Review: Book Explores How to Be an Anti-Corporate Teacher

Fighting for justice in our classrooms, schools, and communities has lately been a particularly overwhelming venture. It helps to step back and take the long view.

In his new book Educational Justice: Teaching and Organizing against the Corporate Juggernaut, Howard Ryan analyzes the corporate assault on public education, chronicles struggles and successes, and crafts a vision for the schools that our communities deserve.

He demonstrates that the educational justice movement requires a comprehensive strategy that goes beyond a singular focus on high-stakes testing or the growth of charter schools. When considering reform efforts, we must instead ask what will actually improve teaching and learning conditions.

Ryan suggests we each begin by looking at our school or school district and asking how democratic it is. Take a moment to think about your own school or district and respond to these questions: Are students the co-directors of their own learning? Are teachers regarded as empowered professionals? Are parents’ and communities’ needs acknowledged?

Teachers unions must also be considered in the mix. Ryan illuminates ways that the two national teachers unions (the AFT and NEA) have been complicit in the corporate takeover—but also points to opportunities for change within the unions.

UNDERLYING MYTHS

Educational Justice disproves several of the main arguments that have been used to rationalize corporate-style school reform efforts:

  • that education is linked to economic growth
  • that the U.S. is experiencing a “skills gap” between the skills students are learning at school and the ones they will need for the jobs available
  • that “our economic prosperity is only assured if we embrace an education model driven by standards, tests, and accountability”

These myths are used to promote certain education policies as quick fixes while discouraging real solutions to the unemployment, underemployment, and racial disparities that underlie much of the crisis.

So, what’s fueling the quick fixes? As we have seen time and again, modern school reform is a project of corporate interests. Not only the Gates Foundation but also AT&T, Boeing, DuPont, Exxon Mobil, General Electric, and IBM are investing in these efforts by funding charter schools, legislation, real estate, and other initiatives that incentivize privatization.

Corporatization of schools is based on a belief system that holds individuals, rather than an unequal society, responsible for our fates. Through competition, the best will supposedly rise to the top. “Great teachers” are expected to succeed regardless of conditions, and schools are expected to improve if forced to compete—despite a wholly unequal, unjust playing field.

These ideas imply that the whole public sector is bad and needs to be privatized—providing an expanding market for education companies, technology companies, and real estate investors.

Students and communities of color are particularly targeted; their schools are the most likely to be underfunded. Then the children, teachers, and communities take the blame for their lack of resources, and their schools get shut down or otherwise punished.

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Ryan adeptly teases apart the underlying aims of corporate school reform by classifying the movement’s drivers (major funders and the key institutions that they control) and implementers (the politicians, think-tank directors, school district superintendents, and others who carry out the drivers’ wishes). We see that:

  • The organized business and philanthropic sectors want corporations to dominate every aspect of contemporary society. They want a market-based world where, despite measures to alleviate some of the worst effects of poverty, the overall inequity is allowed to continue.
  • The “edu-business” sector wants to make profits. Charter school companies, for instance, push to cut education budgets and route the funds into private hands. Other companies profit from spin-off opportunities like technology or testing.

Ryan concludes that the organized captains of industry are “using school reform as a social engineering project” to advance corporate dominance in society. This means our progressive goals for public education must be part of a broader movement.

Though the testing industry’s profiteering attracts a lot of attention, it costs public schools considerably less than 1 percent of K-12 spending annually. Staff and salary benefits constitute 70 percent of the U.S. public school budget.

The most significant profits come from cutting labor costs by de-unionizing and de-professionalizing the teaching workforce, as charter schools are doing, and giving various outside investors access to public school funds.

We must not only see our classrooms and schools as a terrain for challenging “corporate social engineering,” but also consider how the corporate takeover of education maintain divisions among races and social classes.

INSPIRING EXAMPLES

We have a large task ahead of us. Where do we even begin? The examples in Part Three are a solid beginning, offering ideas that can be taken even further. These case studies, from schools in Detroit and Los Angeles, show what Ryan calls “organizing through school transformation,” which means following principles of equity in the curriculum and teaching methods.

At Crenshaw High School in L.A., for example, a curricular reform plan based on social justice and school-community partnership included paid community internships for students at real-world organizations. Such a partnership acknowledges the value of young people’s knowledge and perspectives, inspires students to apply their learning to real-world organizations, and recognizes that teachers’ and students’ successes extend beyond corporate-style measurements. Authentic standards should be guided by the needs of students and their communities, not by what’s been done forever or what’s useful to the global market.

Educators must also unlearn the harmful belief that competition is the bottom line. We too have been socialized by a time- and market-driven system of schooling. Understandably, we want to graduate students who will be “competitive” in today’s market—but the truth is, competition is only necessary because of capitalism, racism, and sexism. Young people who are cared for and actively contributing to their communities will be successful far beyond what any high-stakes measure could quantify.

This book reminds educators that even though we may feel despair at the seemingly insurmountable obstacles we face, we can and must transform our caring vision into action. By making schools into forces for liberation, we can simultaneously help young people to unlearn the messages they have received from an early age and build new leaders in the movement for justice.

Riana Good teaches high-school Spanish in the Boston Public Schools and is a building representative and delegate of the Boston Teachers Union (AFT). Her chapter on “Student Feedback in the Classroom” in Inside Our Schools: Teachers on the Failure and Future of Education Reform was released by Harvard Education Press in May 2017.