Friday, January 28, 2011

False Premises, False Promises: Corporate Education Reform and the Hostile Takeover of the Public Schools

By special guest blogger Michael Fiorillo

I. The Fallacy of the Knowledge Economy

     One of the most oft repeated fallacies and falsehoods that underlie efforts to privatize the public schools in the US is the claim that we have entered a “knowledge economy” demanding high levels of education and skills, and that (teacher’s) failure to facilitate this will result in the US becoming less “competitive.” This rhetoric is used by proponents of the corporate restructuring of the schools, from Barack Obama and Arne Duncan on down, and is meant to signify the importance that college and preparation for it hold for future employment prospects. The not-very-hidden implication is that the Chinese will have us all eating cat food if we don’t put our children’s noses to the grindstone of longer school days, longer school years and curricula dominated by high-stakes tests. That the people proposing these policies, starting with the President himself, would never in a million years allow their own children to be subjected to them, is news not fit to print.

     Having rejected education’s now-quaint role as developer (along with parents) of healthy, well-rounded human beings, and as part of the foundation of a democratic society, policy makers now focus almost exclusively on its vocational role in training the future workforce for a market economy. Thus, teachers are obliged – under the threat of having their schools closed and loss of their livelihood - to prepare students for this brave new knowledge economy, which according to those controlling the debate requires high levels of education.

     It sounds sensible - after all, a college education has for decades been a ladder to economic advancement – and is rarely questioned, but is it true? Unfortunately, just a brief look at the current realities of the labor market in the US, as well as projections for the future, show it to be a gross falsehood.

     In a May, 2010 report the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics said that, “Retail salespersons, cashiers, general office clerks combined with food preparation and serving workers, and registered nurses were among the occupations with the highest employment in 2009…”

     The report further states that, “In addition to the occupations mentioned above, the largest occupations included customer service representatives; elementary school teachers, except special education; and general maintenance and repair workers.”

     As for all those high paying, knowledge economy jobs, well, sorry: “Most of the largest occupations are generally low paying. Thirty of the forty occupations in Table 4 had average wages below the US mean of $20.90 per hour or $43,460 annually.”

     As for the future, our knowledge economy’s prospects don’t look so hot there, either. In a BLS report on occupational projections for the years 2006-2016, Table 3 shows that 19 of the 30 occupations with the highest predicted growth in this period require only short or moderate on-the-job training, and only 7 require Bachelor degrees or above. Of the total projected job openings, more than twice as many positions will require only short or moderate on-the-job training versus those occupations requiring a professional, Masters or Bachelor degree. The largest projected needs will be among home and personal care aides, home health care aides, and in retail sales.

     So in fact, the guilty secret of those screaming, “It’s all about the kids!” is that the occupations which the majority of public school students are being trained for are dead end, low-paying, high-turnover jobs that require little or no education beyond high school. And if you think about it, this is congruent with the education that teachers are increasingly being forced to give them: authoritarian, repetitive, tedious, dull and closed to larger worlds and opportunities.

     “So,” the self-proclaimed reformers will say, “that just proves the importance of a college degree!” Unfortunately, no: for even highly educated and skilled workers are seeing their prospects diminish as a result of outsourcing enabled by digital technologies. According to Sarash Kuruvilla of Cornell’s Institute of Industrial and Labor Relations, “…many highly-skilled US jobs such as financial industry equity research, data modeling and actuarial analysis are being outsourced to India.”

     Kuruvilla also reports that other high-skill occupations being moved to Asia include “engineering services…particularly in aerospace and civil aviation, software research and development, and in animation…” The health industries will also not be spared, with “medical research jobs, including those in radiology, drug discovery and testing, and clinical trials… moving to India.”

     The inference to be drawn is clear: whatever connections may have existed between post-secondary educational achievement and economic advancement have been broken, and to claim otherwise is false. This is significant for public school teachers, since they are being herded into a forced march, and having their living standards threatened, based on the constant repetition of these false premises.

     As Richard Rothstein wrote in a report for the Economic Policy Institute, “Much of our educational policy in recent years has been driven by the inaccurate belief that if only all students could qualify for post-secondary education and become ‘attractive job candidates,’ all youth would then obtain well-compensated jobs that took advantage of those qualifications.”

      The truth is that factors other than education (such as investment flows, the relative balance of power between Capital and Labor, and between sectors of Capital itself) have a much greater influence on income and living standards. Even if the science and technology jobs are there, they don’t pay enough (or at least not enough to compare with creating algorithms for high-frequency trading programs at hedge funds and investment banks, which is where more and more math and physics majors are winding up).
     According to a report from the OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, “a forum of countries committed to democracy and the market economy”) and its Draft Agenda on the Steering and Funding of Research Institutions, “…overall the supply of graduates in science and technology continues to rise, although a few countries have seen a decline in specific fields such as chemistry and physics. Furthermore, there is little evidence of strong upward pressure in wages for science and technology professionals (gee, could outsourcing have anything to do with that? MF). In fact, poor career prospects in the scientific occupations are often cited as one of the main reasons behind the decline in scientific studies among young people. (italics mine).”

     In other words, Mr. Market has spoken, and unless you’re a trader or executive at a Too Big to Fail Bank, or are starting a charter school, he’s going to pay you less, no matter what your educational achievement.

     What’s the point of all this for teachers and supporters of public education? It’s that one of the major themes in the dominant narrative about education in the US, that (unionized) teachers (with due process and seniority rights, and pension and health benefits) are failing to prepare students for a future bright with unlimited prospects, prospects they would achieve if only their deadbeat teachers didn’t stand in the way, is straight-out false.

     The reality is that, the prospects for the overwhelming majority of young people are being foreclosed upon by those who control investment, and who see their continued prosperity as depending on the enlargement of a weak, transient, low-paid, low-skilled service workforce, to include teachers, whose every move is determined and electronically overseen by management.

     The interests of those controlling investment, and those controlling the debate about education, have decoupled from those who perform the work of society, and they are propagating these falsehoods in order to extend their control and enrich themselves by taking over the public schools.
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