This commentary of mine is currently appearing here.
Most efforts to improve schooling in the United States have limited impact because opinion leaders’ repeated appeals to global economic competitiveness and national greatness don’t inspire teachers or students.
Following World War II, the United States enjoyed steady economic growth, which led to unprecedented prosperity. People’s standard of living steadily improved, the U.S. economy became the world’s largest, and successive generations of parents assumed that their children would enjoy even more secure and comfortable lives.
More recently, the fastest growing countries, particularly China, India, and Brazil, have grown more quickly and made long-term investments in infrastructure to further reduce the economic gap with the world’s largest economies. Also, many Chinese and other Asian young people are attending U.S. and European universities while their governments invest in higher education at home at record levels. Meanwhile, the United States has been challenged by higher than normal unemployment, declining real wages, the bursting of the housing bubble, and runaway health care and higher education inflation. Now parents increasingly fear their children will not enjoy as secure or comfortable lives as they have. It’s impossible to overstate how much economic anxiety informs proposals to improve schools from opinion leaders such as Bill Gates, Thomas Friedman, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and President Barack Obama.
Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and Obama sing from one choir book with this chorus: “Our economic dominance is ebbing, our standard of living is threatened, and righting the ship depends upon improving our schools.” They’re also of one mind on what’s necessary to improve schools—a distinct emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and making teachers more accountable for student learning by tying together their students’ test scores, their evaluations, and their compensation.
They implore students to work harder for the sake of the country. For example, consider Secretary Duncan’s October 2011 speech in Portland, Oregon, to the Oregon Business Association. Early on, he said, “I absolutely believe education is now the engine for long-term economic growth. But that is not a Democratic theory. In fact, the vast majority of governors from both parties subscribe to that view. And it’s a view shared by many business leaders as well.” “This summer,” he added, “I was at a White House meeting with President Obama and a number of leading CEOs. And the consensus about the link between education and economic growth was striking, even among corporate leaders who might disagree with the president on other issues.”
Or consider President Obama’s “Back to School” pep talk to Wakefield High School students in Arlington, Virginia, in September 2009:
We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that—if you quit on school—you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.
The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.
So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?
A year later, in September 2010, the president gave another “Back to School” speech at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania school. The speech was also streamed to students nationwide:
The farther you go in school, the farther you’re going to go in life. And at a time when other countries are competing with us like never before, when students around the world in Beijing, China, or Bangalore, India, are working harder than ever, and doing better than ever, your success in school is not just going to determine your success, it’s going to determine America’s success in the 21st century.
Taken together, Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and the president articulated what Maxine Greene has referred to as a utilitarian purpose of schooling. In this view, business principles are applied to schools, and economics trumps everything. Students are thought of much more as future workers and consumers than citizens. Schools primarily exist to prepare students for the workforce. Greene labels this a “self-regarding, education for having” orientation that emphasizes math and science coursework, competition, and job skills. In this now dominant paradigm, concepts like “self-actualization,” “service,” “citizenship,” and “democracy” are slighted, along with the arts, the humanities, social studies education, and foreign languages.
Teachers and students are told to work harder for the sake of our economic competitiveness and national greatness. Again, the president asks students, “What will a president who comes here in 20 or 50 or 100 years say about what all of you did for this country?” Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Gates, Friedman, Duncan, and Obama don’t understand what motivates public school teachers given that none of them has ever been one.
Teachers don’t commit to the profession the way some enlist in the military. Few educators are motivated by nationalism. Most elementary teachers love working with children and get great satisfaction from helping their students become literate. Most secondary teachers love some particular content and get great satisfaction from introducing their students to that content. The best ones also enjoy working with adolescents and helping them mature into competent and caring young men and women. Teachers don’t lack patriotism; their patriotism just doesn’t inform their day-do-day work with students.
If teachers find appeals to economic competitiveness and national greatness uninspiring, it’s doubly true for students. Academic achievement isn’t a question of how much young people love their country; it is whether they have inspiring teachers, positive peer pressure, and, most important, caring adults in their lives who combine high expectations with tireless support and encouragement.
The debilitating disconnect between opinion leaders’ rhetoric and what motivates teachers and students has at least two costs. First, when science, technology, engineering, and math are all that’s important, and qualitative aspects of learning and living are ignored, teachers, students, and families grow disenchanted with reform proposals. Teachers, students, and families want schools that acknowledge and honor the whole child and develop skills and personal attributes that may not have immediate and obvious economic benefits. They resent the opinion leaders’ myopic materialism and assumption that our nation’s gross national product is more important than children’s well-being.
Teachers and parents want schools to help students develop skills and sensibilities that will enable them to not just earn a living, but also live well. Teachers and parents instinctively know that if schools succeed in creating curious, caring, well-rounded, and resilient young people in the short term, the economy will be fine in the long term. Economic growth should be a positive by-product of a humane, child-centered school system, not the all-pervasive starting and ending point that Bill Gates, Tom Friedman, Arne Duncan, and Barack Obama want us to believe.
Second, appeals to national economic competiveness and greatness will do little to inspire a new generation of culturally diverse, high-achieving undergraduates to enter the teaching profession. Half of the United States’ 3.2 million teachers are expected to retire in the next decade. Our greatest and most important educational challenge is to recruit and retain over one million culturally diverse, academically accomplished candidates. Because teacher compensation is unlikely to improve much, the way the profession is presented to potential candidates is especially important. If people are encouraged to teach primarily for the sake of our nation’s economy, we will fail to inspire the number of new culturally diverse, academically accomplished candidates we need to reinvent schooling in the 21st century.
Ultimately, as educators and citizens, we have a choice. We can passively defer to the combined voices of the opinion leaders who dominate the nation’s newspapers and airwaves, or we can resolve to challenge their narrow utilitarian assumptions about the purpose of schooling and instead frame teaching as a profoundly challenging, rewarding, and important form of community service.