Some thoughts on education in light of Vergara v. California

Published online 11 June 2014.

NOTE TO READERS: If you all want to get a reportorial perspective upon a recent decision in the case Vergara v. California threatening teacher tenure in the state of California (and possibly, later, in other states!), read zenbassoon’s diary here or Laura Clawson’s diary here or Bill Raden’s earlier piece here.  My task here is to explain the bigger picture, of the organized attack upon the employment status of America’s teachers as part of a greater, long-term effort.

I can’t say what you were all thinking when you read about this ruling, and the commentary that followed from the White House — my own immediate reaction was that “they’re now getting what they want directly, rather than having to fuss over “school reform”!  Want to mess with the teachers’ unions?  Have the courts do it!  Perhaps in the future we can now expect a new era of honesty, in which open-ended class warfare upon teachers and students is no longer seen as requiring justification through the ever-expanding rationalizations of “school reform.”

We can see a long history of “school reform” dating back to the 1970s — Ira Shor’s volume titled Culture Wars details the beginnings of “school reform,” with career education, “back to basics,” and “excellence” as public excuses for “school reform.”  And of course the most recent “school reform” efforts have exhibited their own guiding philosophies: “No Child Left Behind,” as justified by a philosophy of universal achievement through universal standards and testing, or the “Race to the Top” philosophy of excellence through market-based reform.

But at its core “school reform” is really about one, and only one, motivating force: capitalist discipline.  To make schools into conduits for profit, teachers must be made cheaper, and schools must be shown to produce an “added value” labor force while imposing permanent debt servitude upon graduates of the system at its highest levels after they graduate from college.  The idea behind “school reform,” in sum, is to impose the discipline of capital upon the schools.  As Noam Chomsky might put it, costs will be borne by the public, and profits will go to private actors.

The singular, official mythology in support of “school reform” is that teaching is absurdly easy, because all teaching is really just pouring facts into heads, which (supposedly) any adult can do.  Teaching, then (like work at McDonald’s or WalMart), is properly a job for up-and-coming youth who will move on to something else when it’s time for their real careers (the purpose of “Teach for America”).  This official mythology views teachers as a centrally-placed unionized gang of thieves, who are currently overpaid while at the same time being the only real factor in the presence or absence of “student achievement.”  All of the faults of the system, then, can be blamed upon “bad” teachers who soak up salary while doing their (ostensibly easy) jobs.  And look!  They bagged a judge with this line of thought.

Now, once upon a time, before hegemonic neoliberalism took control of the capitalist world-system, there was a then-current debate in policy discussions of American education which engaged terms such as “relevance.”  Are students learning anything in school which is relevant to their lives? the intelligentsia used to ask.  And then there’s that question intimately related to relevance, which at times they asked as well — are we educating students merely to adapt to society, or to make contributions to society which would improve it?  Those debates were fruitful.  Discussing “relevance” meant that policy designers had to discuss what student lives were actually like, and also to discuss what such lives would be like once said students graduated from school or college or university with diplomas and degrees in hand.  Discussing “school reform” in terms of “relevance” would prompt the immediate question: these reforms may be good for capital, but are they good for students?  As a friend on Facebook asked: if you end teacher tenure, who’s going to want to teach?  They have to put a warm body in that classroom.  Should it be just anyone?

This whole matter of student lives, lived constructively or otherwise from birth to death, was what made the debate about “relevance” so vital to real improvement in education, both in terms of Kindergarten-through-12th-grade education and college/ university education.  If education is about life, then improved education ought to result in improved life.  Now, back in 1983, the trend-setting “A Nation At Risk” report (as released by the Reagan administration) tried to confuse the issue here — said report attempted to address the concern that the “United States’ educational system was failing to meet the national need for a competitive workforce (Wikipedia)”.  Never mind that there never was, or is, such a “national need,” not when the nation-states were (and are) proxies for a world-system run by a transnational capitalist class.  At any rate, my example of “A Nation At Risk” is in itself really not all that relevant — when elites work to attain public acquiescence in public school systems which aren’t relevant to the needs of the students, any excuse will do.  In that light, we would do well to ignore forty years of bad “school reform” excuses, and bring the discussion back to “relevance.”

Now, honestly, I’m not really sure why people have children anymore, given that world society has at present failed to solve its “capitalism” problem, with catastrophic consequences ahead.  You’d think that, when reflecting upon the distinct possibility that indefinite capitalism might produce runaway climate change (as we fail to mitigate it today), they’d think twice about bringing lots of babies into such a world.  And that’s not to consider the exorbitant expense of raising children today.  Well, never mind — I’m sure people have good, solid instrumental reasons for doing what they do, and so babies we are getting.  And so said babies must still be educated once they reach schooling age.  Or so our systems of mandatory public and economically-guided college education have determined.

From this survey of the irrationality of the system I would like to return, once again, to the issue prompted by the ruling itself — which is to say, equal educational opportunity.  From the Wall Street Journal’s piece on this ruling:

In Tuesday’s decision in Vergara v. California, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu cited the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education “separate but equal” ruling, writing that the laws in this case “impose a real and appreciable impact on the students’ fundamental right to equality of education.”

The rather curious claim by Rolf M. Treu, here, is that teacher empowerment has a nontrivial negative effect upon “equal educational opportunity” such that the Court is obliged to strike down teacher tenure laws as a remedy.  Now, of course, one is justified in asking about the economic hypotheses of economists such as Raj Chetty, whose work was used by the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, and whose methodologies appear to have been both badly written and badly interpreted in producing the Superior Court’s decision in Vergara v. California.And, of course, there’s the hidden assumption in the Treu argument that the tenured teachers somehow produce the lowest-performing students, an assumption which goes against all of my own personal experience with public school systems.  My experience, mostly as a substitute teacher (which means I was able to see a variety of different systems), tells me that tenured teachers typically migrate toward nice upper-class schools where the students will do well regardless of how they teach.  But we might also ask about how a body of social science created to distinguish “good” teachers from “bad” teachers can be so blind to the role of social class as a predictor of the future success of students.

I keep waiting for the clear evidence that is supposed to refute the claims made in Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods — that differences in income result in differences in parenting styles, which themselves result in differences in outcome for students of different social classes.  I haven’t seen it yet.  At any rate, I’m sure all of the popular researchers ignore Lareau while festooning attention upon Chetty because there’s no money in showing how social class itself, and not the sum of “bad teachers,” is the origin of America’s problem with social class.

At any rate, “remedies” are always where one wishes to find them.  Relevant remedies, however, have to be in places where talk addresses the whole of life itself, and isn’t just a vehicle to attain acquiescence in profit schemes. Treu’s decision in Vergara v. California, as a vehicle for official mythology, is part of the latter category of talk.  Meanwhile, the financial vultures circle the prostrate body of the public school system, looking for money here and money there.

(also up at


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