School Inc.: The U.S. Education Reform and National Security Report

School Inc.: The U.S. Education Reform and National Security Report

How corporate culture is over-running our schools and why it's probably here to stay.

The recent alarming report out from the Council on Foreign Relations, The U.S. Education Reform and National Security report, was designed to be just that: alarming. Espoused throughout the report is language that sounds eerily similar to another alarmist document on the failure of American schools, 30 years old now, the Reagan era report, A Nation at Risk. In it, a task force chaired by former head of New York public Schools Joel Klein and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice (both friends of the current education reform movement), makes dire predictions about the future of our country and our ability to prosper, compete globally, or protect ourselves. It also makes recommendations that are taken right out of the reformist agenda that is already being implemented all over the country.

"Educational failure puts the United States' future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk,” warns the report, and the country, "will not be able to keep pace—much less lead—globally unless it moves to fix the problems it has allowed to fester for too long," The Task Force has attempted to do a number of things, both in the ideas that they present and the terminology that they use to present it. The fixation on global competition has been ideologically linked to our economic health and stability; a brilliant rhetorical move that takes a clear and present concern like economic recovery, and attaches it to a moral imperative to fix our schools. The report also concludes that our education system will fail to provide students that will be able to “physically protect” our nation, pandering to a primarily conservative talking point about national defense. Finally, using the terminology “national security”, they’ve managed to frame their warnings and recommendations around a hot-button word that brings all kinds of political social issues to bear. It’s alarmism in service to an ideological (and political) reform movement.

The recommendations contained within the report are not new ideas, and are in fact already being implemented throughout the country as a result of federal reform incentives being pushed by the Department of Education. As a result, the report seems more like a piece of political propaganda than peer-reviewed policy recommendation. The three broad recommendations include increasing standardization, enhancing school choice through charters and voucher systems, and launching a national audit system that will assess and publicize” school’s effectiveness. The fact that these things are already happening aside, increasing the external pressures on schools with the threat of an “audit”, ostensibly to increase “public awareness”, is astounding.

In the U.S., public education has moved from a system that had, admittedly, been left to flounder in an environment of insulation and complacency, to being overrun by a corporate culture that treats students like, in the words of the report, “human capital”. The purpose of school has gone from educating children to become civic-minded members of a democratic society to “career ready.” Schools are treated like trade schools now, where kids are meant to meet cut-scores determining proficiency so that our nation can “compete in the global economy”. The report warned that U.S. education is producing with “mediocre results”, but there has never been a greater enemy to excellence than standardization and corporate-style external accountability. Something like a audit, where students and teachers are meant to feel ashamed is their mean test scores, published in some public format, are below a certain level, does not instill excellence. It’s an external motivator that will force schools to produce mediocre results that strive only for what’s “acceptable”.

I suppose this is to be expected from a country that has become more supportive and tractable for its corporations and big businesses than it is its private citizens. It’s also to be expected of a Department of Education that is primarily composed of ex-employees of venture philanthropy organizations like the Gates Foundation. Men and women with MBA’s and spreadsheets are writing the educational policy of the United States, and those same individuals have deep pockets and the luxury of publishing thinly-veiled alarmist agendas like the U.S. Education Reform and National Security report. The question is, how do educational professionals convince the American people of the real work that needs to be done, particularly when reformists are so effective at demonizing those professionals in the first place?