An article from the Huffington Post this past weekend, entitled Education Reform is a Vote for the Economy, describes one of ed reform’s central tenants:
“But there’s another “E” missing from the equation that actually feeds — or starves — even the best economy. It’s called Education, and its reform is the imperative for a nation that continues to lag in achievement and finances.
In every state and community, education reform is the battle cry for those most afflicted by the nation’s 2,000 failing high schools, and for the approximately 70 percent of kids who are not learning at either national or international benchmarks….”
This quote is inspired by the idea that children are the future; that schools should prepare children for the future; and that good schools give children the skills they need to be successful in the future economy. Given all of this, a nation full of well-prepared children stands the country in good stead to be competitive in the global marketplace.
This is the premise from which business leaders work when they claim schools are failing. They see children graduating high school without the skills that make them employable by America’s companies. To prove this, they quote statistics that show people with only high school diplomas making little money or as part of the long-term unemployed. If only the education system better prepared their graduates, their prospects for success would improve.
It really is a hallowed American assumption, echoing Horace Mann’s words about education being the “balance wheel” of society. Children are not failing in school. Schools are failing children. Enter the reformers, who promise to restore public education to its true role of being America’s balance wheel. It would not be a stretch to say that the prevalence of this assumption throughout the country is part of what gives education reform so much public support.
There is something Reaganesque about this idea.
Ronald Reagan became president as an acolyte of economist Milton Friedman. Friedman’s calls for lower corporate taxes, deregulation of business and union busting were folded into a program that Reagan dubbed “supply-side economics”. It was called that because these policies aimed at increasing corporate productivity and innovation, leading to an increase in the volume and quality of the supply of goods and services. This increase would lower prices and improve the quality of life for everyone.
Supply-side economics, or Reaganomics as some called it (“voodoo economics” in the words of George H.W. Bush), stood in stark contrast to the economic orthodoxy of the day, which was Keynesianism. Since the days of FDR, the country had operated under the assumption that ensuring consumers had money was of utmost importance. People with money meant consistent demand. Consistent demand gave business the confidence to keep producing. Progressive taxation, business regulation and strong unions would ensure a healthy level of demand. If times got rough, the government should step in to be the employer of last resort to buoy demand.
Two visions of economic policy, one focusing on the supply side and the other focusing on the demand side of the economy. In the 1970s, Richard Nixon said “we are all Keynesians”. Since the days of Reagan, it is safe to say that our nation’s leaders are all Friedmanites.
This includes education reformers.
Education reformers clothe their policies in a concern for the supply-side of the labor market. They work from the assumption that improving the quality of labor will improve the economy overall: more people will be employable, corporate productivity will increase and innovation will blossom. The United States will catch up with Europe and stay ahead of China. As economists would say, it is all about improving the quality of the nation’s “human capital”.
If the start of the Great Recession showed us anything, it is that supply-side economics is not sustainable. When the mortgage market melted down, there were those who pointed the finger at people who had taken out mortgages they could not repay. They coupled this with finger-pointing at people who lived by credit cards, refused to save money and generally lived beyond their means. We were reminded that pennies saved were pennies earned. These criticisms miss the point.
People had no choice but to live beyond their means. Real wages for the working class have stagnated or declined since the Reagan era, despite the increased productivity of the American worker. The average American is now working more hours for less money than they did 35 years ago. At the same time, the wealthiest have seen unprecedented gains in wealth.
The growth of suburban sprawl, technology and inflation has made it more expensive to merely participate in the world of work and family. We now need cars, cell phones, computers and a host of other things in order to stay piped in to the world around us. Try looking for a job without a reliable car, a cell phone with an unlimited plan or an internet connection. The demands of the modern age require that most members of the working class live beyond their means.
Concentrating on only the supply side of the economy has proven to be a recipe for savage inequalities. Society has disinvested from the American worker (demand), in order to invest in the American business owner (supply). Now education reform seeks to focus only on the supply side of the future American workforce. Without investing in what those future workers, who are our children, demand, we merely stand to exacerbate those inequalities.
The demand side of the future labor market is the future jobs market. Of course people with only a high school diploma are hit the hardest by the Great Recession. This is not because they are not competitive or unemployable because our schools do such a horrible job of educating them. It is the fact that the real unemployment rate in this country could be upwards of 22%, when considering people who have given up on looking for work or people who are underemployed. There simply are not enough jobs out there to absorb the labor force we have. This provides a large labor pool from which employers can hire. The proliferation of people with college degrees out there means they will usually get chosen above high school graduates, even if it is for relatively low-skilled work.
Seeing it this way, there is no reason to believe that improving the public education system will improve the chances of high school graduates to find jobs.
Talking about education reform as a solution for our economic woes makes no sense. What is worse, it deflects attention away from the lack of jobs in the economy.
What is probably the scariest of all is the nature of education reform being proposed. The same Huffington Post article goes on to say:
“There are solutions to these true economic deficiencies (yes, education is vital to a healthy economy!) ranging from more choices in public and private education, teacher and parent empowerment, higher standards, better content, online delivery, tenure reform and more.”
Talk about speaking out of both sides of your mouth. How does “teacher empowerment” jive with “tenure reform”? How does “better content” jive with “online delivery”?
What this really is saying is more charter schools, parent trigger laws, online classes, standardized exams and union busting. People in business know better than anyone the types of jobs that will be around in the future. The fact that they are stressing bubble-in exams, rote online learning programs and a docile teaching force is a glimpse into the types of jobs that will be around in the future: low-skilled, low-paying and unimaginative, the types of jobs where workers are interchangeable and replaceable. It is imperative they crush any thought or imagination in children. It is imperative that they deskill and devalue the teaching profession so the workers of tomorrow do not have any role models with the ability or capacity to speak freely.
Supply-side education is as wrong-headed and insidious as supply-side economics. Yet, at the very least, the manner in which its supporters wish to accomplish its goals says a lot about what they have in store for America’s future.