Education Reform… or Policy Apartheid?



Taking a deep examination of the premises, facts, and outcomes of current education policies which are built on the corner stones of the Common Core, high stakes testing, and school closures/charters, one can see that in their development, implementation and results, what we are left with is “policy apartheid.” A strong accusation I admit, but perhaps not so far off as we wish. An honest examination of the evidence is warranted.

What does policy apartheid mean? In terms of implementation it suggests that those crafting the policies who are largely politicians and CEO’s from the “billionaire’s boys club”—wealthy and influential organizations or people (whether themselves White or male, or not)– embrace the development of policies steeped in a narrative born of White privilege. A definition of “failing school” framed by Whiteness, privilege, and social class as the defining characteristics for “success” results in further disenfranchisement of people from black and brown communities. Reform policies driven by high stakes testing is the most glaring example of this. The policy itself assumes a number of things that could only be embraced as logical within an APARTHEID mentality: 1) that poverty does not matter, 2) that meritocracy exists unfettered, 3) that any separation is merely an outgrowth of natural consequences, 4) that all children of color need is grit, and 5) that knowledge evidenced in a standardized test has any value. Number 5 warrants deeper examination since numerous studies spanning decades have proven them to be culturally, and racial and class biased. Standardized testing has its roots in the Eugenics movement. 

So why else would we allow a practice such as a system of rewards and punishments dictated by test scores be the cornerstone of reform unless we wished to continue to expand segregationist outcomes? This practice essentially tells already historically underserved students that: they must endure meaningless testing at the expense of meaningful learning, and funnel monies to Pearson that could go to real and meaningful resources, in order to receive an equitable and humane educational experience so freely given to their suburban peers. Why should some students be forced to test in order to prove they are equal to their middle class White peers and worthy of the same opportunities? So long as we buy into the narrative that tests can prove anything of value we will continue to then justify segregationist policies and practices while excusing this under the guise of “reliable science.” We must reject the myth that tests can offer scientific validity that perpetuate harmful and inequitable educational practices and then deny any responsibility for this.

And what of policy apartheid outcomes?

In order to understand how we arrive at increasingly segregationist outcomes we must carefully examine language and ask the question: Who is it that owns the narrative promulgating current reforms?  Sure, dujour (official) segregation largely went out with Brown v. Board and other Civil Rights legislation. So the system merely became more creative in achieving its aims. Systems that call for “accountability”, “grit narratives”, and “testing “ as a means of reward or punishment might not have the words “apartheid” printed on paper, but the results are just the same.

Reform language now is all about “disruption” innovation and breaking traditional systems. The claim is that in order to provide more “choice” and freedom” (using underserved communities as the target audience) policies must include vouchers and charters. The narrative insists we must “disrupt” the status quo which is code for unionized teachers and public schools. But ironically enough, the folks creating this narrative are themselves driving “top down” policies. It is scripted from the top and designed, not liberate people at the grass roots level or to empower those parents, teachers and students in those communities, but to re-inscribe a new ruling class and an oppressive system. Top-down mandated disruption disorients and disempowers communities who might otherwise push back. This new disruptive system intends on replacing the old so-called “monopoly” of public schools with a new “master”—the corporate owned schools. These masters of the new narrative challenge power merely to reclaim power for themselves. The outcomes of these policies are painfully clear: no accountability to the people they serve; children redefined as human capital; zero-tolerance policies aimed at submission, control, and obedience; and increasingly segregated schools. These polices use language to equate “public” (as in public schools) as itself the “problem” (outdated and monopolistic) and that “innovation” can only be performed by our new corporate and privately owned systems.

Why have we never tried to allow public school teachers the freedom to be innovative? Why have we never allowed public schools to tackle the problems of inequity, or respond to the demands of those communities that have for too long gone ignored? Yes, systems of inequity and lack of quality have pervaded our public institutions for too long. There exists a history of baised “interpretations” on the part of some as to what qualifies as student success, and thus has resulted in unequal opportunities. It is understandable that many civil rights advocates would seek to tighten up consistency in our evaluation systems to deter baised teaching practices. But do we really believe that corporations have the solution? Do we really believe that testing will rectify decades of harmful and biased practices?

A truly innovative disruptive system that flattens the power structure would empower the possibilities and freedoms of teachers and students themselves to reimagine what education can be; not corporations, testing companies, politicians and lobbyists deciding this for them. Rather than funding more testing, we should apply our resources toward a more meaningful preparation of educators to practice culturally-relevant and critically-minded teaching. The former reninscribes aparthied policies and the latter dismantles them.

We can compare the outcomes of two versions of “innovation” and see what each has yielded in terms of outcomes–the first includes innovations led by teachers and, and the second includes innovations led by those who own the “innovation” narrative launching “policy missiles” (to quote Brian Jones) into urban neighborhoods. So which one delivers on its promises to the communities they claim to serve?

Innovations and disruptions led by public school teachers/communities. Two examples:

  • The Ethnic Studies program in Tucson, AZ
  • The Youth Dreamers program in Baltimore City

These programs disrupted the status quo. These programs innovated and broke free of the yoke of system which were not working. The measure the success of a system is based on its outcomes.  So lets’ measure and compare.  By all forms of evaluation these programs were a success: Increased school attendance, graduation rates, school grades/performance, achievement of long range professional and college goals, reduction in “problem behaviors” of students. So what happened? These programs were closed by apartheid policies that refused to support the successes of individuals or groups themselves who were creating solutions that work. The Ethnic Studies program did not work for the racist policy- makers. They endured a long legal battle to reclaim a small ounce of their program, and face continuous attack. And the Youth Dreamer’s school apparently did not produce the “right” test scores according to policy makers, and subsequently was dismantled. Their success did not serve the needs or interests of those in power. These innovative programs disrupted apartheid policies.

The Policy-missile approach:

Conversely, Wall Street wants to disrupt “public” education and innovate it into a private system that continues to serve elite interests at the top. In order to ensure their own market success, they must design outcomes that result in an American apartheid—an education for “us”… and a system for “them”.

As P.L. Thomas states, “America’s public schools and prisons are stark images of the fact of racial, gender, and socioeconomic inequity in our society—inequity that is both perpetuated by and necessary for the ruling elite to maintain their artificial status as that elite.”

Disrupting public schools with current top-down charter school policies lead to disrupted communities where gentrification is planned to occur.

“Innovation” is merely code for a creative way to re-segregate urban communities without calling it what it is: Policy apartheid. Disruption and innovation as tools for liberation aren’t intended for those suffering at the hands of an unequal system. Public schools are closed and chopped up into charters. These charters reveal: high attrition rates, corruption, abusive and neglectful practices, and rejection of the neediest children. Black and brown children become a form of capital serving hedge fund companies. Promising that children will no longer be conscripted to a poor education opportunity “defined by their zip code”, they re-inscribe children to a system of poor education defined by the companies now owning their means of education. Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Explain to me how this isn’t an apartheid mentality.

You decide. Is current reform developed by and reproducing apartheid policies? Simply examine the results of current outcomes and decide for yourself if they promote an apartheid mentality. Are these reforms growing, or reducing, inequities? Forget what the policy narrators say. What do they do? Who profits? At whose expense? Whom do the policies actually serve? How much better off are children as a result of these policies and practices? How much better off are the corporations and politicians who promoted them? Are we closing the income and equity gaps as a result of these policies? And if there exists programs that actually evidence success for children, why do policy makers work so hard to shut them down instead of supporting them?

These are tough but necessary questions to address. And the answers might require we hold a mirror up to ourselves as a society a little more closely.

Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

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