Emperor Has No Clothes: Fairy Tales about Schools and the Economy

For those readers who may have forgotten the story line of the fairy tale, as I had, here it is:

A clothes-mad king who spent the coin of the realm on colorful fashions and changed suits every few hours heard of two weavers–really grifters out to con the king out of royal coins–who wove the most beautiful suits that were invisible to anyone serving the king those telling the monarch that they were unfit to serve him and the people.

So the king thought: if I had this invisible suit, I would find those men in my kingdom who should not be serving me, and, better yet, sort out the wise from the foolish. he then ordered that the invisible suit be woven immediately.

The two fake weavers received gold and silk from the king’s ministers and set up their looms, seemingly working day and night as they wove invisible clothes. Of course they put the gold and silk given to them in their trunks and when the king’s ministers came to check on the progress, they saw no clothes being prepared only the con men’s hands moving across the loom as if the suit was being woven. Fearful of the king’s temper they complimented the rogue weavers on the beauty of the clothes.

And when the king and his courtiers appeared to see the suit, he didn’t see anything and thought–I am not a simple-minded person unfit to be king–so he said the suit was gorgeous and he wanted to put it on immediately.

The weavers undressed the king and with elaborate hand motions seemingly dressed the king in invisible pants, blouse, scarf, hose, and a royal robe. The courtiers applauded and said that this suit was the finest the king had ever worn. A public procession was announced and the king left the palace into the crowds thronging to see the king’s new clothes. Fearful of being arrested or discourteous, the crowd ooohed and ahhhed at the gorgeous royal clothes. Except for a little child who said: “But the king has nothing on at all.” The father said the child tells the truth and word spread through the gathering and laughter rose until the king realized that he was naked.

Now segue to public schools and the economy. Politicians and policymakers shuttle back and forth between two theories about how schools can reduce unemployment among young people and grow the economy. The first theory goes by the short-hand phrase “math-and-ATMs.” The heart of the theory is that high school graduates lack the right skills for today’s companies. Teachers didn’t teach and students didn’t learn–think math and science–or new technologies, yes, those ATMs, automated these jobs out of existence. This theory is favored by politicians and policymakers because this problem can be fixed: more math and science in elementary and secondary curricula and more technology use in schools. In this way, students have the knowledge and skills to enter the labor market in an ever-changing economy.

But there is another theory that has much less to do with schools that also explains high unemployment. This is, as Ezra Klein puts it, “nobody-is-buying-anything” theory. Slow economic growth and high unemployment, the theory goes, is due to the huge debt load that U.S. consumers carry from mortgages, foreclosures, student loans, and credit cards. Consumers are not buying, employers are not hiring which then means that Americans have less money to spend–and you can fill in the rest of the cycle. Here the policy solution is for the government to step in and cut taxes, create new jobs and fund existing ones (e.g., construction, teachers, police and fire) and help consumers get out of debt–what was called the “stimulus” legislation. Once that happens, government spending eases and federal officials turn to paying down the national debt.

Of the two theories, “math-and-ATMs” wins out every time. Why? Because politicians and policymakers know in their gut and from polls that talking about improving schools, better test scores, and college-and-career ready graduates is much easier to do. Easier than doing what?

Easier than passing a new “stimulus” bill in a polarized political climate where new jobs are created to and tax cuts are legislated. Easier than prosecuting bank executives and financial leaders who lost money for their investors and defrauded the public.

Note how much was said in the Presidential debates and on the campaign trail about the importance of better schools and skilled graduates and how little was said about the American Jobs Act that has been stalled in Congress. Or further regulating financial markets.

Of course, policymakers can pursue both theories–government stimulating the economy and upgrading what students learn but, for now, one theory of schools and the economy dominates policy talk and action distracting Americans’ attention from what needs to be done outside the schools.

And that theory is where the fairy tale of the naked emperor enters the picture.


Filed under school reform policies

5 responses to “Emperor Has No Clothes: Fairy Tales about Schools and the Economy

  1. If our government truly wants to create a stimulus package that will benefit all…then make gasoline a dollar a gallon for 4-6 weeks, then two dollars a gallon for another 4-6 weeks, then the price can return to the market vaulue. This would enable all members of our society to receive a break. The cost of gasoline is the single biggest factor in slowing our economic recovery. As long as gas price remain at their current levle then everyone will continue to spend all available “discrectionary money” on just survival.

  2. What a great analogy. What if we tried both? It seems that educators are taking the fall, yet they are doing everything the political agents want them to do. Yet, no improvement in the economy is being seen. Back to the drawing board? I have always been an advocate for Keynesian policy, so the stimulus seems to be the best approach to me.

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