Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Shoving Babies Into The Pipeline

I knew I was going to be cranky after the very first sentence:

The workforce pipeline begins with quality early education.

This is Gil Minor, a retired CEO of a Fortune 200 company; he's also the chair of the Virginia Higher Education Council and vice-chairman of the group he's plugging in this op-ed, E3: Elevate Early Education. And not everything he has to say is odious claptrap, but that first sentence really sets the wrong tone.

This attitude pops up from business guys with depressing regularity. In 2013, it was Allan Golston of the Gates Foundation writing, "Businesses are the primary consumers of the output of our schools..." Back in 2014, Rex Tillerson, then Enron chief, said, "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."

Yes, that looks like a great place for a child
This too-pervasive belief that the main purpose of public education is to run human capital through a pipeline so that meat widgets pop out the other end, ready for the consumption of business is bunk. Public education does not exist to serve the needs of business; it exists to serve the students, their families, the community, and society as a whole. Absolutely, part of serving students is to help them become self-supporting and employable-- but the idea is to serve the needs of the students, not the needs of the businesses.

But Minor is going to take this belief about education's purpose and marry it to another line of bunk that grabs me by the nerve endings:

Sadly, this fall, according to the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP), 44% of Virginia’s children entered kindergarten not ready in one or more critical areas of literacy, math, self-regulation and social skills.

Once again, Minor has things backwards. If a vast number of littles are not "ready" for your kindergarten program, that is an indictment of your kindergarten program, period, full stop.

It is not a five-year-old's job to be ready for school; it is the school's job to be ready for the five-year-old.

This is doubly true now that we have entered an era in which too many people have decided that human development can somehow be hurried along, that we can turn kindergarten into first opr second grade by just pushing the littles to sit dowen and study. Again, there is a germ of truth attached to this movement-- children who grow up in homes that provide a richer learning environment get an extra boost in learning. I can't help noticing, however, that these council of busi8ness types never sit down to say, "What we need to do is provide young families the kind of income and freedom that helps foster a richer environment for children."

In short, these groups could treat young parents like humans trying to raise little humans instead of meat widgets tasked with producing little meat widgets.

If they must approach low-income families with deficit thinking (and, really, they don't have to), they could at a bare minimum get out some mirrors and ask themselves how they, as business and community leaders, contribute to that "deficit." The only thing these guys ever get right is increasing access to pre-school, and in too many cases, that is botched because their idea of a quality pre-school is one that gets three-year-olds to sit down and do worksheets to work on academics.

E3's "three-prong strategy" focused on coming up with a tool to define the readiness gap, pushing for a study with which to drive "investments in quality" and setting up a proof-of-concept model in Norfolk. Now they're helping advocate for a budget package that, they believe, will close access gaps for pre-schoolers from low-income families. juice the Virginia Preschool Initiative, adopt uniform measurement and improvement systems so parents can shop better, support early childhood educators, and get the pre-K system put under the VA department of education.

Look, these aren't the most terrible ideas in the world, but neither are they awesome. In particular, the quest for a unified standard measure invariably results in an emphasis on certain aspects because they can be measured, and not because they are necessarily important. And I'm not excited about touting education as an "investment opportunity," as if each child has an obligation to provide some ROI. Nor is there much value in identifying a three or four year old by her deficits rather than her strengths, desires, and general joys in life (well, no benefit unless you think the purpose of the education system is to run a pipeline that helps you sort out the useful meat widgets from the ones you would rather toss aside).

In other words, meet the littles where they are instead of identifying them based on how far away they are from where you want them to be.

And if business types want to help out in getting a good start for all children, particularly those from low-income families, let me make some suggestions:

* Lobby for paid parental leave policy that allows families with new babies a chance to get off to a good start. We have the worst parental leave policies in the industrialized world, in large part because those policies can't be discussed without business complaining that it would cost them too much.

* Pay your low-wage workers more money. Make it possible for the low-income families who depend on your business to create a richer learning environment for their children. Put them in the position of being able to buy lot of books, instead of having to make decisions between things like medicine and food.

* Give your low-wage workers reliable and predictable work schedules so that child care is not such a constant challenge of fire fighting.

* Provide your low-wage workers with decent health insurance.

* Build million-dollar playgrounds in neighborhoods and at preschools. Make it possible for the littles to run and play.

* Take a good hard look at the kinds of programs you're advocating to get littles shoved into the feeder end of a worker-bee pipeline and ask yourself if you would place your own child or grandchild in such a program. If not, advocate for a better program. And if your thought is, "Well, I wouldn't put my kids in there, but for children from that class in that neighborhood, this program would be a great benefit, then go away and never get involved in any sort of education advocacy ever again.

In short, if you see that the children of low-income families start out behind, then offer something more than a pre-K program with some worksheets.

If your view of education is that it is just taxpayer-funded vocational training and its only purpose is to get worker-bees ready to meat widget their way through life, then you make me sad. Well, first you make me angry-- but then I'm sad. It's a meager, tiny cramped view of what education--hell, of being human. It's like thinking marriage is just about having someone around who is reasonably attractive and who can help you make babies. And take a larger view of the universe, because, business leader, educating the country's children is not about you-- it's about them.

Pipeline is such an apt image. When you're in a pipeline, you are closed in with no view of the world and no choices about where to go. Let's not shove littles into a pipeline, please. Pick any other image-- a garden, a forest, an ocean of the possible with the vessel that we help them build. A pipeline is like a long metal straightjacket; it's not meant for humans and certainly not meant for small children.


  1. Eh, forgot to talk about pay for success again Peter. You and Bryant treading all the same ground without talking about the elephant in the room?

  2. Double Amen. Yes, people need jobs. But school serves individuals and society. And society is not the economy, and the economy is not just "business."

  3. Wow! Very well said. Sadly the economical development, important though it is, is the central purpose for education.