Editorial: The Reagan Legacy and the Obama Agenda, or A Race at Risk

Soon after Ronald Reagan came to Washington, he began wondering aloud in prepared speeches if the push for civil rights had damaged American institutions such as schools during the previous two decades. In 1983, the year of A Nation at Risk, came this: “The schools were charged by the federal courts in the correcting of long-standing injustices in our society—racial segregation, sex discrimination, lack of opportunity for the handicapped. Perhaps there was just too much to do in too little time.” As William Raspberry noted in 2004, it was not a coincidence that Reagan chose, in 1980, to announce his presidential campaign embracing “states rights” in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. The symbolism could not have been mistaken.

Above: During the eight years he served as Chief Executive Officer of Chicago's public schools, Arne Duncan (above during a staged media event at CPS headquarters on May 27, 2007) got rid of more than 2,000 African American teachers under the guise of enforcing "standards and accountability" for Chicago's schools. Every school in Chicago that was closed for "poor performance" during those years, every school that Duncan closed for "poor performance" served a segregated (almost always all-black) student population leiving in one of the most impoverished communities in Chicago's vast Black Ghetto. With the support of Chicago's corporate leadership, Mayor Richard M. Daley, political leaders like Barack Obama, and the city's corporate media, Duncan was able to sustain the largest system of apartheid public education in the USA. Now with the power of the U.S. Department of Education in his hands, Duncan is trying to export the "Chicago Plan" of privatization, ruthless segregation, union busting, and the elmination of African American teachers and other educators to every public school district in the USA. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. A year after Reagan’s 1983 speech and the accompanying doom and gloom projections of A Nation at Risk came the Supreme Court decision in Milliken v Bradley, which struck down the inter-district busing plan that was put in place to achieve desegregation of Detroit schools. By 1986 school integration had peaked in the U. S. and resegregation of schools had begun, with school integration from that point forward on a steady march backwards—a march that remains unchecked today, as resegregation and apartheid schooling have become the silent, unquestioned norms across America.

And so the push for equality in education that the Civil Rights Movement spawned became displaced by the reemergence of market-based cult of efficiency in education. Inspired by white racism and corporatism, the new get-tough reform agenda introduced a sea change that overnight made the prospect of “educationally excellent and economically poor” even more of a statistical oddity than it had ever been before.

And so it was that the accountability through high stakes testing that took hold in the Reagan Era helped solidify the return to apartheid schooling, since test scores then and now were and are as predictable, as Alfie Kohn has pointed out, as the sizes of the houses in the neighborhoods where the tested children live. With no one wanting to buy a home in a neighborhood with low-scoring schools and the constant threat of school closure now under NCLB, the segregation of the poor has taken on new urgency as schools and communities seek to shed the poor who bring test failure with them to any school they attend.

Ostensibly to raise test scores in these resegregated schools for the urban poor, there has emerged a curriculum caste system based predictably, once more, on family income and wealth. In most of the poor, the brown, and the black schools of America, children are targeted victims of an anti-cultural, low-level regimen of test prep and regurgitation of facts—the bulimic curriculum, if you will. In the middle class leafy suburbs, however, children are engaged as they always have been in minds-on and hands-on projects that stimulate creativity and problem solving. It is a higher-order thinking curriculum, as opposed to an anti-thinking one, with those who have always been at the top of the race now deciding once more the rules for the new “Race to the Top.”

We might have expected something to be done about these crimes against poor children when a young African-American President came to Washington. Though it is still early in the Obama Administration for sure, it is not too early to see clearly and tragically that the policies that Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan are embracing will only accelerate the resegregation of American schools, while deepening of divisions within the curriculum caste system that high stakes testing enables and encourages. And while Mr. Duncan is to be credited for his tireless PR tour aimed at generating excitement about the $4.35 billion in lubrication for the various state vehicles in the new “Race to the Top,” those willing to say already know who is going to win that race.

The winners will not be urban poor children, who will be further segregated now in the corporate charter schools that will be seeded and nurtured from the $4.35 billion. Where poor parents heretofore at least could attend a public meeting and have their voices heard in a public forum, these new non-profit charters that often hire for-profit outfits to run them, operate under the unregulated thumbs of CEOs whose unquestioned authority is not to be, well, questioned.

And even though Mr. Obama assured the readers of the Washington Post last week that decisions for funding the Race to the Top “will be based on what works,” a study released by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University last month found that only 17 percent of charter schools nationwide produce better results than the public school they would replace. Not only that, but minority children are suffering the most in the charter schools that are worse (37%) or no better than (42%) the public schools. Yet, in Mr. Duncan’s words, states that refuse to lift charter caps will be “at a competitive disadvantage.”

The winners of the Race to the Top will not be teachers, who will be further humiliated by having meager pay raises to their embarrassingly low salaries now dependent upon test score production work. Again, in Mr. Duncan’s words, “states that explicitly prohibit linking data on achievement or student growth to principal and teacher evaluations will be ineligible for reform dollars.” It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what effect this will have on which teachers will end up with the lowest test performing students.

Among the winners will not be the embattled teaching profession, since Mr. Duncan prefers the marginally-prepared and the alternatively-certified teachers to those with real credentials based on both content and pedagogy expertise. Mr. Duncan and his philanthro-capitalist patrons (Gates, Broad, Waltons, Dells, Fishers, etc.) prefer those semi-skilled, disposable, historically-blank, and pedagogically-ignorant recruits who must depend upon the teacher-proofed parrot learning models promoted as Direct Instruction in the urban schools.

The winners will not be poor parents who would like schools for their children just like the schools attended by children in the leafy suburbs, schools with school libraries, sports facilities, drama clubs, music and band, art rooms, high tech shops. Mr. Duncan and the Oligarchs in charge of crafting federal education policy believe in the expansion of that crusading entrepreneurial spirit that can turn a shutdown pizza joint in a strip mall into a thriving school grounded by the philosophy of “no excuses.”

No library? No excuse.

No supper when you get home from a ten-hour school day? No excuse.

No health care? Same.

The winners will not be those who believe that local education decisions should be made locally by elected school boards. Mr. Duncan has come out publicly in favor of one-man mayoral rule of urban “public” school systems. No nosy parents, please, and no school board members to provide oversight or to impose those burdensome regulations.

The winners will not be those who cherish the notion of state and local curriculums that can adjusted to the needs of local communities: Mr. Duncan has $350 million to get the ball rolling on national testing, which is the centerpiece for an impending third generation of doing more of the same failed reforms and calling it something different. The winners will not be those who express reservations about the development of a K-20 student and instructor data surveillance system that may or may not be used ethically by CEO wannabes in the administrative offices of the new corporate welfare schools.

On the US DOE website, the final sentence in the press release for the “Race to the Top” states that “it represents a historic opportunity to restore America's global leadership in education.”

The truth is that America’s “leadership in education” has never been in jeopardy in the leafy suburbs. As Gerald Bracey has pointed out for the past twenty years, take out the high-poverty school children from the comparisons, and America ranks right up there with the top high flyers on international test scores in math and science, or any other testing criterion. So the new version of more of the same with the added benefit of corporate control of public schools is once again masked in the fear-mongering rhetoric that has driven the eugenicists and efficiency zealots for the past hundred years.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Republicans are lined up in support of the continuation of the Reagan legacy of dumping equity and equality agendas for more corporate-controlled back-to-basics anti-education policies for the poor, which are built upon behavioral interventions that seek to re-engineer the minds of urban school children. In fact, global warming and skyrocketing energy costs could set off a race to the top of an very altered global economy that may require our own homegrown versions of the Chinese and Indian workers whose schooling methods we are keen to emulate for the lower classes of our own disposable children whose race for the foreseeable future will be to support the “Race to the Top” by the race at the top. 

Jim Horn, PhD, teaches Educational Foundations, Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA. He is the keeper of the weblog, Schools Matter. 

Final edited version of this article posted at July 29, 2009, 3:00 a.m. CDT. If you choose to reproduce this article in whole or in part, or any of the graphical material included with it, please give full credit to SubstanceNews as follows: Copyright © 2009 Substance, Inc., Please provide Substance with a copy of any reproductions of this material and we will let you know our terms. We are asking all of our readers to either subscribe to the print edition of Substance (a bargain at $16 per year) or make a donation. Both options are available on the right side of our Home Page. For further information, feel free to call us at our office at 773-725-7502.


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