It is widely accepted that there has been a definitive inflation in the educational currency: Today, we need a post-secondary degree to get the same economic and social security that a High School Degree once promised; tomorrow we will need post-graduate degrees to get where we are now, and by Thursday, we’ll be creating artificial, new delineations and symbols of achievement to get back to where we were yesterday.

In the Michigan Education Summit last week, Gov. Rick Snyder stressed the importance of schools’ collaboration with businesses in order to boost the economy. He made the obvious point that educators and employers should be on the same page and should be working towards the same goals – creating and harnessing an adaptable, capable, and employable workforce. In concrete educational terms, this means restructuring the way we approach education: moving away from general knowledge – math, language, science, English, history, arts, sports – and gearing the K-12 curriculum towards concrete skills. Traditional teachers tend to disagree with this approach, because they value the skill of learning over specific craft-based skills and, in Michigan at least, it seems that craft-based skills and the skill of learning are treated as mutually exclusive commodities.

Snyder said the education system often does a good job of “giving people knowledge” – but more needs to be done in terms of making connections early on between potential employers and potential employees. Snyder also says education needs to become more practical and specific to employment needs, saying there’s now a “mismatch” going on. The evidence: Michigan still has an unemployment rate higher than 8 percent. But there are roughly 60,000 open jobs listed on the state’s mitalent.org website.
“If we fill those 60,000 jobs, we drop our unemployment rate by about one-and-a-half percentage points,” Snyder said. “That’s a lot. So we need to do something different.”

Gov. Snyder’s approach assumes that education’s primary role is to be a vehicle for economic success, and rejects the current educational system because there is no easy-to-formulate way to connect general knowledge with economic success. This take on education is borne out of rose-colored nostalgia for an older America. In the older America, a publicly funded K-12 educational system could create well-trained, well-adapted graduates who walked from the podium into the workforce – almost literally trading their High School diplomas for income, economic stability, and social flexibility. By that yardstick, we’ve lost a lot of value in our education. The walk from the podium to the workforce has gotten longer and harder, the carrot at the end of the stick has gotten smaller, and social mobility found therein has become brittle. Most traditional teachers would argue that “being educated” is necessarily an intangible standard – and there is no point in assigning a direct dollar amount to the value of our schools. Unfortunately, however, education has become a social currency as much as a professional currency – the term “well educated” implies “well-bred” as often as it implies “employable”, and well-bred people have historically been the affluent members of society. And so it’s inevitable that we place a dollar value on our education – it’s a long-standing cultural perception that education begets social mobility and, with that, economic stability.

So what happened to that older America, where educational values and economic success were aligned? I’m no educational historian, but it is widely accepted that there has been a definitive inflation in the educational currency: Today, we need a post-secondary degree to get the same economic and social security that a High School Degree once promised; tomorrow we will need post-graduate degrees to get where we are now, and by Thursday, we’ll be creating artificial, new delineations and symbols of achievement to get back to where we were yesterday.

This inflation has reached an unsustainably high peak, and we will inevitably enter an educational recession. Really, we’ve already begun the descent – public schools (exclusively in low-income, urban areas – always the first to feel the brunt of an economic downturn) are closing in record numbers because there aren’t enough students to keep them open. There aren’t enough students because the schools are incapable of meeting the quality demands of their communities. At the Educational Summit, Gov. Snyder concluded that it’s time to proactively pop the educational bubble, and address the educational recession, rather than waiting for the system to implode and leave students and communities without viable learning facilities. The proposed pin-prick is to incorporate business incentives and vocational training into our K-12 educational system. Because businesses are, presumably, more objective and more efficiency oriented, they could quickly weed out ineffective topics and useless lessons – a business approach could “cut the fat” in a way that an abstract, idealist approach to education has so far failed to do. In concrete terms, this means a reduction of “general knowledge” classes – art, music, literature, philosophy, film, humanities, – any class or topic that is not directly tied to the student’s eventual salary. It also means that schools would begin to better represent business interests, so as to secure businesses’ investments. Supporters hope that “representing business interests” will translate into “teaching a more employable curriculum” and that “securing business investments” will translate into “more funding for schools”.

So where do you start this kind of massive educational overhaul? I think most people would instinctively answer, “at failing schools”. I think that’s the most popular answer because, when we take something that we perceive as already broken, we believe it to be a low-risk, high-reward option. These schools have already failed their students and their communities – they cannot get any worse. Implicitly, they can only get better. This is the same logic that led to a massive influx of charter schools in failing districts – if there is nowhere to go but up, then why not try something new? As the charter school experiment ages and we have more evidence with which to measure its success, however, we see more that the measure of “school success” does not just move “up” and “down” – there is the possibility of no movement at all, i.e., a stagnant school system. In many districts, charter schools have not improved student or teacher performance – nor have the diminished student or teacher performance. With few exceptions, the measure of achievement pre- and post-charter school has remained stagnant, which suggests that it is not just the leadership and management of a school which needs to change in order to turn a “failing school” into a “functioning school”. In order to improve school performance, there has to be a change in the way the community interacts with the educational system, so that “school” is not just a place kids go during the day, but a place where students make progress, individually and in their communities. Unfortunately, the “it can only get better” mentality has fragmented communities – transforming singular communities with shared problems which were symbolically and effectively represented through their school districts, into piece-meal communities with dozens of different problems and interests and no unified identity, no unified funding, and most importantly, no unified power as voters to effect change in their school systems. Because charter schools are privatized, free from the politics of government regulated school boards, they are effectively free from the power of the people as voters.

It seems disingenuous that the areas in which we’re always trying these magical educational remedies are disproportionately low-income, racial minority communities. In Michigan, these communities have been injected with Charter Schools – the state’s first attempt to curb a widespread epidemic of failing educational institutions. Now, 20 years after Michigan opened it’s first Charter Schools, Michigan has decided to test a different remedy – the business-run school. The business-run school is just a variation on a theme that has already been vetted by the charter movement – replace ineffective management and the company will thrive. The business-run version, however, also seeks to modify the school system’s product – instead of just “knowledge”, K-12 public education will now (hopefully) offer effective vocational training and fewer distractions (read: arts).

But where does that leave these communities? Lansing has already eliminated all arts, music, and physical education teachers, though it has yet to welcome a CEO as principle. Amongst many teachers, the outcry is that we are no longer interested in teaching students how to learn, but only how to do specific tasks. The danger, as any liberal arts graduate will tell you, is that skills have a shelf-life that is directly linked to the industry the skill applies to; industries change on a whim. Learning, on the other hand, is immortal, because it’s independent of industry, market, or circumstance. Obviously the ability to “learn” is a life skill that you cannot replace with any number of vocational tasks, however, it also requires a lot more leg-work from the get-go, and there is no way to directly correlate a student’s ability to learn with their eventual economic success. And in an economic recession like the one we’re currently experiencing, there is always a greater push to see a dramatic and direct correlation between hard-work and money. And because business is all about the money, Gov. Snyder hopes that this explicit and public alliance of business and school will draw clear and definitive lines to connect our educational degrees with the dollars we make.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell where this alliance will end up. On the one hand, I fully and adamantly support vocational training in schools – particularly for students who actively and loudly dislike school, whatever the reason. On the other hand, there are students in high-performing public schools who also dislike school and fail to excel academically – why don’t we start these initiatives in those institutions? The stakes may be higher, but a successful alliance of business and education in a high performance setting would indicate a genuine success – not a lesser of two evils. It would also indicate that the state was interested in providing students with a choice – not a mandate.

My arguments against this fall into 5 basic categories:

1) I feel strongly that students with far-reaching academic aspirations should not be pigeon-holed into a career as a welder because they failed English their freshman year of high school. I feel equally strongly that a student who aspires to be, first and foremost, economically stable, should not be forced to study obscure poetry.

2) Incorporating vocational training into K-12 schools could ciphon off “academic” kids from “vocational” kids at an age where physical, emotional, and mental maturity have not been reached. It sets the state up to be like the bad guys in the “Ugly Duckling” fairytale – judging students before they can be fairly or objectively judged on their own merits, when they have grown into themselves.

3) Skills training runs the risk of forgetting to teach students, or at least undermining the importance of teaching lessons like, “how to solve a problem” or “how to resolve a conflict”; “how to think” and “how to view the world from a new perspective”. Without those lessons, the world may become a more polarized, bigoted place because we will not have taught our students how to approach the world with questions, but instead to ignore and dismiss things beyond their immediate usefulness.

4) K-12 students represent their parenting and the merits of their upbringing much more than their own personalities, values, and merits. That’s true across all socio-economic and racial boundaries and we shouldn’t judge students or treat groups differently for the shortcomings or problems that plagued their parents. It is one of the reasons we have a (more or less) nationalized school curriculum – to ensure that no student is being held back due to circumstances beyond their control.

5) In the last 60 years, education has been strongly connected to other social changes and it would be foolish to begin a new approach to education reform by ignoring these realities.  While rose-colored glass makes the American educational system of the 1950’s look like a global powerhouse, it overlooks facts of segregation, sexism, and extremely high unemployment rates post-high school graduation for minorities. We have embraced more equality, letting more people into the academic and workforce markets, and now we are grappling with the social issues that play out for those contingencies behind-the-scenes – chronic poverty, unstable homes, and urban gentrification. These issues prevent many communities from participating in the educational and economic arenas at their fullest potential and these issues are almost exclusively within the jurisdiction of the government to fix. Any educational reform which does not pointedly address these issues cannot really “reform” anything – it can only change the players and the actors from students and teachers to vocational students and MBA principals.

If you have any thoughts on how businesses might impact public schools, positively or negatively, please feel free to educate me. For now, I’m digesting all the possible outcomes and hoping for the best.

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