This School is a Musical Masterpiece: The “Four Rs” to Reclaim Public Education from Corporate Colonialism
This is Karran Harper Royal, a real parent of a teenager in the New Orleans public school system, whom I interviewed for the second part of the Disaster Capitalism Curriculum (with graphic journalist Dan Archer for Truthout), about the “New Orleans Miracle,” as its been dubbed by corporate education reformers who believe Hurricane Katrina, which killed nearly 2,000, and displaced 400,000, was “The best thing to happen to the education system in New Orleans” (And yes, that’s a real quote from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan). In 2012, amidst the polarized presidential election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, New Orleans was solid ground: they both argued that the free-market, privatized model that Royal has seen replace the public school system represents a model for the country. For Royal, a prominent, nationally recognized public education activist, the “New Orleans Miracle,” also represents a model for American education – a bankrupt one, a well-funded “fairy tale” that purports to be about empowering kids, but is really about unleashing the market to dismantle the “government monopoly on education.”
While Royal speaks with unrivaled passion, hard evidence, and personal connection to the community, her voice is largely marginalized. Royal’s experience is not an isolated one, as those who are closest to children – the parents, the teachers, and especially the children themselves – have the smallest voice in education reform debate, which has been colonized by the language, ideologies, and policies of outsiders – politicians, think-tankers, Wall Street funded non-profits, and CEOs who have no direct connection or personal interest in the communities they seek to mold in their image.
Previously, I’ve dubbed this phenomenon the Gates Paradox: the power of your voice in the education reform debate is proportional to the distance from the classroom multiplied by the amount of money you earn. Of course, each additional media outlet owned increases the influence by a factor of ten. Or, expressed in the native language of the refomers, the Gates Paradox is: VαDsv*$ [MSNBC/]10 = INFLUENCE]
Indeed, the corporate colonists control the education debate, imposing the terms and language of the discussion, as they largely control the medium in which the debate takes place: it doesn’t take a complex algorithm to demonstrate that corporate media favors corporate education policy, especially when the media channel is funded by the same billionaire also funding the education policy (as is the case with Gates and both NBC and PBS).
How does a parent like Royal fight against this corporate colonialism, which floods in her hometown of New Orleans, displacing local schools, dismantling local communities, and imposing foreign values and policies? How do we get Royal – and other real parents, children, and educators – heard over the “fairy tale” of reform?
How do we overcome the Gates Paradox?
By going back to basics: The Four Rs – Recognize, Resist, Reframe, and Reclaim.
RECOGNIZE: Education reform is trending right now in popular culture – and not towards a progressive, grassroots vision. While the agit-prop documentary Waiting for Superman started the pop culture assault on public schools, there is a cottage reform media industry devoted to putting out stories which support the reform vision of education, pumped out of the big screen, the TV, the radio, the newspaper, and underwritten by reform friendly billionaires like Gates, who have spent millions on messaging. This propaganda arm of the reform movement propagates stories like the “New Orleans Miracle,” that float about in the public consciousness, supporting these policies throughout the nation.
Less obviously and more perniciously, these reform “fairy tales” provide a language for discussing education that reinforces this worldview: phrases like “failing schools” and the “cradle to career pipeline” are normalized, and in doing so, unconsciously frame the issue for a reader or speaker, as I observe in my comic with graphic journalist Josh Neufeld “This School is Not a Pipe.” (for Truthout.org). Thus, the first step towards reclaiming public education is in seeing through the propaganda, in even recognizing the stories and language of reform.
RESIST: It’s not enough just to see that the propaganda of reform doesn’t fit the reality of schools that most children, parents, and educators experience. Indeed, I became passionate about advocating for public education upon seeing such an astonishing chasm between what the media said about my profession, and what I saw every day as a teacher in a community college. Thus, I began to call out these false stories – much like Royal has (and of course, Diane Ravitch), to expose both the “fairy tales” of reform and the drum-beat of public school failure.
But this is not enough: further, it’s important to resist not just the reform stories, but the reform language itself, which is drawn largely from the lexicon of the business world, and not education. Once starting a conversation around “failing schools,” the debate is already lost; this term implies an entire worldview, one suggesting that public schools themselves are solely responsible for the struggles they face, much like a failing business. Logically, the “failing school” should be shuttered – much like failing business, with old management and employees fired, and new ones installed to secure “success”. In this way, there is a clear, unwavering line from a single phrase to an entire ideology, and specific policies, such as school closures. Thus, we must not just avoid exposing the stories of the colonists, but their misleading language – which reinforces these stories, and favors the underlying corporate ideology.
REFRAME: For the first few years of writing about education, I primarily focused on these first two steps – on pointing out the astonishing flaws of the reform propaganda. But this, too, is not enough: indeed, reformers rightly point out that while many of us decry their agenda, we don’t as readily point to our own vision. I know that I’ve been guilty on this count – even as I’m working in my own college to develop new methods of teaching, and new programs to serve students. Thus, instead of just pointing out the flaws in the corporate agenda, we must fill in the gap – to share our own stories, and our own language, through traditional media channels, and moreso, through social media.
“Public education is like producing a musical masterpiece,” Royal told me, in providing her own vision of an ideal public school system, one that would improve upon the privatized, two-tiered system that has taken over her hometown. “[You need to provide] each instrument with the right sheet music to get the best performance from that particular instrument. Each instrument is different and can not be standardized, but with the right music, each can reach its highest heights. When children are given the kind of educational support they need based on who they are, they can produce beautiful music,” she concludes, reframing schooling with a fresh metaphor, a new language, a new vocabulary of reform, one that highlights the inherent humanity and individuality of children, while still imagining a harmonious, yet diverse community.
Imagine: What kind of policies would our politicians produce if they imagined the classroom as a musical masterpiece rather than a business, or even worse, a pipeline? What kind of classroom experience would children have immersed in metaphors of music, rather than spreadsheets and oil?
RECLAIM: To reclaim the promise of public education, to develop policies that are more musical than monotonous, we must reclaim the conversation from the educational colonists. We must find ways to mitigate the Gates Paradox, to render this algorithm of inequity obsolete, to tell the stories of what we see, in the language that we use, and get the public to hear it.
This is easier blogged than done.
However, as I attend the Network for Public Education Conference March 1 and 2nd in Austin, TX, (along with Karran Harper Royal, Diane Ravitch, and many others) we will not just resist, but work proactively and collectively towards a more humane, democratic, truly public school system.
The music has just begun…
 See my essay at Truthout: “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42” for an extensive discussion on the technicalization of education – and its dissidents.
 For extensive evidence on reform propaganda see Adam Bessie.“GERM Warfare: How to reclaim the education debate from corporate occupation.” Project Censored 2013. Ed. Mickey Huff. Seven Stories: New York. 2013.
 For documentation, see my essay at The Daily Censored: “Ms. Reform: Education Reform as Starlet of NetFlix’s “House of Cards”
I’m honored that my latest essay for Truthout “The Answer to the Great Question of Education Reform? The Number 42” was quoted by Henry Giroux in his latest Public Intellectual installment for Truthout “Public Intellectuals Against the Neoliberal University.” Giroux’s essay, as usual, provides a grand tour of the socio-economic forces at work on public education, and the academics and artists resisting. Read it by clicking the above link.
My latest essay at Truthout “The Great Answer to Education Reform? The Number 42” was released last week, and it was exciting to see the dialogue on Truthout, Facebook, and Twitter, as readers debated the role of automation, corporatization, and technical progress in our schools, and our culture more broadly.
In writing the essay, I was most inspired by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s prophetic and hilarious first novel Player Piano, which vividly imagines a completely technicalized society (Thanks to Paul Thomas for recommendation).
But if it’s possible to be reverse-inspired (as I’m sure Dr. Who would agree it is, given the right kind of temporal flux), then Dave Egger’s latest novel The Circle –which I read immediately after the essay was published – vividly depicts what I was trying to express, extending upon it significantly. Egger’s novel – set in a world perhaps just a few years away – imagines quite vividly and frighteningly what will happen once Big Data dictates all elements of our lives . In one section, he explores a new data system The Circle has created called YOUTHRANK, which compares all students across the country against each other, using their standardized testing scores and other quantitative metrics. Indeed, once it’s fully up and running, with “full participation from all schools and districts, we’ll be able to keep daily rankings, with every test, every pop quiz incorporated instantly.” That way, “soon we’ll be able to know at any given moment where our sons or daughters stand against the rest of American students, and then against the world’s students.”
YOUTHRANK may be a prophetic warning, but it’s also already here in nascent stages, in the form of the InBloom student database, funded by the Gates Foundation and built by Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp. And certainly, the competitive, data-driven ethos underneath YOUTHRANK is already encoded in federal law, in the form of Race to the Top – if The Circle existed, it would no doubt get the $3 billion grant it was given by the (fictional) Department of Education in Egger’s novel.
More broadly, though, The Circle provides important answers to the questions raised in my essay: What kind of world is Silicon Valley leading us to? And do we want to live there?
Last year, I had the honor to work with the illustrious illustrator and journalist Dan Archer on our series “The Disaster Capitalism Curriculum,” a three-part non-fiction expose of the reality of education reform at Truthout. Here’s a taste, with a real interview with a Washington DC English instructor:
Part I focuses on Washington DC:
Part II on New Orleans:
Part III on Finland (including an original interview with Pasi Sahlberg):