This week, the conservative movement in our country ushered in the "New Washington Consensus on Education." As noted on Flypaper, blog site for the rightwing thinktank Fordham Institute, backers of this bipartisan effort to make public schools conform to a vision of "competition, choice, and accountability" is the product of a confederacy of leading conservative pundits such as George Will, business interests who see opportunities for expanding profits, Senators from conservative and swing states, and the current presidential administration whose point person for leading the charge to bipartisan school "reform" is Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
The "New Washington Consensus" differs from the old one in that it favors more "flexibility" in allowing states to determine the thresholds for accountability and a form of federal support based on "competition" typified by the Obama administration's Race to the Top grant program, which was heralded by the president in his recent State of the Union Speech as "the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation."
This may sound all well and good to some concerned citizens on the left of the political spectrum in that this new consensus resonates with themes of concern and commitment to public education and promises to lift the more punitive demands of No Child Left Behind. But anyone who considers themselves progressive should pause to remember that bipartisanship brought us the destructive path of NCLB to begin with - and the Iraq War too, for that matter.
Bipartisanship, in fact, hasn't been working so well for education. As Amy Stuart Wells pointed out at Education Week,
While it is a difficult moment to not support greater agreement across our political parties, the reality is that this increasing bipartisanism in education reform is not working for our students. In fact, the most agreed-upon solutions-testing, privatization, deregulation, stringent accountability systems, and placement of blame on unions for all that is wrong-are doing more harm than good. Achievement overall has not improved, and the gap between the privileged and the disadvantaged has widened. Parents across the country are fed up with the stress and boredom their children feel in schools that are driven by tests and competition. Internationally, countries with better safety nets to support children's well-being are leaving us in the dust. As President Obama noted, while the United States once led the world in education, we are now falling rapidly behind.
Despite this bad news, there appears to be no dramatic change of course on the political horizon, no healthy debate on the bipartisan agenda. Indeed, consensus on bad ideas in education has become much like a naked emperor-no one wants to break from the ranks and state a bold vision.
The reasons that bipartisanship on education isn't working are multiple. But rising to the top of the heap of the problems it spawns is the unified mantra for "competition" as a means to improve schools. After Obama hailed his RTT competitive grant program as a grand solution to our faltering schools, public school advocates at the Shott Foundation posted a stinging rebuttal:
Piecemeal programs like RTT, that require states to compete for resources in the form of grants, have not systemically solved the problem over the past two years, nor will they in the future. The role of the federal government is not one of a foundation, but as an agent of the people working to ensure opportunities for all. To date, 39 states either were non-participants or losers in RTT. How can the United States win if 39 states lose, let alone stay on a trajectory to increase the number of college graduates by 23 million above the current number? After two years of implementation and allotting close to $4 billion dollars, the initiative has only distributed resources in states that touch 24% of African American students, 15% of Latino students, 5% of Asian students, 0% percent of American Indian students, and 6% of ELL students. Additionally, poor rural states and their students have been grossly underrepresented in RTT.
In this "Sputnik moment," pairing the nation's 2020 goal with a RTT policy frame is analogous to challenging the nation to reach the moon and forcing states and communities to develop their own rockets to get there. As one Long Island grandparent passionately stated after New York Gov. Cuomo announced a similar competitive plan for that state, "Our kids are not game show contestants where parents should be forced to compete on getting them in the right districts or schools."
Education is a civil right and the federal government has the obligation to ensure all students' right to an opportunity to learn are protected, whether in strong or strained fiscal climates.
(emphasis in original)
That the competitiveness frame has never been proven to work for improving public schools never seems to be a consideration of the Washington Consensus. The whole concept of competition is in fact antithetical to what progressive education is trying to accomplish, as Alfie Kohn has long maintained and argued thoroughly.
If you believe that access to high-quality education is a fundamental human right, you should be just as suspicious of a competitive model for education as you would be of injecting competition into your community's fire and police protection. Forcing people to compete for essential services is not only unworkable - as those who are on the lower rungs of the economic ladder invariably are denied those service - it's immoral.
Again, from the Shott foundation:
A competitive-based frame like RTT works against the very purpose for which ESEA was created in 1965 as a part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty-to prevent states, districts, parents, and America's children from competing to have their right to an opportunity to learn protected. We urge the President not to lead America back to the pre-ESEA status quo days of states jockeying and politicking for federal funding; this approach has historically proven to do what the first two years of RTT has-leave poor, disadvantaged, and rural citizens behind.
The time has come for us to end the practice of avoiding the size of our challenge by creating limited initiatives like RTT that work only on the margins. As the President proclaimed, "America does Big Things," and a race that only impacts 11 of 50 states is far from "big."
So if competition has little to offer to public schools in both its lack of a proven track record and its conceptual clash with the values of public education, then why has the Obama administration colluded with others to embrace it?
The quick answer to that question is that it makes for good "politics." As George Lakoff wrote this week, Obama's "competitiveness narrative" serves a number of purposes in keeping him electable in 2012. But progressives have every cause to be suspicious of this strategy.
The competitiveness frame excludes half of what progressives care about. Abortion rights, under attack nationally by conservatives, don't help competitiveness, nor does gay marriage, worker rights, clean air and water, saving species and preserving natural environments, public financing of elections, helping the homeless, ending the war in Afghanistan, arts and humanities education, helping immigrants who are not well-educated, and on and on. Can these be made to fit the competitiveness frame?
Can you have unity without equality? Can you have productive industries without fair wages and organizing rights? Can you have long-term prosperity while destroying nature? Can you be economically productive without good health? Can you maximize production without women's rights? Can you educate a population without educating them in empathy and introspection and a vibrant sense of the aesthetics of life?
My sense is that in regards to the intentions of the New Washington Consensus on education, and by association the Obama administration, there is something more than just politics afoot here. Going back to the other pillar of the Consensus - "flexibility" - it's easy to see how those who are in power will have increased means to manipulate the system to conform to their own ideological - and financial -goals.
For instance, gaze upon the current debacle occurring in Wake County, North Carolina. As teacher and edublogger Nancy Flanagan recently wrote, Wake County, NC's largest school system, has enjoyed much success and widespread acclaim through, in part, enforcing - yes, enforcing, through government mandate - a diversity policy intended to rescue children of low-income families from being herded into high-poverty schools where they are, research shows, much less likely to flourish academically than if they were integrated into the schools that serve more affluent children.
However, a new Tea Party-backed majority of the Wake County School Board wants to shatter that track record of success. Under the guise of "flexibility" and "neighborhood schools," these ideologues want to enforce a system of competition and "choice" that will quite likely lead to a resegregation of black and brown children from their more well-off peers and, in turn, create a concentration of "failed" schools that can be immediately charterized into the hands of "education entrepreneurs."
As the ever-useful Jim Horn observes, there is a "financial incentive" at work in these "reform" efforts being pushed by the Washington Consensus. And that ends is to sequester black and brown children "in corporate charters" while "white children can be nurtured and sheltered behind the gates of their leafy communities," and doing all this "at public expense and under corporate direction."
Progressives everywhere need to push back against this New Washington Consensus. And fortunately, many are already organizing to do just that. Daily Kos' teacher and edu-blogger teacherken recently posted about the broad-based grassroots effort, Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action, and just this weekend he posted the first in a series of diaries describing the leadership behind this activism.
This educator-led movement joins a whole battery of student-initiated efforts to save public education from the onslaught of the privatizers. Tonight, youth activists from across the U.S. are conducing a National Organizing Conference Call in preparation for a National Month of Actions to Defend Public Education in March.
A growing number of parents are also fighting back against the bipartisan consensus on the role of market forces in public education through community organizations, including Concerned Advocates for Public Education and Parents United for Responsible Education, and the Facebook site Parents for Learning, Not Testing.
So what'll it be follow progressives? Are we going to stand on the sidelines? Or are going to join others to fight against the efforts of the Washington Consensus to privatize the public good and limit our rights to quality education for all?