Neoliberalism and Public Education

Although we’re focused on the current dismantling of Chicago Public Schools, I thought it’d be helpful to share an essay that places this struggle in a broader context–and hopefully it’s brief enough to read without detracting from preparation on Pauline Lipman’s book.

In A Nation of Little Lebowski Urban Achievers, Megan Erickson narrates the genesis of neoliberal education reform at the federal level, beginning in the early 1980s with Ronald Reagan’s first term as president. His “educational agenda consisted of two main objectives: ‘bring God back into the classroom’ and abolish the Department of Education.” Not surprisingly, these views made Terrel Bell’s appointment as Secretary of Education a precarious one. With job security hanging in the balance (and zero aid from Reagan), Bell assembled the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE). And through this boondoggle came Bell’s magnum opus, A Nation at Risk: the Imperative for Educational Reform“–arguably the most influential document on education policy since Congress passed Title I in 1965.” More from Erickson:

But where Title I took an equalizing approach to reform, prioritizing the distribution of funds to districts comprised primarily of students from low-income families, A Nation at Risk called for higher expectations for all students, regardless of socio-economic status: “We must demand the best effort and performance from all students, whether they are gifted or less able, affluent or disadvantaged, whether destined for college, the farm, or industry.”

Erickson goes on to show how the NCEE’s data-sorting methods left little room for outside critique or correction, and details the fallout from using market-based rhetoric to evaluate schools:

Under the influence of these reformers, the American education system has become less about curriculum and critical thinking, and more like Oprah: a program of self-mastery framed as a moral imperative. In public schools across the country, particularly urban ones, social studies and music classes are commonly replaced by the kind of glorified vocational training called for in A Nation at Risk.


With donor cash comes a set of beliefs, awkwardly transplanted from the business world to the classroom: the management guru’s vision of empowerment as a personal struggle, the CEO’s conviction that individual success is limited only by a lack of ambition, life as a series of goals waiting to be met. The type of advice once reserved for dieters, rookie sales associates, and the unemployed is now repeated to public school children with new age fervor: Think positive. Set goals and achieve them. Reach for the stars. Race to the top. It’s never too early to network. Just smile. Like the promise of A Nation at Risk, these admonitions are at once wildly idealistic and bitterly cruel: “You forfeit your chance for life at its fullest when you withhold your best effort in learning … When you work to your full capacity, you can hope to attain the knowledge and skills that will enable you to create your future and control your destiny. If you do not, you will have your future thrust upon you by others.” Convert every challenge into an opportunity, or else.

We see this logic echoed in the World Business Chicago plan. When the writers say that “we are not able to make the most of our human capital assets because of shortcomings in our education system,” they’re conjuring up the same bogeyman of failure that first appeared in A Nation at Risk. Through the internalization of scholastic achievement comes the erasure of systemic and socioeconomic disadvantages, and such language provides the justification for public schools to be supplanted by charters. I think there’s plenty of educational potential around questioning this notion of failure: its ideological roots, and opportunities for us to redirect its use.