Fighting the market in schools: lessons from US teachers

The Future of Our Schools
Lois Weiner
Haymarket Books $24

The nauseating consensus between Gillard and the Liberal premiers over education policy, where they all agree that teachers are to blame for an ailing education system, shows the need to rebuild fighting teachers’ unions to defend public education.

In the US teachers are fighting back against these sorts of education programs. In September the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) scored a huge victory against corporate schools policies.

The Future of our Schools has lessons for fighting the market in education

After 26,000 CTU members struck for seven school days they defeated plans for performance pay and heavier use of student test scores, both key aspects of Obama’s schools plan.

The Future of Our Schools by Lois Weiner raises issues vital to any resistance to attacks on education, by demolishing the myth that education is best left to the market, and making the case for democratising our unions.

Education in a neo-liberal age

One of the book’s strengths is the global background it gives to the market-driven policies we face in Australia. The book is written for an American audience, where education reform has been ruthlessly pursued. But its US focus gives a glimpse of the future of schooling in Australia if current trends are not reversed.

Weiner traces the origins of market-driven education to General Pinochet’s neo-liberal laboratory in Chile, which privatised education under the direction of American economist Milton Friedman. Critics now label the inequality this produced “educational apartheid”.

She then turns to the damaging effects of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy and the way it attempts to simulate the market by withdrawing funding to “failing” schools, in favour of Charter Schools.

Charter Schools, beginning to emerge in Australia as “independent public schools”, are openly advocated for their capacity to weaken unions. Their “autonomy” consists in the school’s need to pay teachers directly out of its own budget.

The associated emphasis on student test scores means that teachers who don’t merely want to teach to the test risk losing their jobs. The dire effects this has on curriculum diversity are well established.

What Weiner makes clear is that neo-liberalism has divorced the public perception of education from the realities of teaching. She claims that essential qualities of education—that it is a caring profession, that it is a social good, not merely an incubator for the future workforce—are increasingly obscured by market values. She therefore stresses the need to consciously reassert these aspects by building links with the community, which has become alienated from school systems under neo-liberalism.

Rebuilding fighting unions

Weiner laments the unused potential of teachers’ unions and makes an impassioned plea for their transformation. Her diagnosis of the failure of unions to resist, indeed often being complicit in the neo-liberal project, correctly highlights the need for members to take back control of their unions—to democratise them.

She provides an incisive analysis of the double-edged nature of unions, and how, “The very factors that make unions stable and potentially powerful also induce bureaucracy and conservatism”, and members’ passivity.

In recent years the model of “business” or “service” unionism has come to dominate the union movement. This places the functions of the union in the hands of paid officials and bureaucrats, at the expense of membership mobilisation and self-activity.

Weiner’s alternative to this is “social movement unionism”, which put a premium on mobilising the membership. She explains how, “In social movement unions, members’ self-interest is defined broadly, as much more than immediate economic and contractual concerns.”

For public sector unions like teachers’ unions to succeed, they need to gain parental and public support, and win an argument that the teachers’ demands are of benefit to the whole community.

But Weiner is sometimes bewildered at why union leaders don’t take action necessary to win. So in one of the articles on Albert Shanker, an AFT leader, she puts too much stress on his ideological failings which, although not insignificant, are secondary to the social role and position of compromise that even the most militant union officials are forced into.

This means that she doesn’t sufficiently connect her calls for democratisation with a theory of the union bureaucracy, despite recognising that union democratisation is the best corrective to bureaucratic ossification.

Direct action

Weiner slams the unions’ efforts to support “pro-labour” politicians, in the face of an ideological consensus over education policy. Obama’s “Race to the Top” plan has continued the policies of Bush’s “No Child Left Behind”, including performance pay based on standardised test results.

This neo-liberal consensus means that the critical arena for the struggle for our schools is outside the electoral arena. Earlier this year Seattle teachers decided to ban standardised tests used to determine their pay, in defiance of the teachers unions’ national leadership. (The two national teachers unions accept the use of standardised testing to determine teachers’ pay).

The lesson of Weiner’s book is that it’s independent activity of this kind by rank and file unionists, not the education visions of politicians, that will decide the future of our schools.

Lachlan Marshall


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