What have schools got to do with neo-liberalism?

Neoliberalism is not a term that everyone is happy to use.  Some see it as ideological jargon and for others it might describe what is happening but its use by education academics seems to get in the way of teachers and practitioners hearing its central message.

My own view is that the basic assumptions, frameworks and processes of neo-liberalism have been so well incorporated into our economic frameworks, social policies and thinking, that unless we name it and unpack it, we cant talk about what is happening sensibly or view things through any other lens.

In this blog I want to point out just how deeply school education has become infected with the neoliberal ideas.

So what is neoliberalism?  In a recent post by Chris Thinnes[1] the following definition is used

[Neoliberalism is] …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

Now its not hard to see the relevance of this to school reform policies of the US, UK and increasingly in Australia:

  • School choice and competition – highly entrenched in Australia
  • MySchool providing the information to support parents voting with their feet and forcing schools to worry more about student test performance than about the school learning and well being environment
  • high stakes testing – creating commodities out of smart kids and relegating others to a ‘take a sick day on testing’ status,
  • performance pay for teachers – introducing competition where there needs to be collaboration and team building
  • competing for a place in the PISA top 5 – turning school quality into an international productivity competition

Thynne’s post, The Abuse and Internalization of the ‘Free Market’ Model in Education, shows how school policies and practices promote individual self-interest over the common good and the market as the arbiter of values.  In this he is not unique. But Thinnes also reminds us that its fundamental ideas exist at a much deeper level – how this way of thinking has become the air we breathe in school policy and practice, even within the field of education.

His very first example emerges from comments made by both teachers and students about the challenges and opportunities of collaborative or group work in classrooms:

The problem with group projects is that somebody might end up doing all the work, but somebody else will get the credit

 It’s too hard to grade each student when you’re not sure how they contributed Collaboration is great, but somebody ends up not carrying their weight

When you try to help each other, the teachers sometimes treat you like you cheated

The message coming through from these comments  is that although student collaboration might be important to learning in theory, “the assessment and affirmation of individual contributions, achievements, and accomplishments is what matters most in our schools”.

Thinnes observes that

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.

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.

Unfortunately we see evidence of this in the Australian context wherever we look.

The only two items mentioned in the 2013 budget speech in relation to Indigenous education and closing the gap were scholarships for individual Indigenous students to attend elite schools and the Clontarrf Football academy.  Neither of these offer any systemic strategies for improving Indigenous education.  It seems we have decided to give up on structural systemic improvements in Indigenous education, in spite of appalling and systemic failure  – particularly in remote contexts.  The vast majority of Indigenous students and their families are left untouched by these two strategies.  In fact it is possible they will be worse off as the more aspirational students  – those who can contribute to the quality of learning in a classroom  – are plucked out and removed.  And  of course the fact that both these strategies result in the funding of non Government bodies to deliver the programs has not even been seen as odd or of concern.

Today in the Canberra Times Tony Shepherd argues that wealthy parents who choose to suck of the public teat by going to public schools should be charged a levy.  This only makes sense of schools are considered a commodity – a product and students it customers. This is a total repudiation of the fundamental democratic purpose of schools but the impact of neoliberal thinking and its saturation is to make these seem like a logical and sensible idea.

Thynne ends his article with the following message

The end-run of the logic of the ‘free market model’ and its application to schools is simple: the repudiation of schools as we have come to know them; the abandonment of democratic principles on which they are based; and the service of a technocratic vision of education as matrix of individual relationships with private providers….

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 should take note before it is too late.

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6 thoughts on “What have schools got to do with neo-liberalism?

  1. Once more Margaret P. Clark reminds us how easiiy education has been taken over by business and why too many, supposedly in education, are wanting to establish a managerial approach to education insisting that teachers should become ‘pedagogic technicians’ using the supposedly neutral language of science, technology and bureaucracy. (Alphonce 1997). Education is a human endeavour, beginning in informal ways from the early moments of childhood. It is not mean to fit students to profit-based machines which increase profits for companies when they need to be updated. At the core of education is the trinity of head, heart and hand. The focus of education is the assistance given to students to develop their potential, their capacities, their intellectual and emotional growth, their capacities for lateral as well as linear engagement with learning taking them to a range of careers, to the capacity to deal with change in theirs and others lives, and to recognise that as potential citizens in a supposedly democratic nation they need not be uncritical consumers of what the managers decide is required for the ‘business’ they are managing. They are members of a community and even the most bigoted neo-liberals in fact rely on others. They cannot do without the lowliest of us, even though they despise us and would reduce us further to increase their own wealth.
    Once again, thank you Margaret.

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