning. ANAR pointed toward the low number of students taking challenging math or foreign language courses and the corresponding ease of general track studies, in which credits are earned for "physical and health education, work experience outside the school, remedial English and mathematics, and personal service and development courses," as evidence of a general decline in academic standards (p. 19).
Second, alongside this watering down of high school curricula, ANAR argued that American high schools could be characterized as having shockingly low expectations of its students. The amount of homework expected of high school seniors had plummeted while overall grades were rising, despite declining overall achievement. Further troubles were located in easy high school graduation requirements, "minimum competency" examinations that were too easy, low entry requirements for four-year colleges and universities, and inadequate textbooks (pp. 20-21).
Third, ANAR argued that American students spent much less time in school than their peers in other industrialized nations and much of the time they spent in school was wasted due to inefficiency and superfluous activities, such as driver’s education and home economics (pp. 21-22). Finally, while arguing against scapegoating any one particular group, ANAR did single out teachers as being one of the big problems in education.
ANAR characterized teachers as being poorly paid professionals drawn from the lowest achievers in college, who have taken large numbers of courses "in 'educational methods' at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught," such as mathematics and science (p. 22). To anyone following current debates in education policy, the problems identified in ANAR are all too familiar. The concepts of standards, excellence, assessment, and accountability continue to dominate public debates over education and schooling, and each of these concepts can be traced directly back to ANAR.
The publication of ANAR spawned a flurry of reports, research, and opinion that were both supportive and critical of the report (Holton 1984, Tomlinson 1987, Bennett 1998, NCEE 2007). Then and now, critics charged that ANAR used misleading and imagined statistics to paint a dire picture of American schooling that looked nothing like reality and that offered nothing new beyond the ‘more math and more science’ mantra of the post-Sputnik era. As Gerald Bracey (2003) noted:
[T]he report’s recommendations were, as [William F.] Buckley and others observed, banal. They call for nothing new, only more of the same: more science, more mathematics, more computer science, more foreign language, more homework, more rigorous courses, more time-on-task, more hours in the school day, more days in the school year, more training for teachers, more money for teachers. Hardly the stuff of revolution. And even those mundane recommendations were based on a set of allegations of national risk that Peter Appleborne of the New York Times later called “brilliant propaganda.” Indeed, the report was a veritable treasure of slanted, spun, and distorted statistics” (p. 617).
Nevertheless, despite its numerous flaws and somewhat clichéd recommendations, it is clear that, as an historical document, ANAR constitutes a clear turning point in the history of American education in that it sparked a three decade march toward reform (Hunt & Staton, 1996) by the way the report framed educational failure and defined the resulting “risk” facing the nation.
The success of ANAR can be attributed to the way in which it constructed linkages between the economic malaise and de-industrialization of the 1970s with the purported decline in public schooling. ANAR made the explicit argument that the economic troubles facing the nation were in large measure educational problems. This frequently quoted passage from ANAR gives the reader a taste of the overall economic framing of the document:
The world is indeed one global village. We live among determined, well-educated, and strongly motivated competitors. We compete with them for international standing and markets, not only with products but also with the ideas of our laboratories and neighborhood workshops. America’s position in the world may once have been reasonably secure with only a few exceptionally well-trained men and women. It is no longer. The risk is not only that the Japanese make automobiles more efficiently than Americans and have government subsidies for development and export. It is not just that the South Koreans recently built the world’s most efficient steel mill, or that American machine tools, once the pride of the world, are being displaced by German products. It is also that these developments signify a redistribution of trained capability throughout the globe. Knowledge, learning, information, and skilled intelligence are the new raw materials of international commerce and are today spreading throughout the world as vigorously as miracle drugs, synthetic fertilizers, and blue jeans did earlier. If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all - old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority. Learning is the indispensable investment required for success in the “information age” we are entering. (NCEE 1983, pp. 6-7)
ANAR was able to successfully tap into Americans' anxiety over economic turmoil at home and increasing economic competition from abroad, particularly from Japan and the other so-called "Asian Tigers", in order to make a case for large-scale education reform. ANAR successfully established linkages between the economic malaise of the time with educational failure and, in so doing, gave rise to the looming specter of an existential crisis in the not-so-distant future. More importantly, the global economic framing of ANAR changed the way we, as a society, talk about public education by introducing new concepts that are now dominant in the field, such as the 'knowledge economy', 'life-long learning', and the 'information age'. In the post-ANAR era, the name of the game in education policy and reform is globalization.
Shifting Politics of Education Policy
The political rhetoric of the late 1970’s was still largely defined by the post-World War II divide between the progressive liberalism of the Democratic party and the neo-classical liberalism of the Republican Party. Dominated by the legacies of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society, the progressive liberalism of the Democratic Party understood public schooling as a functional mechanism to alleviate societal ills and resolve social conflict.
Liberals envisioned a positive federal government role in providing adequately resourced public schooling as a means for ensuring equality of opportunity and, as a result, the smooth functioning of a liberal democracy. The neo-classical liberalism of the Republican Party was defined by a strong commitment to an absence of federal obstacles to public schooling, which was viewed as a state and local issue. Conservatives opposed federal initiatives in public education, and (at the state level) they argued for a “traditional” education to produce good citizens and workers.
On the surface, the rhetoric of education politics offered Americans two very different visions for public schooling, although the reality of educational politics was always more dynamic and complicated. However, shifts taking place within the Republican Party and the conservative movement would ultimately shift American politics further to the political Right and, with it, the political landscape of education policy (Mehat, 2013).
Berliner and Biddle (1995) identified three overlapping, and somewhat contradictory, groups within the conservative movement that gained ascendancy over education policy after the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Far Right was the libertarian-leaning wing of the Party that rejected all federal involvement in education: “At a minimum, this mean[t] abolishing the Department of Education, closing down federal support for educational research, eliminating funds for categorical grants in education that support minorities, and reducing the influence of federal courts” (p. 134).
The Religious Right, the second group, was represented by national religious figures, such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. From this perspective, many of the social ills that had befallen society were the product of public schooling and its commitment to humanist principles and cultural relativism: “In general, the Religious Right argue[d] that federal controls have been used to deny students the “right” to pray in schools; to restrict unfairly the teaching of “scientific creationism;” to encourage the appearance of “dirty,” “anti-family,” “pro-homosexual,” and “anti-American” books in school curricula; and to enforce “cultural relativity” in courses on values and sex education” (p. 136).
Railing against “secular humanism,” the Religious Right carved out a rather contradictory space in the conservative movement that, on the one hand, argued against further federal intrusion into public schools while, on the other hand, argued for federal and state government to mandate policies, funding, and curricula that reflected its values, including school choice and voucher programs that would allow parents to send their children to parochial schools at the taxpayers’ expense.
The third group, the Neoconservatives, was the new up-and-comers in the Party. They rejected any perceived attempt at social engineering in federal policy, asserting that it inevitably led to a lowering of standards and achievement. That said, the Neoconservatives envisioned a strong role for the federal government in public schooling to ensure that they were reaching the following goals:
[S]chools should recommit themselves to academic excellence and require a larger number of basic-skills courses; higher academic standards should be encouraged through tougher grading procedures and national tests of student achievement; schools should maintain discipline and reassert their rights to discharge students who cannot meet reasonable standards for behavior; stress should be given to competitiveness and other values thought to be “traditional” in America; and greater effort on the part of teachers should be encouraged through merit pay, competency testing, and stronger requirements for teacher certification” (p. 137).
The Neoconservatives were, by far, the most comfortable with the idea of a strong federal role in public education, seeing it as a mechanism for accountability and ensuring that schools are fulfilling their institutional mission. It is important to note that the Neoconservatives were heavily influenced by an increasingly assertive business community concerned about workforce skills, and it is clear that the Neoconservatives saw human capital development as integral to the mission of public education.
The Reagan Revolution of 1980 brought to the Department of Education this unwieldy and rather paradoxical coalition of groups that advocated for strict federalism (Far Right); groups that argued for rolling back federal involvement in public schooling while also arguing for using federal leverage to encourage “traditional” curricula and school choice policies (Religious Right); and groups that envisioned a strong federal role in public education in order to ensure system accountability and human capital development (Neoconservatives).
In an impressive feat of political maneuvering, Terrell Bell was able to successfully negotiate the Reagan White House and use the publication of A Nation at Risk to unify the three divisions of the Right that made up the Republican coalition of the early 1980s (Bell 1988/1993). Bell was able to unify the party in openly criticizing public schools and teachers, articulating a relatively unified vision for education reform, and advocating for using the leverage of the federal government to push these reforms at the state level. Bell was able to carve out a federal role in education policy by, in effect, becoming its biggest critic.
Policy changes during the Reagan years, however, remained modest at best. Resistance from the more libertarian-leaning members of the Republican coalition and out-right opposition from liberal Democrats in Congress quickly cooled the jets of education reform. However, the political legacy of the Reagan Revolution for education policy wasn’t so much one of radical change as it was the emergence of a new vision of federal education reform centered on the ideas of internationally “competitive” standards, assessment and accountability, and school choice. It was a vision that would come to influence the presidential administrations that followed, both Republican and Democratic.
President George H.W. Bush campaigned as the “education president” in 1988 and, upon winning the election, set about establishing a governor’s conference to chart a course for education reform during his administration (McGuinn, 2006, p. 216). The Charlottesville Education Summit of governors was held in September of 1989, and the six principles that emerged from that conference formed the backbone of Bush’s America 2000 education initiative:
Annually increasing the number of children served by preschool programs with the goal of serving all ‘at-risk’ 4-year-olds by 1995.
Raising the basic-skills achievement of all students to at least their grade level, and reducing the gap between the test scores of minority and white children by 1993.
Improving the high school graduation rate every year and reducing the number of illiterate Americans.
Improving the performance of American students in mathematics, science, and foreign languages until it exceeds that of students from ‘other industrialized nations.’
Increasing college participation, particularly by minorities, and specifically by reducing the current ‘imbalance’ between grants and loans.
Recruiting more new teachers, particularly minority teachers, to ease ‘the impending teacher shortage,’ and taking other steps to upgrade the status of the profession. (Vinovskis, 1999, p. 37)
The America 2000 initiative scored few legislative victories. However, the Charlottesville Summit was successful in further nationalizing the issue of standards-based education reform, and the Bush administration was able to successfully launch federally-funded programs to assist states in developing national standards (DeBray 2006, pp. 27-28). States across the union began reform efforts to raise academic standards, develop assessments, and experiment with new teacher evaluation methods. The push for standards-based education reform and test-based accountability was on, and the administration of President Bill Clinton took up the cause with zeal in 1992.
As the embodiment of “third way” education policy enactment and the rightward shift of the Democratic Party, President Clinton scored a legislative victory in 1994 with the passage of his Goals 2000 legislation and major revisions to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which had been a bedrock of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiatives. Goals 2000 sought to use federal funding (specifically Title I) to push states toward developing higher academic standards, rigorous assessments, and accountability policies for schools and teachers.
Unfortunately for Clinton, resistance from Congress was successful in loosening the requirements of Goals 2000, and the entire project appeared to be threatened by the dramatic Republican takeover of both the House and Senate in the 1994-midterm elections. Led by firebrand Newt Gingrich, Congressional Republicans pushed for, among many other legislative goals, the abolition of the Department of Education and the rollback of the standards based reforms implemented by Clinton.
However, after two years of legislative clashes with the White House and the defeat of Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential election, polling data showed that education was an important issue for strategic voting groups, such as suburban women. This, in turn, led to a strategic shift in American politics. Congressional Republicans “accommodated themselves to the continued existence of federal education programs but set out to reform them in line with conservative principles” (Debray-Pelot & McGuinn 2009, p. 24) that focused on school choice initiatives and test-based accountability.
This shift opened up a space in American politics for the emergence of a new, and somewhat unlikely, coalition of interest groups to push for standards based and business-friendly education reform and for using federal Title I funding as leverage to initiate reform and “innovation,” the new buzzword of the education reform movement at the state level. Despite the increasing rancor in Washington, D.C., the two parties had found one arena in which compromise had become possible. Federal education reform increasingly became a bipartisan initiative that defined a “third way” previously uncharted.
By the turn of the century, the political landscape of education policy had been fundamentally transformed. As Debray-Pelot & McGuinn (2009) note, the new bipartisan consensus over education policy was possible due to an unlikely convergence of political interests. The business lobby had played an important role in publicizing A Nation at Risk and contributed to standards based reform initiatives at the state level during the Reagan and G. W. H. Bush Administrations.
However, by the late 1990s, the Business Roundtable of the U. S. Chamber of Commerce had lost faith in the efficacy of state level reforms and began to advocate for federal intervention to push for tougher standards, market based education solutions, and a greater focus on “21st century job skills” in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). At the same time, civil rights leaders were growing increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in resolving long-standing educational achievement issues in urban school districts.
Liberals in Congress worried that the lack of movement on addressing these issues might strengthen arguments for voucher programs (long popular in the conservative movement), and the growing interest in a new urban school model that promised local control and latitude for pedagogical innovation, the charter school concept, created a new space for political compromise among progressive, civil rights, and business elites. The stronger appetite for reform among the liberal wing of the Democratic Party led by Ted Kennedy strengthened the position of the more "centrist" Third Way wing to push for stronger enforcement of Goals 2000 and the revisions to ESEA that called for more testing accountability. The stage was set for dramatic change in 2000.
Touting his success as governor of Texas, George W. Bush came to Washington with education reform at the top of his agenda. The signature legislation of the Bush Administration, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), was a political compromise that built on an ideological shift in Washington politics toward using Title I funding to pressure states into creating internationally “competitive” standards and accountability policies for teachers and schools.
Specifically, NCLB mandated the development of “challenging state standards,” “annual testing of all students in grades 3-8,” and for states to develop “annual statewide progress objectives ensuring that all [racial and ethnic] groups of students reach proficiency within 12 years” (p. 1). Schools and school districts identified as not making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) became subject to an increasing array of penalties for each successive year of “failure.”
These “corrective actions” the following: 1) restructuring (where entire school staffs are replaced), 2) state or mayoral takeover (where entire school districts are put under state or mayoral control), and 3) school closures (where traditional public schools are closed and students are shifted into charter schools or rezoned to another traditional public school). The Bush Administration was able to forge this political compromise by bringing on board the more libertarian-leaning and religious wings of the Republican Party by pushing for expanding school choice in the forms of charter schools and voucher programs for students in schools identified as failing.
At the same time, the liberals of the Democratic coalition were able to continue their push for raising standards for all and addressing funding inequities, both important issues in the civil rights community. The symbolism of a conservative president and former governor of Texas working with the so-called "liberal lion" of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, to usher through one of the most sweeping pieces of federal education policy since the 1960's is a powerful testament to the convergence of interests among competing groups in American politics, and the repercussions of NCLB would define the education politics of the 2000's.
The wave of reform and changes in public education set off by NCLB was unprecedented in the history of American schooling. Heated debates broke out in state houses and school board meetings across the nation as urban schools tried desperately to stay ahead of steadily escalating annual testing targets. School leadership and teachers became increasingly focused on test scores as a means of survival, and non-tested subjects and social missions long associated with public schools were largely sacrificed to the NCLB demands for Adequate Yearly Progress. Waves of school closures in “failing” school districts were accompanied by the exponential growth of both non-profit and for-profit charter schools, and politicians of all stripes voiced strong commitments for the disruptive innovation introduced by the charter school sector.
While the post-NCLB era has been a time of dramatic change for teachers and families in urban communities, it has proven to be profitable for the new education industry that has emerged and grown up around it. International publishing companies such as Pearson, CTB/McGraw-Hill, Riverside, and Harcourt have carved out important lucrative niches in the education market, producing standardized assessments, scripted curricula, professional development materials, and test scoring services.
The growth of charter schools in urban school districts has produced an ever-expanding constellation of charter school networks and standalones that have, in turn, fed into a growing sector of property management, real estate, and supplementary education service, or tutoring, companies. Not surprisingly, the exponential growth taking place in the education market and the increasing demand for data collection, analysis, storage, and sharing have drawn the attention of technology companies and investors on Wall Street.
As Jonathan Kozol (2007) noted, the Wall Street investing class has come to see the K-12 market as being the “Big Enchilada” for extracting profit from public tax dollars, while hardware, software, and technology infrastructure companies see huge potential for growth in online testing, virtual learning, and new forms of content delivery that are advertised to increase learning while lowering costs. However, these dramatic changes have also contributed to a growing chorus of criticism that NCLB was just another unfunded or underfunded federal mandate that produced a good deal of change in the structural makeup and steerage of public schooling without producing substantive gains in academic achievement or reducing achievement gaps among different student groups.
NCLB’s fanciful expectations of 100 percent proficiency for all students by 2014, regardless the circumstances, and the increasingly hostile rhetoric aimed at public schools, teachers, and local school boards (an institution that commentator Jonathan Alter (2010) pejoratively labeled “The Blob”) has led many public school advocates and education researchers to see NCLB as a mechanism to produce the failure it was supposedly designed to address—a Trojan Horse to create the perception of educational crisis and, thereby, accelerate reform.
In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama frequently characterized NCLB as being “flawed,” leading many public school advocates to project onto him their hopes that his presidency would reverse the tide of education reform sweeping the nation. After all, education scholar and Stanford University researcher Linda Darling-Hammond had advised Obama on the campaign trail and served in his transition team. These hopes were dashed, however, when Darling-Hammond was swept aside, and President Obama named as his Secretary of Education Chicago Public Schools chief, Arne Duncan, a champion of high-stakes testing accountability, school closures, alternative certification programs, test performance pay, and charter schools.
Duncan was given a chance to make his mark on American public schools early on in his tenure, when the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009 set aside $4.3 billion in discretionary funding for school improvement. The money was used to fund the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative that built on and expanded the mandates of the supposedly “flawed” NCLB. States suffering from budget crises brought on by the Great Recession of 2008 were incentivized to compete for badly needed funding from the federal government.
In order to be eligible, states had to sign on to the development and implementation of a set of national standards; the development of high-stakes assessments attached to those standards; the introduction of accountability policies that would tie teacher evaluations to student test scores on those assessments; improved data collection and storage systems; and to the lifting of caps on the number of charter schools. More than anything else, the indistinguishable overlay of Barack Obama’s education policies with those of his Republican predecessor testifies to the dramatic transformation in education policy since the Reagan administration and the publication of A Nation at Risk.
The new politics of education is defined by bipartisan consensus and seemingly paradoxical relationships, and the nationwide tour to promote charter schools featuring Reverend Al Sharpton, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and New York’s mayor Mike Bloomberg provide a good example (Johnson, 2009). While the two parties go to great rhetorical lengths to distinguish themselves on education, the reality of public school policy is one in which the two parties draw from the same lexicon of business language to justify virtually identical education policies built on standards, assessment, accountability, and choice. This convergence is made possible in the post-NCLB era by prominent advocacy and funding from an increasingly assertive business community, along with the growing number of venture philanthropies and corporate foundations.
Advocacy Research & Philanthropic Entrepreneurship
In order to understand shifts in the educational politics over the past forty years, it is important to consider the broader transformations taking place in American society. The crises of the 1970s marked the closing of the post-World War II era of industrial capitalism and broadly shared wealth and the opening of a new era of economic globalization, de-industrialization, and the re-emergence of an increasingly speculative financial sector that has produced levels of economic polarization not seen since the stock market crash of 1929.
As more and more of the productivity gains have accumulated at the top of the economic pyramid, the US has witnessed the rise of a newly assertive business community that has sought to shape political policy and debate through an ever-expanding sector of think tanks, policy institutes, and philanthropic organizations. Today, the driving force behind the national conversation over public schooling and education reform is a new elite that is using its economic and political muscle to achieve political goals that will open up new revenue streams for American business in the name of addressing educational inequality and preparing workers for the new global economy.
The history of the think tank in the U.S. goes back to the Progressive era and its faith in the use of newly emerging social sciences to manage societal issues through policy. The idea behind the think tank was to be a bridge between the academy and government that produced relevant scholarship tailored to the particular needs of policymakers. Funded by large endowments from the philanthropic organizations of industrialists and populated by PhDs, these new institutions, such as The Bureau of Municipal Research, carved out an important niche in the American political system.
Their ability to gain access to policymakers and continued sources of funding hinged on the credibility and neutrality of the research they produced (Rich, 2005, pp. 34-40). To be sure, the relationship between think tanks and the power elite in Washington, D.C. was always troubled, the strong ties between the American military and the RAND Corporation being a good example. However, in comparison to the politically polarized think tank sector of the early 21st Century, the think tank model of the first half of the 20th century is now widely regarded as somewhat of a golden age in which the research was measured and ideologically tempered.
It was in the 1970s that conservative activists in politics and business began what they understood to be a War of Ideas against the perceived liberal and leftist ideologies dominating academia, media, and popular culture. Drawing upon the ideas of luminaries, such as Frederick Hayek and Walter Lippman, a new cadre of conservative public intellectuals set out to reverse the tide of populism and legislation that defined the civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements of the 1960s.
These efforts resulted in new institutions to promote what these “thought leaders” saw as the spirit of free market capitalism. Feeling threatened by “collectivist” ideologies and the growing regulatory framework of the post-New Deal era, they were joined by the business community and the economic elite, who were interested in building a counter-movement to the sweeping social changes of the 1960s.
Gabbard and Atkinson (2007) point toward a memo written in 1971 for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by future Supreme Court justice and former tobacco industry lawyer Louis F. Powell Jr. as marking the starting point of this counter-movement. Decrying an all-out attack on the free enterprise system from the media, universities, religious institutions and intellectual journals, the memo calls for the U. S. Chamber of Commerce to become more politically active.
Powell urged individual companies to set up well-funded public relations divisions to counter attacks on free enterprise and for individual companies to take united action in funding new research and policy institutions to “monitor schools and universities, the media, the courts, and politics for anti-business ideas, and aggressively target them for the distribution of pro-business/neoliberal ideas“ (p. 99). Powell called on the business community to create its own institutions of knowledge production, policy development, and media out-reach to champion free market ideology in order to play a significant role in public debate and policy development. In retrospect, it is clear that Powell’s advice was taken to heart by a broad swath of the economic elite.
The period from the early 1970s until the present has been one of phenomenal growth in the number of think tanks, policy institutes, and advocacy research centers funded by corporate money. Changes to the tax code in 1969 that limited a traditional source of foundation funding for established think tanks, along with the appearance of a newly assertive business community led to a dramatic transformation in the think tank model of the early 20th century and to the emergence of a new crop of think tanks and policy institutes characterized by distinct ideological orientations and sophisticated media out-reach operations (Rich, 2004).
Powell had placed a good deal of faith in the growing field of public relations as being the key component of the counter-movement, and that faith appears to have been well placed. The significant advances in the field of marketing over the past four decades have informed the development of the modern think tank. The same tools used to market consumer goods are being employed to sell ideas and to shape public debate. Think tanks are, in many ways, well-funded media operations producing advocacy research aligned to the interests of their funders.
The modern think tank carries out a wide range of activities: producing issue specific research that is marketed to major news organizations; hosting conferences and seminars to disseminate ideas, generate media coverage, and inform policymakers; and publishing books, magazines, webpages, and news blogs to shape public debate. Whether concerned with a broad range of issues more narrowly focused on one or two policy areas, think tanks rely on individual and corporate funding aimed to shape public debate, gain access to policymakers, and have an impact on policy development.
In the field of education policy, the number of think tanks carrying out research and disseminating policy proposals has grown significantly, and they have been quite successful at shifting the tenor of public debate over schooling toward the neoconservative ideas that emerged from A Nation at Risk (Kovacs & Boyles, 2005). Even an incomplete listing that focuses on the major players in the field offers the reader a good idea of how large this sector has become:
American Enterprise Institute
American Legislative Exchange Council
Center for American Progress
Center on Education Policy
Center on Reinventing Public Education
Foundation for Excellence in Education
Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
Mackinac Center for Public Policy
Manhattan Institute for Policy Research
Mathematica Policy Research
National Council on Teacher Quality
New Teacher Project
Progressive Policy Institute
Beyond the big national players, there are many more narrowly-focused regional and local think tanks and advocacy groups working in the field. Together, they form an expansive network of knowledge and opinion production, policy development, and political marketing that dominate education policy at the federal and state levels. Think tanks are closely associated with party politics and their scholars and fellows enjoy extensive access to policymakers.
However, their most significant avenue for promoting the interests of their funders is through their access to media outlets. Think tank fellows maintain a significant presence in popular news media. Cloaked in the patina of academic legitimacy, think tank fellows are presented in popular news media as being unbiased experts in the field of education (Haas, 2007), and they increasingly offer a unified discourse of policy reform, regardless of their self-identified political affiliations (McDonald 2013).
At the beginning of the contemporary education reform movement in the 1980s, many of the policies that have come to dominate the discourse of education reform were ideas closely associated with conservative think tanks that had strong ties to the business community, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation. However, with the rise of third way politics in the 1990s, corporate money began to flow toward both traditional and new think tanks associated with the Democratic Party to advocate for more corporate friendly policies, the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project being a good example.
New sources of wealth emerging in the 1990s from a post-industrial economy based on financial innovation from Wall Street and technological innovation in Silicon Valley helped to produce a new elite far less interested in social issues associated with the culture wars than their industrialist predecessors. The willingness of this new corporate elite to fund think tanks and advocacy groups associated with the Democratic Party coincided with the political convergence over education policy between the two parties.
Not surprisingly, the culmination of this political convergence, NCLB, produced an explosion of new education policy organizations and advocacy groups linked in an increasingly complex web of money and social networking that has helped to solidify a new paradigm for education policy based on standards, testing accountability, and choice.
During the early years of the 21st Century, three names came to dominate American education reform: Gates, Walton, and Broad.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Broad Foundation have achieved a dominant presence in political debates over education reform and, as a result, wield a great deal of sway over policy formation at the federal, state, and local levels. They represent a new form of philanthropy that uses funding as investments to leverage fundamental societal change, an important difference that distinguishes this model from the traditional philanthropic model of the industrial era.
In its most simple form, it can be understood as a shift from providing funds for the public good, such as arts and cultural projects, to the strategic use of grants and structural supports to bring about “disruptive” change to society that favor corporate constituents. Janelle Scott (2009) notes that, while this new form of philanthropy has certainly generated a lot of attention (not to mention a good deal of criticism), the break between these two institutional models of philanthropy isn’t nearly as clear- cut as it would appear.
In many ways, this model was pioneered by conservative institutions in the 1950s and 60s, such as the Olin and Bradley Foundations, which played a pivotal role in funding the development of conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute. Nevertheless, it is clear that a new form of philanthropic organization has emerged with a specific interest in education policy and reform. This new model of philanthropy takes its ethos from the venture capitalist model of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, where the majority of the funds that these organizations use originate:
Like venture capitalists, venture philanthropies expect aggressive returns on their investments. They measure such returns not necessarily by profit generated but by growth in student achievement, expansion of particular educational sectors, such as education [management organizations] or charter schools, and the growth of constituencies who will place political support on public officials to support particular educational reforms (Scott, 2009, p.116).
A new crop of billionaires emerging from the tech boom in Silicon Valley and the financial “innovation” of Wall Street have created a new institutional model for philanthropic organizations working in the education field, and this new model is increasingly being adopted by more traditional, well-established foundations.
Several characteristics distinguish venture philanthropies from their more traditional cousins of the first half of the 20th century. First and foremost, these new players in the politics of education reform have a clear preference for building new private sector institutions to challenge the public sector. Venture philanthropies fund charter school management organizations as well as individual charter schools in order to build a hybrid form of schooling and school management outside of the public sector.
Charter management organizations or CMOs (such as Achievement First, KIPP, and Green Dot) are non-profit entities that manage multiple charter schools, and education management organizations or EMOs (such as UNO Charter School Network) are for-profit entities that manage a much smaller number of U. S. charter schools. According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, management organizations “provide back office functions for charter schools to take advantage of economies of scale, but some also provide a wider range of services—including hiring, professional development, data analysis, public relations and advocacy” (Warne 2013).
To staff these non-profit and for-profit charter schools, venture philanthropies also provide substantial funding for alternative teacher licensure programs (such as Teach for America) as well as alternative leadership training programs (such as the Broad Residency and the Broad Academy). Second, venture philanthropies are enamored with the concept of innovation. They demonstrate a clear preference for funding new approaches to schooling and student learning that generate new efficiencies through computer and information technology. “Blended” schools, virtual academies, and computer-based credit recovery and “competency-based” programs receive substantial funding.
Finally, venture philanthropies have worked to establish a new model for educational research that works outside of the traditional peer-review process of academia. Venture philanthropies provide targeted funding to national think tanks (such as the Center for American Progress and Center on Inventing Public Education) and even university based programs (such as the School Choice Demonstration Project at the University of Arkansas) to conduct educational research and publish reports on the initiatives pursued by the philanthropies. The importance of this practice cannot be overstated.
Working through think tanks, corporate foundations, and policy institutes with clear ideological agendas, venture philanthropies are an important source of funding for the production and marketing of educational research to build the appearance of a consensus among the research community, often where none exists (Lubienski et al. 2009). In order to build national support, think tank studies that demonstrate the efficacy of the reform initiatives are aggressively marketed by these foundations to news organizations. Of course, studies that fail to demonstrate the efficacy of those initiatives are not aggressively marketed to media outlets and subsequently disappear down our collective memory hole.
According to the Foundation Center (2014), philanthropic organizations spent a total of $2.4 billion dollars in 2011. The ‘big three’ of the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations spent $448 million, $159 million, and $42 million respectively. While this might appear to be a significant amount of funding to drive educational change, it is important to note that total educational spending in the U. S. is approximately $600 billion annually. This raises the question of how large an impact these philanthropies really have if the amount of funding they are providing constitutes a drop in the bucket of total spending. The answer is that they have significant impacts.
Sara Reckhow (2013) points out that these new venture philanthropies use their funds strategically to drive national change. Venture philanthropies target their funding efforts toward large urban school districts that are geographically representative of the nation as a whole in order to create new institutional and organizational models that can be “scaled-up” nationally. They demonstrate a clear preference for urban districts under mayoral control with a robust network of partnering organizations and environments that are supportive of their reform initiatives.
The top five urban areas targeted by venture philanthropies are New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Boston, and Chicago (pp. 35-51). Other notable test sites include New Orleans, Houston, Memphis, and Washington, D. C. By focusing their resources on specific sites, venture philanthropies use these districts as models of reform that can be researched, managed, and marketed to policymakers in order to foster change at the national level. The importance of these new philanthropic organizations isn’t necessarily the dollar amounts they spend, although they do spend a substantial amount of money. What makes venture philanthropies important is their ability to leverage their funding to promote national change.
Beyond funding advocacy research in think tanks that principally target policymakers and news media organizations, the venture philanthropists have several ways to promote their initiatives in popular culture so as to build political support for education reform. The “big three” of the Gates, Walton, and Broad Foundations figured significantly in the production and promotion of the major motion picture Waiting for Superman, a film that was clearly designed to demonize traditional public schools, teachers, and teachers’ unions as being self-interested proponents of the status quo who remain resistant to educational reform and equity.
At the same time, charter schools and a new crop of educational leaders (such as Michele Rhee and Geoffrey Canada) are portrayed as saviors of struggling urban student populations. Promoters of the film were able to obtain prominent feature stories in magazines, (including the New Yorker and Time), national newspapers (The New York Times), exclusive interviews with the film director Davis Guggenheim on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and a nationwide speaking tour to promote the film put on by Bill Gates, who appears in the film as an educational expert (Goldstein, 2010).
Similar strategies were used in the production and promotion of the major motion picture Won’t Back Down, a fictional story of a working class mom and burned out teacher who win the battle to “pull the trigger” on a failing public school and transform it into a privately run charter school. The film was a production of Walden Media, which is owned by Philip Anshutz, a longtime activist known for funding conservative causes such as school choice. The film was distributed by 20th Century Fox, a unit of NewsCorp that also owns the school technology company, Amplify, which is headed by former New York City Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein.
In 2013, Amplify won contracts to develop assessment software and learning tools for the federal Common Core Initiative (Cavanaugh, 2013). These media companies partnered with CBS and the Walton family’s WalMart to broadcast the television special, Teachers Rock, to promote the release of Won’t Back Down. Featuring performances by famous music stars, the television special was part of a well-executed media strategy to use the guise of celebrating teachers in order to promote the film and the education reform movement.
Other notable successful marketing strategies funded by venture philanthropies in recent years include MSNBC’s (and more recently sponsored by NBC) annual Education Nation series and nationwide tour that aggressively markets advocacy research, standards-based education reform, and charter schools. Then there is the Center for Public Broadcasting’s on-going feature American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, which put on the PBS special Ted Talks: Education, which was heavily funded by the Gates Foundation and featured Bill Gates as an educational expert.
In short, venture philanthropies are one of the driving forces behind the contemporary education reform movement. They pursue disruptive innovation in public education by targeting urban school districts as laboratories for reforms, using their significant funding as leverage to introduce and expand charter schools and virtual schools. Venture philanthropies then market their initiatives in these laboratories of reform by funding and publicizing sponsored advocacy research by think tanks, which are, themselves, sleekly styled marketing machines.
Neoliberalism & Education
Hailed by Edward Lazear (2000) as the triumph of economics imperialism, the dominant ideas informing education policy in this modern era of reform come from neoclassical economic theory (Allais, 2012). Both the why and the how of public education are now defined by an economic logic of global competition for human capital, whose worth is weighed by knowledge acquisition. In the words of Barack Obama, it is now “an undeniable fact that countries who out-educate us today are going to out-compete us tomorrow” (Obama, 2011).
In this new global reality, the goal of public schooling is to produce human capital in the form of college ready graduates well versed in STEM curricula and eager to pursue careers in science, engineering, and computer technology. As these ideas have risen to ascendancy in recent years, a political convergence on education policy emerged that is largely informed by human capital theory and neoclassical economic theory. This convergence involved a coalescence around three broad policy reforms: raise academic standards and create challenging assessments to test student mastery; hold teachers and schools accountable for student scores on these assessments, often by using value-added measures borrowed from econometrics; and introduce market competition into public education in order to produce innovation and to close persistent achievement gaps between student populations.
These three broad policy reforms are seen as being not only the key to producing human capital but, also, for achieving equitable outcomes. The rhetoric of equity has been adopted by a new breed of venture philanthropists and business leaders whose neoliberal assumptions are shaped by neoclassical economic theory, and whose money played a prominent role in bringing about a political convergence over education policy. Over a period of time when real incomes stagnated in the U.S., a new economic elite has set about re-making society in its own perceived interests.
In this New Gilded Age, the corporate philanthropic community has set about constructing an elaborate architecture of think tanks and policy institutes to shift education policy talk and implementation to the political right through advocacy research and marketing. Venture philanthropies have chosen struggling urban school districts as laboratories of education reform; have funded sympathetic think tank research on the reforms being pursued; and have aggressively marketed education reform and sponsored research results across a spectrum of media.
Michael Peters (2011) traces the origins of neoliberalism to a meeting of prominent philosophers, political theorists, and economists organized by the French philosopher, Louis Rougier, in 1938. La Colloque Walter Lippmann was a meeting of intellectuals held to discuss Walter Lippmann’s 1937 book The Good Society. Lippmann argued for the revitalization of liberalism as a middle ground between laissez-faire capitalism and European socialism.
The term “neoliberalism” was coined at La Colloque Walter Lippmann by the future father of the West German state, Alexander Rustow, who sought to differentiate a new form of liberalism marked by a free economy AND a strong state from the small, laissez-faire state of classical liberalism. Indeed, despite the more libertarian rhetoric often bandied about in discussions on neoliberalism, the combination of a “free” market economy and a strong activist state is a defining characteristic of neoliberalism. The proponents of neoliberalism will frequently argue that their goal is to liberate individuals from the burdensome regulations of an over bearing nanny-state, but the liberty they envision is a peculiar one.
The nature of this peculiar form of liberty can be located in the ideas of Frederick Hayek, a prominent thinker who was an attendee at La Colloque Walter Lippmann and whose work would come to have a profound influence on the American Right. His Road to Serfdom (1944) argued that all forms of “collectivism” posed the risk of a creeping authoritarianism that inevitably sacrificed the natural rights of individuals at the altar of bureaucratic logic. For Hayek, the threat from collectivism was everywhere, from the corporatism of fascism to the communism of the Soviet Union to the Keynesianism of the welfare state. Each represented a threat to the individual.
In opposition to the creeping authoritarianism of collectivism, Hayek held up the spontaneous order of the marketplace as the ideal model for organizing human society so as to maximize individual liberty. For Hayek, markets are information processors, or signaling machines, in which market actors continuously “signal” the price/value of commodities to one another through the buying and selling of goods and services. Left to its own devices, Hayek argued, the marketplace would spontaneously achieve an equilibrium in which intersecting supply and demand curves ensure the efficient and rational allocation of resources.
More importantly, individuals would achieve authentic liberty through the pursuit of their own self-interested goals in a competitive marketplace. Hayek’s ideal was a spontaneous order of rationality achieved through the (mostly) rational activity of self-interested individuals, a market democracy in which the state was largely absent. Nevertheless, there was a role for the state in Hayek’s work (Hoppe, 1994). According to Hayek, the role of the state was to provide the legal and judicial infrastructure to ensure the smooth functioning of markets and to provide the services that, for whatever reason, cannot be taken care of by the market.
At the time, the attendees of La Colloque Walter Lippmann appeared to be fighting an up-hill battle. It was an era in which Karl Polanyi’s “Great Transformation” was very much in ascendancy and the formation of the post-World War II welfare state was well underway. However, what ultimately emerged from the colloquium was a political ideology that would later influence a new crop of neoconservative thinkers and business leaders in the United States and beyond. In the era of post-Fordism and the erosion of the welfare state, the ideology of neoliberalism has risen to dominate the two party system of American politics, the world of economics and finance, and the world of high technology and social entrepreneurship.
Neoliberalism can be understood as an ideology that adheres to a logic that divides social reality into two mutually exclusive spheres: the public sphere vs. private sphere. This public-private distinction separates out the functions of the state from the private individual and the state from the marketplace, the sphere of self-interested individuals. Neoliberalism asserts the primacy of the private individual over the state. Through the pursuit of their own self-interests, individuals achieve authentic liberty in the marketplace, and the outcome of this, shall we say, collective activity is a spontaneous order that ensures efficient, rational outcomes. This rationalizing function of markets is the foundation for neoliberal social policy.
In order to rationalize society and maximize individual liberty, neoliberalism advocates that the state should decentralize the majority of the services it provides to the private sphere, where possible, and to introduce quasi-market processes into the institutions of the state where privatization, for whatever reason, is not possible:
Under neo-liberalism, the role of the government shifts from regulating markets to enabling them, and replacing public services with private enterprise, in the process, weakening the nation-state and public political participation. The state becomes a handmaiden to the creation and defense of markets and the monetary system on which they are based (Sleeter, 2008, p. 1947).
Neoliberalism assumes that opening state institutions to market competition will bring about the spontaneous rationality of the marketplace, all the while maximizing individual liberty. However, these newly decentralized and quasi-marketplaces look dramatically different from the popular notions of the marketplace still colored by the legacy of classical liberalism.
The private sphere to which neo-liberalism seeks to shift the responsibilities of the state apparatus is one that is actively created by the state. Neo-liberalism tasks the state with creating the markets that will deliver social services by determining which organizations are allowed to compete in newly constituted marketplaces and by establishing the roles and responsibilities of individual economic/political actors, both as an individual consumer-citizen and corporation, in those markets. Behind the populist rhetoric of ensuring individual freedom from the heavy hand of governance, there is a perhaps smaller but intrusive government envisioned by neo-liberalism that differentiates it from its classical predecessor (Ellison, 2012a, p. 131).
In contrast to the image of the unrestrained individual pursuing her/his own self-interest, the fetishized markets of neoliberalism are circumscribed places of observation, measurement, and accountability. The privatization of state services envisioned by neoliberalism requires that the state create, manage, and participate in politicized markets that situate individuals in circumscribed spaces designed to “rationalize” their behavior. John Clarke (2004) explains:
Of course, this ‘privatisation’ is not merely a process of transfer to an unchanged private space. The private is re-worked in the process—subject to processes of responsibilisation and regulation; and opened to new forms of surveillance and scrutiny. Both corporate and state processes aim to ‘liberate’ the private—but expect the liberated subjects to behave responsibly [as consumers, as parents, as citizen-consumers] (p. 33).
The goal of neoliberalism isn’t to free the individual to participate in market exchange as a consumer; the goal is to produce consumers of state services whose behavior is structured by the rules of market exchange.
Clarke (2004) notes that neoliberalism is not so much a description of social reality as much as it is a political strategy: “Put crudely, neo-liberalism tells stories about the world, the future and how they will develop—and tries to make them come true” (p. 30). Neoliberalism can be accurately considered an ideology or a discourse. Both conceptualizations provide rich avenues for further inquiry. However, from the time of La Colloque Walter Lippmann to the present, it is important to remember this: neoliberalism is and always has been a visionary political project to restructure society in the imagined image of an unfettered marketplace for others to emulate, even if the visionaries’ own success in the marketplaces look dramatically different from those of their imagined model.
The neoliberals’ task is to remake the world in their own imagined image. However, it would not be entirely accurate to characterize neoliberalism as the ideology of the elite. Neoliberalism has proven to be a seductive ideology that speaks to the daily experiences of the managerial class where competition, monitoring, surveillance, quantifiable outcomes, and accountability measurements are common practices. Neoliberalism speaks to technocratic assumptions as to how to organize institutions, and the oft-repeated political bromide that we should “run government like a business” resonates with many who view reality through the corporate lens.
At its core, neoliberalism is a political project that works to subsume human societies beneath a distinctly corporate logic that entails setting measurable performance goals for individuals, evaluating individual performance using statistical analyses, and instituting carrot-and-stick incentive structures to “rationalize” human behavior. It is a project that focuses on individual performance within circumscribed spaces. Neoliberalism is not a social-psychological theory that explains individual human behavior; neoliberalism is a political project to produce “rational” human beings who adhere to the “laws” of an imaginary marketplace.
This chapter has traced the political and ideological development of the modern education reform movement. In many ways, the charter school model represents the actualization of the dominant ideological and strategic structures at work in the realization of the neoliberal values applied to federal and state politics; it is, perhaps, the paradigmatic institution of neoliberal education reform. The KIPP model, specifically, provides an excellent example of Foucault’s idea of productive power that works not to control or restrict but to produce students/teachers with the specific aptitudes or habitus for the imagined marketplace of a neoliberal social order.
This new order is defined by hierarchy and domination and informed by the uniquely neoliberal science of positive psychology (Ellison 2012b). When considering how KIPP fits into the framework presented in this chapter, the No Excuses charter school model should not be considered as an isolated unit of analysis to be abstracted from the larger social reality presented here. Rather, it should be understood as the most tangible example of a “singularity born out of multiple determining elements of which it is not the product, but rather the effect” (Foucault, 2007, p. 64).
In closely examining the grueling experiences of former KIPP teachers and the brutalizing experiences of students that these teachers recall, it will be helpful to keep in mind that both teachers and students in these total compliance schools are subject to an institutionalized exercise of power aimed to coercively salvage the maximum amount of human capital from human beings that are, otherwise, disposable:
The human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it. A ‘political anatomy’, which was also a ‘mechanics of power’, was being born; it defined how one may have a hold over others’ bodies, not only so that they may do what one wishes, but also so that they may operate as one wishes, with the techniques, the speed and the efficiency that one determines. Thus discipline produces subjected and practised bodies, ‘docile’ bodies. Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience). In short, it dissociates power from the body; on the one hand, it reverses the course of the energy, the power that might result from it, and turns it into a relation of strict subjection. If economic exploitation separates the force and the product of labour, let us say that disciplinary coercion establishes in the body the constricting link between an increased aptitude and an increased domination (Foucault 1995, p. 138).
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