Tag Archives: Barack Obama

IAP: The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education – 2nd Edition

The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education – 2nd Edition

CONTENTS

Acknowledgments. Foreword: Barack Obama’s Neoliberal War on Public and Democratic Education (2014, for the second edition), Paul Street. Foreword: Challenging the Empire’s Agenda for Education (2011, for the first edition),Christine Sleeter. Introduction: Audaciously Espousing Hope (well into a second mandate) Within a Torrent of Hegemonic Neoliberalism: The Obama Educational Agenda and the Potential for Change, Paul R. Carr and Brad J. Porfilio.

SECTION I: USING HISTO RICAL AND THEORETICAL INSIGHTS TO UNDERSTAND OBAMA’S EDUCATIONAL AGENDA.

Even More of the Same: How Free Market Capitalism Dominates Education, David Hursh. “The Hunger Games”: A Fictional Future or a Hegemonic Reality Already Governing Our Lives? Virginia Lea. Ignored Under Obama: Word Magic, Crisis Discourse, and Utopian Expectations, P. L. Thomas. The Obama Education Marketplace and the Media: Common Sense School Reform for Crisis Management, Rebecca A. Goldstein, SheilaMacrine, and Nataly Z. Chesky.

SECTION II: THE PERILS OF NEOLIBERAL SCHOOLING: CRITIQUING CORPORATIZED FORMS OF SCHOOLING AND A SOBER ASSESSMENT OF WHERE OBAMA IS TAKING THE UNITED STATES.

Charter Schools and the Privatization of Public Schools, Mary Christianakis and Richard Mora. Undoing Manufactured Consent: Union Organizing of Charter Schools in Predominately Latino/a Communities,Theresa Montaño and Lynne Aoki. Dismantling the Commons: Undoing the Promise of Affordable, Quality Education for a Majority of California Youth,Roberta Ahlquist. Obama, Escucha! Estamos en la Lucha! Challenging Neoliberalism in Los Angeles Schools, Theresa Montaña. From PACT to Pearson: Teacher Performance Assessment and the Corporatization of Teacher Education, Ann Berlak and Barbara Madeloni. Value-Added Measures and the Rise of Antipublic Schooling: The Political, Economic, and Ideological Origins of Test-Based Teacher Evaluation, Mark Garrison.

SECTION III: ENVISIONING NEW SCHOOLS AND A NEW SOCIAL WORLD: STO RIES OF RESISTANCE, HOPE, AND TRANSFORMATION.

The Neoliberal Metrics of the False Proxy and Pseudo Accountability, Randy L. Hoover. Empire and Education for Class Consciousness: Class War and Education in the United States, Rich Gibson and E. Wayne Ross. Refocusing Community Engagement: A Need for a Different Accountability, Tina Wagle and Paul Theobald. If There is Anyone Out There…, Peter McLaren. Afterword: Working the Contradictions: The Obama Administration’s EducationalPolicy and Democracy to Come (from the 2011 edition), Dennis Carlson. Afterword: Barack Obama: The Final Frontier, Peter Mclaren. Afterword: Reclaiming the Promise of Democratic Public Education in New Times, Dennis Carlson. About the Authors. Index.

Obama 1

 

Obama 2

Obama’s Failed Education Policy: Symbolism Not Enough In Real World

Superhero comic book universes (popularly associated with DC and Marvel) have two key advantages over reality: reboots (returning to a hero’s origin and starting again—such as Frank Miller’s reboot of Batman in the mid-1980s and the film rebootings of Spider-Man and X-Men over the past 15 years or so) and alternate universes/realities.

The re-imagining of Spider-Man as bi-racial and Captain America as black are powerful contributions to the superhero genre of comic books—in part for the messages about race and in part because superhero comics have had lingering flaws in terms of race and gender since their beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s.

The irony of these examples is that they represent the power of symbolism in the context of the imaginary commenting on reality.

In reality, however, we are trapped in a mostly linear existence, one that we attempt to qualify with “history repeats itself” or “those who ignore history are doomed to repeating the failures.”

Human advancements are incremental and rarely universal; some women in some places, for example, have achieved some level of equality with men, while many women remain prisoners of horrific misogyny and gruesome social oppression and abuse.

One lesson of the real world, then, may be that we must not allow the pursuit of perfect to keep us from clinging to something, something better, something creeping toward the ideal.

In a country that remains scarred by the inequity of racism, those people in the U.S. who advocate that the election of Barack Obama as the first bi-racial and self-identifying black man is an important symbolic moment in the nation are, I think, entirely justified—notably if we disassociate Obama’s status as president from his policies.

I struggle, however, with that disassociation—notably in terms of military actions/policy and education policy.

Obama’s education policy has continued a failed agenda begun under George W. Bush (an idealized bi-partisan agenda buoyed by the “bi-partisan” instead of credible educational research or authority), and then increased the very worst aspects of that legacy. Obama has now promised that those failures will last past his tenure:

The Obama administration is inviting states to apply to renew their waivers from the No Child Left Behind Act. And according to guidance issued Thursday, these renewed waivers could last all the way through the 2018-2019 school year — locking down some of President Barack Obama’s education policy changes well into the next presidency.

Obama the symbol is undeniably important; Obama as an administration and set of educational policies is a baffling disaster for public education, the teaching profession, and (worst of all) students, specifically impoverished children and children of color.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan embodies the failed discourse and punitive policies that are indistinguishable from W. Bush’s administration except under Obama, everything that is wrong with the policy has been increased: a greater commitment to standards, more testing, expanded blame placed on teachers, expanded shifting of public to private interests and mechanisms.

Under Obama, the U.S. has continued a scorched-earth policy in warmongering (smart bombs, drones) and in public education policy (school closings, teacher firings).

There is no symbolism there we can recover—only a harsh reality of failure and a legacy we can do without.

See Also

Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures, P. L. Thomas

The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education: Can Hope Audaciously Trump Neoliberalism? (IAP, 2011) — soon to be reissued and revised.

Who Are We? We Are the Resistance

Diane Ravitch’s post about the debate over the Gates moratorium includes a comment from John Thompson that deserves close attention:

In a note to me, John Thompson pointed out that our side, which doesn’t have a name, cherishes the clash of ideas. The “reformers” march in lockstep (my words, not Thompson’s) in support of test-based accountability for students and teachers, Common Core, and school choice. Our side, whatever it is called, is more interesting, more willing to disagree, readier to debate and to think out loud.

Throughout the gradually intensifying high-stakes accountability era in education that began in the early 1980s, educators and students have mostly been done to and ignored or silenced. As a result of this partisan political dynamic, educators, scholars, and researchers have been pushed almost exclusively into a reactionary mode.

As I have noted recently (here and here), the media tend to give the political reformers the first word—which implies that first word, although not supported by evidence or experience, is most credible—and then frame “our side,” as Ravitch and Thompson call us, as “critics” or even “anti-reformers.”

Nothing, in fact, could be farther from the truth as many on “our side,” myself included, entered education as reformers.

This distorted dynamic in which the inexpert are rendered the experts, “reformers,” and the expert are rendered mere “critics” inspired the new volume I have co-edited (with Brad J. Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, and Paul R. Carr), Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity.

The central premise of the volume is that two broad camps of reformers exist: “No Excuses” Reformers (the current partisan political movement including Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, and others) and the Social Context Reformers (the group I’d call “our side”).

Here, I want to offer an excerpt from the introduction to the volume above as a call to “our side”—we are the resistance and we must be named and then we must take over the public debate instead of simply being always second to the table.

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity

by Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors

Asked to explain the many competing narratives of the religions of the world, comparative myth/religion scholar Joseph Campbell told Bill Moyers (1988) that he did not reject religion, as some scholars have, but instead reached this conclusion: “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck to its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble” (p. 56).

As a number of education scholars and historians have noted (Berliner & Biddle, 1996; Bracey, 2004; Kliebard, 1995; Ravitch, 2010, 2013; Tienken & Orlich, 2013), public education in the US has suffered a long history of crisis narratives about the state of schools , narratives which have been coupled with a never-ending call for reform. The last thirty years of accountability-driven reform have been based on standards and high-stakes tests. Standards were initially generated by states; however, there is now a move toward national standards known as the Common Core. High stakes assessments have followed a similar trajectory, situated first at the state level and now based on Common Core. During this past three decades, two competing narratives have emerged, what we label “No Excuses” Reform (NER) and Social Context Reform:

“No Excuses” Reformers insist that the source of success and failure lies in each child and each teacher, requiring only the adequate level of effort to rise out of the circumstances not of her/his making. As well, “No Excuses” Reformers remain committed to addressing poverty solely or primarily through education, viewed as an opportunity offered each child and within which (as noted above) effort will result in success.

Social Context Reformers have concluded that the source of success and failure lies primarily in the social and political forces that govern our lives. By acknowledging social privilege and inequity, Social Context Reformers are calling for education reform within a larger plan to reform social inequity—such as access to health care, food security, higher employment along with better wages and job security. (Thomas, 2011b)

A powerful but generally ignored irony of the accountability era involves No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which rhetorically codified the use of “scientifically based research” in education. The problem presented by NCLB is that three decades of evidence on the most popular and dominant reforms implemented by NER advocates and political leadership—grade retention, charter schools, school choice, value added methods of teacher evaluation, merit pay, Teach for America, high-stakes testing, and standards—have failed to support the effectiveness of these policies.

When faced with the competing narratives of NER and SCR, then, the public, the media, and political leaders must face the research-base, and consider the degree to which false narratives an ideological myths have been imbued within NER as well as the relevance and importance of SCR narratives to seek out more bone fide evidence-based directions. Importantly, trends within the US have also had varying levels of influence elsewhere, and most international jurisdictions now have significant educational policy related to standards, testing, assessment and accountability. For this reason, the US context I particularly important for understanding neoliberalism and globalization at a broader level, encompassing many of universal concerns, such as social inequalities, accessibility, societal focus to education, differentiated outcomes, and the role of teachers. Ultimately, we find this debate to be fundamental in relation to democracy, and the place of education within a democracy (Carr, 2011).

Obama’s Failed Hope and Change

Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner (1994) challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):

The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”

because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.

The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….

It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)

About three decades later, voters in the U.S. elected the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, some voted for Barack Obama primarily because the election was an important, symbolic moment for the U.S.; some bought his message of hope and change. Others remained skeptical that the Democratic Party establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas to assume the mantle of U.S. President. The sophisticated and compellingly influential rhetoric employed by Obama for two years before being elected, presenting “hope” and “change” as not only desirable but, more importantly, entirely achievable, laid the groundwork for an important juxtaposition between hegemonic forces and the will of the majority of people, who wanted a more humane, social justice-based orientation to public services and government (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b).

As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered (Carr & Porfilio, 2011b), Obama is not progressive he portrayed himself to be, much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policies are an extended version of the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda has been committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011a)

Despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to the hope and change that was so eloquently and vociferously presented by Obama and his administration.

A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration, through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan, masks the neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011a) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is an exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:

National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

  • Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
  • Its proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
  • Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (Ravitch, 2013a)

With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.” Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:

Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own…. (Ravitch, 2013a)

The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is highly problematic against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.

Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and twice endorses “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.” The emphasis is clearly in the workforce, business, employment and training, and not on citizenship, social justice, critical engagement and democracy.

More than 30 years ago, Gardner (1994) argues: “The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers” (p. 99). With Obama’s neutered education agenda before us as part of three continuous decades of failed accountability policies (Thomas, 2013), Gardner’s analysis seems prophetic. Despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), George Carlin, comedian and social critic, appears to have a more accurate view of the American Dream:

But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, ever be fixed.

It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….

They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. (Shoq, 2010)

This isn’t simply biting social satire. This isn’t easily discounted cynicism. Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Table of Contents

Introduction: Social Context Reform: A Pedagogy of Equity and Opportunity Brad Porfilio, Julie Gorlewski, Paul R. Carr, and P.L. Thomas, Editors Part 1: Social Reform for Equity and Opportunity 1. Defying Meritocracy: The Case of the Working-Class College Student Allison L. Hurst 2. Reforming the Schooling of Neoliberal, Perpetual Zombie Desire William Reynolds 3. The Pseudo Accountability of Education Reform: Injustice by (False) Proxy Randy Hoover 4. Teacher Education and Resistance within the Neoliberal Regime: Making the Necessary Possible Barbara Madeloni and Kysa Nygreen Part 2: School-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 5. Changing the Colonial Context to Address School Underperformance in Nunavut Paul Berger 6. An Injury to All? The Haphazard Nature of Academic Freedom in America’s Public Schools Robert L. Dahlgren, Nancy C. Patterson and Christopher J. Frey 7. Educating, Not Criminalizing, Youth of Color: Challenging Neoliberal Agendas and Penal Populism Mary Christiankis and Richard Mora Part 3: Classroom-based Reform for Equity and Opportunity 8. Pedagogies of Equity and Opportunity: Critical Literacy, Not Standards P. L. Thomas 9. YouTube University: How an Educational Foundations Professor Uses Critical Media in His Classroom Nicholas D. Hartlep 10. Developing a User-Friendly, Community-Based Higher Education Rebecca Collins-Nelsen and Randy Nelsen 11. Transcending the Standard: One Teacher’s Effort to Explore the World Beyond the Curriculum Chris LeahyConclusion: Learning and Teaching in Scarcity P. L. Thomas

References

Berliner, D.C., & Biddle, B.J. (1996). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s schools. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Bracey, G. (2004). Setting the record straight: Responses to misconceptions about public education in the U.S. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Campbell, J., & Moyers, B. (1988). The power of myth. New York: Doubleday.

Carr, P. R. (2011). Does your vote count? Critical pedagogy and democracy. New York: Peter Lang.

Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011a). The Obama education file: Is there hope to stop the neoliberal agenda in education? Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 1-30. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Carr, P.R., & Porfilio, B.J. (2011b). The Phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism? Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Gardner, J. (1994). Amber (get) waves (your) of (plastic) grain (Uncle Sam). On writers and writing. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Hursh, D. (2011). Explaining Obama: The continuation of free market policies in education and the economy. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 31-47. https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Kliebard, H. M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893-1958. New York: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. (2013a, August 25). Civil rights groups call for Duncan’s ouster [Web log]. Diane Ravitch’s blog. Retrieved from http://dianeravitch.net/2013/08/25/civil-rights-groups-call-for-duncans-ouster/

Ravitch, D. (2013b). Reign of error: The hoax of the privatization movement and the danger to America’s public schools. New York, NY: Knopf.

Ravitch, D. (2010). The death and life of the great American school system: How testing and choice are undermining education. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Shoq. (2010, September 25). George Carlin on the American Dream (with transcript) fernandadepaulag@aol.com [Web log]. shoqvalue.com. Retrieved from http://shoqvalue.com/george-carlin-on-the-american-dream-with-transcript/

Thomas, P.L. (2013, August 19). What we know now (and how it doesn’t matter) [Web log]. the becoming radical. Retrieved from https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/2013/08/19/what-we-know-now-and-how-it-doesnt-matter/

Thomas, P.L. (2011a). Orwellian educational change under Obama: Crisis discourse, Utopian expectations, and accountability failures. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 68-92. Retrieved from https://journal.buffalostate.edu/index.php/soe/issue/view/11

Thomas, P. L. (2011b, December 30). Poverty matters!: A Christmas miracle. Truthout. Retrieved from http://truth-out.org/news/item/5808:poverty-matters-a-christmas-miracle

Tienken, C.H., & Orlich, D.C. (2013). The school reform landscape: Fraud, myth, and lies. Landham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.

Skepticism or Cynicism for Obama Education Agenda?

One response to my Relaxing zero tolerance in schools could be Obama’s boldest civil rights reform is worth highlighting: Readers adamant that the Obama education agenda is beyond such hope.

Let me note here that I have long since slipped past healthy skepticism and resigned myself to unhealthy cynicism with respect to either major political party and their leaders, including Obama.

I have tried before to confront the possibilities and the failures associated with Obama and Secretary Duncan, a set of policies and a series of rhetorical flurries that leave me even more depressed than those dark years under George W. Bush and his Secretaries, Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings:

Paul R. Carr and Brad Porfilio are now preparing a revised edition of The Phenomenon of Obama and the Agenda for Education: Can Hope Audaciously Trump Neoliberalism?—in which I have had and will have chapters.

I must note that my revised chapter is none too rosy; in fact, it is a solid statement of cynicism that has left skepticism in the dust. The revised chapter ends:

This call for change is not being heard, blocked by the din of the crisis discourse and utopian expectations that deform our children, our schools, and our society. The great failure being masked is that bureaucratic calls for school reform are perpetuating the labeling and marginalizing of teachers and students whose conditions in mechanistic schools parallel the inequities that the political elite are willingly ignoring both in their discourse and in their policies.

So when I confront the late but important recognition by the Obama administration that current education policies and practices are indeed racist, classist, and sexist, I believe it is on us to redouble our efforts, remind everyone we have been saying that for many years.

We actually don’t need Obama’s administration to tell us these things. But unless we make an effort to shift the gaze and the discourse in the right direction, on those extremely rare moments when they do, we are losing a moment.

I am not calling for our collective patting of the backs among the Obama administration. I would say the best tactic is to say, “Shame on you all for just noticing, but let’s get to work and stop all that other nonsense that is also doing harm!”

The Obama administration has hidden behind “education reform is the civil rights issue of our time” while promoting the worst possible education policies and maintaining an inexcusable allegiance to Secretary Duncan.

Let’s not forget that, and let’s not forget the “hope and change” rhetoric that lured many of us to have hope for change.

The recent shift driven by the Office of Civil Rights reports, however, is our opportunity to turn the “no excuses” and “zero tolerance” mantras on their heads, raising our voices and our eyes toward those in charge who are failing us and the children in our schools.

If there is hope for that change, it is in our grasp to make it happen.

SOTU 2014: Orwellian Educational Change under Obama Continues

Orwellian Educational Change under Obama: Crisis Discourse, Utopian Expectations, and Accountability Failures

Paul L. Thomas

Furman University

“It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. . . .[T]he slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts,” Orwell (1946) warns in “Politics and the English Language.” Few examples are better for proving Orwell right than political language addressing the education of children in the U.S. But, as Orwell adds, “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration.”

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel 1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education.

Beginning with the Reagan administration and perpetuated by Obama’s presidency are patterns of public speeches—crisis discourse and Utopian expectations—and educational policy that began with 1983’s “A Nation at Risk,” accelerated through Goals 2000, and codified without much critical concern as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) under George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Paige (Schmidt & Thomas, 2009).

Here, I will explore the neoliberal assumptions driving the language and policies related to education that came from the Obama administration and guided by Duncan. The examination will unpack Duncan’s speeches and the realities of the ideologies the administration supports through policy and public messages. The dynamic established through crisis discourse about the public education system, combined with Utopian expectations for those schools, helps mask the neoliberal assumptions embedded in what Freire (1998) calls “the bureaucratizing of the mind”: “The freedom that moves us, that makes us take risks, is being subjugated to a process of standardization of formulas, models against which we are evaluated” (p. 111).

PLEASE CONTINUE READING HERE

See also (which is being re-issued as an updated edition soon):

PhenomenonObama2011

Thomas, P.L. (2011). The educational hope ignored under Obama: The persistent failure of crisis discourse and utopian expectations. In P. R. Carr & B. J. Porfilio (Eds.), The phenomenon of Obama and the agenda for education: Can hope audaciously trump neoliberalism? (pp. 49-72). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Thomas, P.L. (2011). Orwellian educational change under Obama: Crisis discourse, Utopian expectations, and accountability failures. Journal of Inquiry & Action in Education, 4(1), 68-92. http://digitalcommons.buffalostate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1034&context=jiae

Who Benefits from Ignoring Poverty and Race?

In his spring 2013 commencement address at Morehouse College, Barack Obama offered a compelling message:

Obama said he was lucky to have his mother and grandparents, who raised him, and said that under different circumstances, he could have ended up in prison or unemployed.

‘I might have been in prison. I might have been unemployed. I might not have been able to support a family — and that motivates me,’ he said.

While he urged graduates to not use race as an excuse for their failures, he acknowledged that the ‘bitter legacy’ of discrimination still exists in America.

‘At some point in life as an African American you have to work twice as hard as anyone else if you want to get by,’ he said.

Coming from the first African American president in the U.S., this call for personal grit and refusing to make excuses speaks to a central narrative found in the current education reform debate.

Bill Cosby has offered a similar message, prompting even supporters of Cosby to raise concerns:

There are some obvious concerns with Cosby’s rhetoric. First is the justifiable, and quite accurate concern that his critiques ignore structural inequality and place too much emphasis on individual responsibility. Then there is the fear that such commentary might be used as weaponry for conservatives in ways that both blacks and whites, conservatives and liberals, have historically used black deviance to achieve ideological and policy goals. Indeed, when conservative mogul Rupert Murdoch (chairman of the News Corporation, which owns the New York Post that Cosby published in) cosigned with Cosby’s comments, you know it’s not a good look.

However, messages of grit and “no excuses” remain prominent among advocates of education reform committed to charter schools and other market-based policies as well as the growing standards and high-stakes components of the accountability era.

For example, Steve Perry continues to attack teachers unions as “roaches” and relentlessly tweets his message of grit, “no excuses,” and claims of his own success as an educator (although these claims have been debunked, challenged as side-show, and exposed as misleading). Perry’s Twitter feed (@DrStevePerry), in fact, represents well the dominant themes running through the most widely embraced attitudes about race and poverty in the U.S., beliefs that have been driving education reform for three decades:

If America’s ed failures were just about ‘poverty’ then why is the entire country at the bottom of international competition?

I’m tired of this solutionless dribble… Poverty, waaa.. Privitaization.. waaa Corportaions, waaa Since when do you work for free!

Poverty has been w use since beginning of recorded history. Yet then as now ppl make it out thru education. Good education = end 2 poverty.

If you believe poverty is stopping your students from learning please turn in your letter of resignation today before the end of business.

I believe that Dr. King’s dream and Prez Obama’s hope are one in the same. We can overcome because we do overcome. Education is the key.

The only people who believe that poverty can’t be overcome are people who have never overcome poverty.

Great educators don’t whine when parents expect that they’ll deliver an education. They don’t blame poverty. They accept responsibility.

Stop saying poverty is more important than good teachers. You’re wrong & you sound nuts. There’s NO causal relationship.

The rhetoric is compelling, but are the claims accurate?

Is the U.S. at the bottom of international comparisons, and if so, is poverty irrelevant to those rankings? Carnoy and Rothstein have shown:

In a new EPI report, What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?, we disaggregate international student test scores by social class and show that the commonplace condemnation of U.S. student performance on such tests is misleading, exaggerated, and in many cases, based on misinterpretation of the facts. Ours is the first study of which we are aware to compare the performance of socioeconomically similar students across nations….

Yet a careful analysis of the PISA database shows that the achievement gap between disadvantaged and advantaged children is actually smaller in the United States than it is in similar countries. The achievement gap in the United States is larger than it is in the very highest scoring countries, but even then, many of the differences are small….

The share of disadvantaged students in the U.S. sample was larger than their share in any of the other countries we studied. Because test scores in every country are characterized by a social class gradient—students higher in the social class scale have better average achievement than students in the next lower class—U.S. student scores are lower on average simply because of our relatively disadvantaged social class composition [emphasis added].

In 2010, Mel Riddile exposed the same flawed rankings that ignore poverty, concluding:

Truthfully, you and I know all too well that Secretary Duncan, who led schools in Chicago, is aware of the relationship between poverty and student achievement, but he doesn’t trust us enough to tell us the truth. He is afraid that we will use poverty as an excuse and that we will forget about our disadvantaged students. Ironically, by not acknowledging poverty as a challenge to be overcome, Duncan is forgetting about our disadvantaged students. Duncan needs to deliver the message that all our students deserve not only access to an education, but access to an excellent education. He needs to repeatedly remind us that, when it comes to school improvement, it’s poverty not stupid.

Which is a more powerful influence on measurable student outcomes, poverty or teacher quality? Di Carlo explains about the evidence:

But in the big picture, roughly 60 percent of achievement outcomes is explained by student and family background characteristics (most are unobserved, but likely pertain to income/poverty). Observable and unobservable schooling factors explain roughly 20 percent, most of this (10-15 percent) being teacher effects. The rest of the variation (about 20 percent) is unexplained (error). In other words, though precise estimates vary, the preponderance of evidence shows that achievement differences between students are overwhelmingly attributable to factors outside of schools and classrooms (see Hanushek et al. 1998Rockoff 2003Goldhaber et al. 1999Rowan et al. 2002Nye et al. 2004).

Is poverty destiny in the U.S.? As I have examined before, research from 2012, “A Rotting Apple” (Schott Foundation for Public Education) and “Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools” (Brookings), confirms that the socioeconomic status of any child’s home is a strong predictor of that child’s access to high- or low-quality schools. While not a politically appealing statement, in the U.S., poverty is destiny—and so is race.

Is education the ticket out of poverty? Based on Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, Matt Bruenig has concluded:

So, you are 2.5x more likely to be a rich adult if you were born rich and never bothered to go to college than if you were born poor and, against all odds, went to college and graduated. The disparity in the outcomes of rich and poor kids persists, not only when you control for college attainment, but even when you compare non-degreed rich kids to degreed poor kids!

Therefore, the answer to the question in the title is that you are better off being born rich regardless of whether you go to college than being born poor and getting a college degree.

Yet, President Obama has committed to arguing that African Americans must work twice as hard to succeed, while his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offers this about the rise of segregation in U.S. schools:

So whatever we can do to continue to increase integration in a voluntary way—I don’t think you could force these kinds of things—we want to be very, very thoughtful and to try to do more in that area quite frankly.

Duncan, as the very public face and voice of Obama’s education agenda, has echoed that school reform is the civil rights issue of our time, and Duncan tends to pepper his education talks with civil rights rhetoric. But in the end, even as the federal government does force many policies onto states, the Secretary is careful to note “I don’t think you could force these kinds of things.”

Ultimately—even when messages come from prominent African American leaders, entertainer, and educators—the “no excuses” effort to ignore race and poverty serve only the interests of politicians and the affluent. How?

If poverty is the result of individual laziness and thus can be overcome by simply doubling down on effort, then the responsibility of overcoming poverty lies entirely in people who are poor.

Politicians and the affluent, then, are absolved of their culpability in the existence of poverty or their need to be proactive in eradicating poverty. Political, cultural, and educational leaders can continue to float on the breeze of rhetoric and never stoop to confronting the evidence they are wrong or that they need to act in any way.

Another powerful message beneath ignoring race and poverty is that the affluent deserve their affluence just as the impoverished deserve their poverty, as detailed by Chris Arnade:

When you’re wealthy you make mistakes. When you are poor you go to jail.

Yes, it is like comparing apples and oranges. That is the point though. We have built two very different societies with two very different sets of values. Takeesha [prostitute, drug addict] was born into a world with limited opportunities, one where the black market has filled the void. In her world transgressions are resolved via violence, not lawyers. The law as applied to her is simple and stark, with little wiggle room.

Mr one-glove [Wall Street trader] was born into a world with many options. The laws of his land are open for interpretation, and with the right lawyer one can navigate in the vast grey area and never do anything wrong. The rules are often written by and for Mr one-glove and his friends.

The successful and affluent, regardless of race, must preserve the myth that success in the U.S. is earned, that the U.S. has achieved meritocracy.

If Clarence Thomas, as an African American, can achieve his position as a Supreme Court judge, that is all the proof we need that effort trumps race (and that we no longer need affirmative action)—goes the twisted logic.

And finally, the “don’t force it” message is bowing to the allure in the U.S. of the Invisible Hand of the market and skepticism about the intrusive government.

Again, however, this message ignores evidence. Left to market forces, charter schools have increased the exact rise in segregated schools that is currently also plaguing traditional public schools.

The Invisible Hand is not an ethical force, and issues such as segregation, economic equity, and racial equity are ethical issues—requiring ethical (and thus social) forces and solutions.

Let’s return to Obama’s commencement speech:

During the address, the president rallied against the racism of the 1940s and 50s and the Jim Crow laws.

He told the graduates that despite the obstacles, people like Dr King were able to learn how to be ‘unafraid’.

He said: ‘For black men in the forties and fifties, the threat of violence, the constant humiliations, large and small, the gnawing doubts born of a Jim Crow culture that told you every day you were somehow inferior, the temptation to shrink from the world, to accept your place, to avoid risks, to be afraid, was necessarily strong.

‘And yet, here, under the tutelage of men like Dr. Mays, young Martin learned to be unafraid.  He, in turn, taught others to be unafraid.’

Here, again, like Duncan’s talks on education, rhetoric that directly mentions the inequities associated with race and class—a similar pattern found in Perry’s outbursts—are designed to mask and ignore the lingering corrosive influence of race and class in the lives and schools of a growing population of people and children in the U.S.

We must ask who it benefits to raise a fist against the Jim Crow Era while ignoring that the New Jim Crow Era of mass incarceration is destroying the lives of African American males, that urban schools serving disproportionately impoverished African American and Latino/a children are increasingly school-to-prison pipelines and schools-as-prisons, and that the rise of charter schools in abandoned cities like New Orleans are segregating schools and providing “other people’s children” schools unlike the schools for privileged children.

Certainly it doesn’t benefit the victims of cultural and institutional racism and classism that remain in the U.S.

Obama’s Failed Hope and Change: “Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant”

Writing in 1976 about the bicentennial, novelist John Gardner* challenges the 20th century angst “that the American Dream is dead” (p. 96):

The American Dream, it seems to me, is not even slightly ill. It’s escaped, soared away into the sky like an eagle, so not even a great puffy Bicentennial can squash it. The American Dream’s become a worldwide dream, which makes me so happy and flushed with partly chauvinistic pride (it was our idea) that I sneak down into my basement and wave my flag….

That idea—humankind’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—coupled with a system for protecting human rights—was and is the quintessential American Dream. The rest is greed and pompous foolishness—at worst, a cruel and sentimental myth, at best, cheap streamers in the rain. (p. 96)

Gardner continues, addressing “majority rule” as “right even when it’s wrong (as often happens),”

because it encourages free men to struggle as adversaries, using established legal means, to keep government working at the business of justice for all.

The theory was and is that is the majority causes too much pain to the minority, the minority will scream (with the help of the free press and the right of assembly) until the majority is badgered or shamed into changing its mind….

It’s true that the system pretty frequently doesn’t work. For decades, pollsters tell us, the American people favored gun control by three to one—law-enforcement officials have favored it by as much as nine to one—but powerful lobbies and cowardly politicians have easily thwarted the people’s will. (p. 97)

About three decades later, I joined the majority of voters in the U.S., electing the first bi-racial (often called simply African American) president in the country’s history. At the time, however, I voted for Barack Obama primarily because I believed his election was an important symbolic moment for the U.S.; I did not buy his message of hope and change (although I was hopeful), and I was skeptical that the Democratic establishment would allow a true champion of liberal and progressive ideas assume the mantle of U.S. President.

As public educators, academics, and scholars have discovered, Obama is no progressive—much less the socialist that libertarians and Tea Party advocates claim. In fact, Obama’s education policy is yet more doubling down on the No Child Left Behind accountability agenda begun under George W. Bush. The Obama education agenda is committed to neoliberalism, not democracy, not justice for all, not protecting human rights:

Barack Obama personifies the power of personality in politics and the value of articulating a compelling vision that resonates with many voters in the US and other global citizens. For Obama’s presidential campaign, the refrain that worked was driven by two words and concepts, “hope” and “change.” From healthcare, to war, to education reform, however, the Obama administration is proving that political discourse is more likely to mask intent—just as Orwell warned through his essays and most influential novel 1984, the source of the term “doublespeak” that characterizes well Obama’s and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s public comments on education reform. They mask the programs promoted and implemented by the Department of Education. (Thomas, 2011)

And despite Gardner’s soaring optimism, the media is culpable in this failure to commit to hope and change by Obama and his administration.

A powerful and disturbing example of how the Obama administration through the U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Arne Duncan masks a neoliberal agenda (see Hursh, 2011, and Carr & Porfilio, 2011) behind civil rights rhetoric and crisis discourse is the exchange between civil rights leaders calling for the removal of Duncan and Obama’s reply. Civil rights leaders include in their call the following:

National Journey for Justice Alliance demands include:

  • Moratorium on school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansions.
  • It’s proposal for sustainable school transformation to replace failed, market-driven interventions as support for struggling schools.
  • Resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

With Obama’s signature prominent at the end of his letter to Ed Johnson, the President replied, his language no longer masking his agenda. Obama is resolute in his commitment to “provid[ing] our children with the world-class education they need to succeed and our Nation needs to compete in the global economy.”

Not once in this two-page response does Obama mention democracy, or any of the ideals embraced by Gardner above. Obama, instead, offers “cheap streamers in the rain”:

Our classrooms should be places of high expectations and success, where all students receive an education that prepares them for higher learning and high-demand careers in our fast-changing economy….

In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, students grow up more likely to read and do math at their grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form stable families of their own….

The message is clear that education is a mechanism for building a competitive workforce; nothing else seems to matter. Obama’s focus on education as training for workers is disturbing, but his relentless commitment to competition and punitive accountability policies in education is inexcusable against democratic goals and the pursuit of equity.

Throughout the response, Obama mentions Race to the Top twice, invokes “competition” three times, and endorses twice “reward” structures for raising teacher and school quality. But let’s not forget the crisis: “America’s students cannot afford to wait any longer.” Even this crisis is driven by economic diction, “afford.”

More than 30 years ago, Gardner argues:

The lie on the American left is this: that the American theory promised such-and-such and has sometimes not delivered, whereas We Deliver. The truth—a metaphysical truth, in fact—is that nobody delivers. (p. 99)

With Obama’s failed education agenda before us as part of three decades of failed accountability policies, Gardner seems prophetic.

And despite Gardner’s rejecting cynicism (“But the myth of the mindless patriot is not worse than the myth of the cynic who speaks of America with an automatic sneer” [p. 98]), I must side with George Carlin:

But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever,  ever be fixed.

It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the big owners! The Wealthy… the real owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They are irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have owners! They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear….

They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want:

They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests.

I fear this isn’t simply biting social satire. I fear that this isn’t easily discounted as cynicism. I fear that Obama’s education policies and his neoliberal agenda are solid proof that Carlin, not Gardner, is right: “It’s called the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

* “Amber (Get) Waves (Your) of (Plastic) Grain (Uncle Same)” in On Writers and Writing, John Gardner (1994)