The American classroom: Main protagonist in war on working poor

Derek Monroe
Derek Monroe is a writer/reporter and consultant based in Illinois, USA. He has reported on international and US foreign policy issues from Latin America, Poland, Japan, Iraq, Ukraine, Sri Lanka and India. His work appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, Alternet, Truthout and Ohmynews, and has been published in over 20 countries.
© Brian Snyder
The power of control is one of the most basic principles in Neo-liberal democracy and it has been one of the most important features of a system that is being credited for unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in the US, until now.

Social engineering with a theme of class warfare has been a cornerstone of early American education from its beginning as a system of the modern state. For example, the US Bureau of Education Circulars of Information of April 1872 stated: "Inculcating knowledge teaches workers to perceive and calculate their grievances thus making them more redoubtable foes in labor struggles. Such an enabling is bound to retard the growth of industry."

Later, an 1888 report by the Senate Committee on Education stated: "We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes."

From the 1880s into the 1930s there were thousands of books that discussed scientific social engineering in companies, churches and schools that bring out the idea of converting young kids into tools. Ironically, one of the greatest critics of the movement to subjugate society into a system of absolute management as derived by Frederick W. Taylor, the first technocrat to attempt it, was John Taylor Gatto.

In his book titled 'Dumbing Us Down: the Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling' the New York City ‘Teacher of the Year’ presented several basic precepts that make the system of education in the US "effective" as the ends justify the means. He listed emotional and intellectual dependency as one of the problems as students are to think only within the confines of coordinates presented. The testing that has exponentially increased since Gatto's times (1990s) is designed to test effectiveness of systemic indoctrination rather than students’ true intellectual developments.

Most recently, the issue has also been picked up by education theorist and educator Alfie Kohn. He stated that standardized testing such as mandated by 'No Child Left Behind' and 'Race to the Top' tend to measure what matters least as the most original ideas representing deep intellectual insight come from kids that don't do well on tests. Instead, standardized tests bring out the rule of the absolute average as benchmark, which is not only dehumanizing but contrary to the development of an individual's capacity to think.

Many studies across cultures, gender and ages find that people who compete often wind up doing an inferior job as the system designed to persist for the convenience of people in power and not to empower the ones without it. This is to benefit the idea of free market economics having a predominant voice in shaping the narrative of education and not to allow the humanistic considerations get in a way.

This mindset is clearly visible 50 miles north of Chicago in the Illinois Public Schools District # 116 where my two kids attend its public schools. The district is in a heavily Hispanic populated area and it serves over 7,000 students. Due to the district's long standing financial and academic challenges, which included employee theft, it was taken over in 2002 by the state of Illinois. As the state appointed oversight board had its supervisory role on developments in the districts, all necessary and routine building repairs were delayed or ignored in attempt to balance the budget.

In this scenario of crisis, the management of the school district sought to implement its reforms by bringing in a new superintendent. The new leader, Dr Constance Collins, was brought in from the equally struggling district of Oak Park, just west of Chicago. The change was fundamental in focusing the effort to reform on a strong and decisive leader as the budgetary hole got to the astonishing level of $48 million dollars. The new leadership has embarked on producing a vision that copied classical corporate marketing techniques with emphasis of Soviet-style propaganda of success. The schools were adorned with slogans such as 'Character Matters' or in emails:
'Student Growth, Job#1 Every Child, Every Chance, Every Day.'

The control of public perception has become a purpose in itself while giving a rationale for changes that went well beyond putting the fiscal house in order.

In January 2007, District Administration magazine featured an article 'Financial Rescue' that appeared under the guise of analysis. "Actually looking back it is quite embarrassing what I had written back then," said its author Joe White. "The article itself was paid for by the architectural firm doing business with the district as it sought to influence the public discourse. They thought at the time that the school management was doing an excellent job," he concluded.

The amazing part in the piece is the basic tenet of class warfare that is exposed in creating the class division. "We have 6,000 individuals here called "products," said then CEO Dennis Stonewall, referring to kids. In his view the parents were the shareholders and the taxpayers the investors. Therefore, the tone for the order - based on low- income district kids feeding the ranks of fast food and supermarkets employees and as the best option for the military - was set.

The corporate structure also came with the corporate financial rewards. Dr. Collins' 5-year contract paid her a total of over $1 million dollars in the district where the median income, according to the latest available US census data, was $22,300 per capita. Going along with the class warfare priorities, Dr. Collins also took a very aggressive PR tone.

The district supplier of education software, Imagine Learning Inc. sent a team of 3 people to both Gary, IN and Round Lake to produce a video titled: 'From Gary to Round Lake' and featuring Dr. Collins as main protagonist. Although the company representative said it spent over $4,000 producing the video (2 percent of the contract with the Dist 116) no one would actually go on record commenting on its content as the Imagine Learning Inc. executives alleged they never even saw it.

However one person who saw it and was willing to talk was Dr. Henry Giroux, America's prominent public intellectual and scholar of pedagogy who currently teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

"The video itself has absolutely nothing to say about vision of education except to say that these kids have to perform more highly on tests.

It is rags to riches story that completely individualizes the social by implying that all of the issues dealt with are a matter of individual responsibility. The questions of power, class conflict, racism and inequality, all the issues that really matter get collapsed and eliminated by virtue of one woman's rise from a poor neighborhood in Gary, Indiana. This is a pedagogy of repression that suggests the only thing that matters is financing of the district and it says nothing about economic and political forces that are responsible to defunding the district... In the end it is a very disingenuous story."

Another issue that might weigh on the results has been administrative turn over that reached almost 100 percent since the new leadership took over in 2010. Many parents complain that this type of managerial chaos is responsible for poor results and inability to effectively communicate with parents as almost none of the district top management speaks Spanish in the district that is almost 70 percent Latino and Hispanic. The issue came out in one of the 5 lawsuits that were filed in the past 5 years; 4 were settled and one is currently pending litigation.

The handling of the lawsuits also points to the district's inability to control costs such as liability insurance. According to the financial records provided by the district under FOIA , its annual liability insurance bill went up from $293,000 in 2011 to $657,000 in 2015 while the overall payout on settling the cases was $186,000.

The increase of 120 percent was extraordinary considering neighboring districts that were also involved in litigation had to deal with increase of average of 20 percent in the same time period. The idea of paying out the settlements out of its reserve funds, or even raise financing to avoid the steep insurance increase that cost it much more in a long run has not been addressed.

On the social front, instead of dealing with issues plaguing any low income community, such as crime, unemployment and drug use the district has instead chosen to practice propaganda that has absolutely nothing to do with reality of growing up in Round Lake area. Going along with currying favor with local political establishment and keeping the mostly immigrant population in its place, the district instead involved itself in a display of grotesque patriotic cabaret that has more to do with Soviet Union-like indoctrination rather than forming informed citizenry capable of making their own educated choices.

The performance such as the “Freedom Shrine” has reinforced the worst stereotypes of shaping of the American mind into a witless tool. This is no small consideration since the military service is considered one of the most viable venues of the poor to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty and violence. As there is no tracking put in place of what happens to the kids that graduate and whether they were even able to enter college and complete it, the door of tracked accountability effectively closes at the 12th grade.

The only local education official willing to go on record was Hon. Roycalee Wood, Lake County Regional Superintendent of Schools.

"The district has been under state supervision for about 10 years. They paid out their short and long term debt and are doing wonderfully. Dr Collins is a good leader as I know her from her stint in Zion, IL. Maybe the overall message here should be that despite many challenges the district is succeeding," Hon. Ms Wood stated.

However when I asked the Hon. Ms Wood what does it say for a leader that comes to an economically depressed community, demands and gets the multiple of 12 times the average annual per capita income, the response was silence.

Since the district and the superintendent declined multiple requests for interview to present their side of the issues facing the district, I attended the Round Lake Schools Board of Education meeting on February 15, 2016. In three minutes of allocated time I inquired about the issue of liability insurance increases and the lack of progress on overall graduation rates despite the promises and allegations made to the contrary.

The board president Kevin Daniels refused to answer any questions, stating that the issues such as this are "normally not discussed during the public comment" portion of the meeting. He then promised to get back to me and as of today he has not.

In the final analysis of the issue plaguing American public education and the Round Lake School Dist in particular, Dr Henry Giroux said:

"What is going here is a typical example of disaster capitalism. The only matter of achievement is going to be done in highly instrumental economic terms such as high stakes testing under the guise of personalized story of superintendent's so-called leadership. This is really dangerous and it is an attack on kids imagination by turning them into products. One can ask a more poignant question here: what is the vision here, what does it say about democracy, justice, ethics, social responsibility? The fundamental issue here is this: what is the role of education in a democracy? These people have given you the answer: none."

Round Lake Area Schools Dist. 116 declined repeated requests for interview.

Dist 116 Teachers Union declined request for interview.



The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.