Faddish Ideas about Schools and the Economy

Fashions in ideas, like clothes, change with the times.

But when they are in fashion, they become the wisdom of the moment.  Supply-side economics, embraced by the Republicans during the Reagan  presidency, cut taxes and ran up unparalleled deficits. It was group-think wisdom. Sure there were critics but GOP champions called them nail-biting nay-sayers who had no entree to top policy makers or a tuxedo for White House dinners.

Ditto for fashionable educational ideas. When I was a graduate student four decades ago, I  took notes about the dominant ideas that my professors said drove federal and state policy making in the early 1970s: School do not make a difference in children’s lives; socioeconomic status does. Improving schools may be worthwhile work but it is as ineffectual to the larger society as building sand castles in an incoming tide. Such mainstream thinking elevated a parent’s zipcode and college degree to predestination for the child. These ideas also shrunk efforts to spend money on better teaching for students. It was the academic wisdom of the moment.

Four decades later that “wisdom” has flip-flopped. What is now fashionable is that all children can learn; the school makes a difference in children’s lives. And school improvement is crucial to ending economic downturns and spurring growth.

So what else is new? Ideas, like hula-hoops, do come and go out of style.

Ideas, however, have consequences. Supply-side economics was tied to the greedy feeding frenzy of S&L bankers in the late 1980s that betrayed their investors’ trust. The housing bubble of the 1990s—the idea that houses would appreciate in value forever–burst in 2007 and trillions of dollars sunk into undecipherable mortgage derivatives led to premier financial firms to go belly-up losing investors’ funds in the blink of an eye.

Ideas about schools matter also. Since the early 1980s, the belief that the nation’s slipping economic competitiveness is largely the result of future workers being educated poorly has been reduced to a bumper sticker slogan: Strong schools=strong economy. Sure. Try selling that bumper sticker now to unemployed college-educated professionals who have lost their jobs in the Great Recession of 2008.

Of course, the quality of schooling is important to graduates’ career advancement and lifetime earnings. Public schooling, for all of its flaws, still remains the last, best hope for the recent immigrant, the poor, and the middle class of this nation. To the degree that graduates find jobs that match their skills and motivation, they do contribute to the economy. But other facts overwhelm what small contributions schools make to the economy. Schools do not generate manufacturing, managerial, and white collar jobs in the economy (except for teachers, of course); they do not make corporate decisions to install new technologies in factories that reduce numbers of workers; they do not decide to build plants in China, India, Mexico or Taiwan; they do not make the downsizing decisions that drives pink-slipped employees into unemployment offices.

So saying that improving the quality of schooling will pump up a sagging economy, the prevailing wisdom of the moment, is misleading, even mischievous in redirecting attention away from corporate and governmental decisions that affect the economy directly.

What exists is group-think acceptance of “mainstream “wisdom” as it goes in and out of style. Consider how much arm-waving occurred a few decades ago about transforming schools into leaner, smarter organizations–as corporate firms had supposedly done–where decisions are made by those who do the work. Called “restructuring,” and once the rage among educators and business leaders pressing for school change, the hot rhetoric has cooled since the mid-1990s.

National curriculum standards, charters, and evaluating and paying teachers on the basis of student test scores are fashionable now. Why? Because of the underlying popular idea—“wisdom of the moment”–that the nation’s economic crisis is an educational problem in cities (not affluent suburbs, however) that must be solved.

In the past decade, SUVs, Napster, and Pokemon were popular also. Not now. So these popular educational ideas among pundits, policy elites, and bloggers will cool off as others have in the past. What is far more important, however, is the unexamined assumption within the idea that drives school improvement strategies.

The assumption that somehow improving urban public schools will revive an ailing economy remains largely unexamined and, is, ultimately flawed by its illogic. Yet it continues to fuel one fad after another to improve schools. “Voodoo economics” lasted five years before President Reagan raised taxes and supply-side ideas joined pet rocks in the dustbin of the unfashionable. Presidents Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II, have pursued the flawed assumption. Now President Obama has joined the club. How long will it take before we assume no longer that public schools are boot camps for the economy but rather places for growing a democratic society?

7 Comments

Filed under school reform policies

7 responses to “Faddish Ideas about Schools and the Economy

  1. Larry, I love your work. But, I must say, I have a very hard time reading about very important issues when you use an analogy that is so contentious, which is “supply side economics.”

    My entire brain wrapped around those statements and could not refocus to what you are trying to convey. I feel like this post is like an argument with a spouse where you try to load too major opinions into a conversation about one topic.

    Now, I hope to reread this later and really understand your point, because I think I agree with the argument on the education part.

    • larrycuban

      I hope you find the time to re-read the post. As for “supply side economics” being too contentious, I was playing with the phrase used by George H.W. Bush when he was running against Reagan for the nomination in 1988. He called “supply side economics,” “Voodoo economics.” I guess that is even more contentious.

  2. I understand what you’re saying and agree, but I think the entire structure and culture of educational institutions – not just the “quality” of teachers – is a major contributor in the resilience of state and national economies.

    Right now, our schools are systems of dependence. Students learn nearly exclusively when learning is provided by teachers. When students leave school, most have no idea how to learn new skills on their own or continue honing their current skills. This leaves us with a workforce consisting mostly of people who can do only one thing, and one thing poorly. They can’t adapt, they’re not proactive.

  3. You’ve posted before on technology, and I believe this theme too is another “fashion accessory,” that hasn’t gone completely out of style in the last 40 years. The connection between schools, the economy and technology rests on flawed assumptions that run the range from advocating 21st century curricula to the rationalization of the teaching and learning endeavor for solely for cost-cutting reasons. Yes, schools are to blame for our economic woes, if they only used technology better!

    I see a rather dire trend. It goes something like this: Reduce funding for basic operations of our institutions and blame the “workers” for their failure, but feel hope in the wonders of a networked society–it will pick up the slack….somehow. Finally, ignore the cult-like promotion of technological solutions to structural and cultural dilemmas. It’s not what an iPad can do for education, but the identity one is ascribed in owning it, that matters.

  4. Pingback: Why Education Won’t Fix the Economy | Tom Liam Lynch :: New Literacies, New Literatures

  5. Your final sentence is the thesis. The “buried lead” is what might confuse your readers.

    If you are correct, then what I have been preaching for years is that Social Studies is the most important subject taught in schools, yet it has been removed, belittled, and ignored. My question; has this slight toward Social Studies been intentional by the politicians who seek to undercut the ideals of a democracy?

    Consider this:
    Bush 1 – VP (1981-1989)
    Bush 1 – President (1989-1993)
    B. Clinton – President (1993-2001)
    Bush 2 – President (2001-2009)
    H. Clinton – Sec of State (current)

    For 30 years, 2 families have held the highest offices in the land. Is that democracy, or is it closer to oligarchy?

    This does not include other top families in politics.

  6. johntspencer

    I have no desire to jump in on the political side of the debate, especially when referring to economics.

    I read your work back when I was in college and my thinking has been reshaped. You seemed to be the only one in the obsessive masses who were all clamoring on about a 20th century education, who actually had a historical, long-term, logical view of the situation. (You and Neil Postman were my two long-distance guides)

    I’ve experienced the swings myself – from a school without walls to the “back to basics” reforms to the “digital age” schools all within my schooling.

    In the end, I was left with this lingering desire to know what actually endures – whether the ideas came from Plato or Erasmus or Dewey or someone contemporary.

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