Lance Hill on the way the privatizers have hijacked the word "reform"

See Lance Hill’s insightful comments below.  I have long believed that we need to reclaim that word “reform” for ourselves; we at PAA say we support “progressive education reform.”  and oppose “corporate reform” based on privatization, competition, and high-stakes testing. The people at the GEM, the Grassroots Education Movement, who made the new film The  Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman, call themselves the “real reformers.” . I am starting to use the hashtag  #realreform when I tweet, and hope others will as well.

The other day a local paper referred those opposed to school privatization and de-professionalization of teachers as “critics of the school reform movement.”  I don’t regard privatizing schools, abolishing local democratic control of schools, or replacing qualified teachers with untrained temporary workers as a “reform movement,” especially give the positive connotations that the word “reform” carries.  The dictionary definition of reform is 1. to make better 2. to improve by removing faults and or abuses.  School privatization is no more a reform movement than the policy to privatize prisons is a “prison reform movement.” Both share the goal of shifting public assets into the private sector and removing publicly funded institutions from direct elected government oversight and accountability.

But the ease with which the media can characterize us as contrarians does raise an important issue.  A common vocabulary is indispensible to building a movement.  The privatization advocates have done this well, wrapping the market-based model in the language of choice, opportunity, rights, and equality and even arrogating the image of the “new civil rights movement.”   This last piece of word play is especially offensive give that the goal of the civil rights movement was to empower dispossessed and disenfranchised people, not steal what little they controlled.

So who are we?  What terms should we use as political shorthand that will convey what our goals are?  The school privatizers dismiss us as supporters of the “status quo” and the label will stick as long as we don’t reach a consensus on how we define ourselves and that encoded shorthand phrase conveys our vision of education.

In a sense, we are defined by the other opposition—we are resisting “reforms” that don’t make education “better” and don’t remove “faults.”   We are “anti-privatization, “anti-business model,” “anti-market-based model” and anti teacher-deproffesionalization.  Defining us in oppositional terms may makes sense—the “anti-war” movement had its appeal.  But is there a positive, visionary and universal definition that would serve us better; one that would denote our belief in educational excellence,  equity, and democracy?

Are we the “school democracy” movement, or is that too narrow and does that not address that democracy by itself is not the solution to the problems of inadequate and inequitable educational funding, high-stakes testing, and poverty?   Without a common analysis of the problem and its solutions and a common vocabulary to express those ideas, we allow the other side to define our public image.

So how do we encapsulate the message that we are “status futurum” rather than “status quo”?  I am sure that this discussion is occurring in other circles but it would be helpful to engage our growing movement in a public discussion through the internet.

— Lance Hill, Ph.D., Executive Director, Southern Institute for Education and Research, Tulane University,

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