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Rick Hess's Straight Up blog at Education Week proves often to be valuable not for his intended messages, but for what he reveals about education reformers committed to choice and competition as paradigms for that reform.

In his "Sanctimonious Scolding Isn't a Great Strategy for Promoting School Choice" posting, Hess makes an important statement at the end:

"Rather than obey the moral instruction of do-gooders, middle-class and suburban families tend to put themselves and their kids first (and, for the record, I don't see the problem with that; hell, it's kind of the logic of school choice, after all). If accepting school choice means that suburban communities are going to be pressed to open their schools up in ways that may adversely impact their kids and home values, those families may well stop being disinterested observers of the school choice debates and instead become active opponents."
Hess doesn't see a problem with families putting themselves and their children first, including protecting their home values.

And here is the (stone-cold) heart of the competition/choice ideology that is favored, not surprisingly, by the elite winner-culture driving all aspects of U.S. society.

The Corrosive Irony of Self-Interest

Free market advocates perpetuate compelling narratives about the cleansing power of choice, competition, and rugged individualism. These narratives have become, in fact, the unchallenged norm associated with the American Dream.

Choice, competition, and rugged individualism pervade every aspect of education and education reform: relentless testing to label, rank, and sort children; calls to label, rank, and sort teachers to fire "bad" teachers; class rankings (valedictorians, salutatorians), school rankings, international rankings.

It may well be true that these commitments stem from basic human nature, but it is also worth considering that competition and rugged individualism are components of the evolutionary theory U.S. society tends to reject. It is also worth considering that competition and rugged individualism were relatively credible paradigms in human eras of scarcity.

When resources are sparse, self-interest is simply self-preservation. Maslow's hierarchy of needs explains how and why humans become selfish in extreme moments of scarcity.

But the U.S. and even the world are currently in a position to be in a condition of prosperity—except that because of competition, choice, and rugged individualism, the privileged in the U.S. have created an inequity of resources, pooling and hoarding those resources among the elite. That hoarding creates an appearance of scarcity in order to perpetuate the exact attitude expressed by Hess: It's OK to get yours for you and your family because otherwise you will be at the bottom of the pile.

This perverse paradigm fabricated by the privileged is made even more warped by a simple lesson from ecology (an ideology and movement also rejected by the U.S. obsession with consumer culture): To recognize the individual as a part of her/his environment—and thus treasuring that environment as a community—is being selfish; ignoring or wasting the ecology surrounding the individual is, in fact, self-defeating.

Arguments, then, for increased choice and competition are not commitments to democracy, human agency, human dignity, or equity. Arguments for choice and competition are arguments of the privileged to preserve their privilege, arguments built on the illusion of scarcity and fear perpetuated by those privileged.

In our schools, there is no scarcity of learning, and our students need not compete among themselves. In fact, we know that collaboration is more effective for learning than competing.

In our schools, teachers cannot teach while also seeking to get theirs at the expense of other teachers (and their students).

The single greatest failure occurring now in education reform is that our current president has allowed the education agenda to be built on Race to the Top. Like Hess, Secretary Arne Duncan personifies the elitist mantras built on the Social Darwinism that consumes us.

Collaboration and community are central to democracy. Choice and competition are central to capitalism and consumerism.

Democracy is a hand held out to lift the least of us to our sides.

Consumerism is a boot in the face to stand alone at the top of the pile.

If we persist along the current "no excuses" reform path, we must admit we are using our schools to pass out boots and to render democracy mere rubble.

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Sat May 19, 2012 at 06:35 AM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I'm tempted to repost this (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    plthomasEdD, Azazello, iTeachQ

    in every diary -- and they seem to be increasing -- that promotes charter schools as a good thing.  In fact, since we've been warned about no more flame wars about presidential politics, I think this will be the next area for that kind of thing.

    -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

    by Dave in Northridge on Sat May 19, 2012 at 06:41:22 AM PDT

    •  Charter schools (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dave in Northridge

      Charter schools are the next mask for competition/choice...exactly

      •  One sad consequence of the Jeb Bush version (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        plthomasEdD, Smoh

        of Charter Schools is that the positive outcomes they have yielded in specific venues are lost in the debate.  I do some volunteer work bringing a chance to learn about marine invertebrates to elementary schools in a four county area.  The majority of the schools are public schools administered by the county boards of education.  Three are "traditional" private schools catering to those who can afford to attend and the students look like one might expect, i.e. 95 to 100% white depending on the school.  We also serve two charter schools.  One was started by a former county school superintendent in a very rural county with one of the highest unemployment rates and lowest household income level in the state.  The student profile is probably 35% African-American, 15% Hispanic and the remainder white.  The classes are smaller than the other schools in the county and parents are very much included in the curriculum.  Despite the obvious economic differences there are as  many parent volunteers in the classroom when we show up as there are in the schools we serve where the household median income is in the upper 5%.   The other charter school is located in a more affluent area of a different county and seems to be absolutely no different in terms of class size, curricuular offerings, student counseling and parent involvement than the other public elementary schools in the same country.  There are 4 traditional public elementary schools located within 2 miles of the charter school and the one difference that I see (and I've done head counts) among the 100 or so students we have worked with in the charter school is that the % of African Americans runs between 2 and 3 in a district where 9% of the population is African American.  The point I'm trying to make is that what began as a way of providing better education to the disadvantaged has been perverted a publicly funded private school system.  Doc PLT is right on the money with this insightful (and inciteful) diary.

        Knowing the truth, even if disconcerting, is always better than a comfortable self-deception.

        by Old Gray Dog on Sat May 19, 2012 at 07:13:36 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  I think charter schools are a side issue... (3+ / 0-)

      The path forward to change this 3-tiered school system is create many different educational paths for our youth that include the opportunity to develop real agency and leadership that is currently only available to the kids in the tier 1 private schools.  We need to move away from our current one-size-fits-all paradigm for our public schools, both the tier 2 "successful" ones and the tier 3 "failed" ones.

      Though I have been a supporter of the community-based chartering process that has been used by community activists in Los Angeles to launch new public schools, I appreciate that in sum total across the country, the chartering process has mostly been co-opted as a tool of the states to maintain this 3-tiered system that has nearly 200 years of inertia behind it.

      But any mechanism that can give our kids alternative educational paths, whether alternative schools - private, public chartered, or public conventional - or homeschooling/unschooling are all part of challenging that 3-tiered system and the control paradigm that it maintains.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Sat May 19, 2012 at 12:07:07 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Our district has (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    a number of choice options that are not charters. A country, multi-age school, a Montessori program, Spanish immersion, a gifted program, a project based learning program. None of these are charters (although after starting as a regular district program the PBL high school went charter purely for financial reasons but it is run by the district just like all the other district programs).

    Are you opposed to districts running choice programs of their own accord? I think it has worked out well in our district.

    •  Could you explain how going charter within (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      a district saves money?  I honestly don't know how that works. Also, programs with entrance exams, as I imagine the gifted program to be, isn't really a choice thing.

      -7.75, -8.10; All it takes is security in your own civil rights to make you complacent.

      by Dave in Northridge on Sat May 19, 2012 at 06:57:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  CA provides (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dave in Northridge

        a slightly higher ADA to high school charters than the do to our district which has a below average ADA. That's the reason the board decided to make it a charter.

        The gifted program - yes, you have to test in but it's still a choice. There are many kids who choose to go into it and many who don't.

        •  In our school district in suburban (1+ / 0-)

          Allentown, PA parents were so narcissistically wounded if their children couldn't test into the gifted program that they opened it to any children (parents) who wanted it.  It's just part of the voluntary hierarchy of General, College Prep, Gifted, AP.

          Cats are better than therapy, and I'm a therapist.

          by Smoh on Sat May 19, 2012 at 08:01:47 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  So do you think that was a good thing or... (0+ / 0-)

            a bad thing?

            Cooper Zale Los Angeles

            by leftyparent on Sat May 19, 2012 at 10:42:13 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Since I've found our gifted program to be (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              Virtually useless in terms of stimulating strong intellect, I say why not? It could be marginally helpful to anyone.  And, as a psychologist, I think IQ testing, while it is helpful in some situations, is rather arbitrary and misleading all too often.

              Cats are better than therapy, and I'm a therapist.

              by Smoh on Sat May 19, 2012 at 10:51:38 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

              •  The "gifted" public schools in Los Angeles... (0+ / 0-)

                when our kids were in public schools seemed to be just about an accelerated version of the regular instructional program with more "product" produced by the students.

                But for that fraction of kids that really dig academic classes, that might be a good thing!

                Cooper Zale Los Angeles

                by leftyparent on Sat May 19, 2012 at 10:58:19 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

    •  That sounds like moving toward that... (0+ / 0-)

      "many educational paths" paradigm that I am always advocating for.  We need to employ every mechanism pragmatically available to move away from a one-size-fits-all education system.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Sat May 19, 2012 at 10:40:42 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Choice has its limits, though (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    iTeachQ, Mostel26

    Do teachers get choice?  No.
    Do students?  No.

    So, there's really no choice.

    It's really privatization of a public good.

    Why not have "choice" for the police department? I don't want this police officer patrolling my neighborhood so government tax dollars should pay for me to hire to someone else.

    Or the fire department.

    Or housing inspectors.

    Or city alderman.  I don't like this one so government should me to go get someone else to represent me.

    "It turns out, by the way, that oil rigs today generally don't cause spills. They are technologically very advanced." 4-2-10 Obama's George Bush moment

    by neaguy on Sat May 19, 2012 at 09:06:01 AM PDT

  •  Is this new? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I'm curious whether you think that a school system based on competition, consumerism, privilege, and fear is new.  

  •  Tipped, tho I have a different view of history.. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    You say...

    The U.S. and even the world are currently in a position to be in a condition of prosperity—except that because of competition, choice, and rugged individualism, the privileged in the U.S. have created an inequity of resources, pooling and hoarding those resources among the elite.
    Agree that many of us are still framing the world in terms of scarcity rather than abundance, which leads to continuing "us and them" thinking and the ranking of people that goes with it.

    But your statement about the economically privileged among us recently ceasing control IMO does not recognize our country's history, where that seizure of the reins by the elite happened in the early 19th century riding on the wave of industrialization and immigration, and the prime-movers of the U.S. public school system (including Horace Mann) were actually part of that privileged elite.

    That control by the privileged continued through the century to the Gilded Age at the end and was redoubled at the beginning of the 20th with corporate interests reasserting their vision of what public schools should be all about, thus framing that whole consumer paradigm for our society into the 20th.

    Perhaps you could argue that there was a brief period of a more egalitarian society as a strong middle-class emerged after World War II.  But that middle-class emerged in age of conservative corporate-focused "live to work" values in the 1950s, and the challenge to those values in the 1960s and 1970s has been at most partially successful, and notably unsuccessful in achieving any real change in "shop 'til you drop' consumerism and any lasting change to the public education system.

    My point is that America saddled up economic privilege big-time nearly 200 years ago and I think that there is a good argument that that privilege has been maintained by our unofficial three-tiered system of schools in this country...

    1. Elite private schools for the kids of our economic elite

    2. Good public schools to train the kids of families from the top half of the economic pecking-order to become "apparatchiks" within that elite-dominated , one-dollar-one-vote corporate order

    3. Bad public schools for the economically disadvantage communities designed to "fail" and maintain an underclass of "them" to anchor the hierarchical pyramid of a country that continues to be economically stratified country

    I fear that public schools as presently constituted as tiers 2 & 3 of this system of ranking are more part of the problem and less part of the solution.  It is a very discomforting thing to say but I think it may be true.

    I think I probably flesh this out more as my own diary!  Thanks for yours and bringing out this issue!

    Cooper Zale Los Angeles

    by leftyparent on Sat May 19, 2012 at 10:38:25 AM PDT

    •  Where? (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Where did I say that this isn't the history of the U.S.? Can't see where we disagree...

      Founding Fathers were elitists...Today is logical extension of the beginning...though regrettable...

      •  Thanks for clarifying... (0+ / 0-)

        Guess I jumped to that assumption based on the focus in your piece on what's happening today without a historic context.

        Glad we are still on the same page here!  I am concerned that a lot of progressive DKos types think naively that public schools were in some golden age a mechanism for egalitarianism that have recently been threatened by less egalitarian corporate interests.  

        Cooper Zale Los Angeles

        by leftyparent on Sat May 19, 2012 at 11:52:07 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  And the question is (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      plthomasEdD, leftyparent

      Not whether corporate interests are "taking over" our public school system - corporate interest created our public school system in the first place.  The question is which of the three tiers is no longer working for them, and how do they wish to revise it to better serve its original purpose.

      •  I think as best we can we need to... (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        Reject the 3-tier school system including public school's role in maintaining it while trying to be of assistance to those kids in tier two and three to fully develop the agency and leadership to grow up and challenge that order!

        Cooper Zale Los Angeles

        by leftyparent on Sat May 19, 2012 at 11:56:56 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  sorry... "seizing" rather than "ceasing control"! (0+ / 0-)

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Sat May 19, 2012 at 01:49:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Neither do I. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    iTeachQ, leftyparent

    "Hess doesn't see a problem with families putting themselves and their children first, including protecting their home values. "

    I'd rather these were dealt with as separate issues but this is the reality that families are confronted with.

    You aren't going to convince parents that they should sacrifice their children, no matter which side of the choice argument you are on.

    •  False dichotomy (0+ / 0-)

      The choice agenda has created the false dichotomy you presented: putting your children first (to the exclusion of other children) or "sacrifice" your children...

      Those are NOT the only two options...

      Seeking a world that is equitable to both your children and everyone else's children as if they were all yours...there's another option...

      The competition agenda has created the "other people's children" syndrome that allows using TFA to teach "other people's children," but not some people's children...

      •  Usually it's the other side (0+ / 0-)

        -- the one telling me I shouldn't homeschool because that choice ruins school for other people's kids -- that asks me to sacrifice my kids for the greater good. And we hsers argue back that we have nothing against a decent ps system but don't want our kids to have to suffer to get there.

        Trying to understand what you are saying here -- are you saying that choice is good and, at the same time, the traditional ps system needs improvement? But you are now adding the idea that we can too afford to fund ps?

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