Michael Apple a Curriculum Scholar Review by Carrie Engelbrecht Learned, Nisha Gupta, Jessica Hand, and Kristen Haslett for EDU 5265 Internationalization of Curriculum Studies

Michael Apple a Curriculum Scholar Review by Carrie Engelbrecht Learned, Nisha Gupta, Jessica Hand, and Kristen Haslett for EDU 5265 Internationalization of Curriculum Studies

Michael Apple is the John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He describes himself as “a kid from the working class inner-city” in New Jersey, and has worked as an elementary and high school teacher, as well as serving as president of his teacher’s union. He received his doctorate in education in Curriculum Studies from Columbia University in 1970, and has since done extensive research and publishing on the relationship between culture and power in education.  Michael Apple was one of the first in North America to articulate the essential power imbalances in educational settings and is a leader in the new sociology of Education. A prolific author, Apple is perhaps best known for his text Ideology and Curriculum (1979). He has written many influential texts such as Education and Power (1982), Teachers and Texts (1986), Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age (1993), Educating the Right Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality (2001), and The State and the Politics of Knowledge (2004).

The focus of Apple’s work has evolved over time. His early works centered on the fact that schools are not neutral institutions, but are profoundly affected by political, cultural, and economic forces. He went on to assert that schools play an important role in maintaining current imbalances in power structure in society. Apple’s post-structuralist work moved away from focusing on the structures in society, and moved towards an examination of identities, and an assertion of the importance of acknowledging the place of context. The growth of the New Right and the need to examine the effects of the increased marketization and conservative restoration on educational policy and practice are the key elements of his current work.  Michael Apple’s work is of great value to teachers. Ensuring that all students have equal access to the benefits of education is of interest to all teachers, and questions of power and policy are within the grasp of all teachers to examine in their own practices. His insistence on ensuring that theory is tied to action, his efforts to encourage dialogue and collaborative work, and the tenacity that he has demonstrated over three decades of work is an inspiration to all teachers.

Review of a Selection of Apple’s work

Apple’s 2004 article “Creating Difference: Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Conservatism and the Politics of Educational Reform” fits squarely with his most recent focus of concern, the effects of the growth of the New Right on educational policy and practice. In this article he examines the escalation of two seemingly disparate forces: the neo-liberal inclination to encourage market forces and business models in education, and the neo-conservative drive for increased regulation and control of education.  The effects of these two objectives are viewed in a very negative sense by Apple. He believes that such influences reinforce current imbalanced power structures through the use of economic, social, and cultural currency by the middle class. A rise in national curriculum and standardized testing movements puts already disenfranchised populations at an increased disadvantage and engenders a disturbing downward trend in the public perception of educators by insisting that they become more externally responsible and responsive. Apple is adamant that theory cannot be separated from action. He states that “defensible, articulate, and fully fleshed out alternative critical and progressive policies and practices in curriculum, teaching, and evaluation need to be developed and made widely available” (p. 40). He encourages us to think tactically and work collaboratively in order to eliminate barriers of income, class, and race.  Although this article drew heavily on examples from England, I certainly recognize these trends here in Canada. Increased regulation such as standardized testing is a fact of life in Ontario as well as in other provinces. Increased marketization of education, in the form of vouchers for school choice, exists in many school districts in Alberta. The concern regarding increased education for “efficiency, speed, and cost control” (p. 33) at the expense of social justice and equity issues was certainly familiar from O’Sullivan’s article about educational reform in Canada.  I was disappointed, however, by what I perceived to be a lack of a concrete call to action by Apple. He is well known for ensuring that theory does not trump action, but I found that in this article he falls into the trap of “romantic possibilitarian rhetoric” (from Whitty, 1974, in Apple, p. 14) against which he warned us. In his conclusion he did clarify that this article was meant to encourage a broader range of questioning, and promises to deliver “in considerably more detail the kinds of strategic alliances, and the policies and practices” (p. 40) that he feels are necessary in Educating the “Right” Way (Apple 2001) and The State and the Politics of Education (Apple et al., 2003). An examination of these works would hopefully give a better idea of the “rage and hope” for which Apple is known.

Apple uses a political lens to explore American trends in education in his 2005 article “Doing Things the “Right” Way: Legitimating Educational Inequalities in Conservative Times”. The dangerous repercussions of a coalition of right political groups (neo-liberal, neo-conservative, authoritarian populism and the new middle class) are outlined. In particular, the implications of neo-liberal and neo-conservative agendas for education are explored. Neo-liberals are in favour of a “weak state” where there is little government control over education, and that a free market where choice dominates will offer a superior education for all. Apple argues that allowing such choice will only leave “bad” schools behind, creating a larger gap in funding as funding is rewarded only to good schools. Apple provides an interesting anecdote about the neo-liberal agenda: Channel One is a commercial broadcast station that has literally only one channel. The company sends a “free” satellite dish, two VCR’s and TV’s for every classroom for every school that signs up for the program. In return, the school has to play Channel One during the day, ensuring a captive audience of 40% of the nation’s youth for any advertising company able to pay for the commercials. Apple argues that tuning our youth into commodities to be traded is part of the neo-liberal agenda hoping for free market domination. In contrast, the neo-conservatives would like a more controlled education system with a national curriculum enforced with standardized testing that goes back to the good old days of education.

Apple finds serious shortcomings with this proposition. He does not believe that one curriculum can be beneficial to all students, and that the old curriculum is only useful to American middle-class students. He believes that the standardized testing labels schools, and is convinced that only those schools who perform as well as the free-market liberal neo-liberal agenda demands will receive funding. Apple argues that although there are differences between these agendas, many of the core values are the same, and he warns of a coalition between the two that could cause irreparable harm o the American educational institution.

In the article “School Choice, Neoliberal Promises, and Unpromising Evidence” Buras and Apple discuss “conservative modernization” – a time during which we are constantly being told that the solution to all of our educational problems is “neo-liberal emphasis on marketization and choice and neo-conservative and managerial emphases on standardizing curricula, teaching, and evaluation” (Buras & Apple, 2005, p. 551). A problem exists because scholars believe that neo-liberal globalization causes exclusion and social inequality because it maintains racist, sexist, and environmentally destructive dimensions (p. 551). In order to test these claims, and the effects of neo-liberal policies in education, Buras and Apple look at two books: All Else Equal (2003) which evaluates the claims of the neo-liberal policies with regards to private and public schools, and Choosing Choice (2003) which focuses on school choice in places other than the United States. Firstly, the authors look into the question of whether private schools are more responsive and accountable to parents than public schools. According to neo-liberal claims, public schools should be less accountable than private schools; however, Apple and Buras’ analysis revealed that private schools often limit the amount of parental involvement allowed, whereas public schools try very hard to maintain parent involvement in their school (Buras & Apple, 2005). The second question is whether private schools are more likely to adopt innovative educational programming, as the neo-liberal policies claim they do. They found that private schools must follow the same curriculum, including standardized testing, and thus both sectors have similar curricula. Overall, the authors found that much of the international research opposes the neo-liberal claims that marketization and choice will solve our problems. Choice has been found to lead to more conformity and less difference between schools, and those who benefit from this choice are usually the ones who are already at an advantage. The authors conclude that choice is simply a slogan used to cover up the inequalities that choice creates, and that those populations that want educational justice will not get it via marketization and choice.

In his article, “Can Schooling Contribute to a More Just Society?”, Apple uses personal narrative combined with a discussion of the politics of education to inform the reader why the ongoing challenge with schooling is crucial to dismantle in order to pursue social justice.  Apple argues that the effects of many of the popular educational reforms of neo-liberal and neo-conservatives (the Rightists) often reproduce, or even worsen inequalities (p. 243). He suggests that politically and educationally progressive educators must employ a framework grounded in cultural theory to understand such inequalities. The act of ‘repositioning’ oneself refers to the ability to see how any set of institutions, policies or practices affects those who have the least amount of power (p. 244).  Apple suggests that over the last decade, enormous efforts have been put forward to analyze the reasons behind the rightist revival and to find spaces to interrupt it. It is in these spaces that opportunities arise to make critically democratic practices more visible in education.  Apple argues that education can change society for two reasons. He believes that schools had and still maintain the potential to continue to play central roles in the creation of movements of justice, and that these movements have transformed various definitions of rights, who should have them, and the role of the government in upholding them (p. 253). The second reason being that education plays a key role in the formation of identities, which provides an opportunity to transform the dispositions and values of this population (p. 254).  Although it is important to see school institutions as venues for action, Apple identifies that along with the attempt to implement change comes inherent risks, the risk of arrogance and the professional risk of both job security (p. 256).  Regardless of this potential endangerment of self, Apple encourages teachers to take on the role of the ‘critical scholar activist’ (p. 257), meaning that teachers must continue to make efforts and sacrifices to both recognize and act from a repositioned point of view teach from the marginalized population perspective.

In 2011, Apple analyses the socio-political influence on education both in America and internationally in “Global Crises, Social Justice, and Teacher Education”. He describes how one culture must be “below” in order for another culture to be “above”, and how a stronger understanding of “below” cultures will better inform policy directives in first-world classrooms that are increasingly rich with immigrant students. Apple argues that diasporic peoples should be celebrated for the challenges they have overcome, and that stereotypes typifying immigrant students in any way should be carefully avoided to avoid further marginalization of people who struggle due to world issues where in order for Western societies to benefit others must lose. It is imperative that we understand how economic and political factors drive groups of people so that we can critically analyze curriculum in the context of the world and not from the angle that the problem is at the classroom level. Curriculum scholars have to criticize how we currently critically analyze education.  It is essential to ask questions that challenge theory such as “Whose knowledge is this? How did it become official?” (Apple, 2011, p. 229). Apple strives to provide concrete tasks for education-reform activists, most notably developing the ability to speak to wide ranges of audiences about this topic in an effective way. A pervasive issue is the ability of Conservative policy developers to clearly articulate their opinions and directives, with little mass media attention given to critics or opponents of their theories and policies. The ability of a new generation of teachers to effectively articulate their concerns is imperative to ending the class struggle evident in classrooms.


The work of Michael Apple is very influential in the field of education, and has done a lot to advance our knowledge of education and curriculum. Apple’s work studying neo-liberal and neo-conservative views of education, as well as his research on the economic and political factors surrounding the educational system is essential in order for us to understand what can be done to improve the curriculum and what leads to better learning. The issue of power relations in education is of great interest, especially in international contexts, and Apple provides us with insight and thought-provoking discussion on this subject. Apple’s use of personal experiences in his writing presents future educators and scholars with situational examples of the effects of the issues present in our educational systems. In “Can Schooling Contribute to a More Just Society?” Apple discusses his son: “I, for instance, have too many memories of the way my son Paul was treated differently throughout his school career simply because he is African American-and the truly damaging effects this had both on his sense of self and on his understanding of what it was possible for him to become” (2008, p. 254). This not only sheds light on the motivation behind Apple’s work, but also on the conditions of our educational system, and the areas on which we need to work in order to provide a more equitable and equal education to everyone.


Apple, M. (2004). Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Conservatism and the Politics of Educational Reform. Educational Policy, 18(1), 12-44.

Apple, M. (2004).  Creating difference: neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism and the politics of education reform.  Educational Policy, 18(1), 12-44.

Apple, M. (2005).  Doing things the ‘right’ way: legitimating educational inequalities in conservative times.  Educational Review, 57(3), 271-293.

Apple, M. & Buras, K. (2005).  School choice, neoliberal promises, and unpromising evidence.  Educational Policy, 19(3), 550-564.

Apple, M. (2008). Can schooling contribute to a more just society?. Education, Citizenship and Social justice, 3(3), 239-261.

Apple, M. (2011). Global crises, social justice, and teacher education.  Journal of Teacher Education, 62(2), 222-234.

Brown, D. (2011). Michael Apple, Social Theory, Critical Transcendence, and the New Sociology: An Essay in education, 17(2). Retrieved from http://www.ineducation.ca/article/michael-apple-social-theory-critical-transcendence- and-new-sociology-essay

O’Sullivan, Brian. (Summer, 1999). Global Change and Educational Reform in Ontario and Canada. Canadian Journal of Education, 24 (3), pp. 311-325.

The Friere Project. (n.d.) Michael Apple. Retrieved from http://www.freireproject.org/content/michael-apple

University of Madison-Wisconsin Department of Educational Policy Studies. (n.d.) Professor Michael Apple. Retrieved from http://eps.education.wisc.edu/faculty/apple.asp

Williams, Laurie. (2004). Michael Apple. Rage and Hope. Retrieved from http://www.perfectfit.org/CT/apple9.html