Power, Labor, and Compliance in Education Reform: Why We Must Refuse


If you’ve ever lived with small children then you know this feeling: You have just cleaned the house. All clutter is put way. Table tops and floors have no dirt or food. Clothes are folded. And then, they come home. Next thing you know there’s a trail of chocolate chips on the floor from the refrigerator into the TV room. The cabinets and drawers are vomiting out their contents; pencils, rubber bands, clothing, snacks, scissors. There’s mud and leaves all over the floor…. And you know that within a short period of time you’ll have to pick everything up all over again. Now, I’ve come to terms with this process. It comes with the territory. It’s never ending. At least until they move out.

But, now imagine having this feeling as an educator as it pertains to education policies.  It appears apparent to anyone who has worked in education for more than a few years that what we have before us is a never-ending avalanche of policies. Further, dedicated and committed teachers try their best to follow instructions.  They try to follow the latest round of “to-do” lists hurled upon them from above by “experts” and policy makers.

But there’s a catch.

We are naïve in believing that there will ever be an end to the policy demands, or that, once we finally get a grasp on the latest “thing” and have command of it, that we can get ever get “caught up.”  It’s an illusion (a deliberate one at that) that this next “thing”, whatever it is, will be the solution to our education woes. We are being sold an endless slew of promises– that all we need to do is “clean house” and the problems will be solved. But we must do our part…right?

However, the house of education, beset by a neoliberal agenda is designed to perpetually re-create new messes for us to “clean up.” What does this mean? “(A)t the heart of neoliberal ideology is the appreciation of the role of market in defining and ensuring (supposed) ‘human well-being’, where the state is more of a facilitator providing institutional supports in the form of ‘strong private property right, free markets, and free trade’ (Harvey, 2005, p. 2).

It’s a foolish notion to believe that if we “just do everything we are told” (compliance) then we will somehow come out the other end, having achieved anything. Before we are half way through (assuming we still have classrooms to go to after reformers are done with us), the next round of “fixes” in the name of “innovation” or “accountability” will be upon us. So we must stop believing that anything can be truly achieved by compliance.

The neoliberal narrative of “accountability” is about LABOR AND POWER. Even if there were 100% compliance across the board, the manufacturers of education policies would have to find flaws in whatever it is we accomplish in order to keep the machine running. So long as we are too busy being compliant in the name of “accountability” –meeting the needs of neoliberal profiteers, and not ours nor our children’s-we remain unable to direct our energies or attention toward the real problem and real solutions.

Think about it. Ever since 1983, when A Nation at Risk informed the United States that our education system was failing, and as such was a “threat to national security,” we have been in a race (to the top) to “fix” our educational “crisis.” How is it possible that after 30 years of hard core initiatives, billions of dollars, and immeasurable hours of labor and sweat, we are still no closer to solving the problems of this education “crisis” than we were 30 years ago? There are a few answers to this question. The first involves the notion of “crisis” to begin with. A neoliberal agenda necessitates a “manufactured crisis” (Berliner and Biddle, 1996) in order to accomplish its goals: profits and privatization.  The problem and the “solutions” to these problems are crafted by elite politicians and corporate moguls.  If the problems in education were solved, what would there be left to gain for them? Without a problem, there’s no solution to market and sell. If we solved the real crisis, we would dissolve the existing inequities upon which they depend. There will always be more messes to clean up. We are promised, “This new policy (or test, or curriculum, or innovation) is the solution to all our woes.” And it never is. It’s designed to be that way.

Peter Taubman describes it this way:  “It’s a remarkable sleight of hand. The best way we educators can address serious social, political, and economic problems is to comply with regulatory agencies and their mandated audit practices, subject ourselves to constant surveillance, render ourselves and our situations as quantifiable data, and surrender to normalizing discourses that drain (there’s that vampire metaphor again) our subjectivities.” (The Tie That Binds: Learning and Teaching in the New Educational Order, Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 4 (2), 150-160)

Secondly, we might consider that the crisis, as defined by a neoliberal agenda, is not the real problem at all– and so the solutions it forces (sells or markets) on unsuspecting public cannot ever remediate the true problems which lie outside the framework of their narrative. In other words, the crisis is not in failing teachers but with issues of poverty, or systemic injustices. The solutions are not better or innovative curriculum and assessments, nor with catchy slogans like competency-based education and Universal Design for Learning. This is a classic bait and switch.  Notice who writes and promotes the framing of the “crisis” narrative—it’s always think tanks and non-profits funded by global billionaire corporations. Those who craft the “frame,” craft the “blame”—and blame always lies with those with the least power. We have never really been able to “fix” what’s wrong in education because we are fixing the wrong things and the wrong people.  A real transformation would require that the ELITE change. It would require a dramatic re-arranging of our existing racist, classist, and sexist system from which they benefit.

The narrative of “crisis” and “reform” always fixates on their needs—global companies are not getting the workers they want. Students are not coming out with the skills corporations need. In primary sources dating back to the late 1970’s (notably those published by UNESCO) evidence makes it clear that the global corporate and political community have spent 30 or more years focused on the needs of “the global economy” (code for corporate interests), and demanding that reforms tend to their needs. Teachers, students, parents and communities must follow an agenda of compliance and allegiance to the ideological, economic, or social demands of the powerful—never their own. In fact, one white paper in 1995 entitled Education Policy Planning Process: An Applied Framework,   which focused on education reforms in Jordan, Peru, Thailand and Burkina Faso identified “parents, teachers, communities and unions as OBSTACLES” to their desired reforms. If you read these primary documents (which I do), whether crafted by UNESCO, World Bank, McKinsey and Co, American Legislative Exchange Council, or the Business Roundtable, the policies are always constructed by, and in collaboration with, major corporate moguls such as Microsoft (Bill Gates), IBM (Lou Gerstner), Pearson (Sir Michael Barber), the Koch Brothers, and other global private economic interests.

The development of the neoliberal agenda, which frames our shared perceptions of labor and power and our “roles” within the framework, are global and corporate:

Since the early 1980s UNESCO has supported the neoliberal image of culture as a politically neutral resource that can be applied to capitalist development goals. Key UNESCO programs … promote vibrant urban markets for cultural products and workers first and foremost. It was soon after the new postcolonial nations entered the organization and started trying to arrive at enforceable regulations to support their own autochthonous cultural production and definitions of modernization. The developed-world member nations, which benefited from these markets being poorly served by local producers, and from having the power to control how the developing world appeared in the media, began to insist on the expansion of unregulated free markets for culture. …(a) cultural history of neoliberalism should recognize how its free-market rhetoric silenced – and was expressly designed to silence – those who favored regulating cultural markets in order to rectify imbalances and inequities produced by colonialism.

Notice how blame in the “crisis” narrative always points downward, while power and profit always point upward. There’s a labor caste system in this well-oiled machine: There are the elite who create the frame of reality which constructs the problem (it’s always the labor, parents or children at fault). They create layers of middle-management or technocrats (Boards of Ed, superintendents, university deans, etc) whose job it is to ensure that we (the “human capital) are “accountable”. The neoliberal framework convinces these technocrats that their job is very important. The technocrats are deluded into thinking: a) that they really have the power to solve these problems, and b) that it is the worker (teacher, student or parent) that needs to be fixed or somehow changed (fixed, i.e. merit pay will motivate teachers, or, changed, i.e. selling us new online edu-tech solutions, which require we accept changes in educational delivery systems). These technocrats are really under the delusion that they too are powerful and can “move up” just like their elite masters. As the vampire Peina in the film The Addiction tells Kathleen, another (weaker and newer) vampire:

Peina: I’m not like you. You’re nothing. That’s something you ought not to forget. You’re not a person. You’re nothing! … Whatever good is in you, I will use for my own sustenance. And for you?  You’ll feel as though you haven’t eaten in weeks.”

In other words, we will never gain anything for ourselves by being complicit in the existing reform narrative. They will use us, and we will be left feeling hungrier and more drained than ever. The system of neoliberalism is predicated on a narrative of “accountability” which makes those with the least power and resources accountable to the machine. You are expected to get an education despite the crumbling educational infrastructure (no air conditioning or nurses or libraries-only more tests). You are expected to get a job while they outsource those same jobs to other countries (taking advantage of slave labor of other disempowered nations). You are supposed to be a law abiding citizen while they craft zero tolerance laws designed to make sure you wind up in prison. And then, you are expected to be “reformed” and thrust back into society despite legal red tape that makes it nearly impossible for you to get a job, find housing, or achieve any level of stability. Our compliance to the existing system will never produce what it promises (for us). At what point are we ready to accept this and find the courage to reject compliance and embrace our own power? And what will happen if we don’t?

Reclaim the Frame

So why…WHY…do we keep fooling ourselves that being compliant will actually help our children, our communities, or our profession? Testing refusal is not just about refusing what is wrong and harmful. We do not refuse and then sit around “waiting for Godot.”  We refuse so that we can create space and energy to focus on real solutions; solutions which we can never manifest so long as we allow them to send us scrambling about, exhausting ourselves, believing that there will ever be a happy ending to the neoliberal fairy tale. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s a horror show– and we are the fools rushing into the dark woods to see what the noise is.  It’s nearly impossible to create solutions while you are still engaging actively with the problem. How can change be possible while continuing to embrace the obstacles to that change? We have to tell corporate reformers (in all their many guises) to “GO AWAY.” As Casanova says to Kathleen in The Addiction,“Tell me to go away. Say it like you mean it.”  Instead, Kathleen pleads and whimpers. Casanova bites her. And as she walks away, Casanova calls her a “collaborator”- because Kathleen complied rather than fighting back.

Without active REFUSAL we become collaborators of our own demise.


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.

14 thoughts on “Power, Labor, and Compliance in Education Reform: Why We Must Refuse

  1. I can’t, but could you start a page where parents who are engineers, lawyers, drs, housewives, caregivers etc. Can post all these ridiculously asked ?’s from our children’s assignments and tests, then give all of those horribly confusing?’s to the governor and senators who actually have a bit of power to help make change? I have already posted a few on facebook but there are so many now. It’s really terrible how badly these ?’s are worded. I’d love to see this and then have the parents sue
    The people ultimately responsible for doing this not only to our kids, but this definitely affects the parents also.

    A thought I wish to become reality.

    Common core makes no common sense!

  2. I had this discussion with the Principal & VP at my children’s middle school. Their reply was that they NEED a job to provide for their family and that every teacher NEEDS their job to be a provider. I’ve talked with teachers and they don’t dare buck the system for fear of losing their jobs. It would take a total walkout of teachers and in-house school admin with the support of the teachers unions AND parents. It’s impossible!! It’s a Catch 22 situation and there are no easy answers. Collateral damage will be extreme if we stick with the status quo and it will be extreme if change is forced (TFA, CBE). The teachers will ALWAYS be seen as the bad guys (look at Detroit).

    BTW I have a sister who is working as a Para (with a significant pay reduction) as her 30th year of teaching because she can’t stand what she has had to do to her MS spec ed students over the past few years…..she can’t stand what education has become over the past 10 years.
    She is on the countdown to retirement and will never think to step her foot inside of another school to substitute teach. I think she would rather bag groceries at the local supermarket…and that’s a shame!! I am fortunate that I get to see her point of view. I REFUSE the test and complain about the CC curriculum.

  3. Excellent summary of neoliberalism and the need for resistance. Thanks. I’ve bookmarked it and will probably use it liberally.

  4. Love the post. Can’t find the author to credit it properly. Maybe Mr. Swacker had better luck, but I don’t see an ‘About’. I’m pushing it out anyway b/c I like the piece. If you want to clarify the authorship, I’ll edit to reflect. Thanks!

  5. Love the post, and am including it in my weekly roundup. Maybe Mr. Swacker had better luck, but I couldn’t find the author or an ‘About’ page either. Could be I’m simply slow.

    In any case, thanks for the piece. If you want to clarify author, I’ll edit my post to reflect.

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