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Living in Dialogue: What Happens When Education Serves the Economy?


The post I wrote a month ago, critiquing Marc Tucker’s “new accountability system” has opened up a long overdue discussion of the economic foundations and goals of 21st century education reform. In his two responses, to myself and Diane Ravitch, andto Yong Zhao, Tucker has chosen to only defend his plan’s use of tests. He has thus far ignored the economic questions that were raised.

But two posts have arrived that deepen these questions in fresh and compelling ways.

Modern education reform, and especially the Common Core, is often justified based on the supposed needs of the 21st century economy. Denny Taylor and Mercedes Schneider have both written compelling posts that question this relationship.

Taylor focuses on who is in charge when decisions about education are driven by moneyed interests, and how centralization of education through vehicles such as the Common Core and Tucker’s accountability system serves those interests. She points out how professional educators’ knowledge about literacy was trampled in order to promote the scripted literacy programs that were mandated under NCLB.

As Schneider points out, “serving the economy” really boils down to serving the bottom line of the corporations that are making money from their economic activities. These corporations have no loyalty to anything other than profit – and that is by design.

Schneider writes:

Yes, CCSS is about corporate profits, but it is about more than companies like Pearson making potential billions off of selling CCSS products and services.

The true business goal behind CCSS and other market-driven “reforms” is to make American education completely economic– which means completely dehumanized in its purpose.

It is about corporate America’s funneling the nation’s youth into predetermined, objectified service of the corporate, gluttonous market needs. And a crucial component of that goal is to break the spirit of teachers and make us nothing more than the trainers of What the Market Requires.

Our political system has become one that similarly revolves around making profits. There is no political will to defend the environment, because just like public schools, the common resources of the natural world – including the air we breathe, the atmosphere that creates weather we can live in, and the water we drink, all must be put to maximum profitable use.

One of the things that has struck me about the best classrooms is that they are run in the interests of all the students present. We have a power structure, in that the teacher is in charge, but great teachers build a sense of community among their students. We are all trying to help one another succeed. And the student who is “poorer” is offered support and assistance. Well functioning schools bring this to life as well, with teachers collaborating, supporting one another for the good of all our students. This is a powerful paradigm for society at large. Schools are not about making money. They are about fulfilling the aspirations of students, parents and the community at large.

This does not mean there is no room in society for markets, or profits. It means we need active and vigilant public and political spheres, which have as their mission the defense and elevation of the common good, particularly the well-being of the most vulnerable – those without wealth, and children. The profit-seeking corporations have no reliable internal source of regulation – no moral core that constrains them from exploiting children, from devastating the environment.

The economic imperatives that drive education reform are presented as if the interests of students and corporations are the same. In the vision presented by Tucker, and by the architects of the Common Core, students will benefit most if they are trained to meet the needs of employers. Students must be capable of generating profits for employers or they will be unemployed. According to the mantra of the Common Core, if we make students “college and career ready,” then they will make American businesses more effective competitors in the global economy.

But there are several crises that are intersecting that cast huge shadows over this, and point to the fact the interests of today’s students may come into conflict with the interests of the corporations that are running our lives.

First of all, as Naomi Klein’s latest book points out, the earth’s environment is nearing collapse as a result of the way it has been placed in service of the economy. The consumption and constant growth in GDP demanded by modern capitalism cannot be sustained.

Hitting the limits of consumption and growth is reverberating though the economy. The drive for greater profits also means that corporations are seeking greater efficiencies, and that means cutting workers.

For students, investing in a college education is becoming a higher and higher risk. As college costs have risen, the banking industry has made student loans a major profit center. Student debt has surpassed credit card debt, and more than a trillion dollars is now owed. Due to bankruptcy “reform,” student loans are nearly impossible to discharge, leaving debtors working for decades to pay off their loans. And as the portion of people aged 25 to 29 with college degrees has risen to 33%, employers are in the drivers seat, and many people – even with supposedly desirable STEM degrees, are unable to find work in their field. This undermines a central premise of education reform – that a better educated workforce will somehow restore the devastated middle class. Clearly, given a glut of highly trained workers, corporations will cut wages in order to raise profits.

There is growing evidence that there are likely to be fewer and fewer jobs available in the economy as a whole. Lower skilled jobs are going to be hit especially hard, but this will reverberate through all categories of employment. It is a huge shift. A report in the MIT Technology Review suggests that in the next 20 years, 45% of American jobs could be eliminated as a result of technological advances. [Here is the original report.]

Bill Gates acknowledged this in arecent interview, when he said:

Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of skill set. …  20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower.

Gates suggested that in order to fend off this trend we ought to keep the minimum wage low, to make sure employers are less motivated to replace employees.

If you were a member of the nation’s elite, and you were contemplating a future where close to half of current jobs were eliminated, what sort of an education system would you design?

Stability is the long term requirement for the sustaining of profitability. But stability is the one thing this whole system cannot depend on. The US economy currently has about 120 million full time workers, out of a total population of around 314 million. If the projections in the report cited above are accurate, then that number will shrink to only 54 million with full time work. This is likely to promote significant levels of social unrest, especially if people are unwilling to accept personal blame for their fate.

If the mission of the education system is to serve the economy, and that means maximizing profits, then those profits will be highest if we have an overabundance of college graduates to do the technical work that must be done to keep the machinery of production running. And we have low wage service sector that is unable to raise its wages because they are unorganized and have no political clout. Those who are unemployed are informed over and over again by the school system that they are inadequate because they cannot pass the tests, and therefore to perceive their status as being the result of their own failure to make themselves useful to employers. They are unemployed not because manufacturing has been outsourced to cheap labor overseas, but because they were not “career ready,” as proven by their failure to pass the new, much more “rigorous” Common Core aligned tests.

Education reform becomes an exercise in rationalizing the shift of half the nation’s workers into “surplus” status. It creates a new meritocracy, based on a false paradigm that defines the ability to do well on tests as merit.

We are obliged by conscience to point out that the reason graduating students cannot find work is not because they are unprepared, not because they are inadequate, but because corporations are seeking maximum efficiency, and the lowest costs possible. Corporations are even evading the taxes needed to pay for the education system and the infrastructure needed to sustain the basic economy.

One thing the 400,000 marchers at the climate change protest a week ago made clear was that if the needs of the planet conflict with the needs of “the economy,” then the planet ought to come first. Similarly, we need to reimagine an economy that serves the needs of our students, not the other way around.

What do you think? Must we reshape our educational system to serve the economy? Or should we question where this drive is taking us?

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Anthony Cody

Anthony worked for 24 years in the Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high-needs middle school. A National Board certified teacher, he no...