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In 1961, a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, closed his term with a speech that carried a prophetic warning. He said:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.
This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
This year, we will spend an amount that would be equivalent to $20 billion for each of the 50 states on the military. Can you imagine the schools we might have if we spent half that amount on education? There is little doubt that, with our current state of apparently endless wars, we have entered the realm Eisenhower warned us of.
This week another Republican used the phrase “military-industrial complex.” Only he was not talking about the arms industry. He was talking about the diverse alignment of vested interests now driving our schools towards a common goal. The speaker was Robert Scott, Education Commissioner of the state of Texas.
Here is what he said:
The assessment and accountability regime has become not only a cottage industry but a military-industrial complex. And the reason that you're seeing this move toward the "common core" is there's a big business sentiment out there that if you're going to spend $600-$700 billion a year in public education, why shouldn't be one big Boeing, or Lockheed-Grumman contract where one company can get it all and provide all these services to schools across the country.
Mr. Scott said a great deal more about the over-use of standardized tests, a critique readers of this blog are well- acquainted with. Valerie Strauss at the Answer Sheet has the key comments he made.
But I want to dwell on the language he used, and suggest that what we are up against in education is indeed comparable to the military-industrial complex which drives the lion’s share of federal spending. But perhaps a better term might be the techno-scholastic complex.
If you think Mr. Scott was being some kind of conspiracy theorist, here is what Joanne Weiss, Chief of Staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former leader of the Race to the Top program, had to say last spring:
The development of common standards and shared assessments radically alters the market for innovation in curriculum development, professional development, and formative assessments. Previously, these markets operated on a state-by-state basis, and often on a district-by-district basis. But the adoption of common standards and shared assessments means that education entrepreneurs will enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.
What are arms of this techno-scholastic complex?
1. Vendors of computers, and computer-based learning systems, who stand to gain billions as funds are shifted from paying teachers into the purchase of soon-to-be obsolete hardware and software, in constant need of updating.
2. Publishers of tests, and curricula aligned with the tests, such as Pearson. To see this in action, witness the announcement last spring of a partnership between the Gates and Pearson Foundations for the creation of online curriculum in math and reading.
3. Prominent non-profits, often funded by anti-union billionaires such as the Walton and Broad Foundations, which make their mark by claiming the “system is broken,” which they bolster by reliance on test score data, and offer solutions such as poorly trained novice teachers, elimination of seniority, or charter schools.
4. Hedge fund managers, who have emerged as unlikely “reformers,” especially enthusiastic about charter schools. It turns out there may be some money to be made here as well.
5. Media outlets, many of which provide a platform for propaganda such as Waiting for Superman, or rely on the Gates Foundation to provide them with the “facts” to guide their discussions of the issues.
6. The US Department of Education, which, much like the cozy relationships defense contractors have had with the military, has a very close bond with “reform” proponents like the Gates Foundation.
6. The Obama administration, which apparently values the enthusiastic assistance and support of these various parties more than it does that of teachers, parents and students affected by these transformations.
Just as the military/defense industry alliance created a new self-sustaining dynamic in the 1960s, the techno-scholastic complex has, through the use of standardized tests and federal policies, permeated -- and to use Robert Scott’s term -- perverted our educational system. These various entities have somewhat distinct ambitions, but they coalesce around similar policies.
Teachers’ unions are by far the most powerful potential obstacle to this, and thus are the most frequent target of “reforms.” Whether it is the ever-expanding use of Teach For America novices, removal of collective bargaining rights, elimination of seniority, or expansion of charter schools, unions are always in the crosshairs. Although our unions have been valiant in some places, in other ways their leadership has been lacking.
Robert Scott was no doubt correct in his warning, as was Dwight Eisenhower. The forces allied in promoting the techno-scholastic complex are strong, but there are more than four million teachers, and millions of parents, students and citizens who understand the importance of our public education system. Our work is clear. We need to help the public understand what is under way. This is not a partisan issue. In this election year, we need to let every candidate in the land know we do not want our school buildings sold off to charter operators and hedge fund managers. We do not want our teachers replaced with iPads or smartboards. We do not want our schools staffed by revolving cadres of poorly trained novices. We want our union leaders to take clear stands against the selling off of our schools and our profession. And we DO want real reforms that respond to the very real needs of our students, as described very clearly just last week by Chicago teacher Katie Osgood.
There was a whole generation that responded in the 1960s to the war that emanated from the military industrial complex. That movement helped to end the Vietnam War at long last in 1974. We need several generations to march together once again, against the military-industrial complex that still consumes our treasure and yields destruction, and the newer techno-scholastic complex we now face in education.
What do you think? Is there a techno-scholastic complex at work? How can it be confronted?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue 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.