Sunday, September 20, 2009

DEBASING SCHOOLING: Preparing Kids for the World of Work

Recently I was involved in interviewing a candidate for Director of Graduate Teacher Education at my university. She was a twenty year administrative veteran of a big city school district and, more recently, superintendent of several different suburban districts. During the interview she kept referring to schools preparing children for the world of work. After a while I began to wonder if she thought schools should do anything else. When I asked her about that she looked bewildered and said, "Like what?" I suggested that perhaps schooling should have something to do with truth and beauty, for example. She frowned in disapproval and said that this sort of thing was up to parents or other non-school agencies. Then she added, "I seem to have a broader vision than you do of what education is about." How she came to that conclusion I am at a loss to explain. But I am not at a loss to explain her commitment to the notion that schools should concentrate on preparing kids for the world of work. That ominously unimaginative priority has dominated every governmental education "reform" since A Nation At Risk. That was the sensationalistic Reagan administration sponsored 1983 report on American education which claimed our schools were so awful that if a foreign power had caused their deterioration it would be a cause for war. No Child Left Behind simply reiterates this report's alarming emphasis on schooling as a means of training internationally competitive workers. This unimaginative goal fails to consider the unpatriotic nature of multinational corporations. They typically don't give a damn about the US or its workers. What they care about is profit. So if, say, the Vietnamese, sew shirts at less cost than US garment workers the jobs go to Vietnam regardless of how well schooled Americans are for the world of work. Such an unimaginative goal also vulgarizes the proper ends of education. At its best schooling is not about improving international competitiveness. Schooling is about cultivating wisdom, it is about discovering what is universal in the human experience, it is about discovering that truth and beauty are more valuable than profit, and it is about learning how to assess value, not just price. Such transcendendent values must not be replaced with beating the Chinese at making widgits. In the best case, an exclusive focus on preparing school kids for the world of work will succeed only in creating more competitive barbarians.

Sunday, September 6, 2009


President Obama’s education agenda, which turns out to be George W. Bush’s program squared, has a particular feature that could have an unfortunate impact on teachers — merit pay. Whenever I think about teacher merit pay I’m reminded of a situation that occurred when I taught seventh grade. Our school’s scarce audio-visual equipment was “stored” in the classroom of the principal’s favorite teacher. The practical consequence was that this teacher, we’ll call him George, had first claim on it— a privilege he routinely abused. How did George become the principal’s favorite? It wasn’t that he was the most skillful teacher. He actually bored the kids half to death. His talent was boot licking. The man stroked the principal’s ego like Paganini bowed a violin. And since he taught nothing of consequence nor dared anything different, he never made waves. The principal loved him for that too. This is how George got the AV equipment, as well as choice assignments; and this is what would have won him merit pay if such a thing had then existed. Yes, teacher merit pay could easily turn into bonuses for brown-nosers. And even if standardized test scores become the soul criteria, favoritism could still play a role in who gets the money. That’s because the principal’s favorites often end up with the easiest classes and particularly difficult kids are quickly reassigned to some less favored soul. One doesn’t even have to be the principal’s favorite to gain such advantages. Sometimes being a secretary’s favorite will do. I personally know of a school secretary who annually let her favorite pick the kids she wanted in her class because the secretary was her friend and neighbor. The other same grade level teachers got, as one of them dejectedly put it, “the dregs.” Will favoritism result in unfair competition for merit pay? It’s a good bet. To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at