Hyping Education Amid Social and Economic Insecurity

Who said that all Americans should have the following rights?

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for all our citizens. For unless there is security here at home there cannot be lasting peace in the world.


A. President Barack Obama

B. Newt Gingrich

C. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

D. Mitt Romney

E. None of the above

The correct answer is E.

The list of “rights” came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s “State of the Union” address to the U.S. Congress in 1944. As you scan those social and economic “rights,” it becomes clear that the man who became President at the beginning of the Great Depression knew that having jobs, sufficient income, medical care, protection from monopolistic corporations, and security for the elderly and unemployed were as important to Americans as the political rights in the first Bill of Rights.

In 2011, however, when unemployment hovers just below 10 percent, when income inequality is the worst in three-quarters of a century, when the backwash of the housing bust has thrown more Americans into poverty–our political leaders thrust and parry over whether cutting federal deficits and cost containment or generating more jobs should be first on the nation’s action agenda.

Yet amid that polarized debate both political parties do agree that improving the nation’s schools should be high on the nation’s agenda since economic growth and education are Siamese twins in keeping the U.S. globally competitive. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton sought more charter schools,  Common Core Standards, performance evaluation and pay for teachers, and universal college attendance. For more than a decade, these educational reforms have regularly shown up on front pages of newspapers, magazine articles, television reports, and subject matter for the blogosphere.

Between 1944 and 2011, then, improving education has come to overshadow decent housing, income, and medical care. How come?

Part of any answer to the question has to be American faith in the power of schooling to make citizens, prepare workers, build moral character while boosting individuals up the ladder of success. Such faith has been unstinting for nearly two centuries. Another part of the answer is the national tic of “educationalizing” problems, that is, converting serious economic and social issues into curricular, instructional, and organizationa solutions located in schools.

This sturdy faith and “educationalizing” national problems are captured by those bumper-sticker reforms of “everyone goes to college,” “reducing the test score gap,” and “value-added teacher evaluation.” What all of the hullaballoo does, however, is distract public attention from serious economic and social issues that directly affect Americans every day rather than education, a “solution” aimed at tomorrow when the next generation enters adulthood.

Income inequality (the percentage of wealth that has gone to the top one percent and the amounts divvied up among the other 99 percent) is as bad as it was in the late-1920s. Racially and ethnically segregated schools have increased in every section of the country. Since the Great Recession of 2008, unemployment, housing foreclosures, and poverty have gone up as middle class families slip down the socioeconomic ladder.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had it right in 1944 in listing the rights that all Americans should have in order of importance. Jobs, decent housing, medical care, and security from the “economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.” All of those came before the right to a “good education.” The fact of the matter is that while educating Americans can provide many individual with a path out of poverty (e.g., diplomas and college degrees, inner city community college programs) schooling Americans does not increase jobs available to current adults or attack structures that sustain inequalities (e.g., regressive tax policies, reduced workers’ bargaining power, low minimum wage).

Public policy, then, focusing on school improvement to solve these serious issues relies far too much on a conservative institution that mirrors society rather than one capable of spurring either economic growth or reducing inequities.



Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

5 responses to “Hyping Education Amid Social and Economic Insecurity

  1. Excellent blog as usual Dr. Cuban. I appreciated the link to David F Labaree on educationalizing. A sort of we may not get what we want, but we may be getting what we need in my humble opinion. The idea that education can solve our social ills is an old one that reminds me of the concept of Horace Mann’s common schooling as compromise that prepare both workers and democratic citizens. In a society where equity is the norm perhaps, but we are not living in an equitable world, and I agree with you that it reflects a mirror of society. I might add a society where Horace’s Compromise never really reflected a society that values preparing citizens. Like Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes song:

    “Little boxes all the same
    There’s a green one and a pink one
    And a blue one and a yellow one
    And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
    And they all look just the same
    And the people in the houses all go to the university
    And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same
    And there’s doctors and there’s lawyers
    And business executives
    And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same
    And they all play on the golf course and drink their martini dry
    And they all have pretty children and the children go to school
    And the children go to summer camp
    And then to the university
    And they all get put in boxes, and they all come out the same
    And the boys go into business and marry and raise a family
    And they all get put in boxes, little boxes all the same”
    For me the Critical Theorists have it right in my humble opinion. We should ask ourselves is the purpose of education liberation, or domestication? Horace’s compromise is about domestication, and so is the idea that schooling alone can solve our societal ills.
    Thank you again for good food for thought, something we appear to lacking in public education these days.
    Jesse Turner
    Children are more than test scores.

  2. Sandy

    I wonder if the “sturdy faith” and “educationalizing” of national problems” is because public education is an accessible concept. Afterall, everyone knows what education is because they have been to school. The average citizen has either had a good experience or bad experience with public schools and therefore better understands (or thinks he does) the reform debates. It’s a lot easier to focus on something you know and feel there is a shot it can be fixed than to try to understand the micro economics of job creation or how social security can be fixed.

    • larrycuban

      Possibly, Sandy. Other factors come into play beyond accessibility. The decentralized educational system (e.g., 14,000 school districts and elected school boards), democratic politics within decentralized governance which means lobbying and pressuring school board members, and the history of separating schools from politics (which never really worked)–I believe–also come into play. What’s even more interesting is that few other nations do the “educationalizing” of social/economic beyond UK and a few other places.

  3. Mary Snow

    Miss USA 2011 Should Math be Taught in Schools – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QBv2CFTSWU

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