Fenwick W. English
R. Wendell Eaves Senior Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership
School of Education
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Caveat Emptor: “Buyer beware” of what?
Currently the neoliberal cause is embedded in millions of dollars going to promote the pet educational solutions of individuals Diane Ravitch (2010) has labeled “The Billionaire Boys Club” (Bill Gates, John Walton and Eli Broad)(p. 199). These “venture philanthropists” have developed an aggressive approach to only funding those actions that fit closely their neoliberal ideology. In addition, there are the traditional right-wing foundations that also back the neoliberal ideology and hire consultants to produce slanted research (see the NEPC analysis) and keep writers on their payrolls to crank out an endless stream of op-ed page broadsides and blogs.
1. Neoliberals are neither critics nor friends
Neoliberals are not our friends. Anyone who advocates your erasure from the educational field or who proposes the function you perform is not necessary is not a critic nor a friend. Neoliberals are not interested in a dialogue because they have already made up their minds. They do not believe that professors have anything to offer their agenda and they are particularly not interested in having their views challenged. Opposition is akin to heresy. The neoliberal foundations and right wing think tanks employ paid consultants and writers to advance their causes and engage in “creative destruction” (regressionsverbot). These persons are little more than gunslingers for hire.
2. If you accept their money you accept all of their agenda
The billionaire players in the field of education today have a broad based agenda of the ideological changes they desire to implement in the schools. While one may not agree with all of that agenda, their funding of a program or any aspect of that agenda is part of a whole. Neoliberals do not fund efforts that do not coincide with their total agenda. So while you might defend your sliver of their agenda and console yourself that you were only interested in a smaller portion and not their total interests, you have, whether you like it not, become a cog in the implementation of their total plan.
3. They are serious, focused and accountable to no one
The neoliberals are in the game for the long haul, they are serious and they are very focused. This is not a game of truth pursued. It is, rather, a game of a political agenda being ruthlessly implemented. Gates, Broad and the right wing think tanks are accountable to no one. There is no public regulatory body which oversees them and ensures their activities actually benefit the public. They are representative of a corporate ideology which is heavy-handed and authoritarian operating without any public oversight.
Some of the “research reports” produced by them have been subjected to review and been found to be wanting. This is a true “caveat emptor” warning in that a review of the reports produced from these neoliberal organizations by Kevin Welner, a co-director of the Education and Public Interest Center in the School of Education at the University of Colorado said, “Across the nation, think tanks are churning out a steady stream of often low-quality reports that use weak research methods, offer biased analyses, and make recommendations that do not fit the data” (2010, p. 1)
The NEPC found many reports faulty and included in this group Chester Finn’s “study” of pre-school released by the Hoover Institution; the Friedman Foundation’s flawed study on the Florida school reforms; a Gates Foundation report on “value-added” analysis reached the wrong conclusion. According to professor Jesse Rothstein, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley said that if the report had been interpreted correctly, the data actually “undermine rather than validate value-added-based approaches to teacher evaluation” (2011, p. 1)
The Progressive Policy Institute’s report called Going Exponential: Growing the Charter School Sector’s Best was subjected to an external review by David Garcia (2011), an ASU professor who said, “The report lacks any scientific evidence to support its advocacy” [of charter schools]. PPI has accepted funds from the Bradley Foundation (the same group behind the new Bush Foundation principal training program).
The Most Tragic Fallout of the Neoliberal Attack:
The Destruction of the Ethic of Public Service
The most tragic fallout from the neoliberal attack on public education is their “for profit” mindset which is imposed on all transactions in public education. The neoliberals wish to debase the entire idea of public service, the idea of a public servant who serves all of the children irrespective of who or what they may be.
Bourdieu (2002) said it this way:
…it remains however that the official definition of state office—and of state officials, who are mandated to serve, not serve themselves—is an extraordinary historical invention, an advance for humanity, in the same sense as art or science. The conquest is fragile, and always threatened with regression or disappearance. And it is all this that is now rejected as outmoded and belonging to a past era (p.197).
The imposition of the market place, the business mindset which has brought unprecedented levels of corruption to our financial system overall (Madrick, 2011), is the very same mindset the neoliberals wish to impose on public education. Teachers and principals motivated by the for profit motive, whose only interest is to advance themselves and enhance their financial status, are those individuals who have no desire to help children who cannot move them ahead to the next paycheck. Do we want such individuals in our schools? Are these the teachers we want for our children?
Bourdieu (1999) called this situation, the destruction “of the idea of public service” and the shrugging off of the huge disparities in wealth in the nation, “they suggest that since inequalities are unavoidable, the struggle against them is ineffective (which does not keep them from blaming the system for discouraging the best people) and, in any case, can only be undertaken to the detriment of freedom; by associating efficiency and modernity with private enterprise” (p. 182).
What is at stake is the very ethos of the public service and that of an educational system linked to a democratic state. Bourdieu (1999) asks:
How can we not see, for example, that the glorification of earnings, productivity,
and competitiveness, or just plain profit, tends to undermine the very foundation
of functions that depend on a certain professional disinterestedness often associated with militant devotion? (pp. 183-4).
Richard Ekman, President of the Council of Independent Colleges in the U.S. sounded an alarm in viewing who were the individuals coming into college presidencies. An increasing number are from business, government and the military (17% overall) and have no experience in the heart of the academic enterprise. What he wrote is also applicable to leadership in K-12 education:
If the number continues to increase, the risk is that higher education will become an industry that is led by people who do not truly understand it, who view it as a commodity to be traded, a production problem to be solved efficiently, or a brand to be marketed (p. A88)
Yet these are the very same persons that neoliberal agencies and think tanks promote along with the marketing mentality of problem solving.
What Can Professors Do?
We cannot sit idly by and watch public education be dismantled and shifted into the “for profit” marketing model preferred by the neoliberals with the attendant loss of the ethic of public service which has long been the hallmark of our profession. The achievement gap is not a problem caused by the lack of corporate style management, but by issues with teaching, learning and curriculum. Here are things we can do in our classrooms, in our writing and research, in the op-ed pages of our local newspapers and in educational conferences we attend.
1. Expose the neoliberal political agenda and its ideology
We need to become thoroughly familiar with the linguistic phraseology of the neoliberals and expose it for the anti-democratic views in which it swims. An excellent source in the U.S. is Emery and Ohanian’s (2004) Why Is Corporate America Bashing our Public Schools? For a wider global view Pierre Bourdieu’s (1998) short text Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market. Bourdieu’s (1998) analysis is revealing:
What is surprising is that this fatalistic doctrine gives itself the
air of a message of liberation, through a whole series of lexical
tricks around the idea of freedom, liberation, deregulation, etc., a
whole series of euphemisms or ambiguous uses of words—
‘reform’ for example—designed to present a restoration as a
revolution, in a logic which is that of all conservative
2. Expose the neoliberal players and their financial backers
It takes time but it is necessary to learn the names of the public advocates for neoliberalism, their favorite arguments and to work to understand the sources which fund them. There is an argument that makes sense and that is if you want to understand what is really going on, “follow the money.” The money trails reveal where the hidden and vested interests really lie. Table 1 in this paper is the beginning of a chart which the reader can finish.
3. Expose the faulty logic, shoddy reports and research of neoliberal think tanks
The neoliberal foundations and think tanks have taken to do their own “research” which is rarely vetted at research conferences or in research journals where their research can be critically analyzed. Their paid writers do the research and release it directly to the media. Foundations such as Gates and others buy paid space in such outlets as Education Week. Recently the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado has begun exposing the shoddy and faulty research which has been the hallmark of too many think tank advocates. You can log onto their web site and check out their publications at http://nepc.colorado.edu. NEPC is one of the few objective locations where think tank research is being held up to the scrutiny it deserves.
Finally, we are in a fight for the “soul of our profession” (Kowalski, 2004) and our collective will is being tested. The stakes are too high to fail.