Manufactured Austerity, Disaster Capitalism, and Education Reform

aus·ter·i·ty /ôˈsterədē/ noun

  • sternness or severity of manner or attitude.

“he was noted for his austerity and his authoritarianism”

  • extreme plainness and simplicity of style or appearance.

“the room was decorated with a restraint bordering on austerity”

  • conditions characterized by severity, sternness, or asceticism.

plural noun: austerities

“a simple life of prayer and personal austerity”

synonyms: severity, strictness, seriousness, solemnity, gravity; frugality, thrift, economy, asceticism; self-discipline, abstinence, sobriety, restraint, chastity; starkness

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In the second half of AMC’s The Walking Dead Season 5, the main characters and viewers discover Alexandria, introducing into the dystopian landscape a utopian [1] possibility.

This new setting raises, as Erik Kain explains, a different set of dangers, expressed openly by several characters: “The first danger will be the invitation of a warm bed and a warmer meal. Rick, Carol, Daryl, Michonne, Glenn and the rest all risk becoming as soft and weak and fat as their new hosts.”

Rick and his crew, then, are determined to remain vigilant against the creeping allure of becoming soft—having spent years now hardening themselves against the Social Darwinism of the zombie apocalypse.

In this dystopia, zombies are pervasive, and the possibility of any return to so-called normalcy appears gone. Rick, Carol, and Daryl, at least, seem certain that the relief of Alexandria is short-lived, if not entirely illusion.

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Other than being key elements in education reform over the last 10-30 years, what do all of the following have in common?:

  • School choice formats: vouchers, tuition tax credits, public school choice, charter schools.
  • “No excuses” ideologies and policies.
  • “Grit” narratives and research.
  • No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Opting out of NCLB.
  • Value-added methods (VAM) of teacher evaluation and pay; calls to fire “bad” teachers (such as the bottom 5%, reminiscent of stack ranking).
  • Standards and standardized tests as part of high-stakes accountability.
  • School report cards.
  • Exit exams.
  • 3rd-grade retention based on high-stakes tests.
  • School and district take-over policies such as the RSD in New Orleans and ASD in Tennessee.

A common set of threads run through the accountability era: Assumptions that educational outcomes are the result of low effort by schools, teachers, and students; and thus, the need for incentives, competition, and overall accountability.

So my answer to my question above is that education reform is essentially manufactured austerity, resulting in educators, parents, and students being conditioned—like the main characters in The Walking Dead—to be hard in order to survive a dystopian world (a world that functions like New Orleans in a state of disaster capitalism).

The problem? The dystopia of the zombie apocalypse is fiction, and although humans are never going to achieve utopia, we in the more so-called advanced countries in the world (notably the U.S.) are coming very close to being able (if anyone had the political will) to create a world in which austerity is nearly absent.

That would be a world of community and collaboration, equity and trust—essentially nothing like the dystopias being created in our public school system by education reform.

And let me highlight once again the most disturbing element that represents my generalization: using VAM to evaluate, retain/dismiss, and pay teachers creates a system in which each teacher must seeks ways in which her/his students can beat other children in other teachers’ classroom in order to survive and thrive in the zombie apocalypse of education reform.

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There is a stark reason zombie narratives are popular in the Western world, cultures in practice dedicated not to democracy and equity, but to Social Darwinism and consumerism—a dog-eat-dog existence that we at least unconsciously recognize in the zombie, the living dead trapped in a constant state of consuming simply to be consuming, not as nourishment.

Manufactured austerity feeds disaster bureaucracy, and as such, education reform is not about reforming education, but feeding disaster bureaucracy, as DeLeuze details:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools….But everyone knows that these institutions are finished….These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything [emphasis added]. (pp. 3, 5)

“[N]ever finished with anything”—like a new set of standards and new high-stakes tests every few years?

For Further Reading

Time as Capital: The Rise of the Frantic Class

Post-apocalyptic Mindset in a Civilized World

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

Education Accountability as Disaster Bureaucracy

Why Sending Your Child to a Charter School Hurts Other Children

Gates’s Cannibalistic Culture: Coming to a School Near You!

Death to Common Core! Long Live Failed Education Policy!

[1] See Margaret Atwood: the road to Ustopia for an excellent discussion of genre and the intersection of dystopia/utopia. Also, Margaret Atwood on Science Fiction, Dystopias, and Intestinal Parasites.

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