Why Is There Suddenly an Education "Crisis"?

When did it happen? Was it after Hurricane Katrina and the physical ruination of the New Orleans public school system? Did it begin with the seizure of control over public education by the mayors and school chancellors of New York and Washington, D.C.? Was it the result of the Wall Street flame-out and real estate bubble-bursting leading into the worst recession since the Great Depression? When, exactly, did the state of the American public school system become such a "big-C" Crisis that unproven approaches and education policies demonstrably at odds with professional research are nevertheless being implemented wholesale, virtually without public debate, citizen participation, or democratic processes?

Does such a crisis really exist? Of course public education has problems; it always has, and it always will. An open society with constant immigration, new technologies with their attendant distractions and shortening of attention spans, and a goal of providing equal educational opportunity for all children regardless of race, religion, ability, disability, socioeconomic status, etc., will always face unresolved challenges. The vagaries of local public education funding (property taxes, federal and state aid, and the like), the impacts of macroeconomic cycles, and evolving economic competition on the world stage simply add to these challenges.

But do any of these circumstances warrant elevating education to the negative status of “national crisis”? Do they justify the self-insertion of billionaire “saviors” like the Waltons, Kochs, Broads, Mellons, Gates’s, and, most recently, the barely post-teenage Facebook czar and education expert, Mark Zuckerberg? Do they require the immediate, hefty cash infusions of little-known but exceedingly well-heeled hedge fund managers? Do they need the redemptive power of Oprah coupled with the soulful crooning of another education maven, John Legend?

Or is this really all about ideology (free market capitalism) coupled with the money-making opportunities of privatization. Do hedge fund managers expect nothing in return? Do Bill and Melinda Gates not expect to be lionized for saving our nation’s public schools? Does young Mr. Zuckerberg not expect to cleanse his tarnished image while holding hands with Mr. Gates? Do Oprah and American Express (with their cloying Geoffrey Canada commercials) not expect to make money by jumping on the school reform bandwagon? Of course they all do.

In the end, however, it comes back to right-wing ideology. After years under democracy of not having their way with vouchers, the free-marketers did the logical thing: they manufactured the needed crisis. The map was already neatly laid out for them by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, but cable television, the Internet, and BIG money helped manufacture the shock without even having to wait for one. Just pick up a few current events strands (Chinese competitiveness, the national debt, fear of no longer being #1 in the world, global warming – whatever), mold them into a crisis narrative, and keep repeating the story line over and over until no one questions it any more.

Admittedly, America’s education system still needs lots of attention, some of it institutional (the schools themselves) and some of it cultural (us, ourselves – our values, the ways we regard education and raise our children, our disturbing dismissals of rationalism, disregard for scientific research, and disparagement of the well-educated as elitist). But how does any of this justify the blind, lemming-like acceptance of standardized tests as the ultimate measures and ends (rather than the means) of education, widespread trashing of teachers as the sole source of American miseducation, creeping and undebated privatization of the national public school system via charters, nearly unquestioned acceptance of “value-added” models as a way to evaluate teacher effectiveness, etc.? Where in the midst of this herd behavior are the media to question all this and offer a semblance of critical analysis?

As a nation, when it comes to education, we now look like passengers on a slightly damaged rowboat, praying madly and thrashing about wildly for anything to save ourselves, without recognizing that the water beneath us is only a foot deep. Meanwhile, we are surrounded by folks willing to throw us unneeded lifelines for the right price – the hedge funders, the billionaire philanthropists, the Oprah’s, the charter school network operators, and (sadly) even our President.

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