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It is the Economy, Stupid


“It’s the economy, stupid” became the trademark slogan coined by Bill Clinton strategists during the 1992 presidential campaign to keep voters focused on the failed economic policies of President George H.W. Bush.

But it was already Jean Anyon’s essential critique of Bush’s—and Ronald Reagan before him and his son after him—failed education policies. Anyon chaired the education department at Rutgers University for many years and was later a graduate professor of educational policy there and at CUNY. Her steadfast focus was the reform of urban schools, and her message remained constant throughout. Real change cannot take place in inner-city schools unless changes also occur in the socioeconomic conditions of the surrounding community. Or quoting from her 1997 book  Ghetto Schooling:

“Attempting to fix inner-city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.  … To really improve ghetto children’s chances, in school and out, we must ultimately eliminate poverty; we must eliminate the ghetto school by eliminating the underlying causes of ghettoization.”

Anyon’s convictions weren’t based on a bunch of armchair theories or broadband statistics; rather they stemmed in large part from her deep involvement in a ten-year attempt to restructure the school system in Newark, NJ, where her branch of Rutgers is located. For instance, she spent an entire year trying to do staff development in an elementary school in one highly impoverished neighborhood. Despite nearly a decade of  “reform” efforts involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and 25 different “educational improvement projects,” the school’s academic performance was still dropping; and Anyon’s goal was to turn the tide by helping the teachers learn how to teach in more interesting and effective ways.

What Anyon encountered was not pretty. There was so much chaos in the school caused by the chaotic lives of the students, and teachers were struggling so hard just to maintain control of their classrooms, that most of the staff was in too much despair to believe with Anyon that things could get better. Also, an incredibly high teacher absenteeism rate made it difficult for Anyon to establish any continuity in her twice a week development sessions. Then when teachers did attend, many of them were too stressed out and unfocused to benefit from Anyon’s suggestions. And to make matters even worse, the school’s dysfunctional audio-visual equipment often prevented her from illustrating the new methods and techniques she wanted to share.

By the end of the year, Anyon too was demoralized by the realization that the extreme poverty of the children, the school, and the neighborhood was overwhelming the efforts of even the most dedicated teachers—and there was very little she could do about it.

Anyon also established the deep structural connection between poverty and poor educational outcomes from another angle. She performed lengthy observations of fifth-grade classes in five New Jersey schools spread across the socioeconomic spectrum, two working-class schools, a middle-class school, an upper-middle-class school, and what she termed an “executive elite school” because a majority of the students’ fathers were heads of major corporations.

What Anyon found was that each school had a hidden curriculum that reinforced the social class standing of the students. In the two working-class schools, for example, the highest priority was for students to follow the steps of a procedure, which was usually a mechanical one involving rote behavior and little decision making or choice. Moreover, the teachers rarely explained the relevance of the work they assigned. And very often schoolwork was evaluated not according to its quality, but whether or not the children followed the directions correctly.

The primary emphasis in the middle-class school was on getting the right answers, and students understood they would get a good grade if they accumulated enough of them. Following directions was again emphasized, but this time with a certain measure of choice and decision making, and teacher assessment placed a high value on neatness and orderliness. Unlike in the working-class schools, here the teacher would spend time explaining and expanding on the material, but in subjects like social studies there was little attempt to analyze how or why things happen the way they do.

Schoolwork in the upper-middle-class school stressed individuality and expressiveness, the creative illustration of ideas, and the choice of appropriate methods and materials. Independent thought was also encouraged, and self-satisfaction was an important element of assessment. In contrast with the working- and middle-class schools, here discipline and schoolwork were both negotiable, and the children had a fair amount of say over what happened in the classroom.

In the executive elite school, everything was aimed at developing the student’s analytical intellectual powers. Children were continually asked to reason through problems and to conceptualize the rules they used to solve them, and the emphasis was always on excelling and preparing for life. In social studies, instead of stressing creative presentation like the teacher did in the upper-middle-class school, the students were asked to analyze concrete social issues. Also, this was the only school where bells didn’t demarcate blocks of time, and where students could move around the classroom freely and leave without permission. Here they were clearly being groomed for management roles by being asked to do things like plan lessons and homework assignments for the rest of the class.

Anyon’s conclusion at the close of her observations: The stylistic differences between the schools serve to recapitulate existing social class divisions. The children of blue-collar families, for instance, received “preparation for future wage labor that is mechanical and routine,” while the wealthy ones were taught the skills that would enable them to assume future positions of leadership.

Sadly, Jean Anyon died this past September at the age of only 72. There had been cause for hope when she was a young college student just starting out. In the decade following President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” the poverty rate in the U.S. dropped from 19 to 11.2 percent. The federal income tax rate—an issue Anyon referred to frequently—was truly progressive at the time, with the wealthiest bracket paying 42.4%. But then came Reaganomics and a succession of Republican administrations that continued to slash taxes for the rich. According to Sam Pizzigati, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, the highest bracket was taxed  at only 16.6 percent in 2007; and taking inflation into account, they pocketed 36 times more of their gross income than their counterparts in 1961. As a result the poverty rate has climbed back over 16%; and more disturbingly, the percentage of children living in poverty rose from 14.3 to 20 between 2009 and 2012.

The ramifications for education are again not pretty. As Anyon reported in Ghetto Schooling,  advantaged suburban districts have as much as 10 times more money to work with than impoverished urban ones, meaning that the vast socioeconomic inequity in this country will continue to be the dead elephant in the room wherever discussions about the reform of inner-city schools are held.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Barry Elliott #

    Jonathan Kozal has been speaking and writing passionately and eloquently about the effects of economic deprivation and the funding inadequacies and inequality for decades. There is no question that money can make a huge difference in schooling, whether it is money possessed by families, or public money made available for school administration. But, things are the way they are for a reason. Realigning the given order of things means subverting power and offending the gods. Wealth knows how to protect its domain.
    Two things make the issue of unequal distribution of resources less relevant than it appears, however. First, the superior experience had by students in the upper income districts where ample resources are readily available and where the environment is more hospitable and students excel on tests and appear better equipped for “higher education” says nothing meaningful about education. It says that those privileged students have had a better school experience and they have skills and advantages that are generally applicable in a competitive academic or capitalistic milieu. Some of them may not be thoroughly anti-intellectual and some of them may have enjoyed great literature or developed some familiarity with science or with some special interest or avocation. However, whether they are educated is an open question.
    Secondly, the students who have all the advantages would do well, or at least do better just about anywhere because they typically have the richer home environment from birth and parents who are more interactive and available by virtue of more leisure or more resources and support. Their schools are nearly always better with respect to autonomy and teaching “quality” or responsiveness. However, giving the schools the credit for any actual education presumes (falsely) that education equates with success in our perverse society.
    It is no accident that the gross inequalities exist. We have a framework that is specially designed to sort out the fortunate few from the many and to keep a clearly demarcated wall of separation. It is hard to imagine how one could set out to design a better system for maintaining a status quo and a social structure that is nearly impervious to alteration than compulsory school attendance, given the political and economic systems we have had in place since our founding. The original elitist and religious proponents knew precisely what they were doing.
    The message is in the structure. The message is on the blackboard, in the text, and in the curriculum. The message is that capitulation, submission, and “attention” are indispensable for survival. The wretched poor must be saved from their plight and the good (usually white, Christian) teachers are there to perform the mission (as missionaries to the lost heathens). The deal is that the wretched poor must comply and acquiesce, and above all, they MUST attend. Common Core and charters are just the billionaires’ naked attempts to call the shots and mold society in their own image more overtly. It’s never pretty.
    It seems a bit peculiar that the same people who have previously been vocal about the stultifying climate of traditional schools and who have opted for alternative schools for years are now talking as if the only problems are the disparities between the rich and poor districts. Far be it from me to suggest hypocrisy, but I do have to wonder if there is some illogic or rationalizing involved. The “best” schools within the traditional framework always bore the same essential characteristics of a factory, or tendencies toward producing conformity, mediocrity, triviality, a sense of exclusivity, and apathy. Education was always accidental, or due to defiant subversion.
    Yes, it is the economy. It’s the economy that works for the powerful and influential thanks primarily to the laws that control the population and keep them in their proper places. It’s the laws, and then the economy.

    March 19, 2014
    • Chris Mercogliano #

      That was exactly Jean Anyon’s point, Barry, that the covert agenda of the education system is to maintain the socioeconomic status quo.

      And I’m glad you mentioned Jonathan Kozol, because his books Savage Inequalities and Shame of a Nation are excellent illustrations of Anyon’s central thesis.

      March 25, 2014
      • Barry Elliott #

        There is no disagreement on the thesis. Ms. Anyon is one of several people who have seen the light and spelled out, presumably with great insight and eloquence, what the underlying dynamics are of the “systems” of schooling we have in place. But they are not educational systems; they are school systems. And, the questions, as always, are; How did we get to this particular state of affairs?; What can we do to remedy the situation for more than a handful of kids, who eventually have to make it in a society and economy that doesn’t recognize their best attributes?, and, What good does it do to keep talking about “covert agendas” and socioeconomic status as if they are presumed to be givens that millions of others just have to live with while we aren’t willing to put our money where our mouths are?
        My point is that we can pat ourselves on the back for being aware and doing our small part (convinced that small will somehow expand out into the universe by virtue of our goodness and light), but if we don’t recognize that the “covert agenda” didn’t spring up out of nowhere and that it is maintained primarily through the apparatus that is established by law that is fundamentally defective and destructive, we are whistling Dixie and twiddling our thumbs.
        Those who are naïve or ignorant and believe that school equates with education and that traditional schools serve us well can be given a pass as long as their ignorance isn’t willful. Those who know and have stated openly that traditional schools have failed to advance education, that they have damaged children and curtailed autonomy, creativity, independent thinking, and native curiosity, and who have even supported alternatives hoping to circumvent the worst aspects of authoritarian systems do not get a pass in my book. I believe it is hypocrisy to acknowledge the incredible harm done in traditional schools and the hidden or covert agenda, without using one’s voice and one’s abilities to vigorously oppose the abuses and exploitation from which children suffer.
        Shielding a small fraction of students from this clear and present danger under the theory that the word will spread and some few must be saved may be admirable, but it quickly becomes a contributing factor in that it is an excuse to shrink from taking on the real issue and because it creates an exclusive group who are barely aware of the miserable masses who endure the worsening disaster. Refusing to fight and to reach out because of a resignation to defeat before any serious attempts are made strikes me as foolish at best, and cowardly at worst.
        If second-hand smoke has already given someone you live with cancer and you know it, yet you continue to smoke or remain silent while someone else exposes that person to toxic clouds, you are at least partly responsible for that damage and ultimate death. If we know that attendance laws create the toxic atmosphere in which millions of children are exposed to major harm, we are responsible to at least try to put a stop to it, even if we didn’t create the poisonous climate. Failure is not an option that should ever be considered, and inaction or silence is the height of irresponsibility.
        Socioeconomic patterns and trends don’t change without the application of tremendous pressure and forces, usually from large groups of people. Talking about it endlessly in private circles seldom leads to much action or change. Laws don’t change without the same kind of pressures and forces, and eliminating laws also usually requires large groups of people who do more than talk. What I am saying is that a snowball can roll downhill and increase in volume with the right conditions, or it may melt and have no effect. Eliminating attendance laws will create the right conditions because they created our problems in the first place. The powerful derive their power from the acquiescence of the victims, who are trained to remain obedient and passive in schools designed expressly for that purpose. A lot of polite books and optimistic feel good conferences and happy chatter do nothing but dull the pain and awareness.

        March 25, 2014
        • Chris Mercogliano #

          I hesitated to post your entire comment, Barry, because it’s so long and dense that I’m afraid people won’t take the time to read it. But I went ahead anyway because it aims itself right at the heart of why I decided to entitle the blog Education: Reform or Remodel in the first place. As I wrote in the introductory post, I believe it’s important for some of us to fight to change the awful system that we have — there are a great many courageous and committed people doing that as we speak — and for others to devote themselves to developing and articulating new and different models so that there exist concrete, living examples of better ways of going about teaching and learning. And while I agree with almost everything you’re saying, I do take exception with your opinion that alternative schools are a cop-out, because creating and sustaining them requires just as much courage and commitment as trying to change the system. You’re also, I believe, discounting the value of the alternative schoolers and homeschoolers who become educated outside the system. Which brings to mind a quote from a John Gatto radio interview that is part of a book review we will be posting next. Talking about his strategy for social change he says,

          “You look and move like everybody else and don’t draw attention to yourself, but from time to time you find where the gears are meshing and you put a nice handful of sand in them. The biggest handful, though, will be your children. If they come of age with independent, critical minds, with a good attitude towards things and without expecting change to come easily, enjoy the struggle of testing themselves, this gives them good lives. In having good lives, they’ll be helping me and you and everyone else. It will happen after I’m dead, I think, but at some point a critical mass of people will emerge who just won’t accept bullshit any longer.”

          March 26, 2014

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