Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Neoliberalism and Power in Education

  • Noah De Lissovoy
  • Stacia Cedillo
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_155


At the same time that it restructures education policy and narrows prevailing forms of pedagogy and curriculum, neoliberalism enacts a specific set of power relationships with important consequences for the meaning and experience of schooling. These are continuous with wider effects of neoliberalism beyond the field of education. This entry considers how power in the neoliberal context is articulated through processes of control, ideology, subjectivity, and punishment. Meanings and implications of school-based resistance to these processes are also considered.

Power as Control

In the neoliberal context, power is articulated in the first instance through the process of control. Specifically, neoliberalism works to shift decision-making over schooling from teachers and local administrators to business and political elites. This shift away from democratic forms of educational governance participates in the larger global wave of neoliberal deregulation, privatization, and demolition of social welfare systems beginning around 1980. Just as the spread of neoliberalism writ large was articulated as a counter to postwar Keynesian forms of governance and institution building, neoliberal control in education pits itself against State bureaucracies, teacher unions, and “impractical” progressive school projects. Neoliberals gain control over schools by positioning them in the following ways: (1) as rigid State institutions lacking streamlined management allowing for efficiency and accountability, (2) as failing markets in need of modernization, and (3) as economic institutions tasked with producing human capital in the context of globalization.

On this basis, control over public schools is transferred into the hands of political and business elites whose expertise at turning a profit is seen as transferable toward the goal of raising student achievement. From the federal to the local level, neoliberalism gains control of education through accountability-based compliance systems and school choice initiatives. The decision-making power of teachers and administrators is appropriated by reorganizing schools around standardized curriculum and high-stakes testing, ostensibly governed by principles of scientific management. Neoliberal policy uses testing outcomes to promote school takeovers, often through the expansion of charter schools. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, for example, public schools in the USA that fail to make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) for 5 years are eligible for charter conversion. These “failing” schools, marked as inefficient institutions, are then effectively repossessed and relocated into a quasi-market system. In this way, forms of organization granting communities, teachers, and school administrators local power over school decisions are dismantled as new forms of governance and test-based accountability systems threaten once-guaranteed forms of public support, such as federal funding.

As neoliberals take power over school management, they reframe local schools as economic sites expected to cultivate globally competitive human capital. Elite businesspeople, politicians, and technocrats in the public and private sector have aggressively implemented school management models designed to foster global economic competitiveness, individual accountability, and consumerist logics of choice and free markets. It could be said that these models rely on a process of neoliberal structural adjustment (which generally refers to the reorganization of national economies) when schools fail to produce high returns in the form of student achievement. This process of structural adjustment can include the dismantling of traditional forms of school governance, the imposition of merit-based pay systems for teachers, increased surveillance, diminished worker protections, teacher layoffs, and school closures.

Neoliberalism also views entrepreneurial control of schools as a modernization project. This project places urban areas and communities of color with high concentrations of poverty most at risk for takeover, as they are often labeled as in greatest need of improvement. Under the rubric of “conscious capitalism,” local political and fiscal crises are framed as legitimate reasons for top-down restructuring of districts and schools (Buras 2011). The rhetoric of elite reformers exploits the difficult educational conditions in schools serving students of color and poor students, casting the neoliberal agenda in terms of social justice, and in this way seeking to rationalize the restructuring of these communities and their schools. In the USA, these opportunistic corporate reform projects have targeted urban public school systems in Chicago, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and elsewhere.

Power as Ideology: Common Sense and Ritual

The processes and practices of neoliberal power were established as a counter to the Keynesian consensus that had previously dominated US and global forms of governance. The recasting of social, political, and economic life in market terms under neoliberal ideology imagines public schools, students, and knowledge as private businesses, consumers, and products, respectively (Saltman 2014). The prevailing common sense of neoliberalism suggests that as free persons, individuals are responsible for securing their well-being by making good choices, developing marketable skills, and competing to accumulate personal resources and property. Neoliberal institutional frameworks mirror these ideological principles, generally viewing State intervention in markets as an authoritarian infringement upon civil liberties. In the educational context, power works through neoliberal ideology to (1) rationalize market-oriented common senses that place the State and public under suspicion and situate the corporate model as the only viable design for education and (2) enact new practices and rituals of accountability that impose market discipline within everyday aspects of education, orienting social relationships in schools around individual responsibility and economic competitiveness.

Viewing State management as inherently corrupt and inefficient, neoliberal educational reform justifies the transfer of power from the public to “experts” and corporate turnaround specialists. Centralized observation, measurement, and evaluation are said to increase objectivity; above all, standardized assessments that test student knowledge of common curricular objectives are valorized. Redirecting attention from the inherent contradictions of a process of neoliberal deregulation that ultimately produces a new centralization of power, this audit culture reorients individuals to only consider valid those forms of evidence that indicate whether schools are operating “efficiently.” In this process, community solidarities are eroded as the corporatization of education is celebrated for its ability to eliminate or reorganize schools, districts, and teachers who do not cohere with business-friendly norms. Exploiting anxieties about student performance on international assessments that quantify differences in national achievement rates, neoliberals argue that corporate-style school management is necessary to meet the demands of global competition (Hursh 2007).

Power in neoliberalism also asserts itself by constructing an enclosed ideological universe which is maintained through everyday rituals and practices (De Lissovoy 2013). In this process of enclosure, a competitive and entrepreneurial determination of education is secured through the very structure of the experience of school, even before the promotion of market-oriented forms of common sense. The basic identities of teachers and students, and the limits of collective imagination, are in this way set by the rituals of test taking, the pervasive monitoring of behavior, and the application of labels, such as “failing” and “at risk.” Individual scores on standardized tests are used to rank students among their peers, and the aggregate scores of student populations are used to position schools in competition with one another. Regimes of testing and accountability also encourage the development of scripted curricular programs that reduce teaching and learning to a set of prescribed tasks and performances. Ideologies of efficiency, accountability, and productivity, as they are encoded in standardized curricula, often require teachers to enact stripped-down and behaviorist pedagogies. In all of these processes, human creativity and potential are captured and absorbed by the neoliberal imperative to produce and perform. In sum, ideologies of accountability drastically narrow the range of types of social relationships that are allowed to flourish in contemporary schools and classrooms.

Subjectivity: Performativity and Responsibilization

Power in neoliberalism works not only through ideological processes proper but also through the forms of subjectivity within which individuals become intelligible to themselves and others. In the first instance, neoliberalism divorces senses of self from forms of social solidarity and insists on an individual versus a collective frame for understanding experience and identity. Furthermore, neoliberalism cultivates an entrepreneurial and competitive relationship to the self. In this regard, Michel Foucault’s (2008) analyses of neoliberalism and governmentality have been very influential for scholars investigating forms of neoliberal subjectivity. Foucault explains that for neoliberalism all aspects of life can in principle be understood in terms of an economic calculus. This is best exemplified in the notion of human capital, which seeks to comprehend the range of human capacities within the context of economic processes of investment, production, and competition. Power in neoliberalism reaches in this way to the most intimate levels of the self, constructing not only shared understandings but even ways of being. Neoliberalism also encloses and commodifies the shared creativity which links together individual subjectivities in common social spaces. In this way, neoliberalism works to capture the potential of both individual and collective imagination.

In schooling, neoliberal governance has important effects on the subjectivities of both teachers and students. For teachers, neoliberal reforms have led to a proliferation of processes of review and assessment, within which there is an important emphasis on self-evaluation. In the first place, this has produced a generalized condition of anxiety, as teachers’ skills and knowledge are incessantly interrogated. In this way, the broader social and economic precariousness which characterizes life in the neoliberal era expresses itself in increasing insecurity for teachers, not just with regard to continuity of employment but also in relation to senses of professional competence. Furthermore, studies have shown that as the accountability regime is internalized by educators, their senses of self may come to be characterized by a condition of performativity to the extent that they must embody values and identifications that cohere with the entrepreneurial ethos of neoliberalism, a process in which they simultaneously identify with and are alienated from the goal of maximizing learning as measured by standardized assessments (Ball 2003).

The recasting of education as the production of human capital has deep effects on students’ experiences and subjectivities. Not only is learning reconceptualized as accumulation as opposed to inquiry, but in addition students are made responsible for managing and optimizing their developing portfolio of skills. Education in this way is linked to the process of responsibilization in neoliberalism, in which social purposes and problems are individualized. This deeply embeds an entrepreneurial relationship to the self in the learning process, a relationship which must be preserved beyond schooling itself, since work life increasingly demands continual learning in the form of investment in one’s own stock of skills – that is, one’s own human capital.

However, this process works differently for differently positioned students. In schools serving affluent communities, in which rich curricular offerings and a range of extracurricular activities are made available, the entrepreneurial spirit that students are invited to internalize helps them to market the academic capital they acquire in school in the transition to higher education. On the other hand, for those attending schools in low-income communities, there are fewer opportunities for the acquisition of high-status skills and experiences, and so students’ identification with neoliberalism’s entrepreneurial ethos may be troubled. In this case, the moral pedagogy of neoliberalism generally constructs these students as responsible for their own marginalization. Thus, the same principle of governmentality, in the context of the stark material inequalities characteristic of neoliberal society, has different effects on the subjectivities of different students.

Power, Punishment, and Racism

Neoliberalism has been marked by a turn to punishment in schools and society more broadly. As the social welfare functions of the State have been deemphasized and downsized, the coercive arm of the State has been strengthened. Globally, and in the USA especially, the prison population has grown dramatically in the neoliberal era. In the context of the global war on terror and as a reactionary response to increasing immigration from the Global South, new categories of detention and detainees have been created. Abuse and torture have been normalized and in many cases rationalized, both in international conflicts and in domestic incarceration.

In education, the stigmatizing of “low-performing” students and schools on accountability measures works as an implicit form of punishment. In addition, recent decades have seen the proliferation of zero-tolerance disciplinary systems, in which students are suspended or expelled for minor infractions, the expansion of security and surveillance infrastructures in school facilities, and a tightening of the links between schools and law enforcement. The turn to punishment in schools, and its connections to the prison system, have been described in terms of a school-to-prison pipeline. In education and beyond, the targets of penal and disciplinary actions are disproportionately people of color.

Some theorists consider the turn to punishment in neoliberalism as a means of disciplining workers to the difficult conditions of the post-Fordist economy. On this view, the prison system works to intimidate (and contain) a potentially restive surplus population faced with persistent poverty and insecurity (Wacquant 2009). In the same way, aggressive disciplinary policies in schools have been understood as both socializing students toward submission to authority and as increasing their vulnerability in relation to the State and capital. On the other hand, scholars have also analyzed the punitive character of contemporary society in terms of biopolitics or the politics of population management. From this perspective, the material and symbolic violence experienced by marginalized communities marks them as disposable, as representing a kind of “bare life” (Agamben 1998). The biopolitical dimension of punishment can be seen both in its official rationales, aimed at the defense of society from putatively dangerous elements within both populations and individuals, and in its persistent racialization.

Indeed, stark racial disparities argue for a centering of race in analyses of the turn to punishment and neoliberalism broadly. For instance, in the USA, African-Americans are incarcerated at a rate many times greater than that of Whites; likewise, Black students are expelled at rates far out of proportion to the percentage of the school population that they represent. In addition, scholars have pointed to the punitive texture of instruction that is experienced by many students of color, which is immediately demoralizing at the same time that it reduces their long-term economic competitiveness (Duncan 2000). In this context, it is important to consider the way that forms of material and psychic exploitation intersect in the structural racisms of the present. Neoliberalism sharpens these effects, as a result of its marked polarization of wealth and life chances as well as through the masking of racism produced by the color-blind discourse that it privileges in public life.


Against the reconstruction of education that power has undertaken in the neoliberal era, teachers, students, and communities have initiated a variety of forms of resistance. Globally, there have been important movements of protest against the privatization and marketization of educational systems, including the mass movement of Quebec university students in 2012 against tuition hikes and the long-standing struggle of high school students and allies in Chile for greater support for public education. Many urban centers in the USA have seen protests by students and teachers against local school closures and chartering. Movements against high-stakes testing have also grown. In some cases, teachers have refused to administer standardized tests that they consider harmful to students. Likewise, a call to opt out of standardized assessment has found increasing numbers of followers, as parents organize groups promoting this message and as students refuse to submit to persistent testing. These movements are often explicit in noting the link between the effects of the top-down reforms that are the target of their protests and the broader neoliberal turn in society. In addition, teachers and teacher educators have experimented with a range of critical pedagogies in response to neoliberal reforms, aimed at preserving spaces of dialogue and critique in the classroom. Furthermore, as neoliberalism’s effects have become more widely felt, it has become a topic that is often explicitly confronted in teacher education classrooms and by teachers themselves in their work with students.

Traditionally, critical educational scholarship has understood movements of resistance on the terrain of pedagogy, curriculum, and policy as representing incipient forms of counter-hegemony, or counterpower, locked in a struggle with dominant forces over basic understandings, practices, and resources. From this perspective, contemporary conflicts in education can be seen as renewing an age-old battle between conservatives, liberals, and radicals over the purposes of schooling. On the other hand, some contemporary theorists have argued that the enclosure of spaces of work and education in late capitalism calls for a process of exodus that does not aim to democratize these spaces but rather to depart from them and to build new pedagogical forms outside of familiar systems and struggles (see Lewis 2012). These theorists are less hopeful that existing public institutions, including schools, can respond to the needs of communities in the era of globalization. Finally, some scholars and activists argue that the public sphere and public schools remain indispensable and must be protected from privatization and marketization, as contemporary educational movements argue, but that they must at the same time be reimagined as a shared commons built from the collective imaginations and desires of the people they serve. From this perspective, State support and infrastructure around education should be preserved, but in the context of a larger struggle against neoliberalism that would transform the State itself.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA