Neoliberal Education Reformers Have Found a New Way to Scapegoat Teachers

Liberal writers sympathetic to the corporate education reform movement are beating the drum about reopening schools, claiming to stand up for low-income students. But attacking teachers and their unions does nothing for poor and working-class students — it simply scapegoats the people who have dedicated their lives to actually helping those students.

The neoliberal solution to poverty, embraced by centrist Democrats and Republicans alike, is “equality of opportunity, not equality of results.” (Daniel Pockett / Getty Images)

Few topics have united liberal pundits with the Trump administration more than the need to reopen schools for in-person instruction, even in the face of an unchecked COVID-19 pandemic.

In-person reopening during COVID-19 has become the latest — and perhaps most consequential — battle for the neoliberal educational reform movement. It’s a topsy-turvy world, in which pro-opening pundits and activists are cast as the (usually white) saviors of low-income students and students of color, while the teachers who actually dedicate their lives to working with those students are portrayed as the uncaring bogeymen, particularly if they’re unionized.

As soon as it became clear that COVID-19 would not be contained by the fall, writers of a certain disposition began gearing up for the fight to come. As Politico writer Michael Grunwald tweeted with almost palpable glee in June, “This spring, the protests have sparked an uncomfortable debate about who police unions look out for, and this fall, COVID might spark a similar debate about teachers unions.”

This long-awaited debate finally came earlier this month with the publication of Alec MacGillis’s New Yorker article, “The Students Left Behind by Remote Learning,” which went viral and sparked a series of piggyback articles from writers at the Washington Post, New York Times, Reason, and New York magazine, among other outlets.

It’s a debate that’s revealed the depressingly narrow vision of economic and social justice held by pro-opening advocates, the contempt that pro-opening advocates have for the educators they paradoxically claim are essential, and the dismissive attitude pro-opening advocates have toward the actual views of the low-income families and families of color they claim to speak for.

MacGillis’s piece is framed around a single student in East Baltimore, Shemar, whom MacGillis occasionally tutors. Narratively, MacGillis’s article is a prime piece of poverty porn. Shemar’s mother struggles with addiction. His father is nowhere to be found. His grandmother, MacGillis relates, “is a steady presence, but she attended little school while growing up, in a sharecropping family in South Carolina. She was also losing her eyesight.”

MacGillis is positioned as the savior. He buys Shemar’s family groceries and Shemar a laptop (for which he is reimbursed by a local church). “[Shemar] was alone in the living room, the lights off, the blinds drawn, and the TV on,” MacGillis writes. “He had stayed up very late the night before, watching TV with his mother, and had slept past noon, missing that day’s class. For breakfast, he had eaten some Nutella that I had brought by the day before. I asked what he would have for dinner, assuming he would eat with his brother’s family. In fact, they usually ate on their own, upstairs. ‘Nutella,’ he said.”

Reading this, one might assume that MacGillis’s piece would be titled “The Students Left Behind by Poverty.” However, the rest of the piece makes clear that remote education, not the paucity of the US welfare state — which subjects children like Shemar to higher poverty rates than in any other peer country — is the target of MacGillis’s reproach.

From the perspective of the education reform movement, MacGillis’s focus on schooling makes sense. The neoliberal solution to poverty, embraced by centrist Democrats and Republicans alike, is “equality of opportunity, not equality of results.” Whereas someone on the Left might read MacGillis’s piece and conclude that the issues at hand are things like skimpy SNAP benefits, the War on Drugs, soaring inequality, and stagnant incomes, particularly for workers without a college or advanced degree, corporate education reformers look at someone like Shemar and conclude that his only hope is to claw his way out of poverty through education.

No matter that the odds facing children like Shemar are steep, that returns to education aren’t driving inequality, that the proportion of people in poverty with high school and college degrees is rising, or that people without a high school or college diploma deserve a living wage. For reformers, it doesn’t matter that fixing education won’t end poverty or that increases in equality tend to increase educational attainment, not the other way around. Children like Shemar deserve opportunity, not equality.

Since all other options are off the table, those who oppose returning to in-person instruction amid a pandemic are the problem. For MacGillis and other reopening advocates, that means the teachers who are raising concerns about the lack of safety protocols in many schools and pushing states to set clear COVID-19 benchmarks before reopening.

As New York’s Jonathan Chait wrote in a piece praising MacGillis’s article, by opposing a return to in-person instruction until COVID-19 is under control, teachers were “permanently degrading the skill base of the workforce and robbing a generation of children, especially low-income students, of any chance to enter the middle class.” Extending Chait’s “skill base” logic to its ineffable conclusion, McKinsey & Company estimated that the disruption of education last spring caused by COVID-19 could cost the average K-12 student $61,000 to $82,000 in lifetime earnings and $110 billion in annual earnings across the entire K-12 cohort.

Like all neoliberal reform narratives, there’s a paradox at the heart of MacGillis and Chait’s stories. Teachers are so deserving of scorn precisely because they’re so essential in a society that places almost all of its anti-poverty eggs in the education basket.

That teachers are deserving of higher pay and more respect, rather than scorn, if they’re so essential doesn’t seem to have crossed the mind of MacGillis or Chait. However, each of their pieces accidentally reveals the crux of the problem. Early in his article, MacGillis writes, “One day, when I arrived, Shemar (this is his middle name) looked disconsolate. He thrust a sheet of paper at me — the social-studies teacher had quit. There was a tear running down Shemar’s cheek. ‘She was my favorite teacher,’ he said.”

Why Shemar’s teacher quit, pre-COVID, isn’t explored by MacGillis. Chait, for his part, reports that the Walton- and Gates-funded KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) charter network is paying teachers who return to classroom instruction during the pandemic a $175-a-day bonus, which amounts to more than $30,000 over the course of the school year. But Chait doesn’t suggest that perhaps such hazard pay should be given to all teachers before we expect them to risk their lives.

Instead, the organizations that increase teacher pay and make education a more desirable profession — unions — are brought in for particular scorn. MacGillis even goes so far as to hint that it was good that former Republican governor Scott Walker crushed Wisconsin’s public sector unions — an act that studies have shown empowered the hard-right state GOP — since it meant that teachers in the badger state couldn’t prevent schools from reopening in person.

For all of their professed concern about children like Shemar, MacGillis and his ilk show very little interest in what low-income families and families of color actually think about reopening during COVID-19. MacGillis twists the words of his subjects to fit what he thinks they should want. “I asked Shemar and his mother how they felt about the school year starting online,” he writes. “She said that she thought it was for the best, given the risks of COVID-19. Shemar shrugged. ‘It was annoying,’ he said. ‘School was getting annoying.’” A neutral observer would conclude that Shemar’s family is getting the outcome they want. But MacGillis strains to salvage a negative conclusion. “The use of the past tense was striking,” he muses, “as if ‘school’ were something that was behind him.”

Likewise, when Shemar’s math teacher, Karen Ngosso, whom MacGillis praises, says she supports the district’s decision to stay virtual, MacGillis is disturbed. “I had thought that Ngosso would oppose the decision to keep the schools closed… [because of her] insistence on rigor and high expectations for students and families,” he writes. “But Ngosso did not trust other families. ‘When you drive around Baltimore, you see all these grown people walking around, no masks,’ she said. ‘Those people’s kids will come to school. It’s like a snowball effect.’ She doubted that younger kids could be trusted to keep masks on in class.” To MacGillis, Ngosso is being irrational and selfish.

But public opinion data make clear that Shemar and Ngosso aren’t alone among people of color in being suspicious of a return to in-person instruction while COVID-19 ravages the country. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 76 percent of parents of color, compared to 51 percent of white parents, agreed that it’s “better to open schools later to ensure the risk of getting coronavirus is as low as possible, even if it means some students will fall behind academics/miss out on services that schools provide and some parents will not be able to return to work.”

The study found similar racial gaps on a series of other questions related to concern with “teachers and other staff at school getting sick from coronavirus”; “children at the school being unable or unwilling to comply with physical distancing practices”; “their child getting sick with coronavirus”; “they or someone else in their family getting sick from coronavirus”; and “their child’s school being unable to comply with public health recommendations.” Between 88 and 92 percent of parents of color agreed with those statements compared to between 49 and 69 percent of white parents.

The same differences persist when looking at the data by income, with low- and middle-income parents more worried than upper-income parents about COVID-19. For example, 82 percent of families with household incomes below $90,000 are worried about “children at the school being unable or unwilling to comply with physical distancing practices,” while only 62 percent of families with household incomes above $90,000 are. Other studies have found similar gaps.

Families of color also express more satisfaction with virtual instruction during COVID-19 than white parents. According to a national survey conducted by Scholastic, the National Urban League, and numerous other organizations, 68 percent of African-American parents and 53 percent of Latino parents, compared to 50 percent of white parents, say they feel prepared to support their children’s virtual learning. 64 percent of African-American, 62 percent of Latino, and 56 percent of white parents say that “their child’s remote schooling is working better than they expected.”

Districts that have returned to in-person instruction have found similar patterns in actual enrollment. According to the New York Times, approximately 70 percent of Asian-American students and half of African-American and Latino students in the New York City public schools have opted for virtual instruction, while more than two-thirds of white students have opted for in-person. Even non-union charter schools that serve predominantly non-white students have stayed virtual due to parents’ preferences.

The reluctance of parents of color to send their children back to in-person school is likely driven by the fact that the virus has hit low-income Americans and people of color, who also are more likely to live in multigenerational households, much harder than their white and upper-income counterparts. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, for example, found that African-American, Latino, and Native American children have accounted for 78 percent of COVID-19 deaths among children despite composing a minority of the population.

The push to reopen, in short, is driven by predominantly well-off “nice white parents,” to borrow a phrase from the recent New York Times study of school segregation. In contrast, the parents of the children that MacGillis and Chait profess to be so concerned about have looked at COVID-19 and decided that the difference between virtual and in-person instruction isn’t worth the risk.

The entire edifice of the pro-reopening argument rests on ignoring or minimizing the health risks at the center of the in-person versus virtual debate. MacGillis repeatedly asserts that because a South Korean study that found children can transmit the virus was imperfect, the science is clear that reopening is safe. As a result, he argues that opposition to reopening is driven by irrational Trump hatred. This despite the fact that other studies have concluded that children, especially teens, can readily spread COVID-19 and can become seriously ill.

A recent article by economist Emily Oster, who provides a ritual citation of MacGillis’s piece, has gone viral among the pro-reopening crowd by claiming to prove that schools are much safer than many teachers and parents fear. Together with tech company Qualtrics, Oster asked schools to voluntarily report their COVID-19 numbers to her database. (The possibility that voluntary reporting — with schools experiencing outbreaks avoiding disclosing them — might introduce selection bias into her data isn’t mentioned.)

Based on her numbers, Oster concludes: “Schools do not, in fact, appear to be major spreaders of COVID-19…. Our data on almost 200,000 kids in 47 states from the last two weeks of September revealed an infection rate of 0.13 percent among students and 0.24 percent among staff. That’s about 1.3 infections over two weeks in a school of 1,000 kids, or 2.2 infections over two weeks in a group of 1,000 staff.”

Oster takes pains to present the data in the most favorable way possible. Since the publication of the article, the Qualtrics numbers have risen to 0.14 and 0.36 percent, for students and staff, respectively. However, this is the site’s “confirmed” rate. Oster’s site initially also reported a “confirmed and suspected rate,” which was 0.74 for students and 0.76 for staff before this measure was removed from the site’s main page. However, even the CDC does not limit its measurement to confirmed cases, because not every positive case is tested and not every positive test is reported. This is especially important in schools, where there’s no way to compel parents to report positive cases.

Oster also oddly reports the school COVID-19 rates as raw percentages, whereas most COVID-19 data is reported as cases per 100,000 people over fourteen days, or cases per 100,000 people per day. Translated to these common metrics, the Qualtrics data show 360 “confirmed” cases per 100,000 staff every fourteen days, or twenty-five cases per 100,000 per day. For the “confirmed and suspected” number, that’s 760 cases per 100,000 staff every fourteen days, or fifty-four cases per 100,000 per day, both of which would be alarmingly high according to experts.

To extend Oster’s framing, a district with 1,000 teachers would experience 3.6 “confirmed” cases every two weeks, which means more than sixty members of the staff would contract COVID-19 over the course of the school year. For the “suspected and confirmed” number, that’s more than 135 staff members out of 1,000 contracting COVID-19 over the course of the year. Given those odds, is it any wonder that many teachers are opposed to reopening?

In both Oster’s article and MacGillis’s, it’s taken as a given that the number we need to worry about is student cases, not staff cases. Teachers are portrayed as a disposable means to the end that is children’s futures. (How the moral calculation shifts when one of those children grows up to be a teacher isn’t specified.) Yet many schools have displayed a disregard for the health of both staff and students in the push to reopen. One Iowa district went so far as to instruct teachers to have students walk around the room every fourteen minutes in order to skirt guidelines specifying that “only those exposed to the virus for fifteen consecutive minutes within six feet need to quarantine after exposure.”

Perhaps the most striking part of the pro-reopening debate is that no one is quite sure how virtual versus in-person instruction will compare in the COVID-19 era.

Some studies have found little long-term negative effects from online instruction in normal times. Others, particularly those focused on for-profit online charters, found terrible outcomes from virtual education. However, it’s not clear what those studies mean in the context of a pandemic that will also transform in-person education. The former head of the for-profit charter study has said that he’s “hesitant to ascribe the magnitude of virtual charters’ deleterious impacts on student outcomes to the online learning environment resulting from COVID-19.”

Will socially distanced in-person instruction be better than virtual? It’s hard to say. By eliminating close interaction between students and teachers, group projects, and other commonplace teaching strategies, in-person instruction under COVID-19 will categorically prevent many of the best pedagogical practices. It’s also likely that teachers tasked with constantly policing students’ mask use would struggle to focus on instruction. What about the effects of experienced teachers retiring rather than returning to the classroom in the middle of a pandemic? It’s doubtful that the new teachers or, in many cases, long-term substitutes will be as good as the teachers they’re replacing.

Therein lies another paradox in MacGillis and Chait’s argument. If in-person under COVID-19 is still better than virtual, polling makes clear that well-off and white parents will disproportionately choose the former while lower-income, and black and brown parents will disproportionately choose the latter. The result, then, will be a widening, rather than a narrowing, of the achievement gap.

Instead of arguing over returning in-person, the people who claim to care about kids like Shemar could focus on helping districts do virtual the right way. They could focus on providing children like Shemar — and their parents — ways out of poverty that don’t begin and end at the schoolhouse door. Or, instead of aiming their ire at the teachers who’ve dedicated their lives to helping students, they could train their ire at leaders like President Trump who let COVID-19 go unchecked. Instead, both MacGillis and Chait praise Trump’s stance on reopening and blame teachers. Given the strange bedfellows created by the neoliberal education reform movement, such contortions shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Ultimately, an ideology that can’t see any solutions to poverty outside of the classroom, particularly during a pandemic, isn’t actually concerned with combatting child poverty; it’s concerned with providing an excuse for ignoring adults in poverty. In that way, the in-person reopening debate is a microcosm of both the larger education reform debate and American culture’s habit of shaming the poor once they reach a certain age.

Shemar is deserving of reformers’ sympathy. His mom, particularly since she opposes a return to in-person instruction? Not so much.