Friday, July 10, 2015

Dangerous Ideology - The Neoliberalization of Education

Last week I attended the NZPF (New Zealand Principals Federation) conference in Wellington, where the theme was "Every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing...Looking at Education through a variety of lenses".  

In my previous post where I had published my Twitter Storify from conference, I made mention that two speakers in particular struck a chord with me - Meg Maguire from the UK and Diane Ravitch from the US.  Todays post is based on some of what they shared and my subsequent wonderings since.  In particular, something Meg said about 'dangerous ideology'.  

To be clear, this dangerous ideology that Meg refers to is the Global Education Reform Movement ('infectiously' referred to as G.E.R.M - pun intended) that is taking the world by storm, one divisive and destructive policy at a time.  Whilst there is much I could write about, I want to just focus on some drivers behind neoliberalism. 

Both Meg and Diane shared stories from their countries that served to be stark warnings about the dangers inherent in the G.E.R.M ideology, which is rooted in lashings of neoliberal doctrine.  It has left me wondering about how such a dangerous ideology can even gain an audience in supposedly well educated first world countries, let alone grab and maintain a strong hold.  

And so, it left me wondering.  Just how well do we (and by we I mean the public) understand neoliberal politics as it relates to education?  

What is this Neoliberalism and how does it relate to Education?

In short, the neoliberal ideology is all about privatising the education system in order to make a profit.  There is a strong belief that the free market principles of business such as competition, deregulation and standardisation are applicable in an educational setting, and as a result this new wave of doing things will improve student achievement and hold schools and educators more accountable.  

Under a neoliberal model of education there is little to no room for creativity, collaboration, cooperation and social/emotional wellbeing is not the role of education.  In other words, teaching a child anything other than the core basics of reading, writing and maths is irrelevant and wasteful of resources.   

Schools are modelled on factories that produce standardised widgets, cogs and sprockets.  Teachers are expected to produce the same outcomes for all widgets, cogs and sprockets and there is an underlying (if not misguided and simply wrong) assumption that all widgets, cogs and sprockets are exactly the same - they just need a standardised process.  In this model students are expected to comply and engage.  Voice and agency are counter productive to producing a standardised result.  There is a belief that all widgets, cogs and sprockets are the same, starting at the same point and able to meet business like milestones at the same time.  A useful process for inanimate objects I am sure - but a counterintuitive model for real human beings.  

This traditional model of learning and teaching harkens back to the industrial age - but in todays world of disorder and complexity, it is a model that will simply fail to prepare our young people for success.  This process is about teaching students how to pass an exam or test, not how to be a good human being that will inherit the future.  

The Tools of Neoliberalism: 

If one was to be honest, mention the world 'neoliberal' and the average person will get that glassy film over their eyes as they mentally check out of the conversation.  The whole essence of the world conjures up images of 'stuffiness' and 'academics sipping tea and pontificating about the world whilst eating crumpets at Oxford'.  It is another term that gets bandied around but is terribly misunderstood by the masses.  Instead of being a conversation starter, I wonder if instead it is a conversation killer.  

Therein lies a key driver for the engineers of the dangerous ideology movement.  The less the masses understand about the complexities behind a process, the easier it is to dismantle the status quo to bring in the new reality.  This is tool number one that the neoliberal use to drive their agenda.  

If we were to be even more honest, I am not even sure most educators even understand it, let alone the general public.  That old adage of 'you don't know what you have until you lose it' is most applicable here.  I recall recently hosting a discussion with fellow leaders on the threats to our current education system, and being struck by how many didn't seem to think it would ever impact them, one going as far to say that didn't care about the whole system, just what they were doing in their own school.  Nothing else was important and it wasn't their problem what happened outside their school gates. In some respects I understand that - leading a school is hard work with a depth of complexity that few understand.  

But, one of those complexities is our moral and professional duty to the profession as a whole.  Most dangerously, when we are distracted by the politics within our own hallways, then we are unlikely to see the threat from outside until it is too late.  The divide and conquer model is tool number two that the neoliberal use to drive their policy agendas.   

One of the most successful tools has been the 'shock doctrine'.  The neoliberal movement has used this to great effect.  Open a paper or turn on a television to watch some form of news show pretty much anywhere in the world and you will see a story about failing schools, failing teachers, failing leaders.  All of this perpetuates the myth that there is a crisis in Education and the only way to save the education system is to allow the G.E.R.M to infect it.  This is where the next tool comes in handy for the reformers - money.  Lots of money.  Something the reformers are not short of.  Their premise is that they will use their free market success to come charging to the rescue of the ailing education system.  

Signs of Neoliberalism in Education:

Both Meg and Diane spoke at great length about the above signs of neoliberalism in education and both women made it very clear that those very signs were destructive to the ideals that underpin public education.   All we need to do is open our eyes to what is happening across the world, and indeed in our own backyard, to see these signs are not only here, but in many respects, for some countries like the US, UK and in part Australia, firmly ensconced.  

It then begs the question - how do we combat this?  Given the speed of which some of these reforms ripped their way through our colleagues Nations, I can not help but wonder what the answer is.  There is, I believe, still some naivety with some educators, in that they don't think any of the things Meg and Diane spoke about will come to our shores.  Perhaps understanding what is happening, what is driving it, what it looks like and what the tools are is one of the first steps.  

Optimism combined with some action might be a good starting point.  We need to be hopeful that we can address the inequalities and make things right, and we need to do our part to ensure that happens.

If the above picture is one that you believe is right for education across our world then by all means do nothing.  But, if you know that the future you want for all our Nations children is not one that involves being subjected to a neoliberal education then lets start thinking about how we can work together to ensure our children - yours, mine, your neighbours - get the best start to their future.   Collaboration and cooperation together will be key. 

This is important because their future is also ours.  I don't want a disengaged drone looking out for me when I am old and needing support - I want a citizen of the future that has empathy and an understanding of what it is to be a human.  


New post - the outcomes of Neoliberal Ideology - Hit Squads in the UK

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