Virtual School Meanderings

November 30, 2011

Ideology of K-12 Online Learning

Yesterday in my entry on the Politics Of K-12 Online Learning? I mentioned that the politics surrounding K-12 online learning wasn’t based on a specific partisan position, that it was based on an ideological position – specifically the neo-liberal/neo-conservative agenda.  I use these terms in line with with way Michael Apple uses them in his book Educating the “Right” Way: Market, Standards, God, and Inequality.

Apple describes the neo-liberals as a group “deeply committed to markets and to freedom as ‘individual choice.’ The second group, neo-conservatives, has a vision of an Edenic past and wants a return to discipline and traditional knowledge.” (emphasis in original – Apple, 2001, p. 11).

In expanding the neo-liberals, Apple cites McChesney (1999):

Neo-liberal initiatives are characterized by free market policies that  encourage private enterprise and consumer choice, reward personal responsibility, and entrepreneurial initiative, and undermine the dead hand of the incompetent, bureaucratic and parasitic government, that can never do good, even if well intended, which it rarely is.

Essentially, neo-liberalism is “capitalism with the gloves off.” (McChesney, 1999)  In an article entitled Doing Things the ‘Right’ Way: Legitimating Educational Inequalities in Conservative Times, Apple (2005) describes neo-liberals as:

Neo-liberals are the most powerful element within the alliance supporting conservative modernization. They are guided by a vision of the weak state. Thus, what is private is necessarily good and what is public is necessarily bad. Public institutions such as schools are ‘black holes’ into which money is poured—and then seemingly disappears—but which do not provide anywhere near adequate results. For neo-liberals, there is one form of rationality that is more powerful than any other—economic rationality. Efficiency and an ‘ethic’ of cost-benefit analysis are the dominant norms. All people are to act in ways that maximize their own personal benefits. (p. 273)

He continues, “Underpinning this position is a vision of students as human capital. The world is intensely competitive economically, and students—as future workers—must be given the requisite skills and dispositions to compete efficiently and effectively” (p. 273).  Starting to sound familiar?

Essentially neo-liberals are about providing students (and parents) with choice in their educational experience.  This choice is based on a belief that principles of the free market, such as competitiveness, will only serve to improve all providers of education.  And, of course, there is the issue that public institutions – like the government and teachers’ unions – can’t be trusted.

In terms of the neo-conservatives, in an interview published in the Currículo sem Fronteiras,  Apple stated:

Neo-conservatives often agree with the neo-liberal emphasis on the economy, but their main agenda is cultural “restoration.” Examples in the United States are people such E.D. Hirsch, former Secretary of Education William Bennett, and the late Alan Bloom. These are people who want a return to a totally romanticized version of schooling in which we have a standard curriculum based on that eloquent fiction, the Western tradition. They wish a return to teacher dominated, high status knowledge, largely based on the traditions that have historically been seen as the most legitimate knowledge at elite universities. I mentioned that this is a romantic tradition, since, by and large, there was never a time (at least certainly in the schools in the United States) where everyone learned the same curriculum, where all people spoke the same language, and where everyone agreed either on the Western tradition as the dominant model or on what should be included and excluded in that tradition.

It is from the neo-conservatives that we get the focus on a common or standardized curriculum, along with the standardized testing that comes with that curriculum.  It is also where we get a view that the stand and deliver presentation style found in much of the online curriculum that is out there comes from.

As I mentioned yesterday, both of these groups are not only out to reform public education – but they are out to undermine public education and replace it with an ideological education system that places the free market above all else.  It is an education system that would resemble fairly closely the US health care system, where those who have economic capital get one level of health care and those who don’t get a lesser level.  In the case of education, it will be those with economic, political and social capital that get the better education system – which is fine for those lucky enough to be a part of that system.  But, in the same way you have to ask yourself what about the millions of Americans without health insurance and their own wealth?  What about the children of those that don’t have economic, political or social capital?

So we get school choice and the application of free market principles from the neo-liberals, and the standardization of education and traditional forms of instructional delivery from the neo-conservatives.  Now, apply these ideologically beliefs to K-12 online learning to things that have been published in news outlets or on blogs in the past month or so:

School Choice

Free Market Principles

Can’t Trust Public Institutions


Traditional Instructional Methods

There are probably better examples out there, but I wanted to find ones that were more recent.  And of these five things, I think the ones that we seen most dominant in K-12 online learning are the push towards school choice and the application of free market principles to public education (although all five are present in different corners of the field).

Finally, I think three pretty good summaries of these issues can be found in entries Hedge Funds in Education? It’s All About the Money!, The Stealth Campaign to Privatize Education and “My Teacher Is an App” by Will Richardson.

Again, as I mentioned at the end of my entry on the Politics Of K-12 Online Learning?, I fully expect to be attacked for these statements by those neo-liberal and neo-conservative proponents of K-12 online learning.  Tomorrow, in kind of a fitting manner, we’ll look at the tactics of the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives.

I apologize if I’m not as eloquent as I would hope with these past two entries.  I have wanted to post them for some time now, and if I wanted until I had enough time to get all of my words right, I suspect they would never get posted.


  1. Would I be correct in saying that the term “neo-liberal” is synonymous with “libertarian” (i.e., is the terminology different in the U.S. and Canada)?

    Comment by sikojp — November 30, 2011 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

    • Jason, the two philosophies share many similar beliefs, but there are differences. Probably the biggest difference that I am aware of is their origins (i.e., while they may come to similar conclusions, how these two groups arrived where they are today and the individual philosophers that influenced each school of thought is quite different). I’d also suggest that some people who would claim to the label of libertarian are a little more radical than neo-liberals. For example, if you consider the beliefs of the deontological libertarians or the anarchist libertarians, both groups would go far beyond what neo-liberals would be comfortable with.

      As a side note, if you look at some of the Crotty material that we did in EER7870 – particularly near the end of the book – there are some useful items that you can pull from those chapters (note to readers that Jason is one of my doctoral students).

      Comment by mkbnl — November 30, 2011 @ 3:40 pm | Reply

  2. […] is based on ideological grounds.  On Wednesday, I described the neo-liberal and neo-conservative Ideologies of K-12 Online Learning.  Today I want to look at some of the tactics that these neo-liberals and neo-conservatives use […]

    Pingback by Tactics of The Neo-Liberals/Conservatives in K-12 Online Learning « Virtual School Meanderings — December 1, 2011 @ 2:00 pm | Reply

  3. […] across my electronic desk, and I suspect that it will be the neo-liberal view that I described in Ideology of K-12 Online Learning, but I wanted to pass it on all the […]

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