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And What I Thought You Thought I Thought

By Sara Mead — July 19, 2011 2 min read

Cross-posted from Eduwonk

There’s a debate about “neoliberalism” going on headin the progressive blogosphere that is sort of tedious and not the kind of thing I’d normally flag [and to be clear, I have no dog in this larger fight, just quoting the various sides below]-Except that it has some pretty striking parallels with debates going on around education reform today.

Basically, the argument is that market-oriented and technocratic strategies favored by “neoliberal” policy wonks to address economic and social challenges are inherently inadequate because they fail to adequately “increase the power of labor relative to capital,” or in other words to address broader economic and political power inequalities that are the real causes of social and economic problems.

In a now much-quoted graf, political scientist and blogger Henry Farrell sums it up thus:

Neo-liberals tend to favor a combination of market mechanisms and technocratic solutions to solve social problems. But these kinds of solutions tend to discount politics - and in particular political collective action, which requires strong collective actors such as trade unions. This means that vaguely-leftish versions of neo-liberalism often have weak theories of politics, and in particular of the politics of collective action. I see Doug and others as arguing that successful political change requires large scale organized collective action, and that this in turn requires the correction of major power imbalances (e.g. between labor and capital). They're also arguing that neo-liberal policies at best tend not to help correct these imbalances, and they seem to me to have a pretty good case.

Matt Yglesias, whose recent articles calling for looser monetary policy as a means to stimulate the economy (apparently too neoliberal a view) seem to have touched this debate off, calls bullshit:

So I really, strongly, profoundly agree with this [the idea that advancing a liberal reform agenda requires building a political infrastructure to support populist economic policies]. The moment someone comes up with aworkable idea on this front, please sign me up. But if there's no idea to debate, then there's no idea to debate. Debating the desirability of devising some hypothetical future good idea seems kind of pointless to me.

This all sounds to me a lot like contemporary education policy debates: Education reformers put forward a series of-yes, let’s be honest-largely technocratic and market-minded strategies to try to make our public education system work better to serve the needs of students, and to increase the supply of higher-performing schools and teachers. Critics counter that these policies can’t possibly fix the problems they’re purported to solve-mediocre overall performance and glaring student achievement gaps-because they don’t address the underlying causes of economic inequality, poverty, inadequate health care, broken families, etc. (It’s worth noting that “neoliberal” is frequently a term of derision directed at the education reform movement by its foes.) No one, to my knowledge honestly disputes that those issues are real problems that do impact the outcomes of educational systems. The problem is that critics of education reform also don’t put forward any compelling and remotely viable proposals to solve the problems they argue must be solved before we can improve school performance [even if we embarked on a massive campaign of economic redistribution--assuming that’s possible and designed in a way that doesn’t create other problems--does anyone think that fix mental health issues or ensure that all kids have “good” parents?]. Nor do they offer any alternative strategy for, in the absence of such sweeping and improbable solutions, getting the best we can out of our public schools given current realities. Essentially, they’re offering an argument for throwing up our hands and saying “tough cookies, kids,” to the tens of millions of low-income American schoolchildren who have only an 8% chance of ever earning a college diploma.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.