Visiting Professor Says Free-Market Neoliberalism Holds Sway in Public Education | Teachers College Columbia University

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Visiting Professor Says Free-Market Neoliberalism Holds Sway in Public Education


Neoliberalism, an approach adapted from Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher that privileges competitive market principles over government intervention and which has dominated the education landscape for the past 20 years, has not universally benefited all American schools and students.

That was the judgment issued by Lawrence Blum, a Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, in a lecture he delivered at TC in mid-November. Blum is currently offering a course at TC in the Philosophy and Education program.

To view the entire lecture on YouTube, go here:

Blum argued that, far from supporting public education’s original purpose, to lift children out of poverty, neoliberalism accepts extreme inequalities in society and education, and it has stripped public education of elements which are essential in a democracy, such as civic purpose and character development.

For example, neoliberals argue that injecting market forces and competition into public education by creating more charter schools to compete with traditional public schools, should spur bad schools either to improve or close. But competition creates the need to market schools to parents, which invites schools to overstate their performance and allure.

And free-market discipline is applied only to poorer schools, not to schools in wealthier neighborhoods, which benefit from higher property values and where parents supplement school funding. If competition improves schools, Blum said, then neoliberals need to explain why wealthier public schools, which by and large do not operate in a competitive market, outperform schools in poorer districts.

Neoliberalism has paved the way for the introduction of performance pay for teachers. But performance pay inaccurately assumes that teachers are only motivated by economic concerns instead of a professional and service ethos or a “general desire to do a good job at something worth doing,” Blum said.

Less tangible incentives to teach “do not, of course, render teachers indifferent to their salaries,” Blum said, “but they are reasons for thinking that differentiated salaries are not required to motivate teachers to work hard and do well at their jobs,” and they “undermine the sense of cooperation and trust that teachers require” to perform well.

Neoliberalism’s “tendency to construe all value as economic in character and to see schools only as developers of human capital” has allowed it to “sideline and even render invisible many other goals and values traditionally connected with and essential to public schooling,” Blum said.

Neoliberalism ignores students’ natural love of learning and their understanding of and ability to analyze and think critically about one’s society, Blum said. It discourages civic engagement with the various polities of which one is a member (including city, state, country and world). It fails to impart moral aims and virtues of character, such as respect for others, justice, tolerance and integrity, and it fails to take into account the social and public benefit of universal education.

Although Blum doesn’t claim that “all aspects of education reform are neoliberal in character,” or that neoliberalism has caused all the problems in public education, he believes it is a powerful and largely destructive force in society and education. The solution, he concluded, lies in social democracy.

Published Wednesday, Dec 23, 2015

Lawrence Blum Lecture
Lawrence Blum, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and Education and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston