Experiment: Explain something I have experienced but couldn’t explain at the time.
When I was still a teacher, I sat in a staff meeting which had the stated purpose of improving morale. The first exercise was for each member of our small group to share the one word that described how they were feeling at that time of year. The intent was for us to share some encouraging thoughts, but none of us could muster a positive word. One of my colleagues gave up on struggling for a positive and came up with a simple concept for how she was feeling; “Replaceable.” In essence, she was feeling commodified.
“Commodification” is one of those sort of made up words that pops up in the education research literature. “Commodification is the process by which the exchange-value of an object is determined as distinct from the use-value of that object; for example, an object such as labour, is valuable in the capitalist economy only because it can be exchanged, or sold. Commodification reduces all social interaction to a form of market exchange” (Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories, 2000, p. 99). A common argument is that placing education in the market devalues and erodes the status of teachers. When teachers are no longer valued because of what they do, but because of how a company can profit from their work, then teachers are commodified. When we are measuring learning and evaluating teachers, the metrics produced “stand for, encapsulate or represent the worth, quality or value of an individual within a frame of judgement. The human being is commodified. We come to value others solely for their performance, their contribution to the performance of the group or the organisation, rather than their intrinsic worth as persons” (Ball, 2004). Arguably, in for-profit schools, commodification happens to teachers, students, education as a whole, and even knowledge itself.
Many advocates of privatization and for-profit schools see no problem. “It is not education, but rather the delivery of educational opportunities, that those in favour of privatisation would argue is the commodity. So schooling could be in this category, as indeed are bookshops, computer dealers and any other agents that deliver any educational opportunities” (Tooley, 2003, p. 430). Tooley doesn’t believe that there would be any ill effects of privatization or even commodification on teachers, because teachers perform an educational service just like any other. He would argue that bookstore workers don’t lose status just because the bookstore makes a profit and therefore, commodifying teaching and education is unlikely to be a real issue.
But those who analyze the effects of market forces on teachers find several striking and disheartening problems. “The result [is] inauthentic practice and relationships. Teachers are no longer encouraged to have a rationale for practice, account of themselves in terms of a relationship to the meaningfulness of what they do, but are required to produce measurable and ‘improving’ outputs and performances, what is important is what works” (Ball, 2003, p. 222, author’s emphasis). When the work of teachers is focused so heavily on assessment, visible results, and the paperwork to evidence learning then the real work of education is supplanted. Professional judgement and action is not enough proof of learning when the stakes are profit.
A teacher seen as similar to a bookstore worker denies the true nature of what happens in a classroom. Teachers are not just making inputs into students who are creating outputs. It is not a system of buying and selling education in this setting. Instead, teachers and students actively co-produce a learning relationship in a classroom. Watkins (2007) finds that the way in which students react to a teacher and engage as a group as key to learning. A singular focus on the individual progress, motivation, or achievement of each student does not give a true picture of how learning occurs best. “Valorizing the students’ own desire to learn can marginalize the teachers’ desire for active engagement in the pedagogic process, the performance of instruction that can capture a class and induce students to participate and seek recognition within the pedagogic relation, which is an essential component of the desire to learn” (Watkins, 2007, p. 309). Teachers are not a simple commodity or delivery service of standard education. But in a school with customers (students/parents), the main goal is how to retain those customers and the importance of the teacher is reduced down to serving that goal, no matter the effect on the teacher.
If we rob teachers of the space to be actively engaged with students just for the sake of learning (and enjoying learning), then the quality of teaching and learning is reduced. Watkins continues that, in schools where teachers were commodified “it seemed to be the case that teachers were operating within a particular regime of truth, a discourse of neoliberal progressivism that not only thwarted their desire to teach but also constrained the pedagogies they employed in their classrooms” (Watkins, 2007, p. 316). Teachers driven by expectations of visible student outputs are stuck into a system that erodes their own professional judgement and desire to teach. This creates a lower quality learning environment for students, even if (and maybe, especially when) the focus is on measurable student learning. But, if learning looks just good enough to retain customers, it fits the goal of the for-profit company, no matter the effect on teachers or students.
And in that case, I didn’t mind being replaced.
Ball, S. (2004). Education for Sale! The Commodification of Everything? Paper presented at the King’s Annual Education Lecture, University of London.
Ball, S. J. (2003). The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity. Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228. doi:10.1080/0268093022000043065
Encyclopedia of Feminist Theories. (2000). In L. Code (Ed.). London, GBR: Routledge.
Tooley, J. (2003). Why Harry Brighouse is Nearly Right about the Privatisation of Education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 37(3), 427-447. doi:10.1111/1467-9752.00337
Watkins, M. (2007). Thwarting desire: discursive constraint and pedagogic practice. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 20(3), 301-318. doi:10.1080/09518390701281900