Monday, April 16, 2007

Does Education Create Jobs? The Difference Between "Education" and "Empowerment"

One of the key assumptions behind investments in education is that educated people somehow create jobs, so that improving education will improve the economic situation for everyone. However, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that having an educated population doesn’t actually lead to a significant increase in employment.

Ralph Gomory (cited by William Greider), for example, argues that it wasn’t the education of individuals that made America wealthy, it was the investment in technology that made these workers more productive.
We invested alongside our workers. Our workers dug trenches with backhoes. The workers in underdeveloped countries dug ditches with shovels. We had great big plants with few people in them, which is the same thing. We knew how, through technology and investment, to make our workers highly productive. It wasn’t that they went to better schools, then or now, and I don’t know how much schooling it takes to run a backhoe [italics added].
“Free-trade believers insist US workers can defend themselves by getting better educated,” Greider reports, “but Gomory suggests these believers simply just don’t understand the economics.”

In other words, Gomory and others argue that education, by itself, is unlikely to have a significant impact on the state of the economy. And if this is true, it means that better educating those on the economic “bottom” won’t have much impact on a broad scale. Those who can compete best will still be the ones who get the best jobs.

Jean Anyon has come to much the same conclusion. In an article appearing in the Spring 2007 issue of Teacher Education Quarterly (PDF), for example, she and Kiersten Greene argue that education policies (like NCLB) would not be effective anti-poverty programs even if they actually improved education. They “demonstrate that there are significant economic realities, and existing public policies, that severely curtail the power of education to function as a route out of poverty for poor people.” For example, they note that “an increasing number of college graduates—about one in ten—is employed at poverty wages,” and that “more than two-thirds” of welfare recipients in 1999 had high school degrees."

They focus on NCLB and argue that this program is really
a federal legislative substitute for policies that would actually lower poverty—legislation that would create jobs with decent wages for those who do not have them. Our critique has been that an assumption underlying NCLB, that increased educational achievement will ultimately reduce poverty, does not prove valid for large segments of the population.
The terrible truth seems to be not only that we don’t know how to significantly improve inner-city schools, but that even if we did know how, it wouldn’t make that much difference for the vast majority of students who attend them.

What does this mean for educators and educational scholars? Is this our problem? And if it isn’t, then exactly what do we think we are doing when we expend so much effort to improve schools for impoverished students and their families? Are we just being "used" to some extent by powerful people who don't really want
to invest in the areas that would actually make a difference for the poor?

More broadly, what, exactly, do we expect educators and educational scholars to do when they hear these arguments?

I believe that to respond to these challenges, we must rethink what it means to be an “educator” in the 21st Century. I doubt if we will really do this. But if we are serious about contributing to real social change, it seems absolutely vital. And this will require institutional changes in what schools of education "do."

As long as “education” is only about traditional forms of “schooling,” “education” won’t have much to do with empowerment.


Megan Erickson said...

I would love to have this conversation, and as someone relatively new to policy related discussion (in that I'm 22, and in the process of applying to teacher certification programs, so no teaching experience, though I've read a few education policy books and articles) I wish you would expand on this. From some of the things I've read, it seems that teaching is important for its own sake in several ways, but I can certainly see the larger point about the lack of a tangible takeaway for students living in poverty. Obviously we need more jobs with liveable wages, but what can we do at a grassroots level? Are you saying that jobs skills workshops, etc. are more important than school? What should we be focused on?

Tim said...

In a way, education and poverty programs are like two Venn diagram circles: they overlap in part but both clearly are distinct. While education ideally should be about empowering individuals and their potentials, creating people who can listen, think, and act, in truth that only takes you so far if you live in an environment that enforces poverty. No child care programs, to take one example, to allow parents to work. Or after school programs to keep kids off the streets and away from temptations.

My take with Obama and Duncan is that they really don't understand the real potential of education and how education and poverty do and don't intersect. Instead they have a Ward and June Cleaver view of education, that school happens in safe nurturing environments, that education can cover over a lot of deficiencies. And, for them, that's partly the charm of charter schools: it's an opportunity to recreate a mythical style of education that doesn't even exist for rich white kids (who often succumb to drugs, or parents who work too hard and give their kids money instead of face time). While it's true some kids leverage education to escape poverty, many (most?) are not so lucky.

It would be great if we had policies whose sole purpose was to eradicate poverty through jobs programs, living wage efforts, unionism, a return to a sensible taxation of the wealthiest to fund the needs of all to benefit all. Then, in that environment, focus on helping all kids make the most of their lives and opportunities.

@Melissa One aspect of poverty eradication that interest me, as a parent, is that programs that teach poor parents how to deal with kids in constructive ways can be useful. Even as a middle class parent, it is too easy to be overwhelmed. Same applies to basic social skills and learning how to deal with anger in a constructive ways. Lack of these skills can lead people to drink, and that's not just being funny. That's an area where education in a classroom is of little help: you can expect teachers to also minister to the parent(s) of their school kids.