The Crisis in Urban Education: Resisting Neoliberal Policies and Forging Democratic Possibilities
Publication Date: 2007-01-11
Educational Researcher, May, 2006
As we shall see, competition, markets, and privatization came increasingly to dominate education policy.
Chicago: Creating the Global City
In High Stakes Education, Lipman argues that recent Chicago Public Schools reforms can be understood only within the context of neoliberal globalism and Chicago?s efforts to transform itself from a city in which labor produced industrial and agricultural products??the city of broad shoulders??to one focused on the financial services, real estate, and tourism characteristic of a global city. Lipman builds on the work of Castells (1989, 1998) and Sassen (1994) to show how Chicago?s development is similar to that of other global cities that aim to take on ?a strategic role as command centers in the [neoliberal] global economy? (Lipman, 2003, p. 7). In Chicago, as the mayor has consolidated power over the schools, corporations consolidated power over city government. Together, the city?s economic and educational policies have promoted the finance industry and, in the process, transformed the labor force and the geography of the city. For example, to attract and keep the new professional class, the city government funded upscale housing, restaurants, and other amenities (p. 25). As the city invested in the professional class, it disinvested in the poor. Housing projects for low-wage workers were allowed to deteriorate to the point of being uninhabitable, thereby justifying their demolition and replacement with housing for the economically privileged. Because of such changes, Chicago is becoming ?a dual city spatially as well as socially and economically? (p. 28).
By situating her discussion of school reforms within larger changes in economic policies, Lipman helps us to understand how and why the current reforms differ from those of the 1960s through 1988. In that period, influenced by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, first African American parents, students, and communities and then Latino/a parents pushed for reforms to increase school funding, better prepare students for a university education and jobs, and increase community control over schools. Such efforts resulted in the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act, which enabled ?unprecedented democratic participation in school governance through elected Local School Councils with a majority parents and community residents? (p. 35). These reforms were made possible because of then-mayor Harold Washington?s support of community-based organizations and a national business-supported trend of school restructuring and site-based management (Bryk, Sebring, Kerbow, Rollow, & Easton, 1998; Hess, 1991).
However, in 1995 the Illinois State Legislature passed another school reform law recentralizing control of the Chicago Public Schools by giving the mayor power to appoint a five-person board of trustees and a chief executive officer. The new administration also had
The mayor-appointed head of trustees, Gery Chico, with his budget director, Paul Vallas, as chief executive officer, ?installed a corporate, regulatory regime centered on high stakes tests, standards and remediation? (p. 36).
With the power to determine education policy centralized in the mayor?s office, the Chicago Public Schools initiated many new programs. Some, such as the International Baccalaureate programs and College Prep Regional Magnet High Schools, prepare students for university. In contrast, others focus on ?vocational education, restricted (basic skills) curricula, and intensified regimentation of instruction and/or control of students? (p. 49). Lipman maps out where the different programs started, showing how those that are more academically rigorous tend to be situated in or draw students from upper-income and gentrifying neighborhoods, and those using direct instruction or preparing students for vocations or the military are situated in low-income African American and Latina/o neighborhoods. Even when programs are dispersed among neighborhoods, such as the International Baccalaureate program, they serve only 30 students per high school grade, with admission to the program skewed in favor of White students.
Lipman also describes how testing policies, such as publicly reporting standardized test scores by school site, further legitimizes program differences by allowing those schools with high test scores to retain flexibility in instruction and requiring schools with low test scores (principally those composed primarily of students of color and students living in poverty) to institute more regimented methods of instruction. And she argues that the college-prep programs both act as an incentive for professional and middle-class families to live in the city and provide a veneer of equity and opportunity in a vastly unequal system (p. 56). Although presented as policies and reforms that decrease inequality, they exacerbate educational inequality and heighten economic and social dualities. She concludes:
More recently, Lipman (2005) explained how the mayor?s newly enacted ?Renaissance 2010? policy may make a bad situation worse, as schools for the poor are taken over and administered by a corporate-dominated board. The policy ?calls for closing 60 public schools and opening 100 small schools, two-thirds of which will be charter or contract schools run by private organizations? using nonunion teachers and school employees (Lipman, 2005, p. 54). Schools will not be governed by the Local School Councils, to which teachers, parents, and community members are elected, but rather by New Schools for Chicago, a board constituted by corporate and Chicago Public School leaders chosen by the Commercial Club of Chicago, an organization representing the city?s corporate and political elite. New Schools for Chicago will use current corporate models to evaluate the schools by developing ?performance contracts? that focus on student test scores. By undermining democratic control of schools, further deprofessionalizing teachers, and transferring public funds to private for-profit corporations, Renaissance 2010 is a renaissance only for some.
Lipman?s research demonstrates how the neoliberal discourses used by policymakers ?shift responsibility for the inequality produced by the state onto parents, students, schools, communities and teachers? (2003, pp. 171?172). Chicago?s policymakers, like those in New York and Washington, D.C. (Hursh, 2005), promote their policies by asserting that standardized testing and accountability increase equity and fairness, ?holding all students to the same high standards.? However, as Lipman shows, the schools, in fact, do not prepare students for the same high standards; most students are being prepared for retail and service jobs or the military. Moreover, in the push to raise test scores, schools cannot develop curriculums that build on the students? culture. Consequently, low-income students and students of color are unlikely to do well, because they are not expected to do so, nor does the curriculum connect to their own experience. But because policymakers portray all students as being provided the same opportunities, student failure is blamed on individual lack of effort. Lipman shows how the policies shift the blame for student failure away from society?s failure to provide the necessary economic and cultural resources and onto the individual students.
In the last chapter Lipman proposes what we might do to counteract policies such as Chicago?s. First, she calls for schools to provide all students with ?an education that is intellectually rich and rigorous and instills a sense of personal, cultural, and social agency. Students need both the knowledge and skills traditionally associated with academic excellence and a curriculum that is meaningfully related to their lives? (p. 181).
Second, she points out that in a time when schools are receiving less funding, we need to commit resources for education so that schools can reduce class size; provide high-quality professional development and ?time for teachers to plan and reflect in order to transform the nature of teaching, learning, and assessment; to recruit and retain expert committed teachers? (p. 181-2); and provide the science labs, technology, and books required for a rich learning environment. Instead, she writes, schools are underfunded, and ?failure due to a lack of resources provides a justification for the state to impose controls (Apple, 1991) to overcome the ?failed policies of the past?? (p. 182).
Third, ?transforming urban schools entails a protracted cultural campaign directed against deficit notions about the potential of low-income children and children of color? (p. 182). During the last several decades there has been
It is especially ironic, at a time when we know more about how to successfully teach low-income students and students of color, that schools have implemented regimented curriculums required by the standardized tests (McNeil & Valenzuela, 2001; Kozol, 2005).
While much of what Lipman suggests in her last chapter has been stated by others, what is original and significant regarding her research is that she shows how those in power have reshaped education around the principles of competition, accountability, and privatization to the benefit of a few and the detriment of middle- and low-income students and students of color. While not wanting to romanticize the past, there is no longer space for teachers and parents to discuss the goals of education and the merits of different curricula and pedagogy. Instead, the focus is on raising test scores within a competitive environment.
We need, therefore, to extend Lipman?s analysis to the state and federal levels to demonstrate how neoliberal policies shape the way in which we think about the nature and purpose of society and schooling. We also need to develop an alternative vision of democracy rooted in a clear understanding of what democratic processes we want to promote. Jean Anyon, whose book I turn to next, shows how state and federal policies have undermined the life chances of the urban poor and people of color.
Undermining Equality and Urban Education
In Radical Possibilities, Jean Anyon looks at urban schooling throughout the United States and maintains that improving urban education is insufficient to improve the plight of the urban poor. Poverty, she argues, is a consequence not only of inadequate schooling but also of regional and federal policies that fail to provide access to living-wage jobs, decent housing, and health care. Anyon draws on her analysis of U.S. history and her politically activist past to contend that regional and federal policies change only in response to pressure from social movements, and that educators need to take on a central role in creating such a movement.
Anyon complements Lipman?s analysis of Chicago by showing how recent state and federal economic, housing, and transportation policies have exacerbated inequality and created economically and spatially divided cities. And like Lipman, Anyon describes the intersection between urban economic and social policies and urban schools, arguing that ?macroeconomic policies like those regulating the minimum wage, job availability, tax rates, federal transportation, and affordable housing create conditions in cities that no existing educational policy or urban school reform can transcend? (p. 2). Low-achieving schools are not primarily a result of failed education policy or urban families; ?rather, an unjust economy and the policies through which it is maintained create barriers to educational success? (p. 2).
Consequently, Anyon calls for a new social movement in which educational reform is linked to larger macroeconomic reforms.
In the first of three parts, Anyon focuses on the impact of federal policies on individual and family income, showing not only that inequality has increased over the last 30 years but also that increased inequality is primarily a consequence of federal tax, job, and wage policies. Although many promote education as the means of increasing social equality, Anyon reveals that the increasing education levels attained over the last two decades, including a narrowing of the achievement gap between White students and students of color, has not decreased economic inequality. She rebuts the commonly held belief that most people are poor because they lack motivation to work. For example, in 1999, almost half the people who earned poverty zone wages (wages up to 125% of the poverty level) worked full-time and year-round (p. 19).
Furthermore, a college education no longer guarantees jobs above a poverty level. ?Almost one in ten of the working poor is a college graduate? (p. 19, emphasis in original).
In the second part, Anyon shifts her attention to metropolitan inequalities, describing a spatial mismatch between urban residents and jobs. ?Most workers with low to moderate education levels live in central cities and most jobs for which they qualify are located in outlying suburbs,? which, lacking cars and adequate public transportation, they cannot reach (p. 83). Just as Lipman describes Chicago as a dual segregated city, Anyon provides evidence that most metropolitan areas are dual and segregated.
In the third and last part of the book, Anyon outlines a strategy for developing a new social movement in which those in poverty and the middle class work together to demand policy changes that will benefit the majority of citizens rather than primarily the rich. Anyon argues for policies that will revitalize cities by providing urban residents with above-minimum-wage jobs, public transportation so that they can get to the jobs, and improved housing, health care, and education. She provides numerous examples of metropolitan areas that have incorporated policies aimed to reduce their spatial and economic inequalities, such as the Twin Cities (Minnesota) metropolitan revenue-sharing plan that decreases tax inequalities (pp. 105?106).
Because Anyon believes that education reform will not, by itself, decrease inequality, she says little about schools in this book. Readers who want to know about her views on education reform will find them elsewhere, for example in her earlier book Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform (1997). She does argue, however, that urban schools can be the center for the new civil rights movement. As stated above, she suggests that teachers can and should become community activists, in part because ?if they are respectful, caring, hard-working educators, trusted by students and parents, they have a unique opportunity to engage residents and youth in political conversations and activity? (2005 p. 178). She adds that teachers can also engage students in civic activism and provides as one example the Philadelphia [high school] Student Union (pp. 188?189).
Throughout much of Radical Possibilities, she seeks to convince us that a new social movement is possible in these conservative, neoliberal times. She reminds us that the Civil Rights Movement began in earnest in the 1950s, following the apex of McCarthyism. Other movements?welfare rights, women?s rights, anti-war, environmental?were either rekindled or ignited during the 1960s, after the supposedly quiet and conservative 1950s. Furthermore, although not as visibly as the political movements of the 1960s and ?70s, over the last several decades many progressive groups have been working actively for reform. Anyon provides in-depth descriptions of five different but interrelated movements that have been growing since the 1980s: community organizing, such as ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), education organizing, progressive labor unions, the living wage movement, and youth organizing. Many of the people working in these movements have become proficient at organizing for and achieving political and social reforms. And contrary to what is often presented in the media, not all youth are quiescent. Anyon cites data indicating that ?there are ?over 500 well-established politically progressive youth groups . . . active in urban areas? (p. 163) and briefly describes the Boston Area Youth Organizing Project, Schools Not Jails (Los Angeles), and the Student Labor Action Project.
Like Anyon, I have also argued that a new social movement is both necessary and possible and over the last several decades have helped create several organizations to fight for progressive policies and educational reform (most recently, I helped found the Coalition for Common Sense in Education in Rochester, New York). However, I would have liked to hear from Anyon about how we can create a new social movement that not only changes policies but also challenges the assumptions of the reigning neoliberal basis for social and economic policies. That possibility is the focus of the remainder of this review.
Creating a Movement: Public Policy and Urban Education
Anyon devotes most of her book to describing how the economic and social policies of the last several decades have benefited the wealthy while harming the middle class and poor. The poor, in particular, suffer from inadequate access to decent housing, employment, public transportation, and health care, rights won during the 1960s but lost again during the last several decades, when the already advantaged reasserted their power and increased their advantages (Bowles & Gintis, 1986). Therefore, concludes Anyon, those harmed by the current policies can reverse them only by creating a new social movement.
However, while Anyon is right to argue that a new social movement is necessary, I believe that such a movement ultimately will fail if it does not both explain how neoliberal policies have been imposed on society and promote a more socially democratic vision. A successful movement, therefore, needs to extend Lipman?s and Anyon?s analyses.
As Anyon and Lipman describe, urban social and educational policies over the last several decades have been guided by neoliberal principles, in which governmental leaders assert that the new globalized economy requires reducing governmental funding for social services and either privatizing them or, when that is not possible, using corporate models in an effort to make them more efficient. Neoliberal policies, such as Chicago?s Renaissance 2010, are presented by those in power as being not merely desirable but the only choice. As Bourdieu (1998) warned:
Neoliberalism has become the dominant discourse in part because its proponents have asserted that it ensures both economic growth and social justice. Competitive markets and privatization are presented as the best and only way to advance democracy and equality. Robertson, in reviewing the rise of neoliberal education policy, states that neoliberals avow that ?efficiency and equity in education [can] only be achieved through ?choice? and where families or individuals [are] constructed as customers of educational service? (2000, p. 174).
Developing Anyon?s new social movement requires exposing how neoliberal discourse purports to benefit everyone while undermining equality and radically redefining democracy. Norman Fairclough (2000), in his critical discourse analysis of Britain?s neoliberal New Labour Party, reveals how neoliberals have gained control over the discourse so as to reduce opposition to their policies. He shows how New Labour attempts to reconcile themes that in the past were regarded as antagonistic, such as corporate growth and social equality, by claiming that their policies contribute to both ?economic dynamism and social justice? (p. 46).
In the United States, such discourses have dominated education policy from the time when A Nation at Risk was published (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) to the present. A Nation at Risk warned that the ?rising tide of mediocrity? in our nation?s education system was undermining our ?once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, science, and technological innovation? and that we have ?committed an act of unthinking, unilateral disarmament? (p. 5). Consequently,
In a few sentences, A Nation at Risk establishes the themes that have prevailed in subsequent neoliberal reform proposals, essentially arguing: ?Our failing education system is the cause for the United States falling behind other nations economically. Therefore, we have no choice but to make our education system more efficient, which will not only improve the nation?s economy but also benefit everyone, regardless of class or race.? Likewise, proponents in Chicago, New York State, and the federal government (see Hursh, 2005) argue that reforms emphasizing markets and accountability are necessary if we are to compete in the new global economy, and will result in an improved education for all.
Furthermore, neoliberals are transforming the way we think about democracy and about the relationship between the state and the individual. Fairclough (2000) reveals how New Labour has shifted responsibility for social equality away from the state and onto the individual, so that the inequality resulting from government policies is perceived as a result of individuals? lack of initiative and responsibility within the market rather than of the policies themselves. The state has redefined equality as the freedom to compete within a market rather than as equality of opportunity or outcome.
Others (Gutmann & Thompson, 2004; Young, 2000) have observed how neoliberalism undermines deliberative forms of democracy, in which citizens provide rationales and justifications for their preferences in an effort to persuade others, and replaces it with aggregative forms of democracy, in which preferences are determined by individual choice within market systems. Proponents of deliberative democracy raise several objections to aggregative democracy. Gutmann and Thompson (2004) state:
Sunstein (2004) contends that deliberative democracy is enshrined in the constitution and that the social democratic liberalism of Franklin Delano Roosevelt deepened the country?s commitment to deliberative democracy (p. 33). Roosevelt?s promotion of a second Bill of Right in 1944 poses a stark contrast with the right to choose promoted by current neoliberal policies. Roosevelt?s list of what should be included in the second Bill of Rights included the following:
How these rights are to be defined and provided is, in Sunstein?s view, the kind of subject we should address in deliberative discussions.
However, under neoliberalism, such discussions are moot. And, as Anyon overwhelmingly shows, many citizens no longer have access to a job with decent pay or to health care or adequate education.
Anyon and Lipman have provided a beginning for the analysis required to reverse the tide of neoliberal policies and to develop a new social movement. They have given empirical evidence that neoliberal policies are providing neither economic nor educational equality. Instead, as in Chicago, our schools provide a separate and unequal education: one preparing the already advantaged for leadership positions and one preparing the disadvantaged for the military, retail, and service sectors. Moreover, as both Anyon and Lipman show, our metropolitan areas are becoming spatially segregated, with the poor and people of color lacking access to decent housing, education, employment, and health care.
However, a new social movement requires that we extend their analysis to examine neoliberal rationales and discourses. We need to reveal how neoliberalism fails to achieve its stated goals of justice and equality. In addition, we need to show how aggregate or market forms of democracy undermine the deliberation that is required in a genuinely democratic society.
Finally, we need to argue that suitable housing, a challenging education, affordable health care, and a job that is rewarding and provides a living wage are not negotiable privileges but rights.
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AUTHOR David Hursh is an Associate Professor in the Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester, Dewey Hall, Rochester, NY 14627; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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