The bosses’ assault against students and teachers in the United States has reached epic proportions. The capitalists are using standardized curricula and tests to assert more direct control over what is taught. They are attacking wages and conditions for school workers even as they blame teachers for the system’s decay. In large and overcrowded urban districts, where student populations are predominantly black and Latino, dress codes, rigid discipline, and metal detectors are the norm. Students are treated like criminals, with no time off for good behavior.
These racist attacks serve two related purposes for the ruling class. First, they enable the bosses to lay an ideological foundation for intensified fascism. Second, they make it easier to intimidate and militarize youth for the inevitable broader wars against the bosses’ surging imperialist rivals, such as China. The U.S. rulers need to use the schools to protect their profits and shore up their dominant — but declining — position in an increasingly competitive world economy.
Trillions for War, Zero for Schools
In the current period, the bosses’ economic crisis and the trillions sunk into Afghanistan and Iraq have led to a wave of racist budget cuts and layoffs in public schools throughout the U.S. The results have been devastating. In New York City — the graduation rate hovers around 60 percent — and most graduates require remedial work before they can take college-level courses. In Philadelphia, where the schools had floundered under state stewardship for nearly a decade, district officials estimated it would take until the year 2123 to get all students up to grade level in reading and math. In February, after decades of local mismanagement, the state board of education revoked its accreditation for the entire Kansas City, Missouri school system. Even by the bosses’ own low standards, the public schools are broken.
To distract workers from the real causes of why and how schools are designed to fail, the capitalists push one reform after another. Supported by billionaires like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, these range from the small-school movement to the charter school phenomenon to the bosses’ current vogue, an all-out emphasis on “teacher quality.” By using data-driven teacher evaluations, the bosses claim to have found an objective way to improve substandard schools and weed out unqualified instructors.
Useless Tests A Bosses’ Tool
In fact, these evaluations are based significantly on student performance in standardized testing, where the margin of error is so high that they are statistically useless. But as a political tool for the bosses, the evaluations are invaluable. They give the rulers easy scapegoats for the failure of their schools: “bad teachers” and the unions that “protect” them.
Many of the headlines in the teacher-bashing campaign have been seized by Republicans like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or by capitalists like David and Charles Koch. But the main leadership for this attack comes from the dominant liberal wing of U.S. finance capitalism and its loyal servants: mainstream media like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and the Democratic administration of Barack (“Race to the Top”) Obama.
These rulers do have disagreements. Some of their factions on the right, like the Koch brothers, advocate the gutting of collective bargaining rights and even the abolishing of unions altogether. More dangerous, however, are the liberals who want to use the unions to mislead teachers into thinking their interests are best served by the latest reform. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the major teacher unions — containing 30 percent of U.S. union members — have willingly collaborated with the bosses in the new evaluation systems. The leaders of these organizations are loyal to the bosses, not to the workers. More insidious are new reformist groups like Educators for Excellence, which has enlisted broad support among young teachers in its reactionary fight against tenure.
In any case, the political fallout is the same. Under increased pressure, teachers tend to become more controllable. Some workers get caught up in the blame game, with teachers blaming students and parents blaming teachers when the evaluation numbers fall short.
In a desperate effort by principals and teachers to keep their jobs, some schools focus their attention on students who are relatively close to grade level, triaging the ones who are further behind. As one New York City high school guidance counselor recently told the school’s staff, “Don’t waste your time on them.” The children he was throwing overboard amounted to nearly one-fourth of the student population!
As always, the school reform’s primary targets — and victims — are the students.
There never was a “golden age” of U.S. public education. While government funding has fluctuated over the past century, the schools’ purpose was always to reinforce capitalist values and the profit system. The overwhelming majority of children are trained for low-paying, subordinate tasks in the rulers’ factories, infrastructure, support services, and military. More than ever, U.S. capitalism requires a politically reliable, highly regimented education system to feed a military that will secure its threatened interests worldwide. It’s no coincidence that Obama’s education reform agenda includes the re-opening of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs at a number of colleges.
To meet the rulers’ needs, the schools infect children with capitalist ideology: racism, sexism, individualism, and incessant competition for the best grades and test scores and then jobs, all against a backdrop of extreme racist and sexist inequalities. Rigid discipline and arbitrary rules nurture passive followers. Gross distortions of history — the “bravery” and “heroism” of genocidal monster Christopher Columbus, the “compassion” of white supremacist Abraham Lincoln — rob students of the ability to understand the world. Regimented teaching-to-the-test saps their creativity and analytical thinking. Daily doses of anti-communism steer them away from the one force that can change the world to meet the needs of the working class.
Graduating to Communism
If the situation sounds bleak, it’s crucial to point out that it’s only one side of the story. As the bosses make their plans, so too must the workers. In New York, for example, masses of furious parents, teachers, and students have routinely disrupted the Panel for Educational Policy (the rubber-stamp body that does Mayor Bloomberg’s bidding) with standing-room-only crowds and deafening chants. Rising anger among teachers has led to fresh attempts to form a serious opposition caucus to the sellout union leadership in New York.
But while this anger itself is positive, and the Party must be immersed in these struggles, no reform will help students get the learning they need. It’s our job to point to the systemic failures of education under capitalism and to win teachers, students and parents to fight for communism and join PLP. To truly educate our children, we must abolish the profit system. We need to create a new society to serve the needs of workers, not the tiny, parasitic minority of bosses. Forward to May Day!
Obama Rescues Bosses’ Profits
The bosses’ attack against teachers has a precedent in their systematic dismantling of the standard of living of industrial workers in steel and auto, which was won through generations of class struggle. As in the schools, this attack was carried out with the express support of the leadership of the unions.
In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama claimed victory for “rescuing” the auto industry: “We got workers and automakers to settle their differences.” What he really meant was that the bosses forced the workers to accept a two-tier wage system, with new hires making $14 an hour, or half the wages of their previous hires. This give-back was achieved with the active support of the United Auto Workers union leadership. For the bosses, “settling differences” always means protecting bosses’ profits and attacking workers.