The Choice Agenda Exposed

Rick Hess's Straight Up blog at Education Week proves often to be valuable not for his intended messages, but for what he reveals about education reformers committed to choice and competition as paradigms for that reform.

In his "Sanctimonious Scolding Isn't a Great Strategy for Promoting School Choice" posting, Hess makes an important statement at the end:

"Rather than obey the moral instruction of do-gooders, middle-class and suburban families tend to put themselves and their kids first (and, for the record, I don't see the problem with that; hell, it's kind of the logic of school choice, after all). If accepting school choice means that suburban communities are going to be pressed to open their schools up in ways that may adversely impact their kids and home values, those families may well stop being disinterested observers of the school choice debates and instead become active opponents."

Hess doesn't see a problem with families putting themselves and their children first, including protecting their home values.

And here is the (stone-cold) heart of the competition/choice ideology that is favored, not surprisingly, by the elite winner-culture driving all aspects of U.S. society.


The Corrosive Irony of Self-Interest

Free market advocates perpetuate compelling narratives about the cleansing power of choice, competition, and rugged individualism. These narratives have become, in fact, the unchallenged norm associated with the American Dream.

Choice, competition, and rugged individualism pervade every aspect of education and education reform: relentless testing to label, rank, and sort children; calls to label, rank, and sort teachers to fire "bad" teachers; class rankings (valedictorians, salutatorians), school rankings, international rankings.

It may well be true that these commitments stem from basic human nature, but it is also worth considering that competition and rugged individualism are components of the evolutionary theory U.S. society tends to reject. It is also worth considering that competition and rugged individualism were relatively credible paradigms in human eras of scarcity.

When resources are sparse, self-interest is simply self-preservation. Maslow's hierarchy of needs explains how and why humans become selfish in extreme moments of scarcity.

But the U.S. and even the world are currently in a position to be in a condition of prosperity—except that because of competition, choice, and rugged individualism, the privileged in the U.S. have created an inequity of resources, pooling and hoarding those resources among the elite. That hoarding creates an appearance of scarcity in order to perpetuate the exact attitude expressed by Hess: It's OK to get yours for you and your family because otherwise you will be at the bottom of the pile.

This perverse paradigm fabricated by the privileged is made even more warped by a simple lesson from ecology (an ideology and movement also rejected by the U.S. obsession with consumer culture): To recognize the individual as a part of her/his environment—and thus treasuring that environment as a community—is being selfish; ignoring or wasting the ecology surrounding the individual is, in fact, self-defeating.

Arguments, then, for increased choice and competition are not commitments to democracy, human agency, human dignity, or equity. Arguments for choice and competition are arguments of the privileged to preserve their privilege, arguments built on the illusion of scarcity and fear perpetuated by those privileged.

In our schools, there is no scarcity of learning, and our students need not compete among themselves. In fact, we know that collaboration is more effective for learning than competing.

In our schools, teachers cannot teach while also seeking to get theirs at the expense of other teachers (and their students).

The single greatest failure occurring now in education reform is that our current president has allowed the education agenda to be built on Race to the Top. Like Hess, Secretary Arne Duncan personifies the elitist mantras built on the Social Darwinism that consumes us.

Collaboration and community are central to democracy. Choice and competition are central to capitalism and consumerism.

Democracy is a hand held out to lift the least of us to our sides.

Consumerism is a boot in the face to stand alone at the top of the pile.

If we persist along the current "no excuses" reform path, we must admit we are using our schools to pass out boots and to render democracy mere rubble.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Associate Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?: A Critical Reconsideration of Choice and the Debate about Choice (Information Age Publishing, 2010) and 21st Century Literacy: If We Are Scripted, Are We Literate? (Springer,...