Book Review: Education Justice

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By Larry Kuehn, Director of Research, BC Teachers’ Federation

The appointment of Betty DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education aroused considerable opposition. Many of those challenging her were acting on the subtitle of Howard Ryan’s book, “organizing against the corporate juggernaut.”

Education Justice is a rewarding mix of political analysis about the corporate forces pushing U.S. education in one direction and examples of grassroots union and classroom organizing as a way of challenging that direction.

Ryan places the corporate program in the neoliberal context of what he calls “a bosses revolt.” It includes transferring public funding for education to private education, limits on the union rights of teachers, control through testing and a dual expectations of schools – high quality education for the children of the well off and training for obedience for those on the bottom. He clearly identifies social justice as the principle for which it is worthwhile being an organizer challenging these directions.

Ryan doesn’t see the “corporate juggernaut” as being a singular force. He identifies three drivers of corporate education reform: Educate toward corporate hegemony; educate toward the market-based world; make profits from schools or spin-off opportunities. The first of these is basically the business agenda; the second particularly characterizes the “philanthropic sector” and the third the edubusiness sector.

Betty DeVos exemplifies the philanthropic sector in her unwavering support and use of the Amway fortune for eliminating the public schools and replacing them with Charter Schools that are private institutions with public funding. Before DeVos appeared on the scene, the Gates and Broad Foundations and the Walmart fortune were the most public face of the philanthropic intervention in education. The corporate profit seekers he identifies are the like of Pearson and the edu-technology industry.

Ryan’s book, though, is not just an explication of the nature of the corporate direction of education. He identifies the role that teacher unions can play in resisting, even though they too seldom have resisted. With contributing authors, the book also explores classroom-based, pedagogical approaches to developing in students, as well as teachers, the skills and experience to influence the experience of school.

The national teacher unions, the AFT and the NEA, are under constant attack by the right-wing who identify them as the main impediments to the corporate vision of education. In that context, they have frequently reached compromises and back-room deals rather than organizing resistance, with the rationale that the results would have been worse if they had not been at the table where decisions are made.

The contrast to this is the Chicago Teachers’ Union, the cover of the book shows CTU members with their red t-shirts and “Take Back Chicago” in its banners. The CTU approach is two-fold, engage the members and organize with the school and communities. The CTU changed leadership in 2010, electing a CORE slate (Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators) that adopted an organizing ethos and practice. From that model, caucuses have been organized within union locals in other cities, and these exchange organizing practices in a national UCORE network. In addition to local organizing, real change requires that these local unions also influence the direction of the national unions.

The final section of the book is called “Organizing through school transformation.” The titles of the articles give a clear indication of what Ryan means: “Critical literacy, democratic schools and the whole language movement,” “Teacher solidarity beats scripted instruction,” and “A transformational curriculum in South L.A.” The transformation in the last of these was not only a curricular approach, but also linked to teacher unions in that one or the teachers engaged in the South L.A. project was elected union president after the program in his school was cancelled by the district authorities. His experience in challenging the powers of the district, even if not in a win, indicated that he was a leader willing to fight for progressive values.

Ryan ends the book saying “In today’s hostile climate, teachers who embrace learner-centered and social justice approaches to their work must often do so under the radar with the classroom door closed.” Fortunately, that is less the reality in Canadian schools. Social justice is given at least lip-service generally and is supported by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. In British Columbia curriculum changes are calling for learner-centered pedagogy.

However, corporate and conservative views on education are present in Canada, if not so powerful. The Trump-DeVos approach to breaking public education through privatization and Charter Schools may encourage those with similar ideas in Canada. Ryan’s book reminds us that Canadians must be vigilant in support for public education.

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