CSSE Symposium on

Neoliberalism and Education Reform

June 2, 2008

Presenters: Dave Hill, David Hursh, Rich Gibson, Kevin Vison and E. Wayne Ross

Chair: E. Wayne Ross

Discussant: Ashwani Kumar


I loved reading these papers and of course listening to them now. I liked these papers for three reasons. First, all the authors forcefully assert and analytically explain that the society we inhabit is oppressive, exploitative and divisive and there is urgency for change. Secondly, authors immensely desire for a change that can be only brought about through a revolution—a revolution in structure as well consciousness of human existence.  Finally, these papers have contributed greatly towards my own area of research where I am trying to understand why social studies function more as an agent of reproduction than change.

The authors present a Marxist critique of the exploitative global capitalism and its alliance with hegemonic states all over the world. Authors explain that neo-liberal policies all over the world are characterized by reduction towards welfare activities of the state and control over every aspect of life including education. To them, and rightly so, neo-liberalism is imperialism and colonialism in its new and rather dangerous garb.

The authors’ analysis and findings make us feel pessimistic about the sad state of our world being increasingly swept by capitalist exploitation, accumulation crisis and their natural consequence: war. However, authors themselves are quite hopeful. Each of them in his own ways makes strong suggestions for the collective and individual actions, not only in education but also in community, policy-making, media and any other possible arena, to question and fight back the ideological, cultural and economic hegemony of the capitalist system to bring about a more just, peaceful and democratic world.

Let me very briefly get to the individual papers.

David Hursh provides an analysis of how neo-liberal policies in United States, England and Wales and around the globe have transformed educational system according to the market principles of accountability, choice and efficiency.

Hursh identifies following rationales for neo-liberal policies that the capitalist governments around the world offer.

First, neo-liberal reforms emerged as a critique of Keynesian policies after World War II in North America and Europe. Keynesian economic policies were blamed to be unable to provide an adequate rate of profit to corporations and providing too many personal rights to individuals. Neo-liberal policies, on the contrary, promises corporate growth through increased trade and decreased taxation and regulation,  decreased public support and even privatization of public services such as health, transportation, and education. The dominance MNCs world over and the WB-IMF policies biased in favor of developed world that compel developing countries to reduce welfare function are also the product of neo-liberal policies.

Secondly, the shift towards promoting corporate over social welfare is redefining the relationship between individual and society. Because government is less responsible for the welfare of the individual, the individual becomes responsible for him/herself. In the context of education, by reducing success to individual merit schooling becomes one more consumer choice where one benefits by choosing wisely. Those who work hard are admitted to good schools and do well; those who do not work hard have only themselves to blame. Inequality is explained as difference in personal efforts.

Additionally, the critics of the public schooling has ignored the improvements of the previous three decades especially with reference to the declining racial achievement gap, and blamed education for the US’ economic and social problems. Such fallacious criticisms increased public receptivity to promises to improve education through raising standards, testing, and competition. That is how, the state managed to shift the blame away from its own policies and to retain legitimacy by appearing to improve schooling and, therefore, society.

Moreover, proponents of standardized tests use discourses of fairness, equity, and individual and economic growth in arguing for the neo-liberal reforms. They argue that standardized test scores will provide parents and teachers with a valid and reliable means of assessing student learning. Such objective methods are required, government and corporate official state, because teachers cannot be trusted to assess student learning objectively and accurately.

Finally, the reliance first on standards and testing and more recently on markets and competition demonstrates that the neo-liberal strategy in US has not been to directly intervene into the classroom but affect the educational system by focusing on output, leaving the means to achieving those goals to the schools. This has led to the development of an “evaluative state” that “steers from the distance.”

Hursh identifies many fold consequences of neo-liberal policy and supported them with quantitative and qualitative data from US and England.

Hursh refers to the federal NCBL Act that uses students scores on standardized exams to determine whether schools are succeeding or failing to make “adequate yearly progress.” According to the Act, the schools that fail to make adequate progress must fund tutoring for their students through private for-profit organization and faith-based corporations or turn over as a charter school.

Hursh further explains that the schools in England which have open enrollment, receive funding based on the number of students in the school, with no increased funding for students with disabilities, students from low income families, or students who are English language learners. Consequently, schools compete for the White middle-class students because students who have fewer needs arising from poverty, disabilities, or as English-language learners require fewer financial resources and are more likely to raise the school’s aggregated test scores published in the annual school “league table.” Those schools with high test scores are likely to admit high-scoring students to their few openings, whereas those schools with low scores are desperate to retain their “more able middle class students.

Moreover, not only does the market system exacerbate the inequalities between schools but also within schools. Since secondary schools are judged based on what grades students attain on their exams schools focus on those students who are seen as likely to achieve a grade of C or better and pay less attention to those who are likely to be failures, again typically students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are English-language learner. Students who are disadvantaged are neither sought after by schools, nor, if admitted, likely to receive much attention.

Finally, neo-liberal education reforms emphasize those subjects and dispositions that increase economic productivity by creating appropriately skilled and entrepreneurial citizens rather than education. Thus, education is simply reduced to the supplier of workers for the market.

Hursh conceptions of “evaluator state that steers schools from the distance by means of standardized tests” is in detail discussed by Kevin Vinson and E. Wayne Ross through the idea of spectacle-image-surveillance complex. 

Vinson and Ross show how Foucault’s notions of spectacle and surveillance merge together in the present day school system.  According to Foucault, both spectacle and surveillance have been used in the establishment and maintenance of regulatory power. But whereas Foucault characterized ancient civilization as the civilization of spectacle (observation of few by many) and modern civilization as a civilization of panoptic surveillance (observation of the many by few), Vinson and Ross argues that the two have merged together to bring about a more insidious and problematic gaze based disciplinarity in social spheres including school education.

Vinson and Ross provide a case of standard-based educational reform (SBER) within the No Child Left Behind (NCBL) Act of 2001 where state bureaucrats  “monitor” schools’ performance on standard-based high stakes tests which, of course, are made public through media reports to maintain “accountability.” In this case monitoring by bureaucrats and public test scores are surveillance and spectacle, respectively.  The surveillance and spectacle together function as gaze of disciplinarity to control and regulate education that has many serious impacts as explicated by Vinson and Ross:

·        The commitment to high-stakes standard-based tests trivializes the richness and complex classroom experience by invalidating the knowledge other than what is required to perform better on tests and thereby exercise a strong control over what should be learnt (curriculum)? and how it should be learnt (pedagogy)? This involves disciplining students, teachers, administrators, classrooms, schools, and districts through panoptic surveillance where teachers survey students, administrators survey teachers, and school boards and other public officials survey all of them.

·        The interesting dimension is added due to media representation of the schools’ performance on the tests that brings it under gaze of larger public. As the public views tests scores that are not satisfactory, they pressurize school personnel and public officials to do something. This gives officials increased control over curriculum, instruction, and assessment and thus increased surveillance over classroom, teachers, schools and administrators.

·        If schools and its members show conformity and observe discipline as required by these tests, they get higher graduation rates, promotion and increased funding.  Otherwise what happens is right the contrary: Graduation rates lower, teachers who object it loses their jobs and school who either do not perform better or object are not given proper funding. Thus, the connection between school knowledge and economics intensifies.

·        Since these tests take away decision-making capacity and agency from the teachers and threaten them and students by means of the results on these tests, they bring about what Marx calls alienation. Teachers are forced and in turn they force students to confine themselves to those aspects of academic knowledge that is valuable for the tests. This makes teaching and learning a repetitive, uncreative and reproductive activity.  Thus these tests are well in accord with capitalist production practices that alienates labor from the product. In this case these tests take teachers and students away from authentic teaching and learning.

·        Moreover, various reports from psychologists such as Alliance for Childhood (2001) and the results of research conducted by Boston college researchers in 1999 suggested that these tests produce high level of anxiety and stress in students.

Having explained the increasing disastrous impacts of these tests Vinson and Ross urges teachers, parents and students to boycott these tests. They also urges researchers to look for the new ways understanding the impacts of standardized tests on education and human society and disseminate the information among common people in order to resist and reverse the increasing tide of these tests. 


Dave Hill provides an in-depth Marxist critique of neo-liberal project of global capitalism whose major function is to create a “free market global economy” to facilitate the exploitation of poor countries and poor people within rich countries by developed nations and rich people, respectively. Hill articulates that Neo-liberalism is different from classic laissez-faire, as former wanted to rollback the state while later wants the state to play a strong role in suppressing any activity not in favor of global capitalism and withdraw all its welfare functions.

Hill identifies three agendas of the capitalist class in Britain and the US vis-à-vis education:

A)   Business agenda for education that centers on socially producing labor power for capitalist enterprise;

B)    Business agenda in education that centers on setting business “free” in education for profit-making;

C)   Business agenda for educational business that allows British and US based Edubusiness and those based elsewhere to profit from international privatizing activities.

Hill explicates in detail the negative effects of neoliberalism on education and society. One of the most significant negative impacts on education is the loss of critical thought. Hill argues that increasing subordination of education, including university education, and its commodification, have also been responsible for the loss of critical thought. Hill provides examples as to how in UK the term teacher education has been replaced with teacher training to ensure that teacher colleges simply produce skilled workforce to teach what is required by the market rather than critical thinkers who question the hegemonic nature of social and economic reality. He also mentions the cases of the dismissal and displacement of critical educators/institutions including him. Drawing on the works of Rikowski, Hill explains the way teachers have served at the hands of state and capitalists in producing labor force for the market and reproducing cultural, economic and ideological hegemony


Hill beautifully explains how education and the neo-liberal global capitalism are ways apart in terms of their goals, motivations, methods and standards of excellence.

Education has the goal of learning more and sharing more and more whereas capitalism’s goal is to maximize profit through accumulation of private wealth based on exploitation of surplus labor value. For education learning and growing cognitively are the real motivating forces; whereas capitalism’s main motivation is to satisfy the consumers who will purchase its products. Capitalism’s method is to sell its products while education never sells but shares without being governed by its price. Whereas capitalism’s standards rest on how well the products are sold and for how long it remains in the market, education values how deep and broad problems it poses for the teacher and the taught.

Recognizing the grave danger that neo-liberal project of global capitalism has brought about for education and society world over, Hill spends a great deal on suggesting how to resist and reverse this hegemonizing process:

·        Hill emphasizes on the Freirian notion of teachers and educators as cultural workers—those who are not merely intellectualizing about issues of social justice and equality but also struggling for the same in public and political domains such as media and policy-making.

·        Hill stresses the need to have transformative intellectuals who enable student-teachers, teachers and school students to critically evaluate a range of salient perspectives and ideologies with a commitment to egalitarianism.

·        He urges not only to work in classrooms but also outside with the community members as organic intellectuals (working with and learning from not leading them).

·        He demands from the researchers and academicians to critique those ideas that weakens struggle for equality and justice including all “post” discourses.

Rich Gibson’s deep insights into Marxism and its core tenet dialectical materialism helps him bring on the surface the theoretical contradiction in the work of late Brazilian educator Paulo Friere. Gibson gives an adequate explanation of the incompatibility of religion/idealism and Marxism and thereby shatters the basis on which Freire tried to forge a link among Marxism, Catholicism, post-modernism and liberalism.

Gibson presents a significant critique of objective idealism and mechanical materialism to explicate the notion of dialectical materialism. 

Objective idealism believes that though the world exists other than the mind, the key to change is necessarily the mind. In the words of Freire “read the word to read the world.” Mechanical materialism is devoid of any substantial analysis of labor and capital and believes that national development and abundance comes first and sharing and equality comes later. Dialectical materialism, Gibson defines, is the study of change in the material world. It is the idea that things do indeed exist external to you or me, although we are clearly part of the world, and that things change, and the human agency, including the conscious agency, is a key part of social change. According to Gibson, dialectical materialism is the only viable tool of social analysis and change in real sense of the terms.  Gibson provides a concrete example of how Freire’s objective-idealist and mechanical-materialist thoughts were responsible for the failure of the revolutionary movement in Grenada and Guinea-Bissau to reinforce his argument.

Gibson praises Freire for his emphasis on education as an democratic egalitarian weapon and for recognizing the immense significance of problem posing pedagogical methods instead of “banking method.” However, Gibson critiques the four-part formula of social justice developed by Freire: Literacy, social insight, revolution and national economic development. It is the last part of his framework that received heavy criticism from Gibson. He shows how mechanical materialism in former USSR, China and other communist countries reduced Marxism to industrialization and technological development where equality could wait till abundance is achieved. The same happened due to the advice of Freire in the revolutionary movements of Grenada and Guinea-Bissau where national economic development became more important than equality.

In the latter part of his paper Gibson identifies and explains the reasons that do not allow the creation of an active citizenry and provide suggestions to reverse the increasing tide of capitalism.

Reasons that do not allow creation of an active citizenry include:

·        Curriculum regulations and standardized tests to control teachers.

·        Rise of irrationality, a convergence of organized and unorganized superstitions, turns to faith, and mysticism of one form or another.

·        Unity between Nationalists and corporatists for national development and war.

·        Alienation as explained by Vinson and Ross

·        Secararianism and opportunism.

Gibson suggests many ways to counter the ever-growing exploitation of capitalism including revolutionary organization and passion as the core value.   He quotes Ollman that summarizes his intentions.

          Workers must recognize that they have interests and they must see their interests as individuals and the member of a class; they must believe that their class interest come prior to their interests as members of a particular nation, religion, race etc.; they must truly hate their capitalist exploiter; they must have an idea that their conditions can be qualitatively changed; they must believe that they themselves, through some means or others, can help bring about this improvement; they must believe that Marx’s strategy, or that advocated by Marxist leaders, offers the best means for achieving their aims; and finally, having arrived at all the foregoing, they must not be afraid to act when the time comes.

          Of the nine suggestions Gibson drops the fifth one that suggests to hate the capitalist as he feels that the opposite is love is not hate but indifference.