Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Real Opportunity Gap

Here's another piece of rhetoric from the administration that has truck-sized holes in it. Arne Duncan has tossed these ideas around multiple times, but today let's just look at them as they appeared in his December 3 PISA Day remarks, "The Threat of Educational Stagnation and Complacency.

He leads with his analysis of the PISA, framed once again as "OMGZZ! We are stagnating and falling behind! Run away! Run away! It's a direst emergency!" All that is missing is a minion with a blinking red light hollering "WEE-OOO, WEEE-OOO" He cites some of the countries "beating" us, like Latvia. You all remember what a threat Latvia has been to the US international standing, how they've overtaken us economically, industrially, socially. Yeah, Latvia.

This politics of panic stuff is pretty standard. You open with "The sky is falling," as a way of setting up "You're doomed if you don't follow my directives." The PISA panic attack has been addressed pretty well elsewhere (like here and here and we could all use a good link to a chart that shows how disaggregated data shows the US doing just fine, thank you), so I'm going to go ahead and skip on past that upside-down car in the ditch.

The pivot point in Duncan's speech comes here: "That reality is at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world."

After a nod, without discussion, to the notion that poor and minority students might be bringing down the US average, we're ready for this: " We must close what I call the "opportunity gap." The only way to increase social mobility and strengthen the middle class is through high-quality education."

You see where we're going here. People don't have trouble getting an education because they're poor. They're poor because they have trouble getting an education.

Now, some people point out that the US has managed a few lifetimes of robust economic growth, innovation, productivity and entrepreneurship without the benefit of scoring well on a standardized test, I mean, educating every single student to the college level. Duncan says this about that:

"What those skeptics fail to recognize is that education plays a much bigger role today in propelling economic growth than in the 1960s or the 1980s. In a knowledge-based, globally competitive economy, the importance of education has increased enormously. Education is the new currency, and this currency is recognized internationally."

I'm not even going to make fun of "education is currency." I am  not the only teacher in the room who has had a student say, "You know, school is like work and we ought to get paid to come here," and I am probably not the only teacher who ever replied, "Your pay is that you get an education." So I'll go along with "education is currency."

You know what else is currency? Bitcoins. Confederate dollars. Stones with holes drilled in the middle. Currency is only useful if its value is recognized by the people from which you want to buy something.

That brings us up to the more-quoted line from this speech:

"Today, there are basically no good jobs for high-school dropouts. To land a job that pays a living wage, most people will need at least some college."

This echoes one of those special parts of CCSS that occasionally rears its head. Numerous teacher friends of mine have had it explained to them this way-- when the CCSS says "career ready" it really means "a better than minimum wage job which will support you above the poverty line."

And that's when my baloneymeter slips over from "Oh, Come On" to "WTF."

There are many, many reports on poverty and the working poor out there.You can look at US Department of Labor stats, census stats, even business-backed study groups like The Working Poor Families Project. 

The WPFP issued a report in 2011 indicating 46 million Americans lived in low-income working families. In April of this year, the Atlantic published a article surveying just how grim the picture was for college grads. It includes a frank look at the underemployment issue, concluding it might not be as bad as the 54% figure that was thrown around during the Presidential campaign, but there's still a hefty number of college grads who have gone from analyzing deeply researched data to analyzing the relative merits of paper or plastic.

We cam throw more economic indicators around, like the nearly-50% of Americans who don't pay income tax. It's a red-meat talking point meant to say, "Look at all these lazy freeloaders," but every time it's raised, all I hear is "Look at all the people who don't even make enough money to owe income tax on it."

Well, the economic analysis belongs best in the hands of someone other than a high school English teacher. But I'm going to suggest that in a nation where so many are employed in part-time, minimum-wage jobs, job qualifications are not the issue.

Does Duncan imagine that the process will be: 1) an unbroken stream of college grads show up to apply at Wal-Mart and so 2) they are all offered well-paying, full-time, family-supporting jobs? Because he has to know that 1 is already happening and 2 is never going to happen.

What does Duncan's imaginary country look like? Every person has a college degree and works at a family-supporting wage, while all minimum wage jobs have disappeared? All Americans work in high yield office jobs and the low-level jobs like retail and low-training labor are performed by-- who? Thirteen-year-olds? Migrant workers? Robots? Duncan is from Chicago, South Side-- surely he is not one of those city boys who thinks that meat appears in supermarkets already butchered and wrapped in plastic. Surely he knows that meatpacking jobs are a thing, and that somebody has to do them if the rest of us want to get our Safeway steak.

Duncan needs to be schooled in two areas here. First, I recommend that he spend a week marathoning Dirty Jobs and listening to Mike Rowe talk about the jobs "that make civilized living possible for the rest of us." Rowe has become a tireless advocate for working class jobs in this country; Duncan needs to be schooled by him. Second, I recommend that Duncan spend some time shadowing some twenty-something college grads (ones who don't have well-connected, well-heeled parents) as they try to find a career to go with their fine college educations.

When he's done, maybe he'll understand the other opportunity gap, the gap between the kinds of careers that he wants all students to prepare for, and the kinds of jobs that are actually waiting for them as well as the kinds of jobs America needs people to do. It's not just that jobs aren't there for people with career training. We need people to do the work that these days barely pays subsistence wages. These are gaps that won't be closed by implementing CCSS.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you!!! Not everyone is interest in college.. doing away with trades is a travesty!!! We need construction workers, plumbers, grocers, maintenance workers..... so many jobs that do NOT require the insane costliness of college.