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.