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What's Wrong With Saying Schools Need to Be Competitive in the 'Education Marketplace'?

What do we do when our education system has embraced prevailing myths about competition, meritocracy, and economic and social mobility?

This is the third post (read part one and part two) in a series on the purpose of education.

Emerging from an otherwise spectacular student voice workshop a few weeks ago, inspired by the candor and insight of 140 sixth grade students, I was left—truth be told—with a single, disturbing observation.

An opinion was articulated by several of the students and their teachers, usually as a marginal or incidental comment on another subject. Early in the day, for example, when "Group Project" was the topic of an "Awesome or Lame?" session, a student said, "the problem with group projects is that somebody might end up doing all the work, but somebody else will get the credit." In another discussion, a teacher said "It's too hard to grade each student when you're not sure how they contributed." Another teacher, in another context, suggested that "Collaboration is great, but somebody ends up not carrying their weight." And in a breakout session on homework, a student indicated that "When you try to help each other, the teachers sometimes treat you like you cheated." And so on.

These comments, were clearly predicated on a core belief: that students' collaboration might be important to their learning in theory, but that the assessment and affirmation of individual contributions, achievements, and accomplishments is what matters most in our schools. The persistence of such beliefs should come as no surprise to any of us, who find ourselves in a society with an education system that has embraced prevailing myths about competition, meritocracy, and economic and social mobility in its education policy. It should strike us with a great sadness, however, for those of us who question and resist those myths in our classroom practice and learning communities.

There's a part of me that fears, at some level, that such beliefs among students and teachers might strike proponents of a certain variety of "corporate" education reform, who foist vulgar models of "accountability" and standards of "excellence" from a caricature of backward-thinking corporate rhetoric onto the wholly unrelated discourse of forward-thinking education theory, with some considerable amount of satisfaction. For as we know from the history of empire, colonialism, and racism—narratives with which the histories of economics and education policy have fascinating intersections—structures of power and privilege realize their deepest, most enduring, and most complex impact when the ideology of the oppressor is internalized by the oppressed.

These structures of power, privilege, and oppression that most deeply influence our school system—and, I am arguing, that most endanger them—are the result of at least three decades' intentional and strategic policies that we refer to as neoliberalism:

an ensemble of economic and social policies, forms of governance, and discourses and ideologies that promote individual self-interest, unrestricted flows of capital, deep reductions in the cost of labor, and sharp retrenchment of the public sphere. Neoliberals champion privatization of social goods and withdrawal of government from provision for social welfare on the premise that competitive markets are more effective and efficient.


As the neoliberal champions at the Foundation for Economic Freedom would put it, more concretely:

In the marketplace, consumers ultimately determine what is produced. Entrepreneurs take risks to serve them. And fickle consumers show no mercy when something new and attractive comes along.

Government domination of education assures that the entrepreneurial innovation and creativity we are accustomed to in, say, the computer industry will be missing from education. There is no good substitute for the decentralized, spontaneous entrepreneurial process that full privatization of education would stimulate.


This neoliberal agenda, easy and accurate enough to label as the "free market model," constitutes something more—and, as Naomi Klein has brilliantly documented, something more sinister—than a field of theoretical or political principles: the imposition of these principles has followed the course (as Pauline Lipman describes it) of "an ideological project to reconstruct values, social relations, and social identities"—an intentional strategy to design and promote, as Charles Taylor would put it, a new "social imaginary" or—

the way in which ordinary people "imagine" their world—the common understandings, myths, and stories that make possible generalized practices and the widely shared legitimacy of a particular shared order. In this sense, the power of neoliberalism lies in its saturation of social practices and consciousness, making it difficult to think otherwise.


The particularly vexing dilemma of this current "social imaginary" of the "free market model"—especially insofar as educational practice and policy are concerned—is that it is deeply anti-social, so much so as to devalue to not just the theoretical benefits but the practical urgency of prioritizing creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thought, and cultural competency in our education policy.

As I suggested in the first post of this series:

We are preoccupied as a nation with products, rather than processes; with competition, rather than collaboration; with dominance, rather than participation; with achievement, rather than imagination; and with results, rather than with passion. The same has become true in our schools.


This internalization of neoliberal commitments to the individual achievements of our students and teachers, and the market competition of our schools, is naturalized even in our most informal, everyday conversations about education. It is enforced by many of our classroom practices. It is celebrated in many of our school-wide rituals. But I find it perhaps most disturbing when it frames our thoughts, subconsciously or purposefully, about how to improve our schools.

We repudiate our own proud history, legacy, experience, and wisdom as educators—uncritically accepting the sweeping proposition that schools have "failed," that education is in a "crisis," and that we must redefine our schools anew—and graft the faddish theories of free market innovation (the more "disruptive" the better) onto our school models in our thought experiments about education.

Our efforts to be imaginative, and our commitment continually to improve, should be commended. But the language system we use to frame our thinking, and the beliefs about the purpose of schooling on which that language system rests, are disturbing. "Who is the 'client' we're trying to serve?" I was asked in a debate on voucher legislation. "We need to create a 'customer-centric' model to the education system," I was lectured by a "school choice" advocate. "We need to learn from other 'content providers' and their 'delivery systems,"" I've heard more than once. And we hear all the time, especially but not exclusively in independent schools, that "we need to ensure that our school remains 'competitive' in the 'education marketplace.'"

The dilemma, of course, as I put it in one exchange, is that

schools are not selling a product, stakeholders aren't customers, and teaching and learning aren't commodities. This language system of "customer," "client," "innovation," and "market" is precisely the language system that has been appropriated by the "choice" movement, corporate interests trying to profit from the educational market, and pundits and wonks who allege we need to "save" our "failing" schools. These gestures don't help to support public education, but to destroy it—restricting our thought about the possibilities and the value of education to the degree that they impose the market model, and its language system, on the discourse and our decisions.


It’s not a "customer" but a "purpose" that education serves—whether that's to develop an informed and active citizenry; to prepare children for college, careers, and their futures; to create a context in which children can learn to interact, to think, to create, and so on. Stakeholders' efforts to realize those principles and promises seem to be what's framed the evolution of the institution's goals and systems in its best iterations—in the spirit of a social compact, more so than a corporate contract.

Click here to add committing to the Covenant to Help Inspire Learning and Development's 16 transformative education principles to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Desk and chairs in classroom image via Shutterstock

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