by Eric J. Weiner
Dear Dr. Cardona:
The violent, insurrectionist attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 was due, in part, to the success of the Nation’s system of public education, not its failure. Since Ronald Reagan announced in 1981 that “government is not the solution to our problem, government IS the problem,” federal authorities have worked to dismantle and erase any vestiges of democratic education from our system of public education. Free-market values replaced democratic ones. Public education slowly but consistently was transformed by neoliberal ideologues on both sides of the aisle into an institution both in crisis and the cause of the Nation’s perceived economic slip on the global stage. Following Reagan’s lead, all federally sponsored school reform efforts hollowed out public education’s essential role in a democracy and focused instead on its role within a free-market economy. In terms of both a fix and focus, neoliberalism was and remains the ideological engine that drives the evolution of public education in the United States. These reform efforts have been incredibly successful in reducing public education to a general system of job training, higher education prep, and ideological indoctrination (i.e., American Exceptionalism). As a consequence of this success, many of the Nation’s citizens have little to no knowledge or skills relating to the essential demands of democratic life. The culmination of the neoliberal assault on democratic education over the last forty-years helped create the conditions that led to the rise of Trump, the development of Trumpism, and the murderous, failed attempt at a coup d’etat in Washington, DC. From what I have read, I am not confident that your plans for public education will address these issues.
As Secretary of Education, according to President Biden, you will “strive to eliminate long-standing inequities and close racial and socioeconomic opportunity gaps…to improve student success and grow a stronger, more prosperous, and more inclusive middle class.” Consistent with the President’s call for making public education a lever of economic prosperity, you have said, “The passion I have for public education stems from my belief that it is the best lever for economic success and prosperity…and the belief that public education is still the great equalizer. It was for me.”
On the surface, these goals are admirable and for most Americans uncontroversial. Yet, I am concerned that you are unintentionally setting up public education for immanent failure. This is not because you and President Biden are insincere in your support for public education or because there is anything wrong with the students, teachers, administrators and/or communities that serve or are served by public education. Quite simply, you will fail to meet these goals because it is not, nor has it ever been the responsibility of public education to make social and economic policy.
As the last twenty years of school reform initiatives show—from Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” to Obama’s “Race to the Top”—not only is this a framework for educational reform that is set up to fail, but it gives ammunition to the ideological forces of privatization, present and future, that would like to dismantle the entire system of public education. By imagining the education system as “the best lever for economic success and prosperity,” you are making the common mistake of relying on schools—institutions that have been for decades systematically disenfranchised, demonized, and financially mismanaged—to fix issues that they have had no power over in the first place. Like asking people surviving in poverty to create jobs or depending upon the homeless to build affordable housing, it reflects a deep misreading of power and ideology.
As Jean Anyon and Kiersten Greene (“No Child Left Behind as an Anti-Poverty Measure,” Teacher Education Quarterly, Spring 2007) point out in their research on No Child Left Behind (NCLB), “These realities [i.e., generational poverty, low wages, non-union jobs, inadequate healthcare, nutritional deficits, food insecurity, inadequate childcare options, and lack of safe and affordable housing] suggest that the promise of good jobs and better pay…is a false one for many people—especially low-income minority students and women—because for them educational achievement brings no guarantee of economic success (p. 159).” Every federal “reform” initiative since the mid-1980s has been built on this ideological distortion, one that stacks the deck of opportunity against poor and working-class people while blaming them for their own economic struggles and victimization. By framing public education in this way, you obfuscate and distort the true relationship between public education and economic opportunity, one that begs the question, “Opportunity for what?”
Historically, the data regarding economic mobility and public education is, at most, correlational; but it does suggest an educational system that helps to concretize and reproduce economic status rather than fuel social mobility. It does this through the production of curricular systems, pedagogical practice and theory, and social engineering in the form of funding and de facto racial and class-based segregation. These mechanisms of economic and social reproduction in the school are always aligned with the ideological agenda of the state. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule of economic reproduction. During specific times in the Nation’s history, there has been examples where large swaths of working-class people moved up the economic ladder. By contrast, there are few examples of when large swaths of wealthy people moved down. But these movements up the ladder are not attributable to educational attainment as much as they are a consequence of expanded unionization, the expansion and availability of credit markets to the poor and working-class, and public investment in the country’s infrastructure. In light of the data, it should not be controversial to acknowledge—although for many people it is—that the times in which large sectors of economic mobility occurred in the United States were in spite of public education and not because of it.
On an individual level, there are plenty of examples of poor and working-class kids who “made it” and continue to make it. Indeed, you are one of them. Putting aside the question of what they actually “made,” these individual exceptions do not suggest a rule or general pattern of economic advancement even though we are encouraged to think of them is this way. To use the exceptions as evidence of a rule would, by logical extension, frame poor and working people’s persistent economic struggles as personal and/or cultural failures. As Julie Mujic correctly concludes from her research in educational reform and economic inequality, “The U.S. has made headway in educational opportunities with each generation, but improved access has thus far not served as an immediate salve for deep-seated societal problems.” Again, this is because public education is not a lever for economic success or prosperity. Living under the hegemony of neoliberalism for at least forty-years, and since the Department of Education’s “A Nation at Risk” report in 1983 blamed public education for the Nation’s apparent slip from exceptional to mediocre, there has been an uncritical acceptance by all Administrations that public education is both to blame for the Nation’s entrenched economic and political inequities as well as a lever for their correction. The acceptance of the myth of public education’s failure has fueled all educational reform initiatives with devastating consequences for the Nation generally and the students and educational workers specifically.
Public education’s “failure” or “crisis” is a myth because public education was never intended as a lever for economic and political equality. From its earliest days, it was designed as an institution that nurtured complacency and docility; privileged the white, male and wealthy; and socialized the masses to accept the status quo, yet taught them at the same time to believe in the positive relationship between hard work and limitless opportunity. Public education, under the reign of neoliberalism, has successfully played a supporting role in maintaining class stratification while trying to erase from memory the Nation’s foundation in the ideology of white supremacy. However glaring the contradiction is between white supremacy and equal opportunity within a democratic context, it remains for many people a false narrative. Public education has assisted in erasing this fundamental contradiction through its treatment of US history. This alone brings attention to public education’s “success” rather than its “failure.”
In light of the last two decades of federal educational reform efforts and in the context of Trumpism’s violent assault on democracy, I want to suggest a way you might reframe your agenda for public education, one that pushes public education’s ambiguous relationship to economic opportunity and prosperity to the margins of the portfolio. As I have argued and history has shown, regardless of your best intentions, your plan for public education, if framed within the trope of economic opportunity and prosperity, will only do more harm than good. Instead, I recommend repositioning the notion of opportunity within the framework of democratic life. By doing so, ironically, public education can become a secondary source of economic opportunity, meaning that once and if there are jobs available, a decent education would be of value in some generalizable economic context. A critical education in a democracy matters not because it trains workers efficiently but because it enables citizens to reimagine, beyond profit, work and the economy. Like hybrid cars that have back-up combustible engines to support transport when the battery dies, public education, particularly at k-12 grades (but also in college and university) will always be in a supportive role when it comes to the economy. But before even that can occur, the issue of the economy must take a back seat while you and other allies of democracy enact an agenda that makes explicit the triumvirate of public education, participatory democracy, and a renewal of the social contract.
As the recent events of January 6, 2021 have shown, there are multiple tears in the fabric of democratic life in the United States. The social contract is in tatters; the American Dream, mythological for many, has turned into an endless nightmare for most; what was a health insurance crisis has become a public health crisis of almost unfathomable proportions with final death toll estimates from COVID 19 reaching over 500,000; economic inequities have never been higher; police violence against African Americans remains unaccountable; and racial disunity and violence animates everyday life in cities and towns across America. Against the backdrop of these intersecting realities and under your leadership, I recommend that the Department of Education should follow two major threads of educational reform. One thread, let’s called it “Exterior Educational Concerns,” involves working intimately with other relevant agencies to:
- Create living-wage, long-term jobs;
- Establish a basic living-wage for teachers and other educational workers across different geographical locations;
- Expand unionization so that all educational workers have representation and job protection;
- Provide a centralized funding source for all public schools K-University;
- Establish a federal mechanism for guaranteeing equitable expenditures per pupil dependent on need and relative to location;
- Establish federal policies for desegregating/integrating public schools;
- Create reparation mandates for African American families systematically policed, marginalized, and mis-educated;
- Provide food stability in school for all students;
- Repair, rebuild and redesign educational/technological infrastructure;
- Provide economic support so underserved neighborhoods can begin to establish local business;
- Secure the safety and health of every student through community-based programs.
The private sector does not have the will to address these issues, because there is little to no profit-motive to do so. These are public concerns that must be addressed through and orchestrated by the federal government. To reiterate, public education, in and of itself, cannot solve these persistent political, economic, and social problems. But it will continue to struggle as a viable education system if they are not systematically addressed by the Department of Education in cooperation with other government agencies.
The second thread of reform, “Interior Educational Concerns,” should focus on the nuts and bolts of public education for democratic life; that is, the development of federal curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment standards. I will recommend that some of these standards should be standardized across the public schools throughout the Nation, while others should be left open for creative tinkering. For many educators, particularly those that identify themselves as progressive, liberal, or critical, this thread of reform will be particularly controversial. For entirely different reasons, it will also be controversial for those educators that identify themselves as conservative or traditional.
A viable framework for democratic education is already available from the work of John Dewey and many other progressive and critical educators of the 20th century. In brief, this vast catalogue of work can be reduced to the following standards of learning and teaching. These standards should be federally mandated and applied in every public school across the country.
- From the earliest grades, students begin to practice and learn the skills and dispositions of democratic life, including compromise, debate, empathy, respect for cultural difference, and fallibility.
- Critical literacy is the foundation for all k-12 literacy development.
- Civic literacy begins in the elementary grades and continues through middle school and high school.
- Problem-based learning mixed with direct instruction and experiential learning is the framework for all instructional activities.
- Creative and critical thinking frame pedagogical designs and objectives. These must include deep dives into questions of fairness, justice, equity, the social imagination, and the aesthetic dimension.
- In the middle school, high school, and college levels, debate plays a central role in classroom learning.
- Local knowledge, customs, and traditions are critically integrated into the standardized curriculum. But they are also interrogated for their alignment with democratic ethics.
- National assessments should be developed to measure students’ civic literacy and knowledge about the Nation’s history and relationship to democracy. These are not high stakes tests, but would be given to identify deficits in schools and districts while there is time to address them with the students who took the exams. Note that this history must cover the Nation’s triumphs, tragedies, contradictions, and aspirations. The story we teach our students about the Nation’s inception and the decades that followed is one of the most important aspects of a democratic education.
- Students must learn from the earliest grades about the country’s intimate and sometimes violent relationship to other nations and cultures. Cosmopolitanism frames local investigations into goods and services as well as the construction of national identity.
- Translingual education should begin in the earliest grades and continue through college. Monolingual instruction does not support the demands of democratic life in the 21st ESL, bilingual and “foreign” language education in the United States is only a failure if there was a genuine effort to actually teach students language proficiency. There has been no such effort in the United States therefore it’s “failure” is really a sign of its success. Public education in the United States has never supported the development of translingualism. That standard must change across all educational contexts. Through translingual and multi-cultural education, students learn to negotiate “difference” in a way that acknowledges it without it becoming a way to rationalize various forms of discrimination.
- Students need to develop, over the course of their educational lives, a “sociological imagination,” “sociological competence,” and a language of critique and possibility. These three points of intellectual development, beginning in elementary school, will provide the framework for educational projects across the disciplines. They move students to think beyond the framework of individualism without sacrificing personal agency. Together they give students a way to critically examine “what is” while pointing to what “should be.”
- Critical media literacy and digital citizenship should begin in second grade and be integrated into every subject under investigation. We live in times in which “reality” is always mediated and re-presented through some form of media. But rather than give up on the idea that reality can be known, as some might argue, there must be a rigorous commitment to teach students how to critically interrogate and evaluate media for its representations of reality. Democracy demands a citizenry who is capable of distinguishing truth from lies, fact from fiction, and perspective from relativism.
- Students K-12 should be taught to think philosophically using real life examples about what is right and wrong; that is, they need to be educated in a language of public philosophy so that they can train their minds to think in nuanced ways about the complexity of living in a diverse society.
- There should be no more than a 1:10 student to teacher ratio in every classroom K-10 and in college class sizes should be capped at 1:15. Size does matter when it comes to being able to put into practice the aforementioned standards of teaching and learning.
- All schools should have the best technological and scientific resources that our Nation can provide. The future of democracy will depend on more students “doing” technology and science rather than simply “using” it.
- Schools that struggle to implement these standards of teaching and learning should be given the resources they need to make sure the standards are met. Resources are everything from money and professional development to external support with regards to health and safety.
- We need to demilitarize our urban schools and instead implement community-based oversight and security in them.
- The design and implementation of a national curriculum standard of environmental literacy that addresses climate change, sustainable energies, recycling, renewable energies, and other ecological considerations like food production, clean water protection, alternative housing projects, and low impact transportation models.
- The design and implementation of a national K-12 curriculum standard for new technologies, robotics, and AI development, including the development of philosophical, cultural, and semiotic systems of analysis of the aforementioned themes.
- The design and implementation of a national K-12 curriculum of community-based wellness, psychic health, self-care, and mindful practice, including meditation.
- A national K-12 curriculum of the arts, which would include lessons in dance, music, photography, creative writing, performance art, computer animation, etc.
The cost to remake and reframe public education in these ways is astronomical. But the Nation has the money in its military budget. The question is whether it has the political will to redistribute the money from “defense” to public education. Even though most of the military budget goes to protecting against foreign threats, the biggest threat to realizing the unfulfilled promise of American democracy, as the events of the last four years generally and January 6 specifically has shown, has been hiding in plane sight: Domestic terrorism fueled by white supremacist ideology and enabled by autocratic forces in our own government is the cancer that lives deep in the marrow of our national identity. Never in remission, it has nevertheless been ignored by most of white America unless it shows up dressed in a white hood, brandishing a noose, waving a Confederate flag, burning a cross, defiling the US Capitol, or murdering African American people in the name of law and order. Mitchell S. Jackson says it exactly right when he writes,
To be appalled at what happened Wednesday is tantamount to believing the rhetoric that America tells itself and the world: that it is the greatest nation on earth, a beacon of liberty and justice for all. To be appalled at what happened Wednesday is to believe that America has ever been a true United States, not a country diseased by the psychosis of a supreme white race. To be astounded by what happened Wednesday is to be ignorant of what happened in Wilmington, North Carolina in 1898 when a mob of 2,000 white supremacist, upset that Blacks had been elected to a fusion government, overthrew it, killing 60 people—the only coup d’état on American soil.
Education alone won’t erase this threat or, in the short-term, eradicate the disease. But it can, when framed in the service of democratic life as opposed to a lever of economic opportunity and prosperity, begin to function as an investment in the Nation’s “defense” against the deep ideological structures of white supremacy, religious fundamentalism, fascism, and neoliberalism.
Eric J. Weiner