With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Noah De Lissovoy is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education. In 2014, he wrote the book Education and Emancipation in the Neoliberal Era: Being, Teaching, and Power, which is still winning awards today.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: What is your book about and what topics does it touch on?
Noah De Lissovoy: It’s a critical investigation of education in the context of neo-liberalism. In the present, the framing of society and school is a business model in terms of competition, efficiency and markets. Public life in general, not only schools, is increasingly understood in these ways and education has to deliver to the taxpayers on the model of corporation rights.
That’s the general context, and the book is a philosophical analysis about college and the curriculum side of education in a broader social context, and then also a proposal of alternative approaches to teaching and to schooling.
Within the book, there’s several different main emphases. In terms of the analysis of neo-liberalism, one element is a focus in the present on spirited cutbacks and a kind of hostility to public education and services more generally. Making schools more efficient often means starving them of resources; in the case of public schools, movements to charter systems.
Another key element I look at is accountability, the idea that we need a kind of constant process of assessment and auditing. Again, that’s a larger social process, but in education that means testing. (That includes) both testing of students and measurement of teachers on the basis of test scores, and so-called value added measurement of teacher performance based on changes in student’s test performance, and also accountability report cards for schools based on testing. So that’s another key theme.
The third main one for the book that isn’t as focused on in the discussion of neo-liberalism is punishment. I argue this is a big part of the current political and social moment, and also in society more broadly, as our prison system has grown tremendously. In schools in the last few years, there’s definitely a trend toward zero-tolerance disciplinary schemes in schools and a kind of behaviorally-focused instruction that aims to train students to stay in line. Race and racism is a big factor in all of these elements, but particularly punishment.
Those are the main emphases of what I investigate.
Trib+Edu: How does neo-liberalism limit potentials in schools?
De Lissovoy: It frames learning as an individual process, rather than a social and democratic process. In neo-liberalism, students are trained to understand themselves as in competition, always, with those around them and that their job is to advance themselves and to develop their own human capital and stock of skills against everyone else.
It also limits potential because it reduces our collective understanding of what it means to teach and learn to those kinds of activities and understandings that can’t be measured by multiple choice tests and standardized tests. We look to those as evidence for learning, which many researchers have shown has a very negative impact on what’s available as modes of curriculum, pedagogy and engagement for students. For students, I believe, this has a negative impact.
Trib+Edu: How does your research relate to some of the topics you discuss in the book?
De Lissovoy: I analyze this basic landscape through different critical series and lenses to try to understand their meanings. Then, I try to propose alternative approaches that might challenge this framework for schooling and teaching.
Trib+Edu: Is there anything the state and schools can do to help with these issues?
De Lissovoy: I think public schools are important and they need to be defended and supported. We need to increase funding to public schools and resist the fragmentation and the charterization of public schools.
At the policy level and at the curriculum level, we need to resist this neo-liberal business understanding of education, which means not starving the public schools of resources. We have to move away from these high-stake tests, in my view, which really distort the curriculum for students and we have to respond to the needs, desires, cultures and experiences of students. We can do that. There’s no reason why we can’t collectively, as a democracy and as school communities, explore alternative emphases in curriculum and integrate a more authentic way to make schools more democratic.
I think there are steps we can take, but at the same time it’s not just about policy fixes. It’s about a social movement to challenge neo-liberalism. Education is definitely a part of it, but this needs to be a larger movement to challenge these processes.