Public Schools Have Been Made to Answer for Capitalism’s Crimes

Unwilling to disrupt the economic system that created mass inequality, liberals invested schools with magical powers to fix a broken society. When public schools failed to clean up capitalism’s mess, they ended up on the chopping block.

Secretary of Education William Bennett in a classroom in Atlanta, Georgia, January 1, 1986. (Norm Staples / Getty Images)

Anyone who has applied to teach at a public school in the past twenty years has probably felt the need to pack their resume with statements like “used rigorous instruction to build essential college- and career-readiness skills,” or “empowered students to compete in today’s global economy.”

Under neoliberal education reform, the notion that public schooling’s primary aim should be to make individual students more attractive to their future employers has attained the status of common sense. But human capital theory wasn’t always the dominant way of understanding of education’s purpose. Indeed, the concept of schooling to boost employability only became ubiquitous by eclipsing earlier philosophies that elevated the collective, democracy-supporting role of public education.

To understand how, in the education-reform era, the federal government began forcing states to attack teachers and schools in the name of “accountability,” it makes sense to begin the story in 2002. When George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law, high-stakes standardized testing became mandatory for all public school students, with penalties for schools that failed to adequately progress toward the literally impossible goal of 100 percent proficiency.

Or, taking a wider view, we might trace the federal assault on schools and the teaching profession back to A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report commissioned by Reagan’s education secretary Terrel Bell, which warned that “a rising tide” of educational mediocrity threatened US commercial primacy. The Reagan Revolution, many have argued, saw the rise of a broad coalition of religious conservatives, neocons, neoliberals, and corporate interests committed for various reasons to dismantling egalitarian Great Society education policy.

In From the New Deal to the War on Schools: Race, Inequality, and the Rise of the Punitive Education State, Daniel S. Moak makes a fascinating intervention into the above accounts, arguing that punitive accountability reforms like NCLB or Obama’s Race to the Top initiative are in fact ideologically continuous with Great Society education policy and rhetoric, which positioned schooling as the answer to racial and economic inequality.

Moak chronicles how, between the 1930s and the 1950s, the view that education could fix problems like unemployment and poverty by better equipping students for the existing economy vied with claims that the existing economy had caused these problems in the first place. The former theory ultimately triumphed in Washington, and the faith in schools’ magical power to eradicate inequality was codified in Lyndon Johnson’s signature education law — paving the way for the punishing accountability programs that have hammered students, teachers, and schools in this century.

Schools for a New Social Order

In rethinking the origins of what he calls the punitive education state, Moak identifies ideological cleavages that emerged between key groups of progressives (thinkers focused on moving society forward) leading up to and following the New Deal. These debates centered around the question of how the United States should address the crises of poverty, joblessness, and racial inequality.

On one side, social efficiency progressives like eugenicist Edward Thorndike argued that Taylorist principles of industrial management could rationalize schooling processes so that students might more efficiently be incorporated into their appropriate places in the labor market. This vision charged schools with responding to unemployment by aligning curriculum to the needs of industry. Scientific management tools like standardized testing could reduce the learning process to a series of metrics, with teachers functioning as little more than assembly-line workers. Is this sounding familiar?

The scientific efficiency dogma, which Moak points out was “essentially a ruling class ideology,” justified the extreme inequalities of the 1920s as resulting naturally from differences in native ability. But when the Great Depression catalyzed a widespread mistrust of the US ruling class, an alternative vision gained strength. Social reconstructionists like George Counts blamed society’s problems on the laissez-faire economic system in which “dire poverty walks hand in hand with the most extravagant living the world has ever known.”

These progressive educators, who counted John Dewey among their ranks, argued that teachers should helm the movement for social and economic transformation by highlighting the relationships between rugged individualism, capitalist exploitation, and human misery.

Economic Democracy Versus Racial Democracy

In black political circles, a group of thinkers whom Moak calls the economic democrats called for wealth redistribution, interracial labor organization, and public jobs creation, arguing that unfettered capitalism was fundamentally incompatible with both racial justice and democracy. To the extent that economic democrats like Ralph Bunche focused on education, they urged schools to stop tailoring to capitalists’ needs and instead cultivate the multiracial worker solidarity necessary for transformative class warfare.

Alternatively, a group Moak calls the racial democrats argued that the main problem facing African Americans was not the ruthlessly exploitative labor market, but rather, arbitrary exclusion from that market and other domains on the basis of skin color. In this view, black suffering was seen as deriving primarily from 1) white people’s racist beliefs, and 2) skills deficits and “backward” black cultural tendencies that supposedly drove those beliefs. This differed from the economic democrats’ claim that white racism was fueled primarily by the intense competition required under capitalism, which caused white workers to view minority groups as a threat to their livelihood.

The racial democrats’ framework was adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which sought politically palatable theories to further black advancement without ruffling feathers among the donor class. Importantly, in formulating the argument against segregation in Brown v. Board, the NAACP opted to focus on the individual psychology of black children rather than the profound material inequities afflicting black students in segregated schools. Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose research supported the NAACP’s argument in Brown, went on to argue that poor pedagogical practices were causing black people’s economic subordination, and that racial parity could be achieved by pressuring urban teachers to raise the bar. Clark’s 1970 accountability experiment for Washington, DC schools would foreshadow Michelle Rhee’s cutthroat management of the district nearly a half century later.

The racial democracy framework appealed to leaders interested in projecting a limited concern for racial inequality — which became necessary as shifting international politics made the United States’ brutal oppression of black people look bad on the world stage. At the same time, the repression campaign of the Second Red Scare forcefully sidelined alternative views that blamed society’s injustices on the vicious free market.

The Liberal Incorporationist Order

Unlike the social reconstructionists and the economic democrats, scientific efficiency liberals and racial democrats articulated theories of poverty, unemployment, and racial inequality that challenged neither the capitalist system nor the ruling elites who benefit from it. The fact that the US economy produces extreme winners and losers was not a problem for these groups. Educational practices simply needed adjustment so that all students would have the chance to compete on their merits, regardless of race or family income. If all students could access schooling that might attune them to the existing labor market, any inequality that followed could be dismissed as natural and inevitable.

This framework, which Moak calls the liberal incorporationist order, drove the compensatory model of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), a cornerstone of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. In what has been viewed as a progressive triumph, schools with low-income students were given additional funding under Title I, so that high-quality educational opportunities might be available to all.

When this compensatory aid failed to yield satisfactory returns on investment in the form of closed achievement gaps, liberal incorporationist ideology dictated that schools must be held to account. This led Kenneth Clark and other prominent reformers to advocate techniques like tying teacher pay to student test scores, firing “low-performing” teachers and closing “low-performing” schools, and introducing market-style competition via vouchers and performance contracts (a foreshadow of today’s turnaround plans). In this way Moak demonstrates that the punitive accountability of education reform in this century can best be understood not as a conservative reaction to Great Society liberalism, but as its logical extension.

Scapegoating Public Education

In the two decades since NCLB became law, social scientists have collected a mountain of evidence that punitive accountability for schools does not fix inequality. In fact, more often than not, it just exacerbates it. But the reality is, even before NCLB or A Nation at Risk, research was forecasting the problems with reforms like high-stakes testing and privatization, or “choice.” So what can explain the staying power of these deeply unpopular measures, and the political commitments undergirding them?

While Moak doesn’t explicitly answer this question, his book fits into a body of work showing the political power of what Jon Shelton calls the education myth: the idea that education is the surest route to economic advancement. Guided by this irrational belief, Moak recounts, Congress was able to enact broad federal elementary and secondary school aid — a feat that had eluded it since the late 1800s. But the federal government’s egalitarian investment in education was a poison pill, predicated on a narrowed vision of progress that would foreclose the New Deal’s promise of economic egalitarianism.

If inequality can convincingly be blamed on schools, we need not hold employers or the government accountable for leveling a grossly unfair playing field. This notion proved seductive for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, as it offered them a way to wash their hands of pesky inequities without appearing ghoulish. In the decades that followed Johnson’s presidency, neoliberal politicians embraced increasingly punitive strategies based on the view that education policy should be the only anti-poverty policy.

The ESEA has been reauthorized eight times since its 1965 passage, including as NCLB and its Obama-era successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which preserved key aspects of NCLB’s punitive approach. Although it’s abundantly clear that we need the federal government to give schools more resources and fewer punishments, this Congress doesn’t appear likely to take up the ESEA’s now-overdue reauthorization any time soon.

But we do seem to be at a crossroads. Politicians on the Right are abandoning the bipartisan commitment to achievement tests and charter schools, and embracing Viktor Orbán–style efforts to enforce conservative Christian morality and free-market fundamentalism in America’s classrooms. The Democratic Party has struggled to find a coherent response to this rising illiberalism, possibly because during the time period Moak investigates, Democrats painted themselves into a human-capital corner. By turning away from earlier understandings of education’s collective, humanity- and democracy-nurturing role, prominent Democrats left an opening for right-wing “classical” education proponents to articulate their own values-based vision for schools.

The Right’s antidemocratic plans, however, don’t seem to be any more popular than the soul-crushing technocracy of neoliberal education reform. That means politicians on the Left can voice a welcome case for the public schools our communities deserve — schools that bring us together rather than pitting us against each other in competition for artificially scarce resources. But they will need to ask themselves: Do we want education to support capitalism? Or democracy?