Unpacking “Neoliberal” Schooling

Chris McNutt
May 6, 2020
Within the school system, neoliberalism rears its head in the standardized testing-, marketing-, and curriculum-complex, where each assessment, packaged idea, and educational buzzword is sold for high profits.

In our Human Restoration Project Primer, we talk about the practice of neoliberal schooling. Neoliberalism refers to the overarching free-market capitalist culture which most of the world resides under. However, this is not the same as a well-regulated economic system. Rather, neoliberalism employs measures toward full privatization, completely unregulated markets, and government-financial corruption.

Within the school system, neoliberalism rears its head in the standardized testing-, marketing-, and curriculum-complex, where each assessment, packaged idea, and educational buzzword is sold for high profits. Those leading these industries stand to gain from the education system staying relatively the same, continuing to hold power over how our children learn.

Further, neoliberalism conflates how we educate children — how they are treated, judged, assessed, ranked, and filed. As Henry Giroux states,

Neoliberalism operates on the assumption that the economy has to govern not only the market, but also life in society, and it produces an ideology whose most dangerous idea is that all problems are individual, that social problems do not exist. In addition, it normalises a culture of cruelty, because it suggests that compassion, worrying about others or social justice are undesirable values because they get in the way of the market. There is no notion of responsibility that suggests that you have to connect your experience of the market with the social cost. In short, it is an ideology, not just a series of economic structures, and apart from feudalism, it is probably the strongest ideology that we have seen.

For educators (and really, anyone) within this system, there is relative comfort in maintaining the status quo. Nothing fundamentally changes, and we are naturally disposed to preferring conformity and pattern-like behavior. Yet, when our children are experiencing unprecedented anxiety, depression, and stress, our testing metrics are unsustainable and irrelevant, and racist practices are still prevalent — among many other misguided ideas in school, rarely does reform work or much change day-to-day. Statements such as, “Yes, but at the end of the day I have to give a test!” are completely normal — educators are assessed, employed, and expected to prepare students for standardized testing — but these tests still uphold the ridiculous practice of determining a student’s worth, labelling them based on inaccurate, at best, “science.”

Typically, when a study demonstrates the importance of a certain concept, corporations jump at the lucrative opportunity to provide schools with simple solutions to complex problems. These solutions tend to be ineffective, not enough, or completely counter to the original research (e.g. warping Angela Duckworth’s “grit” to mean “zero tolerance” preparatory schools.) Fundamentally, we are not making a large enough difference to see systemic change, instead opting to find ways to institute progressive reforms within the current systems. This causes teachers to burn out (planning yet another thing), ridiculous sums being spent, and the idea to never flourish as it could (generally, these plans become fads, reappearing over many years.)

The following list from our Primer states what Human Restoration Project sees as neoliberal practices within schools today. This is not to state that teachers are to blame for these problems, or that schools are doing wrong by their students by using these techniques. A key component of neoliberalism is how large, powerful financial interests make changing anything so difficult that it breeds apathy and general disinterest in attempting to make a difference.

It’s really hard to make these changes, and most schools have some of these practices! Instead, it’s a chance to look at how we can change systems, rather than default to always using specific strategies, to completely transform the learning environment for the betterment of students.

Pictured: A gradebook filled with stars for different students.

a well-planned game that engages students in course content

A flourishing industry surrounds purchasing and crafting curriculum that “engages” students in “fun” activities. These games, often led by hooks of pop-culture references or over-the-top theatrical performance, are innocent at their core. The danger of this curriculum is the expectation of an educator to consistently translate and produce lessons that result in the learning of course content. This exhausting process is unsustainable and unrealistic. Despite this, many decry the need for educators to “give it all up for their students!” or make references to how the best educators always are on the job.

For ever-rising fees, educators can purchase packages to make this process simpler. Schools are hiring guest speakers, sending teachers to conferences, and purchasing bulk-load curriculum to equip their teachers with the best “play-based” learning opportunities. It’s great that students are engaged in more active learning, but free play is more effective, and these curricular packages place the workload primarily on the teacher. An entire industry is fabricated on the need to “entertain” students through the set curriculum (which implies that the curriculum must not be that entertaining on its own.)

Instead, why are we not surveying students, finding out what matters to them, and co-creating projects that engage the community and naturally excites learners? Students crave authentic work. They want to become involved in their communities. When students feel emboldened to change the world for the better, they are free to learn, experience, and build their own engaging curriculum that actually makes a difference. The teacher is a guide on their journey to success, and everyone learns in the process.

changing the grading system to 1–4, rather than A-F

Standards Based Grading (SBG) is still on-trend in assessment fads. At its core, it’s a great idea — see how a student demonstrates the idea as opposed to creating a specific task and assessing compliance. However, in the push for alternative assessment options — many schools opt for translated systems that do the exact same thing. SBG that still grades on a 1–4 rubric is the exact same thing as issuing 0%, 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100%, in the same way that Mastery-based grading that calculates points is the same as a letter grade. There is a worrisome amount of wasted time when educators attempt to determine a “3” versus a “4.”

No matter how we swing it, the moment we insert extrinsic motivators to a grading system, we undermine the process of intrinsic motivation. There is sometimes a place for some extrinsic motivation (I state this hesitantly), but the underlying structure cannot be based purely on extrinsic motivation as almost every school is today. The effects of grading are well-documented and researched.

Without grades, there is no sorting of students into levels or competitive element of “achievement.” The emphasis of being more academically intelligent than one’s peers is gone, and no one is left out. Unlike the market, which throws aside those who lack the access, ability, or equity to participate — education is a place where all have the opportunity to grow and develop. It is sacrilege in some circles to even consider that some students deserve to pass or even want to learn. Grades label students, bring about negative mindsets, and place students on tracks to achieve or not achieve. These aren’t products, they’re people. They have rich, vibrant experiences, knowledge, passions, and purpose.

practicing mindfulness to get students through the school day

Mindfulness is an effective strategy to help students relax, become motivated, and appreciate the world around them. But, the practice of mindfulness is often used to deal with school itself. When we use yoga to mentally prepare students for standardized testing, or purchase mindfulness programs to help students concentrate in otherwise unchanged courses, we’re unwilling to change existing ineffective and boring practice, instead putting a bandaid on the problem.

The more radical practice is to dismantle the structure entirely. Build alternatives to standardized testing; provide students with the ability to co-create curriculum; share teacher/student power; and create spaces that support physical, emotional, and social well-being.

The mindfulness industry has been falsely promoted as a solution to depression and anxiety. As Ruth Whippman explains in America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks,

The more happiness research I read, the more it starts to look as though we might all get a better happiness return from sitting in the pub with our friends, bitching about meditation, rather than by actually practicing it.

Whippman goes on to explain that the real keys of happiness: social interaction, a greater sense of community, and common causes are being whisked away by our job-centered culture. The same can be said for schools, where socialization is restricted (sometimes highly restricted), community is centered on maintaining control and “positive behaviors” (set by the administration), and one’s overall sense of worth is individualized academic achievement. The tie of one’s academic goals are the same as the financial incentives of the office. According to Whippman,

Community may be the key to happiness, but a manufactured community with financial motives lurking behind every interaction is not the same as a real, organic community, nurtured from genuine human empathy.

setting aside an hour each week to support student interests

“Genius hour” is the new normal across classrooms in the US. We have started to realize that letting students pursue their own interests, hopefully without fear of assessment, leads to fantastic outcomes. The question then, is why do we limit this practice? If it works, and students are demonstrating learning, why are we not shifting to a model that expands upon “genius hour”? Self-directed learning is tied to better academic outcomes and emotional well-being.

As Ira Socol states in Timeless Learning,

Authentic opportunities for learners to create, design, build, engineer, and compose cannot truly coexist within the standardization model. That’s why tinkering around the edges, adding a ‘genius hour’ to an otherwise unchanged school day, accomplishes nothing except to highlight all that’s wrong with our schools for this century.

It’s relatively easy to incorporate one class per week into self-directed purpose-driven learning, but absolutely radical to drop 80% of the curriculum to hone in on student interests. Without the “fundamentals”, the worry is that students will not “succeed.” Negating the fact that students will contextualize and explore each of the four dominant subject areas in their own quest for purpose, and simultaneously barely covering this information anyways to “breadth over depth” curricula, perfectly describes a venture capitalist mindset of learning. Check all the boxes, meet all the required tasks, and showcase student “performance.” Self-directed purpose-driven classrooms don’t have set boxes, set tasks, or even a barometer of performance. Because learning is complex, a legacy classroom cannot easily rank, file, and manage. The classroom is a place of learning, not a place of business.

setting aside “nice to know“ from “need to know“

A common instructional strategy is separating “nice to know” information from “need to know” information (NtK), with the belief that the more “nice to know” information that’s thrown in, the more muddled the “need to know” information becomes. In theory, this is a fine idea — as long as we assume the “need to know” information is actually…needed. NtK vs NtK is employed in the corporate world, where managers train their employees in what they must do, but are told to avoid too many anecdotes or niche circumstances. This makes sense — as the goal is training.

A regular classroom is not a place to train. Nor is a teacher the same as a technician who uses managerial strategies. There are places for training in school — if a student wants to take a career technical education course, or if they sign up to be trained in a skill — but the regular, academic classroom is rooted in inquiry and experience. In other words, we start learning reading by our own interest, exploration, and “deep dive” into literature, as opposed to worksheets, rigid activities, and instructional strategies. These can be used later when a student desires extra help — but it’s not a catch-all for large groups of students.

Too many classrooms operate on the belief that all students “need” to know the same things, or that the traditional four core subject areas are “core” at all. Certainly, if these subjects are core, the strategies being used aren’t working. Not many Americans read books. Over a third of Americans can’t name one right in the first amendment. Instead of replicating education reform centered on “back to basics” — as in, drilling the “need to know” information (which we have done, in cycles, for over a hundred years), we should consider centering on real “back to basics” — as in discovery learning, which we’ve done for centuries.

The classroom has an important place where learners can cooperatively build community, learn from another, and explore each others’ interests. It’s a place to center on the “need to know”, such as basic literacy, when a student is struggling and wants additional help. The industry/education complex sells “packages” that promise high literacy rates or increased civic understanding, treating teachers like managers, and promises skill gains at the behest of teacher and student autonomy.

supporting relationship building to control one’s classroom

Continuing the trend of treating teachers like technicians, “relationship building” has become a strategy over a core component of human interaction. Of course, relationships are paramount to learning. Teachers should be applauded for the work they do in building trust. However, when we use “relationship tactics” to build these relationships, we run the danger of commodifying the relationship itself. As in, when we see our students as an array of talking heads that need our “10 for 10” minutes each day, to ensure our “connection” with them, so we can be sure we “get results”, there’s no longer the same organic, human connection that once existed.

There’s a fine line to be walked here. We need to ensure equitable treatment of all students. We should be aware of an inherent bias in how we communicate with students. And we also must recognize that we will not connect with all students, and that’s okay. Certain students have certain lifestyles, cultures, and views, which we can all learn from. That does not mean that we are going to connect at the same level as the teacher next door.

True relationships have so many background factors influencing them. It’s better to be the teacher making organic, real connections to a lower percentage of the class, than the teacher using strategies in an attempt to reach every single student, ultimately having no true relationships at all. The “technician” component of relationship building encourages breadth over depth, over the innate thing that makes relationships a human endeavor.

Our goal in building relationships isn’t to “get results” or “increase productivity” — but to nurture and forge the connection itself. There isn’t an underlying secret plan to increase a student’s academic success, although that might be a result. The purpose is transparent: we just want to have a connection.

Pictured: A large, many seated conference with a speaker and two screens.

hooking students with pop culture references always being positive, energetic, and optimistic

In a world where “entertaining” motivational speeches have replaced meaningful educational dialogue, we have moved away from professional to spectacle. We have an obligation to connect with students and their culture, and to build a positive school culture. However, none of this is built on spending giant sums on room transformation, games, and/or over-the-top activities. Sure — this content can be invigorating and inspiring, but the point of our classes is to make it intrinsically interesting.

More often than not, these methods are built on a behaviorist theory of control. To ensure students aren’t bored and “swirly”, develop activities that keep students 100% moving and doing things. These practices are fine in isolation and when students are involved in co-creating and planning them. Yet, we must be very careful to walk a fine line between planning for compliance versus planning for inspiration versus planning for learning.

At what point are our classes turning into spectacle over substance? If it mirrors the educational conferences that promote these methods, it may whitewash, de-center the student, and continue a colonized, adult-centric education system that does nothing to fundamentally change what the process of “school” looks like. There is little critical discussion of what it means to build democratic classrooms, or incorporate research, or examining racism, sexism, classism, or gender identity in school cultures and the curricula. The peak of a neoliberalist agenda is to sell merchandise, conferences, books, and PD on great teaching, only to center “great teaching” on buying merchandise and attending the conference itself. We’re making “feel good” classes that may marginally improve instruction, but will not see meaningful change.

controlling student movements to moderate the classroom

The hidden curricula of “engaging” neoliberal activities is centered around control. We must realize that our current culture of school benefits from silencing students. As bell hooks writes,

Bourgeois values in the classroom create a barrier, blocking the possibility of confrontation and conflict, warding off dissent. Students are often silenced by means of their acceptance of class values that teach them to maintain order at all costs.

With the intent of “saving students”, desiring a better future for all, many subscribe to the belief system of controlling students and making “well-structured” classrooms. Essentially, “students won’t learn unless we ‘fix’ them.” This external locus of control centers instruction from teacher to student, relying on a teacher to “solve a student’s ‘problems’” via games, activities, and festivities.

This is mirrored to the “soulful corporation” movement of the 1950s, where businesses framed their success on the care of their employees. For example, Starbucks routinely highlights their benefits program, flexible schedules, and their positive treatment of baristas, while simultaneously putting employees into harm’s way during COVID-19. The framing by Starbucks allows customers to go about their business with some level of dignity, while Starbucks can exploit the working class (who further feels validated by the few humanizing benefits they receive.)

As Noam Chomsky writes,

…an economic elite which is dripping with soulfulness, to use Ralph Miliband’s phrase, is constrained by the system in which it functions to organize production for certain ends: power, growth, profit, but not in the nature of the case human needs, needs that to an ever more critical degree can be expressed only in collective terms. It is surely conceivable and is perhaps even likely that decisions made by the collective itself, will reflect these needs and interests as well as those made by various soulful elites.

In the same terms, our students who have “engaging” teachers with packaged materials and cool stickers may feel more engrossed in the classroom. They may love their teachers and feel inspired — the teachers will “sell tickets”, so to speak, to their classroom. But again, nothing has fundamentally changed about the system: improve test scores, maintain the curriculum, don’t question discrimination, don’t question control or power, keep on with “business as usual.”

Pictured: The Teachers Pay Teachers "reward systems" search.

finding ways to pair projects to content standards / seeing one’s classroom content as unrelentingly important

Project based learning tends to end the second a group of teachers tries to make the experience 100% connected to their content. As every educator knows, our content is not entirely applicable to the real world. Some of it can be important, in certain scenarios, but not every student needs to know all of it. Arguably, they need to know very little of any of it.

Our goal as educators should be to introduce students to concepts, provide room for exploration and growth, and to see how our knowledge and field can help their purposeful actions take course. Counter to this belief are unwavering instructors who just do what they’re told, following the standards without question and finding “innovative” ways to do school as usual. While they are experts at their craft, and undoubtably their students are going to retain and regurgitate information well, there is content with the system at large and no act of rebellion.

Or, taking steps to incorporate some levels of purposeful action within a course, but only enough to satisfy some progressive means to an end. Pairing to neoliberalism, Steve Fraser writes in The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power,

Arguably, the essential genius of the American political tradition consists of this complex choreography: accommodating the passions and interests opened up by the protocols of democracy without disturbing the underlying equanimity of capital accumulation and rule by propertied elites. It is a balancing act made even more complicated by the heightened fluidity of the American experience of class hierarchy, perhaps best captured by that old but still cogent observation about ‘shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.’

The “factory model of schooling” framing lends itself to surface-level inquiry on how our schools mirror processing centers: we take students who “know nothing”, have them go on an “assembly line”, then end up “educated.” Most do not follow this prescriptive model, and it’s fairly easy to agree with the sentiment that things need to change. However, we are simultaneously engrossed in the “21st century schooling” framework, that is the exact same system but allows for additional voice and choice. Throw in a genius hour, do some more group discussions, and have a project at the end of the endangered species unit.

The fact of the matter is that reenvisioning education will require entirely new concepts of what public school can be. Different levels of creative noncompliance can be enacted in different contexts, yet we must be uncomfortable in solely tinkering with the status quo. Being a progressive educator involves a cognitive dissonance of rationalizing the standardized test or still teaching “a history class”, while juxtaposing critical pedagogy and student co-governance. This pedagogical framework is missing from a troubling amount of foundations, publishers, and coalitions working to “change” education.

Indeed, one may walk into my classroom and not see all of these changes — not all systemic change is possible from day one. There is always a desire to do better or to improve things that I know are wrong — it’s a matter of finding the best way to use our political and social capital to do so, to better our system through calculated risk.

visioning oneself as a savior to rescue students

Underlying the education system is an imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal culture, as hooks likes to frame power structures. Implicit in any retention of “business as usual” is that schools perpetuate class, race, and gender stereotypes. Those who uphold this narrative, who bolster the status quo, practice behaviorism and “evidence-based” practice, and see reform as a way to “double down” on traditional norms, continually see segregative conferences, PD, and curricula framing. As brilliant outlined by Benjamin Doxtdator, so much “research-backed practice” is rooted in inequity.

As Antonio Gramsci wrote, the dominant hegemonic culture of education centers itself on language and practices that diminish the oppressed:

The individual consciousness of the overwhelming majority of children reflects social and cultural relations which are different from and antagonistic to those which are represented in the school curricula.

Neoliberal use of certain verbiage, often coopted from progressive education (even the word “progressive” itself) maintains a savior complex — that the educator is meant to “save” students by “educating” them. This is notable in Teach Like a Champion 2.0 by Doug Lemov, where verbiage is undeniably tied to “behavior management”:

Technique “Right is Right”: When you respond to answers in class, hold out for answers that are ‘all-the-way right’ or all the way to your standards of rigour

Technique “Affirmative Checking”: Insert specific points into your lesson when students must get confirmation that their work is correct, productive, or sufficiently rigorous before moving on to the next stage

Technique “Make Compliance Visible”: Ensure that students follow through on a request in an immediate and visible way by setting a standard that’s more demanding than marginal compliance. Be judicious in what you ask for, specifically because it will uphold the standard of compliance.

Technique “Art of the Consequence”: Ensure that consequences, when needed, are more effective by making them quick, incremental, consistent and depersonalised. It also helps to make a bounce-back statement, showing students that they can quickly get back in the game

Or in further cooption of educational statements, such as…

The language we use informs the mindset we have about the classroom. Is our role as educators to prepare students for a powerless position under a corporation’s fingertips, or is it to inspire students on how to act purposefully and passionately? We must withstand the neoliberal structures that make us believe that “great teaching” is centered on control rather than the messy, abstract nature of education.

The neoliberal agenda is best displayed in (recently a published author) CJ Reynolds YouTube channel and writings. Expertly produced with (a lot of) merchandise sales, Reynolds states how to effectively “control” classrooms in a flashy way. This video documents “classroom management strategies.” Within, you’ll find…

This reflects a greater cultural rift of attempting to “save” low-income, discriminated students. As Antonia Darder states in Culture and Power in the Classroom,

Although the dynamics of victim blaming are much more obvious within a conservative perspective, which clearly functions in support of the status quo, liberal victim blaming ideologies function in a more hidden and subtle manner. Although liberals, in essence, recognize that inequity exists in American society, they seek solutions that will work to prepare (change or fix) the bicultural student so that she or he will be able to compete better in the (unequal) system.

Yet, after four decades of liberal educational reforms, followed by neoliberal solutions to address problems of schooling, both educational and income inequalities stubbornly persist, with fewer than 10 percent of low-income students of color ever moving out of the lower social stratum. of those who do, most only move a few short steps up the social mobility scale (deLone, 1979). In 2005, 12.6 percent of all Americans were poor, and more than 90 million people had incomes below 200 percent of federal poverty thresholds. 5 Five years later, the ranks of working-age poor have climbed to the highest level since the 1960s, as the recession threw millions of people out of work, leaving one in seven Americans in poverty.

(As a side note, instead of buying Reynolds’ new, questionably researched and tokenistic, book, you could purchase the recently published The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools by Jeffrey M.R. Duncan-Andrade and Dr. Ernest Morrell.)

believing an education is needed to get ahead in society

Mandated by each neoliberal trait is the definition of “success” by walking the line accordingly. To be “successful” one follows a path through “rigorous” curriculum, recognizing the importance of core subjects, attending college, getting a degree, then becoming employed in a well-paying job. No question of inequity, our major societal issues, or the zombification of this process in a students’ search for meaning.

If one walks into their class believing that reading Shakespeare is necessary for one to get into college and live a successful life, their pedagogical framework will never ensure all students are cared for, respected, and nourished. When we attach education to curricular standards that boil down learning to set standards without room for improvement or dissection, we perpetuate the goals of the elite. The elite benefits when nothing is dramatically changed, and a lot needs changing.

In closing, we must recognize the impetus on educators to change the world through their students. By changing systems of education, rather than acting as technicians who employ strategies to uphold the status quo, we are allowing students to build the skillset necessary to make a better future. It is only through the radical actions of educators that these systems will be fundamentally altered. None of this is to suggest that teachers who subscribe to dominant methods are nefarious or terrible people. Rather, it is to recognize that neoliberalism is our culture — and to be living within that culture, it’s no wonder that people would want to improve their status and abilities at its clauses. Many don’t even recognize that the things they’re doing are harmful, or are willing to accept that what works best for them may not work best for others.

We have the experience, wherewithal, and authority to enact disobedient measures to craft sustainable classrooms that inch ever closer toward a liberatory pedagogy. We must question the dominant framework, push back, and continue the revolution. Together — we can realize that change.

(1*) There were many points while watching this video that I literally slammed my laptop shut out of pure rage.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
The YouTube symbol. (A play button.)

watch now