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Dan Morris

Progressive Politics and Education Reform: Business as Usual?

Education commentator Kevin Carey recently wrote that education reform and progressive politics are inseparable--not just compatible, mind you, but inseparable!--because progressivism is “founded on a belief that public institutions like schools are improvable and can be a force for good. It is grounded in an ethos of information and rationality, which is what accountability really is: gathering information about how much students are learning and taking action when they're not learning enough.” When progressives reject these principles, Carey argues, what they are really saying is that “the nation's most egalitarian and vital public institutions aren't worth trying to improve.” For anyone following the bellicose pronouncements about mayoral control in New York City or the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind in Washington, the argument about accountability as the most important source of improvement in schools normally comes from the center or the right, but Carey offers it instead from the left (wherever that is).

Old wine in new bottles, surely, but that’s too easy an observation: more interesting to note is just how old this wine really is, and that progressives have long had a difficult time discussing education in terms that were not developed and framed by business interests. In fact, the trouble began very early in the twentieth century, when muckrakers were mighty--something seldom pointed out today anywhere on the ideological spectrum.

“Business ideology was strengthened, not weakened, by muckrakers who extolled modern business and efficiency and connected these in the public mind with progress and reform,” Raymond Callahan memorably thundered in his now forgotten 1962 classic, Education and the Cult of Efficiency. The efficient manager of education predates Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein not by a few decades or a couple generations, but by nearly a hundred years, having first appeared on the scene around 1910, when Frederick Taylor’s scientific management theory overtook business ideology and infected institutions in all sectors. Taylor gave us classroom management and the accountability ethos Carey uplifts--which makes the hot-button issues animating contemporary debates over education policy far more entrenched, and fraught with history, than we often like to admit.

The political climate then was not unlike ours right now: the mismanagement of powerful institutions spawned a widely heard call for reform in which business values, rather than being viewed as the source of the problem, were embraced as the heart of the solution. Schools, like other institutions, required better administration--standardized tests and other uniform measurements of success--not a nobler sense of purpose. Students were taught not to challenge existing institutions, but to more intelligently submit and adjust to them, because competitive individualism was presented as superior to collective change. As intellectual historian Merle Curti once chronicled, some dissenters, against the backdrop of Wilsonian democracy, pushed a different agenda focused on transforming the unacceptable economic and social conditions in which many students learned, since those conditions contradicted democratic life for all. Their descendants are alive and vocal. The presidential candidates should start listening.

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Posted at 2:36 AM, Sep 29, 2008 in Drum Major Institute
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