2011-04-01 / Columnists

School Scope

Debunking The Education Deform College Myth
Commentary By Norman Scott

Can we push the idea on kids from the very earliest age that life is a failure if they don’t graduate from college?

Shhhhh! Don’t tell Sarah Palin that I was palling around with Bill Ayers, the focus of the right wing attacks on Obama for attending some education meetings in the 90s with Ayers, who was a key member of The Weathermen in the 60s. Ayers has become a well-known educator and gave the keynote speech at the NYCORE (NY Collective of Radical Educators) conference last week. Ayers’ presentation was both political and pedagogical, focusing on what classrooms and relationships between children and teachers should look like, a far cry from the reality of teaching. But Ayers urged teachers to look for the cracks where they can humanize instruction. Many of the young teachers present say they attempt to practice progressive ed ideas in the cauldron of the testing environment that so dehumanizes schools. I was involved in a discussion at one of the workshops with a group that included a special ed teacher, two student teachers who are actually doing some teaching, and one community college future teacher. One student teach-er talked about her discomfort over being forced to sell kids on going to college as the only way to success considering so many poor kids don’t have the means to pay for it or their aptitudes or the interest level seems low. But she didn’t want to be accused of the crime of low expectations, where the penalty is death of your career. In the politically correct world we live in, educators are afraid to utter the words, “He would be better off working with his hands.”

Student loan debt is at $900 billion and it takes a lifetime to pay off that mortgage-like loan. Should we be pushing college down people’s throats without providing a reasonable path to pay for it? Remember those days when the city university system was free?

Most new jobs being created (73 percent is a number I’ve heard) are fairly low paying and will not require a college degree. Walmart and McDonald’s are the largest employers in the nation, which means you can hang the name of your college over your cash register as you ask, “Do you want fries with that?” Is that narrow test prep education kids are getting aimed at preparing them to do fairly menial, non-thinking tasks more efficiently? You no longer need to know even basic arithmetic to work a cash register. Why not open up more vocational opportunities without making it seem like blasphemy? Consider that many white-collar jobs can easily be outsourced while it takes three days to get a plumber to come from India.

Paul Krugman, in a March 8, 2011 NY Times piece titled Degrees and Dollars: The hollow promise of good jobs for highly educated workers pointed out that the idea that “modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners [is] actually decades out of date ... since 1990 the U.S. job market has been characterized not by a general rise in the demand for skill, but by ‘hollowing out’: both highwage and low-wage employment have grown rapidly, but medium-wage jobs — the kinds of jobs we count on to support a strong middle class — have lagged behind. And the hole in the middle has been getting wider: many of the high-wage occupations that grew rapidly in the 1990s have seen much slower growth recently, even as growth in lowwage employment has accelerated.”

The elimination of jobs in the middle goes hand in hand with the assault on public education and the growth of charter schools, which will cull the herd, leaving an underfinanced and under resourced public school system to train kids for the low end jobs.

Krugman makes this case. “Why is this happening? The belief that education is becoming ever more important rests on the plausible-sounding notion that advances in technology increase job opportunities for those who work with information — loosely speaking, that computers help those who work with their minds, while hurting those who work with their hands ... Most of the manual labor still being done in our economy seems to be of the kind that’s hard to automate ...”

So are we heading towards Egypt where PhDs will be driving cabs? Krugman seems to be pointing us in that direction: “there are things education can’t do. In particular, the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade. “ He then offers a solution. “If we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer — we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen. What we can’t do is get where we need to go just by giving workers college degrees, which may be no more than tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages.”

Of course it makes sense to have strong unions to counterbalance the overwhelming corporate control of the government. You know those same corporations that cry so hard about high corporate taxes while we see GE pay zero taxes.

A solution or pipe dream? Restore the bargaining power of labor? In this tea party climate we live in? My advice? When you get your PhD, better get your hack license along with it.

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