May 20, 2024

The Primordial Substitute Teacher – Neoliberalism, Racial Capitalism, And The Ideology Of “Students First”, Part 2 (Thomas Joyce)

The following is the second of a three-part series. The first can be found here.

Neoliberalism and Racial Capitalism in Schools

Neoliberalism is the dominant force behind urban education reform. These reforms are meant to close the opportunity gap by injecting market ideology into public schools. These reforms include accountability metrics for teachers, standardized testing, charter schools, and vulture philanthropy to name a few. They all operate under the guise of putting students first, which is the necessary ideology to condition the teachers and students caught in these reforms. The initial push towards privatization took place after the release of the NAR under Reagan.

Reagan depicted the education system as failing. This occurred during a period of high inflation, high unemployment, and Asia challenging the United States’ hegemonic status as a world power. The NAR was based on the fundamental assumption that our schools allowed our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, technological innovation to be overtaken by competitors….”

Conservatives manufactured a crisis in education that exploited American’s fears of economic insecurity and redirected those fears towards schools. This framed reform discourses ever since. These reforms sought to remedy the opportunity gap, but they failed to do so. The opportunity gap and school segregation are growing instead of shrinking.

In order for these reforms to become hegemonic they require a teacher subjectivity to fit the neoliberal mold. Reforms create conditions that suppress wages, teaches hyper- individualism, and creates the conditions necessary for high teacher turnover. Under neoliberalism, teaching becomes a profession filled by young people who temporarily commit a few years to education, and then leave the profession. Neoliberalism conceptualizes teachers as the “equivalent of assembly line workers.” This turnover depresses wages, weakens unions, and ensures education inequality as inexperienced teachers are more likely to teach in title I schools.

The privatization of education is a highly profitable venture and represents a new market for capital as identified by Harvey. Education policy expert Michael Apple argued that “in their [proponents of marketization] minds, the $700 billion education sector in the United States is ripe for transformation. It is seen as the ‘next heath care’—that is a sphere that can be mined for huge profits.” These profits occur not only from privatizing key elements of the public sector, but they create and empower an education managerial class and audit culture.

The education industry’s profits are recession proof. Even after the Great Financial Crash of 2008, sales for education companies rose in four sectors due to privatization: assessment tools, online curriculum and instructional tools, management services, and federally mandated after school programing. As schools cut budgets in response to the crash, seven of the eleven largest education companies increased their revenues. Districts also cut costs because private firms hired non-union workers.

Meanwhile hedge fund managers are deeply intertwined in the charter movement giving millions of dollars to political candidates to advance neoliberal policies.The most egregious example of hedge funds’ involvement was a co-sponsored retreat by the Democrats for Educational Reform and Education Reform Now. This event featured Governor Andrew Cuomo as the keynote speaker. The purpose of the event was “to strategize how to fund more charter schools, eliminate teacher tenure, and reduce the power of unions.” The cost of the event was $1500 per person. When a few teachers attempted to attend the conference, their checks were returned to them. This example illustrates the bipartisan nature of these reforms.

Neoliberalism holds the teacher responsible for closing the opportunity gap through their hard work, while simultaneously barring them from the discussion in favor of hedge fund managers. School reform allows billionaire philanthropists to exert an immense amount of control over the education process. Their charity serves as the “humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation.” Their involvement in schools sustains a system of social reproduction.

As philosopher Slavoj Zizek asserted, “the exemplary figures of evil today are not ordinary consumers… but those who, while fully engaged in creating conditions for such universal devastation and pollution buy their way out.…” of the conditions they created. The emphasis of neoliberal reforms to “[portray] teachers and schools as failings, neoliberals shift the blame for the nation’s stagnant incomes and growing economic inequality away from their own policies and onto schools.” Philanthropic foundations such as Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation make up a majority of the four billion dollars private philanthropists invest in K-12 education.

Most of this money is directed towards reforming Title I schools. The wealthy “buy access to the politically powerful and to shape schools and society to their own interests.” These vulture philanthropists push market-based reforms and pipeline programs to supply alternative teacher certification and leadership positions. These reforms are rubber stamped at the highest level of government.

There is an intimate relationship between donors and the Department of Education. For example, Arnie Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, had an “open for business” policy. RTTT tied funding for schools to accepting reforms pushed by vulture philanthropists. Duncan referred to the Gates’ Foundation Turnaround Challenge as the “bible” for restructuring underperforming Duncan even pushed through policies against the advice of his own department at the behest of donors.lvi This represents the anti-democratic tendencies of neoliberalism as a small cabal of billionaires are able to influence and circumvent the democratic process to reshape schools in their image.

When these reforms work, it is often through raised test scores. Testing and audit culture are neoliberal reforms par excellence. They are necessary for privatization as standardized data is the key determinant of school choice. Neoliberal organizations such as TFA, who is a major beneficiary of vulture philanthropists’ largess, defines the success of their teacher certification programs in terms of test scores.

Certification is dependent on a teacher’s ability to show growth on standardized tests and assessments. The testing regime creates a “new kind of teacher and new kinds of knowledges are ‘called up’ by education reform- a teacher who can maximize performance, who can set aside irrelevant principles, or out-moded social commitments…” The tests shape everything: the content taught, language used in the classroom, and what defines success.

Reformers can use tests to manufacture crisis as well. Cut scores that indicate a passing score can be manipulated depending on what reformers want to show. Tests and cut scores are created to achieve a specific score prior to the exam (lower if they want to manufacture a crisis,
and higher if they want to illustrate a reform is working).

As education policy researcher David Hursch noted such a high failure rate has two benefits for corporate reformers. First the corporate reformers argued that such low scores called for even more corporate reforms, emphasizing holding teachers accountable through test scores, and more funding for charter schools. Second, commissioners and chancellors could promise improving scores over the next years, as indeed happened [with Common Core tests], in part because the cut scores were lowered to improve passing rates.

Even if not directly manipulating test scores on a district or state level, the scores can be artificially bolstered in other ways. Audrey Amrein-Bearsley illustrated several ways schools can “game the system.” These include narrowing the curriculum to focus on just the questions asked, teaching specifically to the test, and focusing on only borderline/bubble students to improve scores. All of which are common practices in schools.

Special Education students are especially hurt by testing as they become a liability to schools. Low scores mean schools can be shut down, and those teachers are stigmatized when trying to find other jobs. The teacher evaluation and school grading systems based on testing incentivizes schools to try and hoist their low-performing students, especially SPED students, on other schools or teachers.

Testing scapegoats marginalized groups in schools. Reformers operate under the guise of putting students first and closing the opportunity gap, but these reforms concentrate wealth and power into the hands of a select group of people, foundations, and companies at the expense of students and teachers. This reproduces the power structures of racial capitalism.

Reforms reproduce social inequalities in two additional ways: preserving a segregated school system and creating teacher turnover. Education policy expert Pauline Lippman argued “the imposition of state regimes… suggests that the state may be selectively abandoning education as a mechanism of social reproduction and legitimation in African-American communities have become zones of state abandonment and disposability.” The state created a segregated system in order to “abandon” high poverty communities of color allowing government and corporate extraction of valuable possessions and resources from those communities.

Accumulation through dispossession of school closing or charter school conversions allows the state to sell or repurposes property valuable to those communities. The act of closing schools in Black and Brown communities allows for the “reclaiming [of] property that white elites believe is valuable… school closings are an enactment of white hegemony, and just another way to enact the disposability of Black and Brown communities.” School accountability measures serves as a “lever” over schools threatening them with closure, thus “eliminating a critical anchor in distressed communities and forcing out African-American homeowners.” Accountability measures serve as a mechanism for dispossession and reclamation of property from Black and Brown communities. School closures justified through accountability measures “affirms settler domination” as a new form of imperialism

Charter schools exemplify the resegregation and dispossession of racial capitalism. They bill themselves as the superior alternative to public schools because they are more efficient and not bogged down by teachers’ unions and district bureaucracies. However, charter schools do not produce better academic results on average than traditional public schools, and in the case of online charter schools they actually do significant academic harm to their students. Despite a lack of evidence for significant improvement, former Secretary of Education Bets DeVos declared high poverty areas “opportunity zones” allowing for preferential tax benefits for those that invest. This policy is in the name of increasing school choice for low income families.

The issue is that school choice and charter schools increase racial segregation as charter schools are more racially segregated than traditional public schools. This segregation is tied to lower student outcomes. Seventy percent of Black charter school students attend segregated schools, more
than twice the rate of public schools. In southern states, the charter system allows for white flight without whites having to move. In general, white families are less likely to choose a school as the percentage of black students rises.

Research indicates that desegregation and student achievement levels are closely linked. Segregated schools reproduce segregation later in life. Charter schools contribute to this segregation. Even though specific charters do excellent work, the model fails when scaled up. Some reforms do raise test scores, but this comes with serious drawbacks. Schools that have extended learning increase scores.

However, marginalized students receive drill-and-kill methods of test prep, compared to their white counterparts who receive enrichment during extended learning. “No-Excuses” charter school significantly increase test scores for students of color, but this comes with a price. A No-Excuses Charter School refers to a group of high-performing charter schools, like KIPP, known for their extended school day and year, frequent testing, and highly structured discipline systems. These charter schools are often the biggest proponents of students first. In these schools’ teachers “emphasize rule compliance and rote behavior with low-income minority students, but they emphasize expression, independence, and negotiation with students from more privileged classes.”

The emphasis on discipline raises test scores, but minority students “learn to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority, and they are not encouraged to develop the proactive skills needed to navigate the more flexible expectations of college and the workplace.” Charter schools then fail to do significantly better than public schools academically, are more segregated than public schools, and when they do outperform public schools it often comes at a serve psychological and educational cost.

All of the neoliberal reforms establishing marketization come at the expense of teachers as well as students. The number one most effective strategy for increasing student achievement is to have a qualified teacher. Unfortunately, neoliberal education reforms do not to produce qualified teachers that stay in the profession. These reforms create an interchangeable, inexpensive teacher who teaches for only a few years. On average charter schools pay less than traditional schools.

Charter schools decrease revenues for traditional schools, which can lead to downsizing and a loss of union’s bargaining power. Unionization increases salaries by five percent, while charter school competition drives down salaries for inexperienced teachers by six percent. Charter competition also can make it more difficult to climb the pay scale. It should be noted, that the higher end of teacher salaries increases in the presence of charter competition.

However, the neoliberal policies decrease salaries increase teacher attrition, so those higher salaries are not often reached. TFA teachers can be used by districts that are struggling financially by replacing more costly veteran and certified teachers. If districts are unable to fulfill teacher vacancies through these means, they can outsource their teacher needs. A service in the Philippines allows districts to order trained teachers from the Philippines to fill their vacancies. Large cities like Dallas rely on this service to fulfill their vacancies. These teachers do not mind working for the low wages, as they are significantly higher than what they could earn elsewhere.

These reforms fail to produce the results, because “large competitive pressures do not generate improvement across an entire system, though they may do so in some schools.” Instead, reformers want to create schools without teachers. Inexperienced teachers are most likely to end up in low-income schools with high percentages of students of color, which perpetuates the opportunity gap. The two largest contributors to teacher turnover are salary, especially if you expand the economic impact of teaching to include family stress and mental health issues, and audit culture. Audit culture creates a deprofessionalizaes and marginalizes teaching, while shifting control to for-profit education companies and district administrators

These reforms reduce teachers to “Little Robots” with an emphasis on scripting proscribed curriculum and scripting. Students first alternative teacher certification programs narrow the scope of teaching to “technical work” focusing on compliance and increasing test scores. This deprofessionalization is projected as being “in the best interest of kids,” but drives teachers from the profession. Rather than increasing teacher salaries and autonomy to help with retention, marginalized students are given a steady stream of inexperienced do-gooders. These teachers are cheap, non-union workers, and sometimes outsourced. It is within this structure teacher subjectivity is forged.

The Teacher Subject and “Students First”

Neoliberalism produces subjectivities. It does so as a value system necessary to perpetuate an economic system of race and class exploitation. Its impact on school reform reinforces a highly segregated and profitable system of exploitation. At the center of this is the teacher subject. The role of students first is to construct a teacher self who sacrifices above and beyond to overcome all obstacles caused by neoliberalism. Students firsts orients the subject inward. Educational issues are not large-scale economic issues, but issues that can be solved by individual teachers if they commit to putting students first. Students first as an ideology defers economic questions such as salary, resources, and poverty into emotional questions about being willing to go the extra mile for students.

This ideology is best examined through the works of Slavoj Zizek’s conception of ideology and subjectivity. Zizek explained, through Lacanian psychoanalysis, that the subject is a void. The subject is an “absence” of foundation; the subject’s “status as rupture.” The subject is a series of desires that masks the Real. The Real is that which resists being folded into the symbolic order. For Zizek, the Real is class struggle. Zizek asserted:

Class struggle is none other than the name for the unfathomable limit that cannot be objectivized… class struggle designates the point with regard to which ‘there is no metalanguage’: in so far as every position within social totality is ultimately overdetermined by class struggle, no neutral place is excluded from the dynamics of class struggle from which it would be possible to locate class struggle within the social totality.

In order to avoid confrontation with the Real, an ideological fantasy is constructed by the subject. This ideological fantasy structures reality. The fantasy that structures reality is shaped through what is perceived to be the desire of the Big Other. The ideological fantasy appeases the Big Other. Fantasy, according to Zizek, “is precisely the way the antagonistic fissure is masked.” Since the Big Other cannot be confronted directly, the subject transfers on to the Big Other what the subject believes the Big Other wants. This causes a disconnect: never really knowing what the Big Other wants, yet being expected to fulfill the expectations of the Big Other.

The ideological fantasy is incapable of masking the entirety of the Real, and the Real remerges as symptoms. According to Zizek, the “symptom is an element clinging on like a kind of parasite and ‘spoiling the game…” In order to avoid confrontation with the Real, the symptom is often misrecognized. This misrecognition occurs through ideology. The subject does not act, but functions through ideology to absorbed the “guilt-responsibility for the given state of things…what a moment ago perceived as substantially positive (‘the reality that merely is) is suddenly perceived as resulting from his own activity.” This is evident in neoliberalism’s “responsibalization- namely expecting as assuming reflexive moral capacities of various social actors… in contrast to mere compliance with rules.”

Thus, the subject is a void shaped by desire, and those desires are a function of an ideological fantasy structured for a Big Other who cannot be confronted directly. The disconnect between the subject and the Big Other produces anxiety and guilt, and transfers responsibility onto the individual subject to masks the already structured reality that exists.

This void of a teacher subject is constructed under neoliberalism. Neoliberalism shapes the ideology, desires, and fantasy of the teacher. Students first is a symptom of neoliberalism and structures the ideological fantasy. The symptom allows the subject to “avoid madness,” because the subject chooses something over nothing. This provides a symbolic formation that gives the world a “minimum of consistency to our being-in-the-world.”

The ideological fantasy of students first structures the teacher reality, and allows that “minimum of consistency.” It reorients the teacher away from structural inequalities, and allows the teacher to focus on their personal “relentless pursuit” of educational equity though their classroom practices. What is antithetical to market ideology (tenure, unions, workplace protections), is labelled as not putting students first.

The teacher subject supposed to put students first must reject workplace protections and their own desires. Zizek explained, “the price of this depoliticization of the economy is that the domain of politics itself is depoliticized: political struggle proper is transformed into the cultural struggle for the recognition of marginal identities and the tolerance of differences.” Economics are depoliticized, and the alternative solutions provided by reformers are about mindsets, deficit thinking, culturally responsive teaching, and so on all reflecting Fraser’s critique of progressive neoliberalism. Students first conceals the Real of class struggle.

This creates the misrecognition of the symptom: educational inequality as resulting of not enough marketplace ideology rather than a function of marketization. This misrecognition of the real by teachers is necessary for two reasons: 1) it creates the teacher subject who should put students first as a way of transferring guilt and responsibility away from those with power, and 2) constructs the Big Other for which the teacher attempts to please. Together, students first allows for the acceptance of neoliberal reforms, and a structure which creates high teacher turnover and reproduces inequality.

Thomas Joyce is a high school social studies teacher in the Denver public schools system and a doctoral student at the University of Denver.

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