Budget & Finance Opinion

Two Golden Opportunities Lost in the 1990s?

By Deborah Meier — January 12, 2012 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Reading Stephen Cohen’s essay “The Soviet Union’s Afterlife” in the latest issue of The Nation gave me the chills. I’ve occasionally pointed to the Soviet focus on centralized five-year plans in decrying contemporary politics here in the USA. Like No Child Left Behind, the Soviet state set goals for everyone to meet—or else. Since they were unmeetable goals, it produced a culture of lies and cover-ups and a climate of fear. Does that sound familiar?

Cohen, a Russian studies professor at New York University, brought my attention to how his narrative of the “revolution” that occurred in the USSR in the 1980s and 1990s fit closely to one I know first-hand even better: the revolution under way in the American educational system, and possibly way beyond that. Definitely read his piece, and tell me if you think I’m being ridiculous.

Cohen’s narrative starts in 1991, after a period of gradual steps toward détente, democratization, and decentralization under Mikhail Gorbachev. In the same issue, Gorbachev himself writes about this same period. Gorbachev’s policy, known as Perestroika, was an attempt to effect an evolutionary transition from totalitarianism to democracy in a vast country. Perestroika lasted from 1985 to 1991. In this sometimes forgotten period there was an enormous shift toward more “freedom of speech, assembly, religion,” Gorbachev notes—including pluralism and free election.

In December 1991, a secret decision was made by Russian President Boris Yeltsin and leaders of two other Soviet “republics:" They decided to end the USSR. By fiat. It was a form, says Gorbachev, of “shock therapy.”

As in many other “revolutionary” situations the past was wiped away (or rewritten) in order to impose fast and thorough changes that would be hard to undo, including the inconvenient idea that “the people” owned the state’s wealth. The “people” were thus left defenseless when Yeltsin “divvied up” those resources, Cohen writes. Within a short time these vastly rich and powerful new property-holders, in cooperation with many of the old Soviet elite, also rolled back some of the pro-democracy initiatives launched under Gorbachev.

All this was done by groups, Cohen argues, by reformers in the name of democracy and a free marketplace. It was this sentence in Cohen’s piece that suddenly caught my attention. Where have I heard this song before?

The “most important reform groups were those elites who” shared one thing: an ability to, in Yeltsin’s phrase, “smell property like a beast after prey.” They wanted private property more than democracy or free-market competition. Like their forebears in 1917 they believe that the reforms needed would have to be imposed “on recalcitrant” people. Once again, a “great leap” was taken that could not depend on democracy to implement.

“Even if authentic democratic, market, and nationalist aspirations were among” the factors pushing reform, “so were cravings for power, elite avarice, extremist ideas,” and more.

So I look back at the 1970s and ‘80s as a period of small-scale progressive educational reform taking many forms in different cities. A sort of Gorbachev phase. Chicago’s decentralization of real power to local schools, New York City’s to districts, the concept of small schools with greater autonomy, new ways of assessing educational progress (vs. traditional standardized tests), even reconsideration of graduation requirements, seat-time vs. performance assessment. All over the country new groups were latching on to these ideas and experimenting with them. We went from zero seriously progressive schools in NYC to a half a dozen to a hundred or more in less than a dozen years. We in New York figured the “experimental” schools, many of which were also schools of choice, were as large as those in the average American city. If it could be done on that scale, why not elsewhere? The Annenberg Foundation even offered us in NYC some $50 million on behalf of the idea. Similarly, in Chicago, as Tony Bryke has since documented, “power to the people” (parents and teachers and community members) produced the only serious successes its schools ever achieved before or after. Even in Boston, a dozen “pilots,” initiated by a pact between the union and management, flourished and grew to nearly 30 in a few years (a larger proportion of existing schools than NYC’s experiment).

But all three of these examples of reform were abandoned in the 1990s as a well-funded new “reform” flexed its muscles. Some got impatient, at best, or saw an opportunity to grab some power, at worst. They resented teachers or parents who “resisted” the changes they favored. Whether premeditated (well-planned) or by happenstance, all these bottom-up reforms were abandoned in the name of top-down, scaled-up reforms that turned over substantial power to the mayors in collaboration with all the local powers-that-be with their varied resources: hedge-funders, foundation leaders, corporate heads, etc.

Suddenly, unions were the enemy, and teachers, not bureaucrats, were the underground resistance that needed to be broken and replaced by “disinterested” special interests using objective criteria. The more distant the better—since democracy was a clear threat to thorough “reform.” “No excuses” became the mantra both as an in-school slogan for harsher discipline and compliance demands, as well as a response to those who thought poverty would have to be tackled before or alongside any effort to truly uplift the educational experience of all children.

I could go on and on. The third essay on this theme in The Nation, by Vadim Nikitin, reminds us that nostalgia for a past is not the answer. As one popular Russian animated character reminds his audience, including us: “The past cannot be the future.” But first we must build the kind of balance of power that keeps our schools attached and responsive to “the people"—the communities and families whose children they serve.

I’m sure there are those who would consider the connection I’ve made between these two narratives far-fetched. I’d enjoy discussing it, for I truly believe there are lessons to be learned from history—over and over. But which ones?

The kind of power democracy thrives on is too quickly being abandoned and public education is probably not the last target unless we mobilize to stop it now.


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