Shock Doctrine in our Schools

Our schools are ripe for exploitation by people who are not really interested in education. With the explosion of new technologies, and financial pressure on the school system, education has become destabilized, leaving policy makers and educators in a state of confusion about what education is, and how it can be implemented.

The situation can be understood in terms of Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, which examines the way in which capitalists exploit the confusion and shock that follows a catastrophe. When a society becomes destabilized by an external force (either natural or man-made), it is easy to take advantage of the people’s confusion, anxiety and economic paralysis.

Klein argues that following the ideas of economist, Milton Friedman, capitalists deliberately look for destabilization, and even purposely create it, in order to be able to establish control over the newly emerging order. As an example, she cites the situation in Iraq in which Haliburton and Blackwater corporations were able to establish a base after the Coalition forces unleashed their “Shock and Awe” campaign.

Klein implies that the sequence of events in Iraq were deliberately planned so that private corporations, in which high level politicians and their cronies are heavily invested, would benefit. Her assertion is that the premise for invading Iraq (What was it again? Terrorist cells? Weapons of mass destruction? Regime change?) was really a ruse. This assertion is extremely disturbing, but even if it’s not true, it’s hard to deny that corporate interests can benefit from destabilization, and that the interests of the corporation may not benefit the people who have been destabilized.

“Shock and awe” in education is caused by two things: the explosion of digital technologies and social media, and capitalist ideals. These two phenomena are destabilizing education.

Teachers are competing with these technologies for children’s attention. With students inextricably and constantly connected socially through digital technologies, teachers are outside the loop. The students are part of a very engaging social network, and they spend hours a day passively sitting in front of screens, receiving hit after hit of pleasure hormones from their gaming and their social feedback. The situation puts teachers at a loss. They have a subject to teach, but they find it difficult  to keep students’ focus sustained long enough  for them to internalize a new concepts. How can they compete with the ever-present screens? In the search for answers, teachers are motivated to try any ideas that might work.

On top of digital technology is increasing financial pressure and suspicion from the free market ideologues who control the economy. Teacher and school performance are now being evaluated by people who are not trained in the profession. Evaluations are based on how well students do on high stakes, standardized examinations. NGOs like the Fraser Institute contribute to the destabilization by publishing school rankings based only on student test scores, and by lobbying government.

All the while, the free market entrepreneurs are searching for ways to streamline funding for education, thereby reducing their tax mandate. Their agenda is based on two philosophical beliefs: first, the belief that schools can do more with less (the efficiency model); and second, that the only subjects worthy of being taught in schools are subjects that offer job-related skills. The rest can be cut away. Those who want it can pay for private lessons.

Confusion in the school system creates a situation that businesses can exploit. It provides a market where corporations can swoop into schools, promoting products that offer solutions to the problem of engaging students. School districts, facing huge financial shortfalls, are under pressure to accept this intrusion of corporate interests. An example of this phenomoneon can be found in the Huntsville, Alabama school district, which faced a $22 million shortfall and moved to a district-wide online curriculum, hiring Pearson Education Inc to deliver it using such technologies as essay-grading software.

Under this kind of pressure, teachers and administrators have much to gain when they buy into the corporate agenda, especially when the corporation, using euphemistic terms like “flexibility” and  “partnerships”, is able to convince educators of the effectiveness of their technologies. When the privatization happens, the educators who have bought in to the corporate agenda will be the ones left standing, as they will not only accept the agenda unchallenged, but they will also assist in its implementation. Young teachers who lack job security and the critical thinking that experience offers, are especially susceptible to this agenda. Similarly, administrators who would like to advance their careers are wise to lead the parade for privatization interests.

A body that attempts to prevent privatization is the teacher union, but teacher unions are are facing a serious “shock and awe” campaign of their own. The privatization ideologues know that unions stand in their way, so they lobby policy makers to create heavy-handed legislation that bypasses negotiation with the union, and denies the union’s right to strike. Typically this legislation is unconstitutional.

The union’s only recourse is to fight the legislation in the Supreme Court, but doing so involves so much time that by the time their case is won, the policy has already gained a foothold in schools. Furthermore, the union faces such huge legal fees that it becomes cash-strapped. This puts pressure on the members to increase their contributions to the union. They start to question the union’s effectiveness and purpose.

None of this would matter to society as a whole if there were any indication that privatization leads to improved education for ALL students. But such is not the case. In fact, as charter schools have become the norm in many U.S. states, research has shown that students’ learning has not improved. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Worse, the students who lose out in the charter model are those who have low socio-economic means – the poor.

This is the exact problem that a publicly funded school system was intended to address. Public schools were meant to offer every person an opportunity to improve himself. They were intended to be a great equalizer, like publicly funded law courts. Years ago, a well-funded public education system was considered to be the bedrock of an egalitarian society – as American as apple pie, if you will. We seem to be moving further and further away from this ideal.

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