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Living in Dialogue: Will Schools Sort Society’s Winners and Losers?

It is a strange commentary on the news media that the best portrait of what is happening in America comes to us from a former chef by the name of Anthony Bourdain.

Bourdain’s show last week took him back to Massachusetts, where he first started working as a dishwasher and cook. He found much has changed in this part of America, and I think this tells us a great deal about where we are headed. In Franklin County, Bourdain finds the middle class in ruins. The mills and factories that were the economic base of this area have closed, production sent overseas where labor is cheap, and environmental protections weak.

Twenty years ago, pharmaceutical giant Purdue promoted Oxycontin as a safe, non-addictive pain killer. Millions became addicted while the billions rolled in. In the past few years, as its addictive nature became apparent, it has been made more difficult to obtain, and many of those already addicted have turned to illegal opioids like heroin.

This is creating a perfect storm in economically depressed areas like Franklin County, where one local law enforcer spoke of “losing a generation” of young people to drugs.

As Bourdain points out, the “drug war” was politically acceptable when those being incarcerated were black and brown. How will society handle this as the problem invades the white suburbs? Will we expand the incarceration that has had a devastating effect on the African American community?

We are seeing a spreading of economic marginalization that in the past was reserved for African American and Latino neighborhoods. Economic figures show that the number of unemployed is down, but many are underemployed, and an even larger number have become discouraged, and stopped even looking for work. As a result, while productivity and profits continue to climb, wages are stagnant.

We have been lulled into a sense of false optimism by statistics that show that more education translates into higher lifetime earnings. We have all seen the numbers. With only a high school diploma you can expect to earn a fraction of what you might earn with a college degree. With a college degree, future earnings are far greater. But there is a problem with these numbers. They are drawn from looking not at the future, but at the past. So as our economy changes, the patterns we have seen in the past are not holding steady.

Among 24 to 29 year olds, more than a third have completed four year degrees – so we are producing a more educated people than ever. But those degrees may not offer the advantage they once did.

I want to share an interesting set of graphs with you. What they show is that between 1980 and 2010, the proportion of people with college degrees who are stuck in low wage jobs has risen dramatically. In 1980, about 7% of college graduates were in low wage jobs. Fast forward to 2010, and that number is more than 10% in many states. This is a trend we can expect to continue.

This means a future where a smaller and smaller number of people are in that sector we call the middle class. Most of those now graduating from college are carrying heavy burdens of debt, which the finance industry lobby has made beyond the limits of personal bankruptcy. Americans now owe more than $1.2 trillion in student debt – more than credit cards and car loans. According to the Project on Student Debt, seven in ten students graduating last year carried debt, and the average amount owed was $29,400. This leaves them entering the workforce in a form of indentured servitude, and this debt may take years to pay off.

A smaller number of Americans will be better off than their parents – even with the advantage of better education. We are looking at a lottery system with fewer and fewer winners, and many more losers. And our educational system is being prepared for this.

Our schools are the center of a battle for our collective soul.

Our schools can be laboratories of democracy, controlled by local citizens, connected to the life blood of the community, preparing children to engage with and transform the world they are entering. The documentary series, A Year at Mission Hill shows what such a school looks like, and how it cares for the students, and nurtures their dreams as they grow. Most of us entered teaching with this vision in mind.

But our schools can also be the place where dreams are squashed. A place where students are sorted into winners and losers based on their test scores. Students who are given academic tasks that are beyond their ability or developmental level become frustrated and discouraged. When I taught 6th grade math in Oakland, one of my greatest challenges was the many students who arrived and would write on my introductory survey, “I am bad at math.” These self images form early, and the scientific precision of our tests creates a false portrait that becomes indelible when reiterated time and again come test time. What we are creating is a system that says “If you are bad at math, and these many other difficult things on our tests, you are not prepared for college or career, and you are worthless.”

Why do we have a system that compels us to label and sort our students in this way?

I keep coming back to a rather stark economic projection which has not been very widely reported in the mainstream media. A research study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A.Osborne of Oxford University makes a rather startling prediction (and since this is a quote, it includes the British spellings):

We examine how susceptible jobs are to computerisation. To assess this, we begin by implementing a novel methodology to estimate the probability of computerisation for 702 detailed occupations, using a Gaussian process classifier. Based on these estimates, we examine expected impacts of future computerisation on US labour market outcomes, with the primary objective of analysing the number of jobs at risk and the relationship between an occupation’s probability of computerisation, wages and educational attainment. According to our estimates, about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk. We further provide evidence that wages and educational attainment exhibit a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerisation.

The US economy currently has approximately 130 million full time jobs. If one cuts that number by 47%, you are left with something in the neighborhood of 70 million jobs that will remain. This projection suggests that it will be a major advantage to be well-educated, but a shift of this magnitude will affect every sector, every category, even those with college degrees and technical skills.

This creates a profound challenge to the stability of our economic system. In our current system, a very few corporations and individuals are accruing the lion’s share of benefit from these technological advances. Since wages are not rising, increases in productivity go straight into the pockets of the wealthy. Fewer and fewer workers are needed, and more and more are surplus, shifted into the economic margins to subsist. In the past, this hopeless situation has led to instability – rebellion, even revolution.

So how is our education system to respond to this challenge?

If the primary mission of the educational system is to preserve the stability of the existing economic system, then the schools must assist in providing a rational basis for the relegation of a large portion of the population to the “surplus” pile. If only a third to a half of the students graduating from our schools will find success in the job market, how can our schools help make this a process that is perceived as rational and above all fair?

Cue Arne Duncan, who said this a few years ago:

We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not,’

And now we have a system of tests, reaching down even to kindergarten and earlier, which is designed to do just that.

Our educational system is being used as a means to rationalize the economic marginalization of a growing number of students. That process will hit those already marginalized by class and race the hardest. Take a look at the numbers from New York, as shared by Carol Burris and Alan Aja:

…the percentage of black students who scored “Below Standard” in third-grade English Language Arts tests rose from 15.5 percent to a shocking 50 percent post-Common Core implementation. In seventh-grade math, black students labeled “Below Standard” jumped from 16.5 percent to a staggering 70 percent. Students with disabilities of all backgrounds saw their scores plummet– 75 percent of students with disabilities scored “Below Standard” on the Grade 5 ELA Common Core tests and 78 percent scored “Below Standard” on the 7th grade math test.  Also, 84 percent of English Language learners score “Below Standard” on the ELA test while 78 percent scored the same on the 7th grade math exam.

These are the children that our educational system is being prepared to look in the eye and say “you are not going to be able to attend a good college.” In fact, many of you may not even graduate from high school if plans proceed to use these tests as graduation exams.

So the students who have been labeled as “not ready for college or career” will be released into society, to join the permanently unemployed or underemployed, the low wage service sector, their jobs vulnerable to computerization.

And what will the story be that explains why will this is their fate? It will not be because jobs have been sent overseas. Not because technology is increasing productivity and reducing the need for labor. Not because the economy is delivering ever more wealth to an ever smaller number of oligarchs. No. The story will be that they are surplus because they did not achieve the education needed to make themselves indispensable to some company’s bottom line. They are surplus because they are not needed to make the machinery of our society run.

We could apply a different logic to this challenge. We could look at the fact that we only need 130 million people working, and we have another 70 million that would like to work and say let’s lower the work week to 30 hours and increase fulltime employment. We could re-invest in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and put people to work doing a thousand much needed things. But our oligarchs have decided that “taxes are for little people,” and their companies will only be sustainable if they get tax breaks and subsidies. Schools for future surplus workers are not a worthwhile investment, so budgets are cut to the bone.

Geographically, our nation is being divided into winners and losers as well. If your area is a technology hub of some sort, like the Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay Area, then real estate is booming and unemployment is low. But if you are in Franklin County, Massachusetts, or Franklin County Tennessee, you are being left behind. And state leaders will offer tax breaks to try to lure businesses to these economic backwaters, which will leave public schools and services without the support they need to survive.

Teachers are caught in the middle – especially those working with the children who are being looked in the eye and told they have fewer chances at a bright future. It is not an accident that the push to standardize education and rank and sort our students is accompanied by attacks on seniority and due process. These rights give the profession stability and individual teachers the ability to speak out.

Anthony Bourdain gives us an unvarnished view of what is unfolding in the heartland of America. The trends are not positive, so long as we are stuck in our current economic model. Teachers have a role to play. We can cooperate with the system, and validate the tests as accurate indicators of our students’ value as “productive members of society.” That is what we are asked to do when Bill Gates and Arne Duncan implore us to help implement the Common Core. Or we can offer our own vision of the role of education as a catalyst for democratic change. And that change that will increasingly require us to question the imperatives of an economy that no longer serves the majority of Americans, and reject the ranking and sorting of our students into those with and without economic value.

What are your thoughts? Am I painting too harsh a picture? Or is this what you see as well?

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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 now lead...