Stop the War Metaphors when Talking About Education Policy: Have You no Shame?

In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education declared, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”  And thus began an era in which a culture of shame was attributed to America’s public education system.  I don’t know about my fellow public school supporters, but I am quite frankly tired of the use of war metaphors by critics of public schools.  We are talking about children after all.

Lee Fang’s article, “Venture Capitalists Are Poised to ‘Disrupt’ Everything About the Education Market,” published by The Nation on September 25, 2014, illustrates how pervasive this use of violent war metaphors has become (http://www.thenation.com/article/181762/venture-capitalists-are-poised-disrupt-everything-about-education-market#).  Fang cites Michael Moe and a document produced by his investment firm, GSV Capital, entitled “American Revolution 2.0” which serves the dual purposes of providing a manifesto for education reform and a blueprint for how venture capitalists can make a lot of money in the educational sector.  According to Fang:

“The revolution GSV goes on to describe is a battle to control the fate of America’s K-12 education system. Noting that this money is still controlled by public entities, or what’s referred in the document as “the old model,” the GSV paper calls for reformers to join the “education battlefield.” (A colorful diagram depicts “unions” and “status quo” forces equipped with muskets across businesses and other “change agents” equipped with a fighter jet and a howitzer.) The GSV manifesto declares, “we believe the opportunity to build numerous multi-billion dollar education enterprises is finally real.”

Further examination of GSV’s 300+ page document (http://gsvadvisors.com/wordpress/wp-content/themes/gsvadvisors/American%20Revolution%202.0.pdf) is alarming.  Children are not referred to merely as students — they are “knowledge troops.”  GSV provides a “budget battle” detailing the expected market growth and profit through 2018 for every aspect of the education marketplace from pre-k education to charter schools and e-learning to test prep and counseling.  Other sections in GSV’s manifesto bear war inspired titles such as “Shock and Awe,” “Modern Weaponry,” “Time to Fight,” and “Weapons of Mass Education – Investment Themes.”

As Fang adeptly points out in the subtitle of his article, “Venture capitalists and for-profit firms are salivating over the exploding $788.7 billion market in K-12 education.”  And apparently, they have no shame when declaring a war on public education.  In their “Strategic Battle Plan,” they openly call for the elimination of local school boards and employ all the rhetoric of free market advocates.

And what about those “knowledge troops” — or children as I prefer to call them?  What is their role in this supposed war/revolution?  Should kindergarteners be issued combat fatigues on their day of school to complete the war metaphor?  Or, as is increasingly evident, are they collateral damage, suffering from battle fatigue and post traumatic stress disorder as the result of wave after wave of high stakes standardized tests being being launched at them?  If children are, indeed, as envisioned by corporate reformers and venture capitalists, the troops in this war on public education, then I have to ask, who protects the children from the ravages of war?

The use of violent metaphors has been a consistent theme for corporate and free market reformers.  In 1971, conservative libertarian economist and political theorist Murray Rothbard invoked the war metaphor in his attack on America’s public school system with his book “Education: Free and Compulsory” when he proclaimed on the cover, “We are Ready — How about You?  SCHOOLS AT WAR!”  In 2008, Matt Miller of the Center for American Progress, wrote an article entitled, “First, Kill all the School Boards” for The Atlantic.  At the 1995 National Governors Association meeting, corporate superstar Lou Gerstner (of RJR Nabisco and IBM fame) called for complete revolution in education policy, stating, “The only way this will happen … is if we push through a fundamental, bone-jarring, full-fledged, 100 percent revolution that discards the old and replaces it with a totally new performance-driven system.”  One year later, at a gathering of governors and corporate CEOs at the IBM Palisades NY headquarters, the organization Achieve, Inc. was formed — the organization that would bring us the Common Core State Standards.  And the bone-jarring revolution continues.  But whose bones are getting jarred in the end?  The federal Department of Education?  No — its still going strong.  The venture capitalists and corporate CEOs?  No, they’re getting richer by the minute.  The bone-jarring revolution, however, is leaving a lot of children bewildered and frustrated along with the teachers who spend their days with them.  And let’s not forget the parents who are trying to make sense of it all.

Thank you, Lee Fang, for reminding us that there is a price on the head of every child in America.  We’re not giving up, however.  I urge all Americans to call for unilateral disarmament in the war on public schools.  Of course, there is really nothing unilateral about it.  The reality is that there are no “knowledge troops” — just children.  They have no war machines to lay down.  They just want to pick up their books and learn.

I eagerly await the publication of my book by Palgrave Macmillan in January entitled, “The Origins of the Common Core: How the Free Market Became Public Education Policy.”  I believe it will further expand the discourse among citizens and scholars interested in taking back their public schools.  Knowledge is power — and I’m not talking about the KIPP Knowledge is Power Program — and power in the form of knowledge is not violent.

Schools are not Businesses!

Veteran North Carolina Teacher Lisa Woods provides insightful commentary on why schools are not businesses.   Her commentary first appeared in the Greensboro News-Record and I couldn’t agree more.  Woods stated:

“I would like to posit a scenario where “job performance and value” are based on the following objectives and conditions:

* You are meeting with 35 clients in a room designed to hold 20.

* The air conditioning and/or heat may or may not be working, and your roof leaks in three places, one of which is the table where your customers are gathered.

* Of the 35, five do not speak English, and no interpreters are provided.

* Fifteen are there because they are forced by their “bosses” to be there but hate your product.

* Eight do not have the funds to purchase your product.

* Seven have no prior experience with your product and have no idea what it is or how to use it.

* Two are removed for fighting over a chair.

* Only two-thirds of your clients appear well-rested and well-fed.

You are expected to:

* Make your presentation in 40 minutes.

* Have up-to-date, professionally created information concerning your product.

* Keep complete paperwork and assessments of product understanding for each client and remediate where there is lack of understanding.

* Use at least three different methods of conveying your information: visual, auditory and hands-on.”

Let me also add to Woods’ comments.  Schools are located within communities.  Sometimes these communities are places in which a business would never consider locating a store, factory, or office.  No business leader would consider locating a business in a location where their employees and customers would be unable to safely walk from their car to the front door or risk vandalism of their car in the parking lot.  They may be located in low income areas in which it would be difficult to find consumers with the cash to buy  their products or employees able to fill the jobs.  For many years corporate driven education reform advocates have blamed schools for the conditions that impede their profits.  True education reform must begin with reforming communities and making them safe places for schools and the children they serve.  Far too many children arrive at school traumatized simply by the very act of walking through crime infested neighborhoods, knowing that at the end of the school day they will have to once again navigate those same streets in order to get back home.  Business leaders would never subject their employees to this and certainly would not expect an employee to be 100% ready to tackle the business of the day after risking being assaulted on the streets outside the workplace day after day.

There is an inherent hypocrisy in comparing schools to businesses.  If corporate reformers would focus their attention on the work of reforming and rebuilding communities that are suitable for families and children, it is possible that schools and academic improvement would be a natural outcome.  Eliminate poverty first.  While there may not huge financial profit in these endeavors, there is profit for humanity and America.