Monday, July 2, 2012

The Wedge

Your children are drowning. There is no time to lose. How good is your plan? How strong is your rope? You must do everything in your power to save them.

This is education in the neoliberal age: a quest not for success, but for survival. You ask what it is that will give your children ‘a better chance’. You find a dispassionately technocratic answer, based on the rigorous analysis of academic achievement data. You discount every factor that might make your children non-average, beginning with their attitudes and desires. While you’re at it, you put out of your mind the very idea of social relationships and of the social good. Remember: your children are drowning. It would be quite absurd at this time to wonder what your friends’ children, what their own friends are up to.

It is a perfectly smooth, well-oiled capture mechanism: a topic that families obsess about, carefully wrapped in a foil of middle-class insecurity. If Auckland’s Metro were a conservative magazine, it would just get on with telling you what the best schools are – that is to say, the most exclusive ones – and intimate that you would be a fool, or a person whose priorities are criminally flawed, not to send your children there (not that you’d need to be told). But this is a liberal publication, and so it must proceed with circumspection, and make some convoluted noises about the socio-economic realities that counsel against judging schools solely on the basis of academic achievement before doing it anyway. Therefore editor Simon Wilson proceeds to write a story designed to make you feel like you’re not crass enough to look at a league table of schools, for you know better and are a better person than that, and then produce a league table of schools, as if such a document could be compiled, purchased and read without actively participating in the system that perpetuates inequity.

The master trick employed by Wilson and Catherine McGregor, who assembled the data, is to introduce a ‘relative score’ in order to adjust results by decile group, and give schools that operate in poorer socio-economic areas a fighting chance. So much of a fighting chance, in fact, that the single school that comes up on top of most of Metro’s tables is a decile-1 establishment, McAuley High School, by virtue of how much it outperforms schools of comparative decile. Once you’ve bought this part of the argument, which the author does a consummate job of selling, you can safely proceed to ignore the relative score column and get on with the business of comparing the raw pass marks of the schools, which is the whole purpose of the exercise. After all, why would you care that a school that works with disadvantaged kids outperforms another school that works with disadvantaged kids? Your job is to give your children a better chance, not make them relatively better off than a bunch of children whose chances aren’t very good.

However the relative score isn’t just a liberal’s conscience-stroking device (although by God it is that). It serves also to extend the logic of competition to low-decile schools, thereby making it universal. Wilson is masterful here: he introduces with an affectation of ill-concealed contempt the fierce rivalries that consume the most prestigious schools – King’s College versus Auckland Grammar, the richest private school versus the state school with true elite status – as a key to the peculiar psychology of the popular middle-class obsession with school choice (which he has the gall to chide: ‘why do we worry so much? We know most kids go to their local state school and do just fine’), and then extends it to the communities that don’t share this obsession, no doubt in part because they don’t have the luxury of choice. How many working-class families would you say are likely to be able to afford (or be allowed) to send the children out of zone, let alone to a private school? What use would this information be to them?

But a subtler yet equally important point is this: that by this stage, even as you read this blog post, you might have unwittingly, reflexively accepted as factual the proposition that McAuley High School is a better school than the other schools in its decile grouping. And if you have, then you have also agreed just as tacitly that academic achievement – being the only meter employed – is the sole determinant of the quality of a school.

The unequivocal claims made by the magazine’s cover notwithstanding (THE BEST SCHOOLS… AND THE WORST!), this is a proposition that the author, determined to have it every which way, both supports and rejects, suggesting at one point that there are in fact as many as five indicators of how good a school is. These are as follows: across the board academic achievement, top academic achievement, values, safety, and breadth and depth of opportunity. However the tables refer only to the measurable achievement criteria, so the remaining criteria are totally irrelevant to the 'unique information' that Metro is selling. ‘Values’ don’t fit in the table. ‘Breadth of opportunity’ doesn’t fit in the table. The above-average results among Māori and Pasifika students reported by some of the schools in the survey don’t fit either, and so the fulfilment of one of the core objectives of our national education framework is liquidated with a condescending nod (‘good on them’). But what is missing even more glaringly are ‘special needs [sic] and/or refugee students or others in “Alternative Education”’. All of these kids are literally a footnote in Metro’s tables, a footnote that simply states that they are not included in the calculations. And, not being included in the calculations, they disappear. In fact Simon Wilson doesn't see fit to use the word ‘inclusion’ in his ten-page story, not even as a vague, generic value to tick off a list of pious concerns. Not once.

These children don’t matter. If you’re a parent of one of these children, you don’t matter. If your school does great work with some of these children, it doesn’t matter.

Your children are drowning, and what are you going to do about it? I wrote last month that the current wave of attacks against public education in countries such as New Zealand operate by driving a wedge between the aspirations of the middle class and the realities faced by the working class. Well, this is it. The wedge. Look at the perfect, smiling, non-drowning children in the ads for private schools that accompany Metro’s league tables, and that I've included in the post. Who wouldn’t want their children to be like them? And so a story that, at the peak of its disingenuousness, set out to critique the proposition that ‘we are failing our kids if we don’t send them to a private school’, turns out to be about the privatisation of the very idea of education. By the end of it, public education has ceased to exist simply in that there is no longer a public. Just endlessly mobile individuals, their able-minded children and their freely-made choices.

It’s hard to tell if this idea is a product that is being sold to us, or if instead we are the product that Metro is selling to its eager advertisers. Most likely both. But since politics nowadays is a secondary product of marketing, it is also important to correctly interpret Metro's cover and the story's paid advertisements as vehicles of political content aimed at the liberal consumer/voter for the purposes of promoting wider acceptance of school league tables. Private schools and corporate commercial media produce these messages in the normal course of business; our liberal politicians may be a little more conflicted, but having espoused every other aspect of free-market ideology will be under considerable pressure to relent, as they have in the UK, the US and Australia. This is a battle that I don’t expect progressives to win. It is all but lost already. But cling to public education as an idea and as a institution we must, and protect what we can. Otherwise we might as well go ahead and close down the schools.