During the 1980s, an economic revolution sneaked up, bopped us on the head, and proceeded to rob us. The seeds of that revolution lay in the University of Chicago Economics Department, headed by Milton Friedman. The name of the revolution is neoliberalism. Haven’t heard of it? Neither had I, but its tenets were all too familiar. Its implications for education are disastrous.
What is Neoliberalism?
Don’t confuse neoliberalism with the classic set of political ideals called “liberalism,” with its focus on tolerance, freedom, and equality. As far as I can tell, the “liberal” aspect of neoliberalism is the freedom of the already-rich to get richer. In the US, the 1980s brought us Ronald Reagan and “trickle down” economics. The idea was that with tax breaks for the wealthy and their large corporations, rich people would invest in the creation of jobs which would benefit the less wealthy.
In reality, the rich got richer and the rest of us got “trickled on.” Politicians decimated social services to pay for the tax breaks. Reagan justified it, popularizing the myth of the “welfare queen” who buys lobster and steak with her food stamps. Those using food stamps were subject to the indignity of having their shopping carts informally inspected by the good taxpayers standing in the grocery line.
Soon, Reagan was speaking the language of privatization, but he was not the only one. Mrs. Thatcher had been a fan of selling off government functions to corporations who theoretically would be more efficient in running them because of their interest in making profits.
All of this is part of the neoliberal plan. Reduce government, particularly government oversight of the market place. Put as much into the market as possible by privatization. Let the markets correct themselves, and they will. Rather than having a sense of morality, make everyone “responsible” for themselves, which means that if a person is “irresponsible,” then that person has to live with the consequences of his or her decisions.
For example, in the US, there were efforts to privatize social security. The idea was that each person would control his or her own retirement account and would invest it. For the wise in the ways of the stock market, this could be just one more way to become wealthier. For the rest of us, we could lose everything and then get blamed for being “irresponsible” and consigned to an old age of choosing between buying prescription medication and food.
There was no bigger proponent of laissez-faire market management than Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve in the US. After the worldwide financial meltdown in 2008 and the government bailouts, he issued a mea culpa. He realized that the market would not correct itself. Indeed, there is a role for government in limiting market players. Of course, these lessons have quickly been forgotten in the intervening nine years.
With the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education under Trump, efforts to privatize education have redoubled in the US. Charter schools (private schools subsidized with taxpayer dollars) have been around for awhile. They generally have a poor reputation. Test results on charter school students are poorer than public school students. These schools do not offer comprehensive special education. They are often poorly managed financially and stories abound of schools closing with no notice leaving students and their families scrambling to finish school years and unpaid teachers.
Is it a coincidence that the rise of standardized testing has occurred along with the neoliberal revolution? I think not. Private companies, such as Pearson, have benefited from the sale of tests as well as the sale of textbooks that teach to the tests. With the neoliberal revolution, schools have become a sorting ground that reinforces the haves and have-nots. Tests justify the sort. In the US, the school to prison pipeline, where African American males in particular are more likely to go to prison than college, has supplied the private prisons with free labor. School “choice” in the form of badly-run charter schools reinforces this sorting ground while allowing the private companies who run the schools profits at taxpayer expense.
Even where the charter schools are not an issue, the focus on standardized testing has created a climate in which teachers feel they must teach to the test. Children, particularly in schools of poverty, are taught testing strategies and to memorize facts rather than to think critically or to do creative things such as art and music. This system makes it harder for young people to intellectually counter the system that seeks to keep them in their place. It is couched in euphemisms but is reminiscent of the 19th century laws against teaching enslaved people to read.
What Can We Do?
Teachers can make a difference -The Scourge of Education: Neoliberal Economic Revolution Click To Tweet
The French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, reminds us that in any system there is play. The neoliberal system is not comprehensive or monolithic and it also contains the seeds of its own destruction. The Civil Rights movement in the US was successful despite the fact that the people who wanted equality were in an often non-voting minority who had been consigned to schools with the fewest resources. It does not take a majority of anything to effect change.
Teachers can make a difference. Here are some ideas.
Research shows that establishing good relationships with students makes a difference. We need also to work with parents. I realize that teachers may feel that parents do not care about education, particularly in schools of poverty. They may not know how to support their children’s learning or may have had bad experiences with schools themselves, but the vast majority of parents care about the wellbeing of their children. If they are not willing to show up for academic experiences such as parent-teacher conferences, figure out what they will show up for and use that as a starting point.
We need to know enough about our students’ lives that we can acknowledge the limits of the curriculum in relation to who they are. In any given school day, there are opportunities for authentic engagement even if those moments are between bouts of scripted curriculum. Don’t allow students to remain manipulated by the system.
The call for accountability has placed teachers under pressure, which is deliberate. If teachers are tired and overworked, they will quit, which will allow the non-union charter schools to take over. Take care of yourself so you can address the needs of your kids and their families.
Do what you feel you are able to do to resist the status quo. If this means attending marches and protests, by all means, do so. But it might also mean keeping politicians informed of your dissent or even doing something for yourself that allows you to keep your head above water for yet another day.
5. Gather Allies
Develop a group of people, in person or online, who share your concerns. One such group is the “Badass Teachers Association,” which can be found on Facebook and Twitter. It’s harder to get discouraged when you know that you are not alone.
Eyes on the Prize
Years ago, a teacher colleague of mine described how she began her first day of school in the early 1970s. When the students walked in, the walls were blank. No motivational posters, no indications of curriculum, nothing. In confusion, the students asked what they were going to learn. She asked them, in turn, what they wanted to learn.
Over the next three weeks, the students went to the library and did research. They designed their own curriculum for the school year. Moreover, at the end of the year, they did not feel they had completed their work, so they went to the principal and asked if they could have their teacher for another year.
I dream of a time, again, when we can involve students in their own education, not just in suburban schools where testing is not a big issue, but in all schools. Let’s keep this dream alive.
 Harvey, D. (2007). A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford University Press, USA.
 There was really a woman described as the welfare queen by the Chicago Tribune. Reagan generalized the story to indicate that welfare fraud was a serious problem.http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/history/2013/12/linda_taylor_welfare_queen_ronald_reagan_made_her_a_notorious_american_villain.html Accessed July 7, 2017.
 Mudge, S. L. (2008). What is neo-liberalism?. Socio-economic review, 6(4), 703-731.
 Moore, K. L. (1998). Privatization of Social Security: Misguided Reform. Temp. L. Rev., 71, 131. There have been a number of calls for this and also examples of countries that did privatize social security. Peter Diamond (Diamond, P. (1993). Privatization of social security: Lessons from Chile (No. w4510). National Bureau of Economic Research) points out that the privatization process in Chile actually resulted in greater costs. Chile put a neoliberal revolution in place under the guidance of Friedman acolytes. Naomi Klein (Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. Macmillan) describes how this led to the assassination of a democratically-elected leader, Allende.
 Tandon, Y. (2009). Neoliberal obscurantism and its ill-fated children. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 20(1), 37-40.
 Green, P. C., Baker, B. D., & Oluwole, J. (2017). Are Charter Schools the Second Coming of Enron?: An Examination of the Gatekeepers That Protect against Dangerous Related-Party Transactions in the Charter School Sector; Carey, K. (2017). Dismal Voucher Results Surprise Researchers as DeVos Era Begins. New York Times; Figlio, D., & Karbownik, K. (2016). Evaluation of Ohio’s EdChoice Scholarship Program. Thomas B. Fordham Institute, July; http://www.freep.com/story/news/education/2017/05/01/3-detroit-area-charter-schools-closing-but-not-all-parents-know/100986516/ accessed 7/7/17
 Wald, J., & Losen, D. J. (2003). Defining and redirecting a school‐to‐prison pipeline. New Directions for Student Leadership, 2003(99), 9-15.
 Derrida, J. (1993). Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences. A postmodern reader, 223-242.
 Jennings, P. A., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). The prosocial classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to student and classroom outcomes. Review of educational research, 79(1), 491-525.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Waag Society.