What’s Left for Education?

For more than two decades the assault on public education has been underway; it shows no sign of slowing down.  From redirecting public funds from community schools to public and for-profit charters and home schooling to the growth of educational entrepreneurship, the loan-sharking of commercial student loans and Arizona’s vote to ban ethnic studies , public education (and those few  private schools serving a genuine public good) has suffered multiple hits.


Making matters worse are efforts by well-intentioned individuals and groups inspired by the exceptional “success-despite-the-odds” stories mass-marketed in films such as “Waiting For Superman,” with their subtexts of busting teachers’ unions said to function by definition at the expense of children’s learning.  Even many working poor and middle-class parents got sold on the neoliberal position championed by such as former Chicago Public Schools head and now Education Secretary Arnie Duncan — that “school choice” is the natural and necessary consequence of market forces that will eliminate failing schools. This would be done, in large measure, thanks to the visible hands of hedge fund managers “investing” in education

Note that students and families suffering this educational assault are predominantly African American, Latino, recent immigrants and people of color. Their children attend public schools in precisely those major urban areas whose programs are being slashed and terminated.  This attack on education is a continuation of the historical assault on minorities in the United States, validating the claim that much of this education reform is racist and itself exacerbates the growing disparity known as “the achievement gap.”

As we confront the harsh realities of the new “new economy” (read: work more, earn less) and its influence on schools, teachers, administrators, parents and students, it’s fair to ask, What’s Left for Education? Specifically, what’s left after 1) the reworking of the national budget and the further dismantling of support (entitlements), what funding will be left for education, and how will it get distributed? 2) the triumph of the neoliberal and social/economic conservatives’ embrace of the notion that education is necessary only as a jobs training program and 3)  educators  are forced, in an age when jobs are literally on the move to chase those jobs via curricula and pedagogies determined by the whims of the market and fickle consumer desires?  These beg the question:  What is a Left/Progressive education agenda in this age of assault?

Given the enormous financial pressure on school districts and elected officials to cut a deal, it is hard to say exactly what will be left for education, other than less. Despite the rhetoric suggesting that nothing is more important than our nation’s children and their education, working and lower-middle-income families will likely find going to school even more difficult, starting from kindergarten. We will be told in the name of fiscal responsibility (and austerity) that everyone must contribute to our national debt cutting initiatives. We will be told that education isn’t about money, that it is about “performance,” the performance of well-trained teachers and the performance of ambitious students. We will be reminded that all we need to do is to want to succeed and push forward, despite the legacy of racism, sexism, homophobia and class elitism. Good luck to that. 

In this grim scenario, educational reformers will assert that schooling is the way out of economic inequality, that is, as the road to a well-paid job. Education so framed becomes embraced as little more than jobs training, and teachers will be judged on the “job-readiness” of their students. Thus the burden of thinking and rethinking the fundamentals of economic social justice get reconfigured and redirected away from debating government’s role  in regulating capitalism and on to blaming teachers for failing to produce workers with the necessary skills set  to keep the United States competitive in a global economy. Here teachers are down-sized to deskilled distributors of information to enhance a student’s marketability; genuine literacy and critical thinking will be viewed as luxuries we can no longer afford; and education as a life-long process of learning, growth and understanding will be reduced to transient training programs. 

So the bad news is that anyone committed to education in all its cultural and vocational facets is up against a real struggle with the political Right, with neoliberals, and even with students convinced that education is meaningful only  if it does leads to direct access to becoming a member of the one percent.  There are real obstacles to overcome — consumerism has so thoroughly infiltrated our education system that today many students, from all economic positions, expect to purchase a diploma (one way or another) and forgo the rigorous and introspective process of becoming a critically minded citizen, which is the heart and soul of democracy.

The good news is that even the most materialistic student can be drawn to learning. That means   re-engaging students to become critically literate, self-reflective and engaged citizens.  This can be and is being done nationwide, but it demands an explicitly Left/Progressive identity. It needs to be embraced and enacted by schools of education and teachers unions.  It means reclaiming education by ensuring   that teaching facilitates learning and that education, as Paulo Freire asserted, is the practice of freedom, for the individual and for democracy. We need to learn to think democratically in the spirit that Walt Whitman, John Dewey, bell hooks, Maxine Greene and Sonia Nieto have all offered as the true hope for the democratic experiment.

So, the question, What’s left for education? is a question about direction, vision and commitment. It is a call to reclaim education from those who would have us believe that information is merely knowledge and that knowledge in itself is wisdom. It is a question that demands us to directly challenge the claim that education is best understood and improved by using corporate models and metaphors. We must insist that education is not a business, that students are not customers and that what takes place in the classroom is not a product to be packaged, mass-produced and distributed, globally — despite the increased fascination with professors lecturing to as many as 40,000 students online, as in the trend toward “massive open online courses” — aka MOOC.

DSA members and others are positioned to provoke a national conversation on what a real education comprises, making it an intrinsic part of what the late philosopher Richard Rorty called it, the battle to “achieve our country.”

Ron Scapp is the founding director of the Graduate Program in Urban and Multicultural Education at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, the Bronx, where he is a professor of humanities and teacher education. He is currently serving as president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies and is a longtime member of DSA.