In New York, A Tale of Two Cities (and Two Selves)

At the New Teacher Center conference a few years ago, I watched a master teacher model a great way to introduce students to new material. She projected a single image onto the screen in our conference room — it was Liberty Leading the People — and asked us a single question, over and over again: “What do you see?” Any observation (“I see a strong woman”) would prompt a second question from the instructor (“What’s your evidence?”). It was fun, and illuminating, and after ten minutes, based on nothing more than our own close observations, we were ready to study the French Revolution.

I was reminded of that workshop recently, when I saw someone on Twitter share the following picture:

Absent any context, what do you see? And what is your evidence?

Now let’s try another one, this time a 30-second video:

Or this one:

Again, what do you see? And what is your evidence?

If you’re someone who closely follows the news about school reform, you already know that the standing woman in the photograph is Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Academy network of charter schools in New York City. You know that her salary — $475,000 a year — is twice that of the NYC Schools Chancellor. And you know that the video, and others like it, appeared shortly after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he was canceling plans for three of her schools in New York City — and allowing virtually every other charter proposal to proceed.

It’s been disconcerting to watch this fight escalate — particularly because, as I’ve said repeatedly, issues of school choice are complicated. Nuance is required, and once again, nuance is nowhere to be found. But there’s another issue I see playing out in this fight, and that picture, and those videos, and it’s the one we really don’t want to talk about: the extent to which our current reform efforts are either redefining, or merely reinforcing, traditional notions of race, privilege, and power.

Indeed, the battle between the Matriarch and the Mayor isn’t really about co-locations, or charter schools, or the right of a parent to choose: it’s about the ongoing tension between our country’s delicate, dual allegiance to the core values of capitalism (consumption & competition) and the core values of democracy (conscience & consensus). It’s about a mayor’s clumsy attempt to swing the ideological pendulum back — perhaps too far — in the direction of democracy by making a political point. And it’s about whether it’s OK or a little shady that a white woman can make a personal fortune by dramatically raising the test scores of poor black and brown kids.

Personally, I think it’s a little shady. Not because schools like Success Academy are inherently wrong or misguided, but because it’s a vivid example of the ways in which our society in general, and public school reform in particular, has shifted its moral center to the capitalist side of the values continuum. In that world, competition is king, and to the victor goes the acres of diamonds.

This is an old tension, and an ongoing argument between two competing sides of ourselves. Plato first laid it out for us, in The Republic, when he said that liberty was democracy’s greatest good. What type of liberty will generate the greatest good, however, has been debated ever since, though philosophers have clarified the distinction. One vision, described as the liberty of the ancients, refers to the need for people to have a voice into the policies and politicians that govern their lives. The other, the liberty of the moderns, speaks to the right of each individual to pursue his or her own private interests free form state oversight or control.

I would suggest that the core of the current fight over school reform policies can be traced back to which side of the liberty equation speaks to you most. Consider the central rallying cry of the charter school movement: My child, My choice. Consider the rallying cry on the other side — less pithily stated, but the essence is, public schools are the foundation of a healthy democracy (gotta work on that messaging, guys). Or consider the words of Khari Shabazz, the principal of Success Academy’s fifth Harlem location, in an interview with a reporter from the New Yorker. “They are going to be competing for spaces in colleges and universities across the country,” he said of his students. “Coming from the socio-economic background that they’re coming from, it’s important to learn to be competitive. And none of us work for free.”

There’s nothing wrong with that statement; it’s simply a market-oriented approach to school change — a liberty of the moderns worldview, if you will — and it’s a view that’s very much in line with the larger sea change in American society. “Markets don’t just allocate goods,” says Harvard’s Michael Sandel. “They also express and promote certain attitudes towards the goods being exchanged. And what has occurred over the past thirty years is that without quite realizing it, we have shifted from having a market economy to being a market society. The difference is this: A market economy is a tool – a valuable and effective tool – for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market.”

For a society in which social relations are deeply rooted in a shared history of race-based inequality and oppression, will the application of market thinking to public schools result in the erosion, or the entrenchment, of those legacies? Indeed, the center of the fight in NYC seems to be about what will happen when the considerable wealth and influence of a capitalist economy begins to remake the institution that was founded to be the ultimate safeguard of our democratic society. It’s about what happens when educators start to make private-sector salaries by improving achievement in communities that have been left behind. And it’s about what happens when two increasingly entrenched groups of people debate the future of public education from perspectives that can sometimes feel mutually exclusive.

This is what makes modern school reform so complicated. It isn’t that one side is evil and out to ruin America, and the other is righteous and out to save it — though both sides have claimed exactly that; it’s that the values people are working from to solve our most intractable problems are, in many ways, diametrically opposed.

Which takes me back to that picture, which feels like a Rorshach test for the values you bring to this debate. Does the imagery make you uncomfortable, even angry? Or does it seem like much ado about nothing, or perhaps even a positive representation of precisely what you want to be fighting for?

Knowing where we stand on the values question doesn’t immediately lend itself to any clear-cut, system-wide solutions. But perhaps it can clarify what we’re actually fighting over, and why any effort to find the happy medium between our democratic and our capitalistic selves may prove as elusive as the search for Plato’s ideal republic — now 2,500 years long, and counting.

Categories: Democracy, Learning

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  1. Steve Nelson
    Posted March 14, 2014 at 10:31 am | Permalink


    Thanks for a fine essay, eloquently illuminating the tension between capitalism and democracy, at least as the tension exists in the educational sphere. My only significant “gripe” is that you give too much credit to Ms. Moskowitz (and other charter schools) when you uncritically credit her with ” . . . dramatically raising the test scores of poor black and brown kids.” This concession supports the charter movement, even if we (or they) bemoan the loss of democracy implicit in the movement. It’s as though we concede that it works, but we are conflicted by the fraying of the greater good.

    But she doesn’t raise test scores, or at least not to the extent she claims. Attrition and subtle creaming distort reality. And, of course, you and I agree that test scores are not the measure of a good education. Her pedagogy is sterile, her teachers are robotic, and the children are taught only to conform, recite and chant slogans.

  2. Posted March 14, 2014 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Sam, thanks for helping us work this out. In the your example, I think the capitalism vs democracy meme fits. But too many charters operate in the spirit of public good, and too many traditional public schools operate in an institutional haze unrelated to the public good, for your theme to be a universal fit. I think the problem is simpler: We’re trying to figure out how to liberate an old system from its 19th century constraints and develop a more flexible, open system that supports the democratic good in this century. The result is some great education going on in both forward leaning public schools and public minded charters. This will sort itself out; in the meanwhile, we will have to contend with the American marketplace that allows experiments of every type, many of which are not very attractive.

  3. Posted March 14, 2014 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Thank YOU, Thom, for being the first person the break down the illusory easy split between charter and district. That’s exactly right — some charters, most even, in my experience — are very much interested in strengthening the public good, and many neighborhood schools aren’t raising their game fast enough. The challenge, as you say, is finding a recipe that leverages the best in both models, and moves us from a single school system to a system of schools — all public, all transparent, and all (or damn near close) healthy and high-functioning spaces that deepen our commitment to equity without getting too skewed by profit motive, bad metrics, entropy, etc.

  4. Posted March 14, 2014 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Hi Sam!

    It’s been awhile and much has happened including our move to England 6 months ago. But I do realize this is a “Comments” post and not a catch-up email between you and I. 🙂

    And I wanted to comment because I found your article and the question you raised regarding capitalism vs. democracy to be critical. And that you did it very well.

    Having just left the US after 35 years of teaching in public, charter and alternative/private schools for numerous reasons of my own, I found the quote you gave from Michael Sandel, “A market economy is a tool – a valuable and effective tool – for organizing productive activity. A market society is a way of life in which market values seep into every aspect of human endeavor. It’s a place where social relations are made over in the image of the market”, resonates the most for me.

    Though the rest of the world is being roped into the American definition of this consumer-capitalism as synonymous with “democracy” (no one does advertising better than we do!), I am nonetheless amazed at how relieved I feel getting out of the narrowness of that money-as-ALL, actual-lived value system that affects every aspect of American lives, even our children’s education.

    Whatever the very valid questions raised about schooling inequities or social injustices, or any other values questions that would get to the deeper systems-thinking of what democracy and education for a democracy would necessarily mean, it is all so deftly reduced to a quantitative -> monetary -> market valuation “practicality” that reduces us all in discussing who is going to be best “primed” or “prepared” to make it economically in this increasingly abusive market-system. People and “labor” in particular, in this values discussion, are after all ultimately just “costs” — costs that need to be reduced for greater profit at the top of that system.

    And because of the unexamined results of a market takeover of all our society’s organizing systems (government, communications, media, and now schooling itself), it is a frivolous luxury to even question what effects this “take over” has had on our democracy. As if it’s impractical in this era of truly “manufactured” crises and government bankruptcy and shutdowns to even raise these questions, politically or economically. What Bill Blasio is finding out by even attempting to question the underlying principles of the “Success” modeled by the Success Academy.

    I agree strongly with Steve’s post above that one needs to be careful of falling into the “trap” of “higher test scores” = better education. What if in fact those very test scores reflect, as I believe the case can be strongly made and I and many others have made it, a greater taught ability to conform, adjust and accept whatever authority(ies) or corporation(s) are now running this “market system” we live under, rather than the “democracy” we still call it. Ignoring clear, empirical and glaring evidence to the contrary for those increasingly just trying to live and barely survive economically under that market-dominated “democracy”. And survive physically too, on this overheating, degraded planet to which we in the US have now promoted this globalizing vision of markets-as-ultimate authority “capitalism”.

    Therefore I find Thom’s (Markham) comment above much more dangerous in its very “reasonableness”. As he says, “This will sort itself out; in the meanwhile, we will have to contend with the American marketplace that allows experiments of every type, many of which are not very attractive.”

    That is the very same argument those who have taken over control of every countering institution to the “market-place logic” of running a society, promote. As if all these are just equally supported, democratically minded “experiments” fairly tried, again equating the “free-market” to “freedom”, when profit is being made on defining that very definition by those who clearly are profiting most from doing so their way. Including with lots of money for fancy, slick commercials touting their true interests in “fairness”.

    And while our democracy continues to show “weakening returns” and outright pain and increasing misery to 99% of the rest of society.

    It was a great post, Sam.

  5. Posted March 14, 2014 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    The secret to moving through the debate is to put some distance between the charter/public debate and the 1%/99% debate. The above post has many points I find agreeable, and there’s no question that political power fueled by money is influencing education. But the fact remains: Thousands of teachers (and I’ve met hundreds of them) work in charters that promote high minded, thinking citizens–the kind who eventually can disband the 1%. Many charters support greater authenticity and deeper learning. In fact, if Wall Street had a secret, nefarious plan to create a 99% drone society, they would probably invent today’s public school system. The standardized outcomes that are now woven into the fabric of schools is the single greatest threat to our democracy. Let’s make the debate about empowerment, not old allegiances. How can schools be organized to promote freedom, accountability, and community? That’s our challenge.

  6. Posted March 14, 2014 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this, Sam. Very thoughtful post.

    First of all, Thom’s assessment really struck me. Reminds me that the need to lump all charter schools together as a movement is pervasive but I think is also very defeating.

    Similarly, I don’t dispute that public education is full of many different ideological viewpoints, but I feel like distilling it to a single philosophical dichotomy might actually perpetuate the debate rather than help resolve it. It seems to give in to the same sort of us-vs.-them thinking that has brought things to such a stalemate.

    But I think I’m also just saying what Thom said in a less succinct way. 🙂

  7. Posted March 15, 2014 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    I have to admit not at all bad points by either of you, Thom or Gordon. As a teacher myself, I completely agree that there are many excellent educator-initiated or community-initiated Charter schools. Some of them, as Thom points out, even attempting to make explicit this very real “dichotomy” of the struggle in our public schools, as well as in our entire nation and globally, regarding the primacy of the values of capitalism (which have recently pretty much seemed to come down to “profit for the increasingly narrow few, above all other societal “values” and thus is very much tied to the same logic as the 1% vs. the rest) and the educational needs of democracy.

    I think my biggest concern is watching liberals still caught up in arguing that it’s at all in any way, by any criteria, an equal battle. Thus denying evidence historic and empirical, from the Reagan administration’s initial educational agenda set out in “A Nation at Risk” (1983), to the mechanized and standardized testing of the conservative financed “Back to Basics” movements that defined “basics” in the most narrow terms, to the now even more controlling corporate-training arguments for STEM thinking above all else, obfuscating the actual scope and systematic structure of the problem.

    These strategies, and they were “strategized” in the political rather than educational sector first, did result in clear and obvious detriments to education for critical thinking and complex problem-solving necessary to a diverse, more democratic and more sustainable society. Education that, I have always argued as teacher, should teach getting the essential structure of the problem right before attempting to solve it. Since in truth, it has partially been this very narrow focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) divorced from social and economic outcomes for the majority of our society and world, that has actually helped to lead us to the very many unsustainable crises the world is now facing as a whole. At least, a very strong case could be made for that premise.

    Clearly in the case of US education there have been in recent history, very definite strategies of what implicit “values” should be dominating that “value system” and who should decide it, and it hasn’t in the last 30-40 years been primarily educators or parents. Or even elected officials. Or even in a truly thoughtful way, the American public as they seemed to be pushed and prodded into believing these “market forces” have their and their children’s future in a free and democratic society, truly in mind. Which in so many ways hasn’t been demonstrated as factually true.

    It is a very complicated issue, the most effective education for healthy, democratic societies and worth valid debate in the educational community with parents and the rest of society, on how to achieve that. But understanding the capitalist and narrow based pedagogical theories of “businesses” like Success Academy, is not that complicated. Deconstructing arguments like theirs focused primarily on higher test scores equating to fairer or more just or democratic societies (or even more likelihood of jobs in an increasingly mechanized world), is just obfuscation of the real values and “outcomes” actually being promoted and achieved.

    The facts historically and empirically, couldn’t more obviously be pointing to the opposite actual result. Nonetheless, it’s a very, very profitable one for an increasingly narrow few.

  8. Suzanne C
    Posted March 20, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I’m in graduate school and came upon this article and comments while doing some research on the following questions………………….
    Students will be tested on the CCSS in 2015. At this point the standards for success will be the same for all students in all participating states. 1-Do you believe the various state authorities are acting in an ethical manner in taking this action? 2 – Remember to consider demographics and funding levels within states 3) Is it reasonable to institute k-12 standards in 2 years and expect HS student to be held accountable for those standards? 4) Is federal funding a means of a bribe for states to agree to the standards in order to get their $$??

    I’ve read till I’m blue in the face…………….I have a standard of ethics that leans toward the Virtue Approach and my teaching philosophy statement is “I must meet the needs of my students so my students can meet the needs of the world.” — My students are RURAL! They are students whose needs are very different from those in Urban areas. My students need to leave HS with an ability to read and write effectively in their chosen fields – which could be an oil field hand, a nurse, a military man/woman, or a housewife.

    The article and your responses caught my eye because I truly can’t make up my mind how I feel about CCSS. I see the good and the bad. I’m a science teacher – I know what my students need to know to do well for college or career fields. I see the good and the bad for public vs charter schools. My students are poor – black and white. They are hard workers, have very little parental support — I know this isn’t the exact conversation you were having………but you seem like a group of individuals who could give me some great insight into putting my thought and words together.

    Thanks — a teacher who loves children, education and democracy! 🙂

  9. Posted March 20, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Hey Suzanne,

    The CCSS issue is a tricky one, for certain. This is the best summary of the arguments for and against that I’ve seen — — check it out and let me know what you think.

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