Reforming Reform

In democratic societies, certain values have been seen as primordial. Economic activity and market actors should find their place in that value system. Phrases such as the “social market” economy or “capitalism with a human face” reflected that mentality.

There has always been a tension between the market and human values or “public service values”. That is how it must be.

In the days of the Cold War, capitalism was sometimes confused with democracy. It should now be clear to everybody that capitalism can cohabitate with dictatorship—as comfortably in “Communist” China as it could in Pinochet’s Chile. One would think that lessons would be learned from history, and that, as a result, the insistence by society upon the fact that market forces respect societal values, and public policy, would be stronger than ever.

It seems that we have lost our way. There is even sometimes a feeling of having been savagely uprooted from our value system by a subordination of the public interest to private interests; and there is no area where this conflict between values and private-gain-approaches is more apparent, or more threatening, than in education. Just as parents are responsible for the upbringing of children, schools are charged with the reproduction of societies; and the more that education is pushed down a path of industrial production, the more the futures of our children are limited.

Education “reform” that adapts public education based on the “wisdom” of the private-sector is fundamentally wrong for the simple reason that widgets and human beings are not the same. In those two worlds, there are not the same methods, the same notions of “production targets,” or quality control, or the same quest for bottom lines. Parents are not “consumers” of education and students are not the “products”. Mechanical, purely quantitative approaches will never capture the richness or complexity of human beings.

The “reform” language is being tainted by market jargon. Even in the private-sector, “results-based management” has shown its limits, and linguistic gymnastics are more than distractions from the real work. They warp thinking; as George Orwell said,”…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”.

Education is about “broadening horizons”, not narrowing them. It is about helping to develop human beings with all their diversity and creativity and independence.

It is a perverse convergence that cutting edge research tries to produce robots that are more like humans while, at the same time, some education “reformers” seem to want to make children more like robots.

The “Commercial” production of students also creates values deficits. Do we want our children to leave school infused with the notion of building a better world or simply motivated to find themselves a nice cozy place in the status quo? Do they dream of growing up to be like Jane Addams or like Donald Trump? And, if fewer and fewer young people have a passion for contributing to the welfare of society, where will future generations of teachers come from? They are, after all, unlikely to become billionaires.

Teachers and many others are rightly concerned about privatisation of schools; but, the privatisation of the mentality of public schools is also a danger.

This bleak picture of the sacrifice of public service values in our schools is exaggerated. Many school systems have not succumbed to management jargon or allowed their mission to be distorted; but, admitting that this is not a fair picture does not mean that there isn’t an attack on a long-standing consensus on the role and importance of public schools.

Fundamental changes that undermine the many contributions of a good, public education should never be imposed nor should they arrive by stealth or without discussion. Teachers are best placed to ensure that there is a debate, both inside schools and in communities. If there is a real debate, we will win it.

In the late 1970’s, the US Department of Labor did a survey of union members. They discovered that trade unions in general were no more approved and supported by members than by the general public. However, when the poll asked members their opinion of their own unions, the positive figures shot up to over 70 per cent. That may be true for schools as well. There may be a difference between public views of schools in general and their own schools; the ones that they know.

If that is true, than this is not the time to be “shell shocked”. It is the time to reach out and make the argument for good quality public education with highly skilled, motivated, professional teachers. The happy combination of professional concerns and the influence that comes from collective action and trade union representation enables effective action.

The respective interests of teachers and students are complementary and interdependent. As the American education historian and policy analyst Diane Ravich said, “Can teachers successfully educate children to think for themselves if teachers are not treated as professionals who think for themselves”?

Basic human dignity is important for all workers, but there are few professions where it is so directly linked to excellence as teaching. In fact, the future of education is, in large part, dependent on the ability of teachers to ensure that they are respected.

Teachers are admired in the community. They are well placed to build alliances, inside and beyond the trade union movement, and their demands are directly related to what is widely considered to be a public good.

Children and all of society have a great deal at stake in public education. Teachers owe it to themselves and to everybody else to continue their struggle, to take it further, and to seek to make it even more effective.

The quality of education needs to be improved, and in some cases, it may even need to be reformed; but, that will not happen by transplanting market habits, instincts, and dogma into the schools. Part of the journey to better public education is to ensure that the transplant is rejected by the body politic.

Freed from mental chains and inhibitions, and benefiting from serious discussion, we can build education systems that are worthy of, and that contribute to better futures for our children. They will also build solid foundations for democracy, for social progress, and for development.


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Jim Baker

Jim Baker is Senior Consultant to Education International.

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