Sunday, February 3, 2013

On NCLB and the role of business in education

From The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss's often-informative blog in the Washington post, we learn that  business leaders are urging Congress to re-write NCLB.  I have a love-hate relationship with NCLB:  It was being passed at a time when I was deeply cynical about the way Washington was writing and passing legislation.  (Since then my cynicism has only deepened, which doesn't bode well for the NCLB rewrite.)  It also came as I was learning about what I now think of as the "old way" of teaching: grades based on points with an emphasis placed on completing homework assignments, class placement based on expected future education goals (although I didn't believe in rigorous tracking), special ed students in their own world.  I think NCLB went a long way to changing the systemic view of the way schools work.  It starts from the philosophy that all students can learn, including those with profound learning disablilities, students who come from nothing, and kids that the teachers really don't like, and from there it draws the conclusion that schools have the responsibility for teaching those students.  In the last 10 years, this has resulted in a major shift in the way school systems work, even as we break a lot of the systems that worked fairly well.

On the negative side, a less nuanced reading of NCLB led directly and inevitably to the "blame the teacher" and "test test test" mentalities that permeate the way the education world (and the rest of the world, for that matter) now behaves.  The fact that schools can do a better job of the way it organizes information and prioritizes spending has been taken to mean that teachers do a lousy job of teaching our children and teachers' unions are stealing all the money from our classrooms.  (In fairness, this is mostly believed by people who already believed that, many of whom make quite a good living believing that.) 

Back to today's reading, though, Strauss takes the buisness community's insistence of a rewrite of NCLB as evidence that it is broken beyond repair.  I have a different take on it.  I of course welcome the engagement of the business community into the conversation about education; the more stakeholders are involved, the richer the conversation will be, even if that doesn't end up doing anything for the final product.  I have two worries about this, though.  The first is that the business community almost always ends up having more impact on education priorities than educators.  Maybe that's just the nature of politics, but I'm not sure asking the CEO of Starbuck's what he wants to see in his prospective employees is the best way to determine education goals.  As Strauss puts it, "
"Critics of education reform note that educators don’t presume to know about business to tell business leaders how to reform their own institutions, but never mind."

The second, and the more important, is that I'm suspicious at best, and cynical at worst, about big business's motives.  When the business community talks about what it wants from schools, all I hear is, "We can't be bothered to train our employees in the skills we want, so we want schools to do it for us.  Also, don't tax us to pay for it."  Particularly troubling is this part from the Business Roundtable's 2013 Growth Agenda: "America also has a very real skills gap. More than 12 million U.S. workers are unemployed, yet businesses report close to 4 million open jobs.(23) Many of these jobs cannot be filled by previously displaced workers because of gaps in skills and training." 

I don't understand why companies can't grab 4 million of the best and brightest of the people they have right now, train them in the skills they need, promote them to the new positions, and then hire 4 million previously-unemployed people to fulfill the new, less-skilled openings.  There has to be somebody working in the mail room at Stryker Instruments who really really wants to be a mechanical engineer; send her to mechanical engineer's school.  Or better yet, develop an in-house, on-the-job training program that leads to some kind of recognized certification and also provides your employee with the skills you need her to have right now.)

The other aspect of this that bothers me is that, during the height of the recession (depth of the recession?), I read an article (citation needed) that said that qualified people were applying for all of these high-skill jobs; companies didn't want to pay high-skill wages to fill those positions, though.  So when they say they can't find people to fill those positions, they're being disingenuous: what they mean is they can't find people to fill those positions for a price they're willing to pay.  A greater number of people with engineering degrees will drive down the cost of expertise in engineering.  (That also explains business's motivation for immigration reform.  Engineering students from India are a whole lot less expensive than engineering students from the US, at least for the first couple of years, and after that, you can fire them and hire new ones.) 

None of this analysis of business's motives is intended to get me and my colleagues off the hook.  I share the business community's goal of a better-educated work force which is able to learn, unlearn, and re-learn a variety of skills and knowledge bases as high-tech fields develop.  I want creativity, clear thinking and effective communicating to be at the heart of our schools.  I want every student who comes out of an American public school to be prepared for anything he or she wants to do.  Business and I want the same things for our students.  I'm just not sure that we want it for the same reason.

Also, I somehow doubt that lawmakers will hear my voice as clearly as they will hear the voices of the CEO's of the Business Roundtable.

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