A Witness to Destroying Schools

Against the Current, No. 170, May/June 2014

Joel Jordan

Schoolhouse Shams:
Myths and Misinformation in School Reform
By Peter Downs
R & L Education, Lanham, Md., 2013, 230 pages, $28.95 paper.

AT LEAST SINCE the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for School Reform by Ronald Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education, and accelerated by the bipartisan passing of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, U.S. ruling elites have been preoccupied with manufacturing a crisis of public education to promote their favorite nostrums — vouchers, charter schools, privatization, high stakes testing, and the evisceration of teacher unions and elected school boards.

Although academic researchers have consistently debunked the justifications for these cure-alls, politicians from both major parties — backed by billionaire-funded foundations — continue to promote them as if they were gospel truth.

Schoolhouse Shams by Peter Downs continues the exposure of corporate-led school reform by dissecting and systematically demolishing the top ten arguments — or shams — that these “reformers” use to make their case, including the efficacy of high stakes testing, the focus on teaching reading skills, and the wastefulness of public versus privatized services.

What’s unique about Down’s study is not so much the conclusions themselves, cogent as they are, but the way he gets there. Downs is not a professional researcher but a parent activist, with both labor and business experience, who served for several years on the St. Louis school board where he observed first-hand the destructive effects of school “reform.”

Particularly notable in this regard is Down’s analysis of privatization of public services — both inside and outside of public education — from municipal trash pickup, to school building and grounds maintenance and food services, to publicly funded charter schools.

While not dismissing privatization outright under certain (un­specified) circumstances, Downs argues — with an extensive analysis of outsourcing in St. Louis and other cities and school districts — that privatizing public services in practice has almost always contradicted claims that it costs less and provides better services.
He shows that without adequate public monitoring, which is almost always the case, privatized services inevitably result in higher cost, lower quality services, often accompanied by fraud and abuse. Downs attributes this to the tendency of for-profit companies to increase management costs while at the same time reducing labor and other costs, leading to lower quality.

Why Privatization Persists

Why more privatization schemes, including charter schools, are not shut down given their poor track record is a subject that Downs pays less attention to, other than to note that profits are to be made in the “undercapitalized” education sector.

Although this is true, in defending public education from opportunistic attacks by the “reformers” Downs doesn’t adequately address the support for corporate-style reform among low-income communities and parents, arising from the actual failure of public schools historically to address the needs of inner-city working-class students.

Some of the broader motivations behind corporate-reform — such as teacher union-busting, opposition to increased public sector funding, re-creating class and race stratified educational systems, and drawing attention away from the failure of the economy to provide sufficient jobs — remain to be explored.
Downs draws upon his business experience to show how the emphasis on testing in particular, and academic success generally, is actually a poor preparation either for employment or for life.

Astutely citing business management tools like SMART — along with interviews from workforce development trainers and business owners — Downs demonstrates that motivation, creativity, personal effectiveness and communications skills are far more important to employers than test-taking skills. Yet these are hardly emphasized in our schools amidst the testing mania.

Capitalism at Fault

Downs also does a good job of demonstrating how, despite reformers’ claims to the contrary, poor education could not have accounted for the growing white-Black income gap between 1970-2000, given that African Americans made substantial progress in closing the educational attainment gap over the same period.

The real fault lies in the capitalist economic system’s failure to provide sufficient well-paying jobs, adequate health care and housing, and so forth, for Black people and for the working class as a whole.

This observation would enable the author to more deeply probe the reformers’ flawed premise that education — rather than large-scale job creation and social programs — must be the main if not the only engine of economic uplift.

The absence of an explicitly anti-capitalist analysis is symptomatic of a certain narrowness with which Downs examines the school reform movement, which in his account emerges as simply out-of-step with the broader interests of a business community that doesn’t profit from the privatization of public education. Still to be developed is the more complex picture of how broad business interests both coincide and conflict with the reform agenda, but not in such a way as to engender any significant corporate opposition to it.

Such an analysis will inevitably lead to the conclusion that any movement to explode the schoolhouse shams that this book describes so well must be led by those who are most damaged by it — students, parents, teachers and other school workers.

May/June 2014, ATC 170