Archive for July, 2008

Believing in Education as Cure-all

Unlike David Brooks, I don’t believe that Education is The Biggest Issue – as he conceives it, anyway. Brooks says, “America"™s lead over its economic rivals has been entirely forfeited, with many nations surging ahead in school attainment,” because of an “educational slowdown” around 1970, which resulted in too few skilled workers to meet the demands of a surge in technological progress. “The relatively few skilled workers,” he says, “command higher prices, while the many unskilled ones have little bargaining power.”

But isn’t that what unions are for? Bargaining power?

From Schools as Scapegoats (Mishel and Rothstein, 2007):

Statistically, the falling real wages of high school graduates has played a bigger part in boosting the college-to-high-school wage ratio than has an unmet demand for college graduates. Important causes of this decline have been the weakening of labor market institutions, such as the minimum wage and unions, which once boosted the pay of high school"“educated workers.


What made semiskilled manufacturing jobs desirable was that many (though not most) were protected by unions, provided pensions and health insurance, and compensated with decent wages. That today’s working class doesn’t get similar protections has nothing to do with the adequacy of its education. Rather, it has everything to do with policy decisions stemming from the value we place on equality. Hotel jobs that pay $20 an hour, with health and pension benefits (rather than $10 an hour without benefits), typically do so because of union organization, not because maids earned bachelor’s degrees.

Brooks, who believes the “skills gap” is widening inequality, and that “Boosting educational attainment at the bottom is more promising than trying to reorganize the global economy,” wants to sidestep labor market and economic policy solutions to what he implicitly recognizes as the bigger problem – the global economy – by calling on schools to crank out more skilled workers. For what? For a shrinking supply of “knowledge worker” jobs.

Using the college “wage premium” as the sole factor to explain a widening gap between the poor and the affluent is easy. But then, that’s the point, isn’t it?

The Wall Street Journal provides a concrete example of the Declining Value of Your College Degree.

Mishel and Bernstein, writing for the Economic Policy Institute, explain that “…wage inequality is driven by a slew of factors, of which differences in education is but one.” Other factors include trade deficits and globalization that send manufacturing jobs overseas leading to the loss of good jobs for non-college-educated workers, declining union representation, and unemployment.

I’m all for “boosting educational attainment” in whatever form that may happen to take, which is why I was intrigued by Brooks’ mention of “Schools, Skills, and Synapses” by James Heckman [pdf]. Heckman discusses how cognitive as well as noncognitive abilities affect our lives, and points out that differences between children from advantaged and disadvantaged families appear early in life, pointing out that education policy is largely directed toward improving cognition, but (no surprise to most of us) “…more than smarts is required for success in life.” He claims that gaps in noncognitive and cognitive abilities can be traced to adverse early environments, and that “A greater percentage of U.S. children is being born into adverse environments.”

I and most teachers, I think, have long observed that many learning difficulties seemed to be linked to domestic home-life problems, and that there are a lot more of them than there used to be. So, the good news is that there is research to support this observation.

The bad news is that the longer we wait, the more expensive and difficult it is to effectively manage these problems, which is why Heckman and Brooks both advocate early intervention. In the meantime, we deal with the fallout in our classrooms. Brooks calls it “human capital development,” an outrageous term that reduces students to an economic commodity and belies his concern for our collective well-being. He believes that “America rose because it got more out of its own people than other nations.” How narrow-minded can you get?

What are some of the noncognitive skills Heckman identified? Well, they include physical and mental health, perseverance, attention, motivation, and self confidence. Every one of these is within a teacher’s realm of responsibility, and worthy in their own right, regardless of whether they enhance a person’s economic worth. In fact, attention to these human qualities sets great teachers apart from the clinicians. They’re impossible to test for, and they aren’t called upon until their exercise is required, but they are the foundation we need to build, and build upon.

Raising the bar, making school more rigorous, banging the drum for accountability, none of theses can begin to make a dent in the life of a kid who locks herself in the bathroom at night to hide from her mother’s boyfriend.

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Shock Resistance

Jul 17 2008 Published by under borderland,education,politics,social class

I’m reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, and I see the standards movement in US education policy now less as an isolated case, that is, isolated to the US and education in particular, and more connected to events in the larger world of politics and economics. It’s good to have a frame of reference for what often seems like random “winds of change” blowing in from different corners of the rhetorical universe.

NCLB’s mandate for all students to achieve academic proficiency has always seemed like a ploy to blame and shame schools, teachers, and teacher unions, to justify privatizing the public system. What I learned from Klein’s book is just how accurate that suspicion was, and how much further free market rhetoric reaches than Education in the US. You might say that Naomi Klein has identified the source of that particular current and charted it’s course. Klein documents a 30 year history of free market economic reforms that have ravaged (or “transformed,” depending on your point of view) populations around the globe.

In Doomed to Fail, an article by Claudia Wallis that appeared in Time last month, came confirmation of the privatization scheme from an ex-official of Bush’s education ministry:

Susan Neuman, a professor of education at the University Michigan who served as Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education during George W. Bush’s first term, was and still is a fervent believer in the goals of NCLB. And she says the President and then Secretary of Education Rod Paige were too. But there were others in the department, according to Neuman, who saw NCLB as a Trojan horse for the choice agenda "” a way to expose the failure of public education and “blow it up a bit,” she says. “There were a number of people pushing hard for market forces and privatization.”

I’m not sure how anyone could be a “fervent believer” in NCLB, unless we’re talking about religious faith. As Wallis herself observed, “There was always something slightly insane about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the ambitious education law often described as the Bush Administration’s signature domestic achievement.”

Exactly. Never mind that the funding didn’t materialize. No amount of funding will make pigs fly, water run uphill, or help every student pass a lousy test. One of the more distressing items in Barack Obama’s education platform is that he thinks that “No Child Left Behind Left the Money Behind.” Yes, there are problems with schools. Lots of them. But a more elaborate, fully-funded, testing scheme is not what we need.

We need a comprehensive economic justice agenda, with things like “free public education from pre-K through graduate school, job creation, long-term unemployment insurance and retiree benefits, accessible low- or no-cost health care, affordable housing, and quality child and senior care,” of which public education reform, directed by parents and school community members, is a piece.

But Shock Doctrine isn’t about Education. It’s about economic “reform” and the imposition of “shock therapy” on societies for the sake of corporate growth. Klein credits Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of economics as the ideological source of a movement to roll back social gains for working class people which came as a result of the New Deal. She says, “What they wanted was not a revolution exactly, but a capitalist Reformation: a return to uncontaminated capitalism (p. 66).”

Klein quotes Milton Friedman, from his 1982 introduction to Capitalism and Freedom:

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

She also says:

If we look at this history our present makes sense. This talk is about becoming shock resistant. And I believe that knowing this history is what makes us shock resistant. If we look at places that are becoming shock resistant, like Latin America, it’s because they understand where the current attacks fit into a 500 year hisotry of taking advantage of crisis – of violent imposition of capitalism, and that is what makes social movements strong – having our eyes wide open – not false optimism.

The basic disaster strategy: Ignore infrastructure until it fails (claiming there isn’t money to maintain it). When a crisis hits, and while everyone is disoriented (in shock), funnel public funds to contractors who’ll presumably make it all better. Use force to suppress the opposition. Remember, US prisons are business opportunities now, too. Klein calls this “disaster capitalism.” A few people get rich, and everybody else gets screwed.

Klein recommends that we look to Latin America for examples of alternatives to the “Washington Consensus,” examples of a human rights movement that she calls “disaster collectivism,” in which people have the right to participate in their own social reconstruction.

Shock Doctrine was a best seller last year, and it just came out in paperback, which is how I happen to be reading it. Klein’s documentation is online, including current examples from the news. This short video summarizes the thesis.

The book has had a powerful organizing effect on my thinking, and I’m probably not done talking about it. There’s a section on New Orleans and what happened after Katrina that I want to look at more closely. There’s a lot more at stake in the school reform agenda than curriculum, achievement, and technology if we feed the rhetoric of strong American schools through Klein’s historical and economic filter. Inequality is up, these days, you know.

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Jul 06 2008 Published by under borderland

It’s been family reunion time for me the last couple weeks. I was paying minimal attention to the blog until I discovered that it went offline a few days ago. Long story short: something happened with the subdomain I set up for it, and any attempt to locate it produced a “Page Not Found” browser error. A fair amount of fussing, and some help from the IT folks where it’s hosted, brought it back online.

I spent a few hours thinking about the possibility that Borderland might have been gone for good. It wasn’t really too disturbing. But I’d rather bring it to a more graceful end than having the whole thing just dry up and blow away.

I’ll return to whatever passes for normal operation here in mid-July, once we’re done with the cousins, brothers, sisters, and grandparents. Living in Alaska, with all the relatives far away, means we don’t see each other very often. We’re getting a full dose of one another this summer. Good stuff, but there’s little time for writing with all the family commotion.

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