The New Two-Tiered Education System in the United States

Expanding and commodifying poverty and inequality

Authored by: Kenneth J. Saltman

The Routledge Handbook of Poverty in the United States

Print publication date:  December  2014
Online publication date:  December  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415673440
eBook ISBN: 9781315755519
Adobe ISBN: 9781317627401


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In the 1970s and 1980s scholars from the critical perspective raised a number of crucial questions about the relationship between education and the economy. In the U.S. context, theorists of social and cultural reproduction Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, in Schooling in Capitalist America, challenged the meritocratic ideology of both liberals and conservatives who presumed schooling to be an equality-promoting device (Bowles and Gintis, 2010). Instead, Bowles and Gintis explained that schooling largely functioned to deepen and entrench the racialized class order under the guise of merit. They empirically demonstrated that the determinant of students’ future wealth and income is a student’s class position and family wealth and income rather than either intelligence or amount of schooling. Liberals and conservatives have largely ignored the insights of reproduction theory with regard to the relationship between schooling and poverty. Rather than recognize the extent to which schooling has been and continues to be implicated in the recreation of the class hierarchy across the political spectrum, a simple yet false connection is made in which more schooling is equated with greater inclusion into the capitalist economy. Following the economic crisis of 2008 President Barack Obama, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, and Thomas Friedman all insisted that the solution to the unemployment crisis was better education, more effective teachers, and so on. “Better” under the Obama administration would turn out to mean even more aggressive expansion of the neoliberal restructuring of education promoted by his predecessor — privatization, union-busting, testing to punish teachers and students, and the expansion of corporate culture into all realms of education. Displacement of the destruction of the capitalist economic system onto teachers and children is shared by conservatives and liberals alike. Conservative economists of education such as the prominent Hoover Fellow Erik Hanushek argue that radically unequal educational spending should not be remedied but that better teaching methods and more privatization will increase the “quality” of education and that this will yield higher incomes and greater prosperity (Hanushek and Woessmann, 2010). Such a view is refuted by nations that have high levels of educational attainment but high levels of unemployment among these graduates. Liberal policy scholar Linda Darling-Hammond argues for equalizing educational resources on the basis that the United States. will be better able to compete in the global economy and the American empire will be able to maintain its global economic and military dominance which will translate into greater upward mobility for American students (Darling-Hammond, 2010). Darling-Hammond says little about the global race to the bottom for cheap labor in the neoliberal context nor how expanded capitalist production produces poverty and labor exploitation in the places receiving industrial production. While she recognizes that the United States has become a knowledge economy, she, nor Hanushek for that matter, has no explanation for how these jobs too will not be outsourced to India, Jamaica, and other nations with highly educated super-exploited and underemployed populations. The liberal defense of public schooling amidst the neoliberal onslaught is inadequate because it fails to address what reproduction theory makes central. That is, while liberals and conservatives disagree as to teaching methods, investment in schooling, and equality of educational resources, they share a false assumption that education is responsible for ameliorating poverty and they remain silent on capitalism’s necessary production of poverty to make profits for owners, class antagonism, and the crises of overproduction, not to mention the ecological unsustainability of capitalist growth, the fostering of anti-democratic social relationships, and the corrupting effects to ethics and non-market values such as care, compassion, equality, and justice. In what follows here I revisit the insights of reproduction theorists during Fordism and what needs to be understood about reproduction and the dominant educational reform trends in the current post-Fordist economy.

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