US Apartheid and Education

Education in high-inequality America is an excellent case study illustrating the importance of having the capacity to distinguish conservative campaigns, and to understand their logic and social trajectory.


Popular theory holds that feeling affected when you are shown images of suffering will allow people to make ameliorative changes. Yet both images of suffering and human sentiments can be mobilized for a variety of ends that may subvert ameliorative change. (Soc Mov lit: (J Jasper and Poulsen, J Goodwin, F Polletta, V Taylor) ) Take the example of the conservative education reform campaign’s strategic manipulation of antiracist sentiment, including through the conservative education reform campaign’s documentary “Waiting for Superman.” There is a reason that this particular education reform campaign does not, despite its compassionate–even antiracist– articulations, reduce child trauma, education failures, social welfare failures, poverty, and education and welfare outcomes inequality. That reason lies in the logic and trajectory of conservatism.


Eight pieces on the progressive perspective on US apartheid and education reform:

Two progressive views on Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman”:

Waiting for Superman is a Propaganda Campaign” (Pallas 2010).

Lois Weiner’s “A Witch Hunt Against Teachers” (2012) reveals the new divide-and-conquer public education destruction strategy: ‎”Instead of teachers as a group being blamed for children’s lack of achievement, only the ‘bad teachers’ are going to be targeted. And who are the ‘bad teachers’ in this new campaign? Those who oppose what’s supposed to be ‘right for kids’: the use of standardized testing, charter schools, privatization — and the destruction of teachers’ unions.

Hollywood will once again enter the fray of school politics, with a new propaganda vehicle, Won’t Back Down, an action film, funded by the same right-wing think tank that produced Waiting for Superman. This time Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal will carry the message that good teachers don’t need or want unions or any of those ‘selfish’ (so un-mother-like!) desires like pensions, good salaries, limited working hours.”

2 selections from the progressive US African-American community, courtesy of Black Agenda Report (BAR):

Progressives and teachers favor Finland’s anti-inequality, pro-teacher model of education excellence, described in “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success” (The Atlantic 2012).

Conservative Moralism’s Empirical Education Reform Failures in the US: 

Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-gooders” (Hartman 2012).

Diane Ravitch, a former high-flying anti-union education reform crusader, saw the data and had a change of heart:
Ravitch: “As I became a scholar and, you know, got into the academic world, I found myself—I don’t know. I fell into a sort of a conservative mindset about a lot of things.

…If you believed that children should study history and geography and real things, you’re conservative in the academic world, because you’re not supposed to believe in a real curriculum. I believe that it’s not conservative; it’s actually very liberal and empowering to have real knowledge… But having been castigated as a conservative for believing in having a traditional curriculum, when I went into the Bush administration, I found myself kind of getting caught up in the choice rhetoric. And so, for about ten years or so, I was advocating for charter schools. They didn’t exist, so I didn’t know how things would turn out.

…Over the years, from the period in which charters started and in which the whole Accountability movement started (And what Accountability ultimately meant, not just in the Bush administration, but in the Clinton, and now in the Obama administration, Accountability means who should be punished. If the scores don’t go up, who should be punished? Teachers. Teachers should be punished. The unions should be demonized.), I began looking at the results. When I looked at No Child Left Behind and saw, you know, we’re not really making any improvements under No Child Left Behind—the test scores have been either stagnant or made tiny improvement. Actually, the gains before No Child Left Behind on national tests were larger than since No Child Left Behind was adopted. I mean, I looked at the evidence, and I thought, all these things that I hoped would work didn’t work.

…This is the great legacy of No Child Left Behind, is that it has left us with a system of institutionalized fraud…(E)very year we get closer to 2014, the bar goes up, and the states are told, ‘If you don’t reach that bar, you’re going to be punished. Schools will be closed. They’ll be turned into charter schools.’ That’s part of the federal mandate, is that schools will be privatized if they can’t meet that impossible goal. So in order to preserve some semblance of public education, the states have been encouraged to lie.

…’The Billionaires Boys Club’ is …a new era of the foundations and their relation to education. We have never in the history of the United States had foundations with the wealth of the Gates Foundation and some of the other billionaire foundations—the Walton (WalMart) Family Foundation, The Broad Foundation. And these three foundations—Gates, Broad and Walton—are committed now to charter schools and to evaluating teachers by test scores. And that’s now the policy of the US Department of Education.

…I’m just trying to say the evidence says No Child Left Behind was a failure, and the evidence says that charter (privatized) schools are going to lead us into a swamp of—well, first of all, they’re not going to be any better, because if you look at national test scores—charter schools were first part of the national tests in 2003—they didn’t do any better than regular public schools. They were tested again in 2005, 2007, 2009. They (privatized schools) have never outperformed regular public schools.”

–Dr. Diane Ravitch,
Research Professor of Education at New York University,
Assistant Secretary of Education and counselor to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander under President George H.W. Bush and appointed to the National Assessment Governing Board under President Clinton.Interviewed on Democracy Now!
March 5, 2010.

Thanks goes out to my colleague, sociologist Chris Powell, for pushing me to articulate what is at stake in the contemporary era, in having an historically-embedded grasp of conservatism–the reactionary drive to shore up surplus accumulating/maldistributing social orders by psuedo-speciating humanity. Recognizing conservatism doesn’t require favoring one axis of oppression over others, a contentious primary concern within the neoliberal-era Left. On the contrary, an expanded literacy in and capacity to distinguish conservatism enables us to be better insectionalists. By grasping the trajectory of conservatism, we can avoid the characteristic Left problem of the neoliberal era–becoming class blind in order to see racism and/or sexism, and in the process betraying our antiracist and feminist aspirations, as in the cases of conservative US education reform, discussed above, and conservative Swedish labor market reformNancy Fraser’s feminist call to distinguish feminist anti-authority from capitalist creative destruction also points to the problems of an incapacity to identify conservatism.

(The previous epoch is more infamous for the reverse problem of class-literate racism and sexism, which was not as uniform–to start, see here, and here–as is today popularly imagined. But this infamy may be an effect of the relative ease of denouncing the foibles of the dead. It may well be that some communities’ more adequate understanding of conservatism could have contributed to better intersectionality in the past as well.)

Here’s a letter from a man with a visceral grasp of what conservatism is about.

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