Corporate Interests Change Lexicon for School Privatization into 'Education Reform'

Salon recently ran an insightful excerpt from the book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, written by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch. The piece, “School Privatization is a hoax, “reformers” aim to destroy public schools,” sheds light on the growing fight by corporate interests to redo education laws and standards, in part to limit the power of teachers unions. As an introduction, Ravitch points out that while public schools are often labeled a “failure” they have increasingly become the safest place for children in troubled neighborhoods.

As long as anyone can remember, critics have been saying that the schools are in decline. They used to be the best in the world, they say, but no longer. They used to have real standards, but no longer. They used to have discipline, but no longer. What the critics seldom acknowledge is that our schools have changed as our society has changed. Some who look longingly to a golden age in the past remember a time when the schools educated only a small fraction of the population.

But the students in the college-bound track of fifty years ago did not get the high quality of education that is now typical in public schools with Advanced Placement courses or International Baccalaureate programs or even in the regular courses offered in our top city and suburban schools. There are more remedial classes today, but there are also more public school students with special needs, more students who don’t read English, more students from troubled families, and fewer students dropping out. As for discipline, it bears remembering a 1955 film called “Blackboard Jungle,” about an unruly, violent inner-city school where students bullied other students. The students in this school were all white. Today, public schools are often the safest places for children in tough neighborhoods.

In response to critics wanting the public education system to return to the “good old days,” Ravitch writes that those critics are enjoying revisionist history. Changing times have called for changing approaches as to how best meet the needs of our changing society.

When present-day critics refer to what they assume was a better past, they look back to a time when a large proportion of American youths did not complete high school and only a small minority completed four years of college. In those supposedly halcyon days, the schools in many states were racially segregated, as were most colleges and universities. Children with disabilities did not have a right to a free public education until after the passage of federal legislation in 1975 and were often excluded from public schools. Nor did schools enroll significant numbers of non-English-speaking students in the 1940s and 1950s or even the 1960s.

The proposed overhaul of the public school system by those looking to profit on the changes is often labeled as “reform.” Yet, the reality of the situation is that their future of the education system would consist of children being taught by computers to do well on placement tests that were administered by the exact companies fighting for “reform.” All other elements of public education—participation in clubs, sports, and the community—would go by the wayside as they would not be profitable for the companies in charge of your children's education. The definition of reform preferred by privatization enthusiasts does not match that of the one provided by the dictionary. Ravitch goes on to lay out the true meaning of the terms used in the privatized lexicon.

Though they speak of “reform,” what they really mean is deregulation and privatization. When they speak of “accountability,” what they really mean is a rigid reliance on standardized testing as both the means and the end of education. When they speak of “effective teachers,” what they mean is teachers whose students produce higher scores on standardized tests every year, not teachers who inspire their students to love learning. When they speak of “innovation,” they mean replacing teachers with technology to cut staffing costs. When they speak of “no excuses,” they mean a boot-camp culture where students must obey orders and rules without question.

When they speak of “personalized instruction,” they mean putting children in front of computers with algorithms that supposedly adjust content and test questions to the ability level of the student but actually sacrifice human contact with a real teacher. When they speak of “achievement” or “performance,” they mean higher scores on standardized tests. When they speak of “data-driven instruction,” they mean that test scores and graduation rates should be the primary determinant of what is best for children and schools. When they speak of “competition,” they mean deregulated charters and deregulated private schools competing with highly regulated public schools. When they speak of “a successful school,” they refer only to its test scores, not to a school that is the center of its community, with a great orchestra, an enthusiastic chorus, a hardworking chess team, a thriving robotics program, or teachers who have dedicated their lives to helping the students with the highest needs (and often the lowest scores).

The reformers define the purpose of education as preparation for global competitiveness, higher education, or the workforce. They view students as “human capital” or “assets.” One seldom sees any reference in their literature or public declarations to the importance of developing full persons to assume the responsibilities of citizenship.

As Ravitch notes, this “reformed” lexicon is necessary in order to sell parents on the ideas put forth by those who want to make drastic changes to the education system. If the truth of the matter was the heart of the conversation it is unlikely that parents would be willing to buy in on these “reforms.” Ravitch writes:

If the American public understood that reformers want to privatize their public schools and divert their taxes to pay profits to investors, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If parents understood that the reformers want to close down their community schools and require them to go shopping for schools, some far from home, that may or may not accept their children, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public understood that the very concept of education was being disfigured into a mechanism to apply standardized testing and sort their children into data points on a normal curve, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform.

If the American public understood that their children’s teachers will be judged by the same test scores that label their children as worthy or unworthy, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. If the American public knew how inaccurate and unreliable these methods are, both for children and for teachers, it would be hard to sell the corporate idea of reform. And that is why the reform message must be rebranded to make it palatable to the public.

To read the excerpt in its entirety please check out Salon.com. To check out Ravitch’s book please visit Amazon.com.

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