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  • Published in Book Reviews

Educational Justice provides a clear view of the corporate program to deform schools, and turn education into a profitable production line, finds Adam Tomes

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Howard Ryan, Educational Justice, Teaching and Organizing against the Corporate Juggernaut (Monthly Review Press 2017), 287pp.

Howard Ryan is an educationalist and journalist, who has written a handbook that offers ‘theory, strategy and organizing case studies to inform and inspire those who are working to rebuild public education and put an end to the corporate occupation of our schools’ (p.10). The book can be read as a whole, or can be used as a reference guide to explore some key ideas, as the book is neatly divided up into sections. The first section looks at the corporate assault on schools and aims to uncover the underlying aims, the second section looks at case studies of resistance to the corporate assault, whilst the final section introduces case studies of education organising that looks to change the curriculum and teaching within schools to create a more democratic form of education.

The focus of the book is the American educational system, however in many ways what is happening in the USA is either paralleled here in the UK or acts as a crystal ball in which we can determine our educational future. The Corporate Assault on education has seen the imposition of a regime based on ‘high stakes tests, deskilled teaching, under resourced public schools, and billionaire backed charter-schools chains’ (p.9). This neoliberal assault looks very similar to the curriculum and testing changes implemented by the Tories alongside their program of free schools and academisation.

Neoliberalism

The most interesting aspect of the book is the attempt to explain the corporate assault on education. It places it in the historical context of the Bosses’ Revolt and the rise of the neoliberal agenda. The 1970s saw increased global competition and falling rates of profit for US businesses as countries such as Germany and Japan challenged American economic dominance. These economic issues went hand in hand with the rise of domestic resistance movements for democracy such as the civil-rights movement, women’s equality, student resistance on campus and opposition to the Vietnam War. Corporations, in order to deal with these two broad areas of threat, came together to finance, plan and implement long-term strategies to change politics through organisations such as the Business Roundtable and the Heritage Foundation.

At the heart of this wider corporate fightback was the view that education was the ‘linchpin of economic growth’ (p.32). This idea comes from the human capital theory which argues that an individual by advancing their education, increases their productivity and earnings. At the same time, as individuals advance their own education, ‘an entire nation prospers through enhanced productivity’ (p.33). This leads to the often repeated cry in the USA, echoed in the UK, that there is a skills gap which is holding the nation back. The answer; an ‘education model driven by standards, tests and accountability’ (p.33). On this basis, Ryan contends, conservative authors like Schulz and Hanushek are able to write in the Wall Street Journal that a forty-point increase in maths test scores will see a 20% boost for the income of an American worker over their life time.

The implication of this sort of thinking is all too clear to see. The individual is responsible for their own education and therefore their own job prospects and income. By focussing in narrowly on the idea that education is the key to both the individual’s and the nation’s prosperity and security, it drives the focus away the root causes of the issues, which are structural. These causes include the collapse in job creating investment by corporations, the outsourcing of jobs abroad in favour of cheaper labour, labour saving technologies and the financialisation of the economy.

The focus on the individual allows corporate reformers to argue that low test scores or failing schools are not caused by a lack of resources. Great teachers ‘will succeed regardless of conditions’ (p.22) whilst students need to be trained more in ‘character and grit’ (p.51).  It is all about working tirelessly and assuming personal responsibility for both teachers and students and not tackling wider issues like funding, the curriculum and poverty in society.

The final consequence of this approach is ‘fault finding and victim blaming’ (p.51). Working-class communities, and particularly communities of colour, where there is low employment and earnings, are failures as they lack grit and character. Failing economic figures are down to the failures of schools, teaching unions and individual teachers who must take responsibility for all society’s ills. This has led to some incredible claims including the Economist writing in 2012, that ‘no Wall Street financier has done as much damage to American social mobility as the teachers’ unions have’ or Michael Gove to write in the Daily Mail that ‘the new Enemies of Promise are a set of politically motivated individuals who have been actively trying to prevent millions of our poorest children getting the education they need.’ These attacks on the teaching profession are part of wider assault on the public sector and the unions, who are resistant to the marketization of education.

This book helps cut through the neoliberal haze which aims to promote an ‘ideology that holds individuals responsible for their educational and economic success or failure, and not the corporate and political elites for perpetuating an increasingly unequal, hierarchical society’ (p.137).

The drivers of corporate reform

Howard Ryan offers a wide perspective lens on corporate reform. In many books, corporate reform is seen as a scheme to turn schooling into profits, as emerging from a neoliberal belief in the power of the market over the public sector or as part of the ‘overarching aim of sustaining a system of racism and white supremacy’ (p.25). Whilst all three offer insights into corporate reform, they do not offer an overarching view. Ryan corrects this by placing corporate reform into a wider analysis where ‘social power under capitalism grows out of the elite ownership of production and then moves out to impact every other social arena’ (p.27). This means that corporate reform is for corporate interests, which are class interests that are geared towards increasing wealth and power using ‘institutional racism and other stratification systems that have wide support in mass consciousness to help them achieve their goals’ (p.27).

Ryan argues that there are three interlinked goals of corporate reform; educate towards corporate hegemony, educate towards a market based world vision and make profits from schools and education. Directing educating towards corporate hegemony is seen as the key aim of the organised business sector, which is more interested with the content of schooling than making a profit from it. The curriculum and the teaching and testing approach needs to be one that ‘builds habits of subordination and compliance in working-class schools while fostering critical thinking and managerial skills in elite schools’ (p.48).

One example can be used to illustrate this; the organised business sector revised the reading standards in Washington State:

Before revision: ‘The student reads to construct meaning from a wide variety of texts for a variety of purposes’.

After revision: ‘The student understands the meaning of what is read’ (p.48).

This change means that those students learning under corporate schooling are asked to read the text, understand that there is only one interpretation and that interpretation can only be found within the text. They are not educated to make their own interpretations, draw parallels between the text and their own experiences or the wider world, including the outlook of the author. This kind of narrow education tells the student their opinions and views are not relevant, their experiences are not relevant, the words of the text are always correct, and they are subordinate to it.

The subordination is mirrored in the extreme discipline culture of the charter-school movement. This model works on the idea of rewards and punishments that are used to control every aspect of the entire school day of students. This can include stopping all talking between students during the day, with many classes based around a call and response model with the whole class answering in unison. There is no sense of a democratic form of education where students can solve problems, work together, learn how to communicate or in any way direct their own learning. This approach has seeped across to the UK, where academies have increasingly adopted the teaching methods and discipline culture of the KIPP Charter School model from the USA.

Resistance

The book offers a range of case studies that raise questions about how to organise strategy for an educational-justice movement that challenges the claim ‘that education is the economic salvation for society’ (p.153). This means teachers and teaching unions have to organise a social-justice program that challenges ‘continuing austerity and its effects on students, whether through the widening income gap, stagnant wages, mass incarceration, or shrinking investments in jobs or social services’ (p.153). This organising strategy has two components for Ryan, one about transforming schools and the other about transforming unions.

Transforming schools is about like-minded teachers coming together to build teaching programmes they believe in and based on their own experience rather than delivering the pre-packaged, core defined school programs purchased in from corporations. This kind of democratic curriculum building, as in the example of Soto Street Elementary can be transformative for students, teachers, schools and parents. At Soto Street, this involved a balanced literacy program, where students choose what to read and write, in line with the thinking of Paulo Freire rather than the reading program developed by Open Court. The Open Court program is highly prescriptive, with fast paced scripted lessons that explore language in such a decontextualized and one size fits all way that it is no surprise that it cuts students off from accessing language. In particular, it seems that such approaches fail to take into account the different backgrounds and life experiences of students and whether English is their first language at home. So, the balanced literacy program is about social justice: it shows students that their choices matter, gives them access to authentic literature, ‘reflecting racial and language diversity’ (p.253) and connects students, teachers and parents together in joint organising.

It also means that teachers and teacher unions cannot keep focussing on fighting single issues like testing, as the wealth and political power of corporate reformers means they have a coordinated and long-term approach. Although there may be victories, the corporate assault will continue and find different approaches to achieve its aims. So, whilst the mass opt-out approach to high-stakes testing is one approach, which according to Ryan has been successful in raising public awareness about its dangers, it is not enough. There needs to be a move to transforming unions, so they adopt a ‘broader social-justice movement’ approach (p.250).

The corporate assault on education is a problem of huge complexity. It is part of a wider ‘assault on working people through austerity and a weakened public sector, all in pursuit of corporate profitability and capitalist stability’ (p.134). The answer is to build powerful movements around education issues that ‘combine union militancy with deep engagement with parents, students, community and other workers’ (p.142).

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