Charter schools are not about charter schools

By Kelvin Smythe

Reposted from Networkonnet.

The education situation is dire, western economies are struggling, with one of its manifestations being the rich and powerful acting to undermine public schools. Charter schools not being about charter schools is emblematic of that dire situation.

Let us look at how this is playing out in New Zealand. Throughout our history our overriding economic plan has been to hang on to the coat tails of first England, then America, now China. We were only truly comparatively wealthy in the Korean War period when the price of wool sky rocketed. The present government is now taking the coat-tail policy to extreme: selling farm land, allowing foreign manufacturing of farm produce, emphasising tourism (with its low pay characteristics), mining exploitation, asset sales, and signing sycophantic free trade policies. Apparently we can raise capital for property speculation but not for industry.

No matter the slightly more benign period at the moment, our prospects are that we are going to face severe unemployment, reaching deep into the middle class – so where will that leave applicants from less privileged environments? And the jobs there are will be largely low paid. Genuine social, economic, and political change is required but the response by the rich and powerful to avoid this has been to scapegoat.

This  (New Zealand) government, headed as it is by a financial player, is a do-nothing government in the sense of industry and making things (and stuff). Making things is disappearing; making things is not valued. Because of ideology, how to put ourselves in position to make things is beyond this government. The only way New Zealand can put itself in position to make things is by substantial government involvement, but this government resiles from government involvement in capital raising for industry. It is in making things, in developing our research, in using the education skills of New Zealanders, in using the acknowledged imagination of its people to make things of high value, that widespread and worthwhile employment can be established.

The rich and powerful in western countries have resorted to scapegoating and distraction to protect their position. One of the ways education is being set up as a scapegoat is promoting education as the key to prosperity. This is a false argument: when a country has reached a certain level of education achievement, there can be found no substantial connection between education achievement and economic success, indeed, the argument for education as a private good gains some credence here (though education leading to good life decisions surely contributes to the public good). By linking economic success to education achievement when there is little or no link, makes education the perfect scapegoat for successive economic failures as they occur. This has three considerable consequences: first, the true path to economic success is not recognised and followed and, second, a platform from which to devastate public education is formed and, third, the vacuum left by the destruction of public education, provides an opening for the institutions of the rich and wealthy to place themselves in a position of social control over the young.

Economic success in Western countries depends on the economic decisions not on education.

(Education, though, as a human right so that individuals can compete more fairly with others for employment and for a satisfying life in other respects is, of course, undeniable.)

Connected to the promotion of education as the key to prosperity is the idea that poverty has little effect on education achievement. This is, of course, preposterous, akin to believing in the literal Adam and Eve. The rich and powerful, in the face of an obscene widening of inequality, have promoted education, virtually on its own, as the way to reduce inequality. Those from economically deprived environments have little chance of competing with middle-class children in genuine education achievement. If the link between poverty and reduced education achievement was accepted by a society it would lead to attention being given to housing, health, and income, as well as education. In education we know how to lift the achievement of children from poverty environments. We understand the need for providing compensatory environments, for instance, a stable, loving context, intensive individual attention, sensitivity to cultural aspects, school meals, allowing time for basic concepts to develop so learning can proceed on the basis of understanding, reducing harsh testing procedures to ensure a safe environment, and not seeing flexible thinking as mutually exclusive from the 3Rs.

A central way the rich and powerful have promoted the idea that poverty has little effect on education is to change and redefine it. Education has been reduced to a narrow version of reading, writing, and mathematics by focusing on the measurable and the immediately observable. This measurable and immediately observable is atomised to allow commodification and factory-style industrial ways to transmit and test it. Such learning results in a second-rate education because true education, true that is to success in higher education, high value jobs, and making successful life decisions, is about flexible thinking. The middle-class bring a cultural capital to education that children from straitened circumstances can rarely approach unless special compensatory education is put in place. But special compensatory education is not put in place because that would cost money. The rich and powerful are only interested in ‘helping’ poor children if it doesn’t cost any money, indeed, reduces costs overall by dismantling public education systems, and avoids any social, economic, and political change detrimental to their position.

So what we find is that children from poor families are being organised into schools that produce ersatz education results in an attempt to embarrass public schools. In charter schools, children will be drilled in the 3Rs at the expense of flexible thinking, meaning, and sustainable learning, and with long-term detrimental learning consequences. To introduce just two classroom learning points: true reading is about reading for meaning, so for children’s reading to develop truly, a rich variety of concepts needs to be part of children’s thinking; and drilling a narrow version of mathematics leaves children unprepared for more abstract mathematics later. Drilled education is a second-rate education, recalling Maori children doing 1900s gardening duties. But all this by-the by, it is the consequences of bringing public schools into disrepute that is the point of the charter schools.

So what we are finding, and will find, is a range of mainly small charter schools or small schools of other sorts, that produce in secret a series of impressive ‘results’, an outcome of drilling, a form of ‘coaching’ close to cheating, and test inflation. (This behaviour will extend to, indeed will be a feature of, small secondary schools.) These schools, because they are small and structured in certain ways, will not be representative of the school population, and will never have significant numbers of decile 1 children.

But there is a further ominous way the rich and powerful are protecting their wealth and power, they are entrenching international corporations at the heart of education systems. The commodification, reductionism, and standardisation of education allows national corporations to produce curriculum content, tests, products and consultancies across borders heedless of cultural differences. This has the effect of promoting the ideas and values of the rich and powerful through school systems. Decisions alien to our way of life are being made by covert groups far removed from schools and communities. Education organisation, as a result, is being turned into a form of corporate authoritarianism with sinister implications for classrooms and democracy.

It might be fitting to go over some of the points I made in an interview on charter schools for Campbell Live (a current affairs programme) to be broadcast later this week.

I was asked for my definition of charter schools. I said it was an idea – an idea promoted by the rich and powerful to avoid genuine social, economic, and political change.

I said charter schools were an idea developed in relative secrecy and introduced in a way deeply damaging to the fabric of democracy.

Charter schools are organised so that what happens in them is hidden: it looks as though the education review office has review responsibilities, but it doesn’t; parents are kept well away; the ministry has no real oversight; and corporate-type ‘public relations’ people will deny, hide, and lie.

John Key’s  (Prime Minister) charge in the 23 November  2011 debate with Phil Goff  (then Labour Party leader) that public schools were letting New Zealand down was a signal that it was going to be a free-for-all on public teachers and schools.

I said, charter schools will never be a system, they are not designed to be a system, they are designed to be a platform to discredit public schools so that more people will buy into private schools; charter schools are about privatising education; charter schools are about frightening children into private schools, transferring the cost of education to parents. Charter schools are about more privileged children going into private schools and less privileged children being congregated into public schools – schools that will be poorly funded and derided. Most of these children will be Maori and Pasifika children which should give pause to some Maori and Pasifika leaders but probably won’t.

Not mentioned in the interview, but relevant to this argument is the way John Key is promoting private schools by making huge increases to their funding: for example, the prime minister’s school of choice for his son,

Kings College, received government subsidies increased by 40% from 2009 to 20011 – that is from$1,663, 585 to $2,325,587. There is no extra money for the so-called one-in-five at the lower end – only national standards which harms these children and bully-boy attacks on their teachers – but there are huge increases in amounts being shovelled out for the one-in-twenty-five at the higher end, and implied approbation of their teachers. (Statistical information from John Minto, QPEC.)

That is why during the interview I called the prime minister a ‘slimeball’ or something like that (I’m finding it difficult recall exactly what I said at that moment of inspiration.) I hope they retain it in the interview.

I said, I was not mainly interested in what went on in New Zealand charter schools: yes – they will use reactionary teaching policies and hectoring control practices, but what happens will not be as weird as occurs in American charter school; my main interest will be on the outside effects of charter schools, that is, the use as of charter schools as a platform to scapegoat public schools and to introduce international corporations into central education decision making.

Education is becoming sleight of hand, distraction from one hand for a trick to be pulled in the other, all to the benefit of the rich and powerful. The call for one-in-five is not about doing something constructive for the one, it is about all five being taught the narrow 3Rs (a long-term conservative aim). ‘Achievement’ is not about genuine education achievement but narrow achievement for the unreflective. National standards are not for identifying children who are struggling (in fact, they are of considerable harm to them) but to commodify education to allow national corporations to take control. ‘Quality data’ is just the reverse, it is data made rubbish by tests being tampered with and high stakes’ contexts.

As for the spread of unemployment to the middle class; well, when Maori and Pasifika children line up with their NZCEA level 2 (secondary school qualification), middle-class children (Maori, Pasifika, and European) will get the few jobs available and the rest will be left with their certificates and their poverty. The point I am making is that charter schools are designed to distract and divide. Samoan and Maori (and some European) leaders to justify their taking of money for charter schools and accruing the status involved will berate public education as failing Maori and Pasifika children when, in fact, underfunded and against the odds public schools have done wonderfully well. As was intended, the position of the rich and powerful will be strengthened by this. Charter schools, as stated above, have been introduced to avoid genuine social, economic, and political change so the proper response by those genuinely concerned with reducing inequality is not to support authoritarian education policies that will strengthen the status quo but to politicise those affected by inequality to agitate for the necessary changes. Margaret Thatcher was the first western politician to realise that ignoring and penalising the poor actually provided an opportunity to increase inequality to be electorally popular as well.

The question that is charter schools does not lie in education but in preserving and advancing the position of the rich and powerful; neither does the answer, that lies in consciousness-raising and politicisation of the poor: which is why charters schools are not about charter schools.

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