Thursday, June 21, 2018

Government Reorganization and The Narrowing of Education


After a few days of hot rumors, today the Trump administration re-organization plan dropped. It's not a short thing, including as it does plenty of history and rationalization for this attempt to reduce the footprint of government.

In the education world, the buzz has been about the mash-up of the Education and Labor departments.

There's nothing to be surprised about-- the GOP has wanted to cut the education department off at the knees since the very day it was born. But I don't think this is necessarily about killed the ed department or even shuffling Betsy DeVos out of DC; I think the goal here is something worse.

Among the different tribes of reformsters, one clan has always been clear about how they think education is supposed to work. For instance, back in 2013 I pilloried this sentence written by Allan Golston for the Gates Foundation website:

Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools, so it’s a natural alliance.

Or there's this gem from Rex Tillerson, back when he was an oleaginous Exxon executive and not a failed Trump administration stooge:

I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation. Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested? American schools have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.

For many of the business crowd, this has always been the point of education reform-- for schools to crank out workers who can be more useful meat widgets for the captains of industry. Data mining appeals to them because it would be great if Human Resources could just access a data base to order up meat widgets to spec ("I'd like ten that are strong math, are fair in written communication, show no family history of expensive illness, and have a history of being compliant with authority figures"). Competency-Based Education appeals to them because meat widgets can be trained quickly and specifically in just those competencies that employers care about. And a narrower education keeps the meat widgets from being exposed to anything that might give them ideas or make them, you know, all uppity about what they expect from an employer in wages and working conditions.

For this brand of reformster (which, I should be clear, is not all reformsters) education is really just vocational training for the Lessers. Liberal education, with broader purpose and scope-- it's fine if that's offered at private schools for people who can afford it. But public education should be focused on the basics-- math, reading, work skills, compliance. It's an added bonus that cutting back to the basics also makes public education cheaper.

For these folks, the merger of Education and Labor makes perfect sense-- the public schools of today are where the laborers of tomorrow go to be made useful for their future bosses.

Fig. 1
This is also signaled in the new name of the merged department-- the Department of Education and the Workforce. Gone is "labor" with all its history as a term for a sector of the economy deserving respect and support and protection. Gone is that word that so often used to appear side by side with the hated word "union." Gone, I suspect, will be the notion that this department should in any way champion the rights of labor in this country.

We'll see if anyone in the GOP wants to call out the significance of a department set up to handle students and workers, because this merger is perfectly in keeping with the vision of a cradle-to-career pipeline that goes back at least to Mark Tucker's infamous letter to Hillary Clinton, laying out how through data mining, careful education management, and a whole bunch of what we could call surveillance, we could start with new-born infants and build them to order, made to emerge from school ready to take (and accept) their proper meat widget assignment in the world.

The merger of the two departments is only #1 on a list of 32 different proposed improvements, including folding the FDA into the USDA; fixing USAID so it helps make other countries more self-sufficient instead of, I guess, helping them; reorganizing the census bureau; making the postal service more profitable (suck it, Bezos) or just privatizing it; some argle bargle that looks suspiciously like pushing social impact bonds; and making the federal government paperless by 2022. Plus monkeying around with student loans.

Betsy DeVos has released a statement saying that she thinks this is super plusgood.

Will such a consolidation have an actual effect on classroom teachers?

It's hard to predict what's going to emerge as actual policy from the department (or who will actually be in charge of it). The past two decades have already been marked by a federal emphasis on education as vocational training (for the Lessers, of course-- their Betters still send their children to private schools with rich, broad educational programs, because nobody is sending their kid to Philips Exeter Academy just to make them a more employable cog in a corporate wheel). The repeated mantra of "college and career ready" standards (where college is just a source of higher-level vocational training) has already pushed schools away from liberal arts programs and towards strictly vocational, nose-to-the-grindstone education. This is probably just another step on the road we've been traveling for a while.

So I don't think, should Congress approve this, the day after merger classroom teachers will suddenly have new programs and policies to implement.

Instead, I think we'll continue to suffer from the slow and steady narrowing of our educational goals and purpose, our very definition of what getting an education means. School should be, has been (and for the wealthy, will continue to be) about building an understanding of how the world works, building an understanding of our best selves, of how we can best be fully human in the world while we pursue our goals and aspirations. School should be about finding a place in the world, and while it serves students, it also serves the entire community as well-- friends, neighbors, family members, fellow citizens, fellow voters-- and not just future employers.* The push for twenty years has been to redefine school as a place where you get ready to pass a test that proves you have certain skills so that you can get a job by proving to someone with more power and money than you that you can serve as a useful tool for them. Yes, we'll occasionally let someone prove they can jump up to the Betters education, but allowing for the occasional transfer between tiers in a two-tier system is not the same as providing a top-notch universal education system for all. Meanwhile, teaching becomes less like lighting a fire and lifting up students and more like dronesick drudgery.

Or, to put it more simply, the classic view of the US public education system was a system meant to serve the needs of students. What we're pushing now is a system where students are meant to understand that their place in the world is to serve the needs of others. This is not a new dichotomy-- in the past, where we have failed to meet the ideal of the classic view, it has been because of people pushing hard for the idea that only certain students deserved to be served, and all others must learn to serve.

It's a sad, narrow, meagre vision of education we've been building, and a merger of departments simply puts one more nail into one more sad two-by-four. I don't think a merger represents a sudden sharp turn toward disaster (though it could unleash all manner of chaos and destruction-- never underestimate this administration), but it surely isn't good news, either. We'll see if anyone in Congress wants to stand up and oppose it (see Fig. 1)

*A sentence to this effect was somehow lost from the original draft, and I just put it back. Apologies to the first few hundred people who read the incomplete version.

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