stephanie jones

Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

Parents Opt-Out of Testing for Kids

In democracy, Education Policy, government, high-stakes tests, NCLB, Neoliberalism and Education, politics, social action, Standing up for Kids on March 22, 2011 at 4:18 pm

Thanks to J.J. for sending this my way:

Mother Hopes Others will Opt Out of Standardized Testing

By Ross Levitt and Susan Candiotti, CNN
March 21, 2011 5:52 p.m. EDT

Click to play
Parents opt out of standardized tests
  • Pennsylvania woman says tests are inaccurate, used to punish schools
  • College education professor agrees they are waste of time
  • Proponent calls tests “a parent’s ally,” says they improve schools
  • No national statistics exist on opting out

State College, Pennsylvania (CNN) — A Pennsylvania mother has decided she does not want her two children to take the two-week-long standardized tests given by her state as part of the federal No Child Left Behind law. And she hopes other parents will do the same.

Michele Gray’s sons — Ted Rosenblum, 11, and John Michael Rosenblum, 9 — did independent study the week of March 14 while their classmates were filling in hundreds of bubbles in classrooms with doors marked, “Quiet. Testing in Progress.”

Gray says the only legal exemption that would allow her kids to sit out the tests was a religious objection. So that’s what she did.

But Gray says her concerns go well beyond religion. “The more I look at standardized tests, the more I realize that we have, as parents, been kind of sold a bill of goods.”

She says the tests are not accurate measures of accomplishment, create undue anxiety for students and are used to punish schools.

She gives the example of her sons’ award-winning school, Park Forest Elementary, which last year was put on “warning” status after the school’s special education students fell below the level of progress the state expects on their exams.

“The more I looked at it, the more outraged I became,” Gray said, “This is not something I want to be contributing to (or) something I want my children participating in.”

Dr. Timothy Slekar, an associate professor of education at Penn State Altoona, agrees. It was his op-ed piece on the Huffington Post website that inspired Gray to take action.

Slekar is also a father and this year chose not to allow his 11-year-old son Luke to take the tests. He says schools are narrowing their curricula in an effort to boost test scores and wasting too much time preparing for, and then taking, the tests.

He says the tests aren’t an accurate indicator of a child’s — or a school’s — performance. “I’m a father and an educator who’s finally said, ‘This is it. I’m done.’ Something has to give. Something has to change,” Slekar said.

Another education professor, Dana Mitra, also isn’t happy with the tests, but decided to allow her third-grader daughter to take them this year because she’s afraid that holding her daughter out could harm the school’s test results.

“Given that we’re interested in wanting our schools to be the best that they can, we feel pressure as parents to want to help our school,” she said. She’s not sure what she’ll do with her daughter next year.

Testing proponents, such as United Negro College Fund President and CEO Michael Lomax, say parents who opt out “are doing their own children a disservice.” He added, “Testing is a parent’s ally” and that in order to compete with countries such as China and India, U.S. schools need to be held to a higher standard. And testing, he says, is the way to do it.

“The testing isn’t the reason the schools are failing. The instruction is the reason the schools are failing,” Lomax insisted.

But “opt-out” parents like Gray and Slekar are undeterred.

Gray has a Facebook page aimed at helping other parents learn that they are able to opt out of testing and how to do it.

Parents in Colorado have created a similar website.

Despite these efforts, opting out of standardized tests is rare nationwide. The U.S. Department of Education says it doesn’t track the numbers.

At Park Forest Elementary, where Gray’s children go, nine out of 500 were held out of standardized tests this year, including Gray’s. Last year, all the students there took the test.

President Barack Obama, at a March speech at a Virginia school, acknowledged testing reform is needed. But he says testing isn’t going away.

“There will be testing,” he said. “We can have accountability without rigidity — accountability that still encourages creativity inside the classroom, and empowers teachers and students and administrators.”

His administration recently announced a $300 million grant aimed at revamping standardized tests.

Meantime, Ted and John Michael won’t be participating. Their mother thinks if enough parents follow her lead, high-stakes testing may go away altogether.

Michael Lomax thinks parents like Gray are hurting education. “I’m sure they love their kids,” he said, “but I think they are wrong.”

Anyone want to move to Finland?

In democracy, discourse, Education Policy, gender and education, institutions, NCLB, Neoliberalism and Education, politics, professional development resources, teacher education, teacher education resources, Teaching Work, work and workers on March 20, 2011 at 3:20 pm

This interview is very eye-opening and brings the current wars against teachers in the U.S. into perspective. Italics are inserted by me to emphasize some aspects of the interview.

Thanks to J.E. for sending this out on his listserv…

March 16, 2011
An interview with Henna Virkkunen, Finland’s Minister of Education
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Hechinger Report: It’s well-known that Finland’s teachers are an elite bunch, with only top students offered the chance to become teachers. It’s also no secret that they are well-trained. But take us inside that training for a moment – what does it look like, specifically? How does teacher training in Finland differ from teacher training in other countries?
Virkkunen: It’s a difficult question. Our teachers are really good. One of the main reasons they are so good is because the teaching profession is one of the most famous careers in Finland, so young people want to become teachers. In Finland, we think that teachers are key for the future and it’s a very important profession—and that’s why all of the young, talented people want to become teachers. All of the teacher-training is run by universities in Finland, and all students do a five-year master’s degree.  Because they are studying at the university, teacher education is research-based. Students have a lot of supervised teacher-training during their studies. We have something called “training schools”—normally next to universities—where the student teaches and gets feedback from a trained supervisor.

Teachers in Finland can choose their own teaching methods and materials. They are experts of their own work, and they test their own pupils. I think this is also one of the reasons why teaching is such an attractive profession in Finland because teachers are working like academic experts with their own pupils in schools.
The Hechinger Report: How are teachers evaluated in Finland? How are they held accountable for student learning?
Virkkunen: Our educational society is based on trust and cooperation, so when we are doing some testing and evaluations, we don’t use it for controlling [teachers] but for development. We trust the teachers. It’s true that we are all human beings, and of course there are differences in how teachers test pupils, but if we look at the OECD evaluation—PISA, for example—the learning differences among Finnish schools and pupils are the smallest in OECD countries, so it seems that we have a very equal system of good quality.
The Hechinger Report: How does Finland incorporate immigrants and minorities into its educational system?
Virkkunen: We haven’t had so many immigrants in Finland, but we are going to have more in the future—and we need more because we have an aging population. In some schools, in the areas around Helsinki, more than 30 percent of the pupils are immigrants. It seems that we have been doing good work, also with the immigrants, if we look at PISA results. Normally, if children come from a very different schooling system or society, they have one year in a smaller setting where they study Finnish and maybe some other subjects. We try to raise their level before they come to regular classrooms. We think also that learning one’s mother tongue is very important, and that’s why we try to teach the mother tongue for all immigrants as well. It’s very challenging. I think in Helsinki, they are teaching 44 different mother tongues. The government pays for two-hour lessons each week for these pupils. We think it is very important to know your own tongue—that you can write and read and think in it. Then it’s easier also to learn other languages like Finnish or English, or other subjects.
The Hechinger Report: What roles do teacher unions play in Finland? In the U.S. right now, unions are seen as a big problem standing in the way of reform. What’s it like in Finland?
Virkkunen: It’s a totally different situation in Finland. For me, as Minister of Education, our teachers’ union has been one of the main partners because we have the same goal: we all want to ensure that the quality of education is good, and we are working very much together with the union. Nearly every week we are in discussions with them. They are very powerful in Finland. Nearly all of the teachers are members. I think we don’t have big differences in our thinking. They are very good partners for us.
The Hechinger Report: What do you think the U.S. can and should learn from Finland when it comes to public education?
Virkkunen: It’s a very difficult question. An educational system has to serve the local community, and it’s very much tied to a country’s own history and society, so we can’t take one system from another country and put it somewhere else. But I think that teachers are really the key for a better educational system. It’s really important to pay attention to teacher training, in-service training and working conditions. Of course, the teachers always say we also have to pay attention to their salaries. But in Finland, it seems that the salaries are not the main reason it’s an attractive profession. Teachers aren’t very badly paid. They earn the average if you look at other academic professions.
The Hechinger Report: In the U.S., it’s estimated that 50 percent of new teachers quit within five years. I suspect it’s different in Finland. Is teaching seen as a lifelong career in Finland?
Virkkunen: Teaching is a lifelong career in Finland, but right now we are doing an evaluation of why some teachers leave their jobs. The rate isn’t very high. It’s often men who leave, as they find jobs with higher salaries. We have to develop some kind of mentoring system because the new, young teachers need support. Often the feedback I hear from young teachers is that it is not easy to cooperate with parents, for example, so that is one of the areas where young teachers need support from their colleagues.
The Hechinger Report: What’s something important but not widely known or well understood about public education in Finland?
Virkkunen: We teach all pupils in the same classrooms. We don’t have really good, top schools and very poor, bad schools. We are quite good at giving special support to students with learning difficulties. About 25 percent of our pupils receive some kind of special support, but in regular classrooms—often the teacher has an assistant in the classroom. We also think it is very important that there aren’t too many pupils per teacher. We don’t have legislation limiting class size, but the average class size for all grades is 21. In first- and second-grade, it’s 19.

We think we can have equality and good quality at the same time—that they are not opposites.

Our students spend less time in class than students in other OECD countries. We don’t think it helps students learn if they spend seven hours per day at school because they also need time for hobbies, and of course they also have homework.

The Other Side of Poverty in Schools Workshop

In poverty, professional development resources, social class on March 18, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Upcoming workshops in Georgia presented by Stephanie Jones and Mark Vagle through the CLASSroom Project @ UGA:

1-Day workshop: May 10, 2011 in Gwinnett County (UGA Gwinnett Campus)

2-Day workshop: June 12-13 in Athens, Georgia (UGA main campus)

Contact: for information and to register.

Wow…Michelle Rhee the Sara Palin of Education?

In Education Policy, high-stakes tests, inquiry, institutions, justice, Neoliberalism and Education, politics on March 18, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Here is a very interesting website devoted to Rhee’s record and reforms. She is certainly making the rounds, visiting Georgia lawmakers last month and heading to other places next. $50,000.00 speaking fee? Goodness – if that is true I’m really floored. We all have to make a living, but she’s on the fast track to being a wealthy education celebrity who doesn’t seem to know much about education at all…


And her accusation that the ‘seniority’ system in teaching is reason for the massive outsourcing of jobs to overseas workers? Geesh…she really needs to read in economics. Should we also blame teachers for the nuclear disaster in Japan? For the economic crisis on Wall Street? For the anti-Western sentiment around the world?

Come on Rhee – educate yourself. Get a clear sense of what neoliberal economic policies are doing to our country and the globe and humble yourself enough to recognize that “education” as big as it is in the world of educators – has long served the wills and whims of conservative economic desires. And you are not a “reformer” – you’re simply falling right  in line with a long history of education administrators and policymakers who can only see a narrow vision of education as the production of workers while doing everything in their power to exploit the “workers” (read: Teachers) in the system to work harder with fewer resources and less moral support.


Obama on LGBTQ bullying…and CDC website for LGBTQ youth

In democracy, families, family-school relations, identity, institutions, justice, professional development resources, social action, Standing up for Kids, teacher education resources, Uncategorized on March 17, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Love this!


Obama’s video message to LGBTQ youth.


And the Center for Disease Control’s website for LGBTQ Health – great resource!

Diane Ravitch in Mother Jones? I’ve seen it all…

In corporations, democracy, Education Policy, institutions, justice, NCLB, Neoliberalism and Education on March 16, 2011 at 1:39 pm


Check out this great story about, and interview with, Diane Ravitch in Mother Jones.

The Education of Diane Ravitch

Should public schools fear billionaires? Is Finland a poster nation? An interview with the nation’s leading education historian.

— By Kristina Rizga

Thu Mar. 10, 2011 11:10 AM PST

When I called education historian Diane Ravitch last week to ask her MoJo readers’ questions, she was on the other line with producers from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart. Stewart, whose mother worked for years as a teacher, was about to do a segment on Wisconsin and “the greed” of public school teachers; the show needed a guest who could add context to Fox News pundit clips in which financial sector workers earning $250,000 a year could barely pay their mortgages, but teachers earning $50,000 a year with benefits were overpaid. Ravitch—a surprising, prominent, conservative voice in the education debate—didn’t disappoint. Between Stewart and Ravitch, the resulting Daily Show segment delivers a stinging rebuke to those who’d strip public school teachers of their collective bargaining rights.

Ravitch, who served as Assistant Secretary of Education in George H.W. Bush’s administration, came by her fiercely pro-teachers union views the hard way. An early and ardent supporter of No Child Left Behind, she backed charter schools, merit pay, and school vouchers. Then, sometime around 2004 when the effects started to become apparent, she changed her mind. Ravitch now opposes aggressive Michelle-Rhee-style education reforms, and her work provides important “fact-checking” on proposals that overstate their capacity for solutions (like charters or using student test scores to evaluate teachers). This matters when reformers like Rhee sometimes receive untempered adoration in media and policy circles.

Ravitch’s most recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education, critiques No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the punitive uses of testing to fire teachers and close schools. She spends a chapter on the growing power of a few foundations—like Gates, Broad, and Walton—that she argues are reforming schools at an unprecedented degree without adequate local input. Critics of Ravitch say that—calls for better curriculum, child health care, and increased funding for early childhood education notwithstanding—she doesn’t offer alternative solutions for education policy makers.

Mother Jones spoke with Ravitch about teacher tenure, No Child Left Behind, and for-profit charter schools.

Mother Jones: What is your greatest concern about the direction of public education in the next ten years?

Diane Ravitch: The advance of privatization and a renewed push for vouchers. That we will actually go backwards in this country and that the public education system will become a dumping ground for kids who didn’t make it into charters. That we’ll see in many cities a degradation of public education. That there will be charters skimming off gifted and high-performing kids and we’ll create a two-track system.

MJ: Would you support charters, if we got rid of for-profit charters and only had non-profit charters?

“We should totally ban for-profit charters. For-profit’s first obligation is to its stockholders, not to its children.”

DR: We should totally ban for-profit charters. For-profit’s first obligation is to its stockholders, not to its children.

But even on non-profits, there should be a cap on salaries, so that the operator can’t be paid a lot more than the average salary of the public system.

I support charters, but the right kind of charters. I support charters that support kids who have the highest needs. A charter should be targeting students who are in serious trouble. It should serve students who didn’t succeed in public schools when it can help them. Or, at least, charters should agree to accept similar proportions of the kids with the highest needs.

Charters should be subject to the same rules governing conflicts of interest and nepotism that apply to public schools, and they should go through the same financial auditing. In New York State the Charter School Association went to court to prevent the public auditing of their books, and said as charters, they should be free of that. But they get public money. How can you be free of auditing? They say they do their own auditing. That’s not enough.

MJ: In your book you have a chapter called, “The Billionaires Club” in which you critique what you see as overly top-down education reforms by the big foundations. Many grassroots organizations in the US are supported by billionaires like Ford, Rockefeller, and Soros. How is what Gates, Walton, and Broad doing in education different?

DV: What’s happening now is venture philanthropy. They look at their philanthropy as an investment. They start off with strategy and a reform idea which they believe is right and then they say here is the money, but you have to do what we tell you to do. When Eli Broad funds medical research, he doesn’t tell them how to do medical research. But he has very clear directions for public schools with a pro-charter school and teacher evaluation obsession. Gates gave a billion dollars to break large high schools into small high schools and then decided that wasn’t working. And now he’s moved on to teacher evaluations. Well, he never made a public accountability statement about why small high schools weren’t working. We don’t really know what his inner logic was. The big issue that concerns me is that they are using their money to control public policy and they have no accountability.

MJ: Speaking of teacher evaluations, what does your ideal teacher evaluation look like?

DR: A good teacher evaluation would primarily rely on an experienced supervisor, who has had many years as a teacher. Who was a successful teacher, who visits classroom on a regular basis. And if he sees a teacher who needs help, he is able to provide help, and to refer teachers for professional development. This should not be a gotcha game. It should be used as a way of figuring out how to support teachers and mentor them and give them whatever they need to be better at their craft. A supervisor should look at the scores, take them into account, consider them a part of a personnel file, and not turn them over to the Los Angeles Times. But it’s something to consider if no one ever learns to read in Ms. Jones’ class, if you see if it’s a particular class, and then use it to make decisions about whether she is in the wrong career.

I had a falling-out with a foundation executive who doesn’t agree with me on this. He went to visit different places and he said, “what do you do when you have a bad teacher?” and the response was “we help them.” “And what if you help them and they are still a bad teacher?” We help them more.” I think at a certan point when you get a peer review and you get supervisors and you get help, at some point it does become clear if this is not the right job for you.

Our schools are not overwhelmed with bad teachers. The biggest problem we face with teaching is high turnover rate. Fifty percent of the people who enter teaching are gone within five years.

Part of the mania that we’ve been living with in the past two years is this idea that our schools are overwhelmed with bad teachers, and it’s not true. I think that is a part of the effort to undermine public education. The biggest problem we face with teaching is high turnover rate. Fifty percent of the people who enter teaching are gone within five years. That creates a revolving door when most communities want and need a stable experience. Instead of how to fire the bad teachers, we should talk about how to help teachers and give them the confidence to be the best they can.

MJ: What is your opinion on teacher tenure?

DR: First of all, there is no such thing as automatic tenure. Tenure is a decision made by an administrator and it should be taken with deliberation and after sitting in a teacher’s class. It also doesn’t mean life employment. If an administrator watched you teach, evaluated you, and makes a decision that this person is entitled to a due process, then depending on state—some have three years of probationary teaching and some have four—tenure in K-12 education means that if someone wants to fire you, you have a right to a hearing.

And the reason this exists is to protect against political favoritism. Before there was tenure, there were many cases where people hired their friends and relatives and then the political party changed and other people brought in their friends, or contributors. Tenure makes sure that teachers are not fired for their race, sexual or political orientation, or just because the principal didn’t like you.

MJ: What about layoffs based on seniority?

DR: We don’t have a merit system, so seniority makes sense more than any other system we currently have. If you base layoffs solely on test scores, you incentivize making these tests the measure of all things. And we will have a dumbing down of education.

If you were going into a hospital, and had the services of an intern or a resident, that’s what you’d be getting in education if you remove seniority. What you’ll see are people who are enthusiastic, but who come and go frequently. And you’ll see principals who save money by laying off experienced teachers no matter how good they are.

MJ: Is there a country that has figured out a perfect merit system?

DR: I’d say that Finland has. It’s the poster nation. They don’t have any attrition in Finland. They have made teaching a highly respected and desirable position there. Government pays all of one’s college expenses, and it’s very competitive. Once they are in, they give them tremendous support.

MJ: How would you reform No Child Left Behind?

DR: What must be eliminated are all of the federal sanctions. They don’t work. Federal government should have no power to tell states how to reform schools. The Federal government doesn’t know.

Accountability should not the federal governments business, other than running the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) and giving states adequate information about the trend lines in their states.

The law should be a supportive law, not a punitive law. It has a list of punishments. It should have adequate funding for early child education, and it should be focused on communities that need it most. And there should be adequate funding for special education. The thing that strains the budget for every school district is that Federal Government mandates special education and it’s supposed to provide 40% of the funding and it’s never done that. I think they only give about 12%.

If a school is struggling, you don’t kill it. You find out why it’s struggling and provide help. There is no “one size fits all” approach.

When the schools are struggling, it’s usually because they have a super load of kids who are very poor, and don’t speak English, and have very high special needs. And every school has a different reason for why it’s struggling. And if the school is struggling, you don’t kill it. You find out why it’s struggling and provide help. There is no “one size fits all” approach.

MJ: Do you think we still need some kind of external measures to check local claims?

I think we could do something like sampling. It’s okey to have tests, but we have to use them diagnostically: to help kids learn better and show teachers what they don’t know and see where they need help. But you can’t then take those tests and say we are going to hold you accountable based solely on the scores and we are going to give out rewards and punishments. When you use tests for money rewards or to fire people, then you begin to distort the measure and the test and everyone starts funny things: cheating, turning schools into testing factories, making the tests more important than instruction and gaming the system.

MJ: Are there ways in which teacher unions should improve to work better for parents and children?

Their job is to make sure that teachers have rights. Their job is to go to the state legislature and make sure that there is enough money for schools, so that schools have decent class size. That’s the best thing that unions do for parents and kids. They advocate for children in state legislature. And the states where unions have little or no power have cut the schools to the bone. Teachers were very badly treated before there were unions.

The reason there are attacks on unions is because they are reliably Democratic and so you have governors who are trying to cut their legs off. It will strengthen their position politically. It will also make it easier to cut education budgets. Taking away the collective bargaining rights is only going to hurt children.

MJ: Most Americans support collective bargaining rights for teachers. But some teachers and parents have told me that unions should reform. Are there any areas in which you think they could improve?

DR: I’d like to see unions work more closely in a relationship with parents. So that they understand that they have shared interests. Together they will be a more potent force in supporting public education.

Front page photo: Jack Milller

Kristina Rizga covers education issues and culture for Mother Jones. She’d love to hear your ideas on what she should be covering in schools. Email her at You can also follow her on Twitter. Get Kristina Rizga’s RSS feed.

40,001 views! Woo hooo….

In Uncategorized on March 15, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Hi everyone out there…

Today I’m celebrating the 40,000th view of this blog! A lame number from the perspective of huge famous/infamous blogs I’m sure, but a feat for me and this tiny internet space I’ve tried to carve out.


Thanks for reading, commenting, and doing the great work in the world you all do.

or…should it be economies?

In economics and economies, environmental issues, institutions, Neoliberalism and Education, politics, social class, social policy on March 11, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Gibson-Graham, renowned feminist geographers and social theorists, suggest that all our talk about “The Economy” and “Capitalism” distracts us from seeing and naming multiple economies that are at work and flourishing. These include capitalist economies for sure, but also non-capitalist economies. Paying attention to non-capitalist cooperative economies (artist co-ops; farm co-ops; school co-ops; camp co-ops; etc.), non-capitalist communal economies, non-capitalist household economies, green capitalist economies, capitalist state enterprise economies, capitalist socially responsible economies, non-capitalist independent economies (bartering and otherwise), non-capitalist feudal economies, and non-capitalist slave economies can remind us that even though we live in a time where everyone talks as if there is ONE ECONOMY and ONE KIND OF ECONOMIC PRACTICE, we know that on the ground there are diverse practices taking place.

Look up “time bank” or “grocery cooperative” or “child care cooperative” or “local currency” or “farmers market” in your community and what do you find?

And those are only the ones who have decided to create an online presence. Start asking folks what’s going on in your community…and if you’re working with kids, teach them that there are spaces and places where maximizing profit without regard to human beings and the environment is not the priority, that there are spaces and places where one’s talents and skills can be exchanged for other goods and services with no “money” in the interaction.

These are more “flat” economic practices and economies. And they are alive, well, and a persistent challenge to the dominant notion that everyone has to have a “job” within a capitalist market.




Education won’t create jobs – it’s the economy stupid.

In communities, Education Policy, high-stakes tests, justice, Neoliberalism and Education, politics, poverty, social action, social class on March 11, 2011 at 2:32 pm
New York times
Op-Ed Columnist

Degrees and Dollars

Published: March 6, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that education is the key to economic success. Everyone knows that the jobs of the future will require ever higher levels of skill. That’s why, in an appearance Friday with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Obama declared that “If we want more good news on the jobs front then we’ve got to make more investments in education.”

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Paul Krugman

Readers’ Comments

Readers shared their thoughts on this article.

But what everyone knows is wrong.

The day after the Obama-Bush event, The Times published an article about the growing use of software to perform legal research. Computers, it turns out, can quickly analyze millions of documents, cheaply performing a task that used to require armies of lawyers and paralegals. In this case, then, technological progress is actually reducing the demand for highly educated workers.

And legal research isn’t an isolated example. As the article points out, software has also been replacing engineers in such tasks as chip design. More broadly, the idea that modern technology eliminates only menial jobs, that well-educated workers are clear winners, may dominate popular discussion, but it’s actually decades out of date.

The fact is that since 1990 or so the U.S. job market has been characterized not by a general rise in the demand for skill, but by “hollowing out”: both high-wage and low-wage employment have grown rapidly, but medium-wage jobs — the kinds of jobs we count on to support a strong middle class — have lagged behind. And the hole in the middle has been getting wider: many of the high-wage occupations that grew rapidly in the 1990s have seen much slower growth recently, even as growth in low-wage employment has accelerated.

Why is this happening? The belief that education is becoming ever more important rests on the plausible-sounding notion that advances in technology increase job opportunities for those who work with information — loosely speaking, that computers help those who work with their minds, while hurting those who work with their hands.

Some years ago, however, the economists David Autor, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argued that this was the wrong way to think about it. Computers, they pointed out, excel at routine tasks, “cognitive and manual tasks that can be accomplished by following explicit rules.” Therefore, any routine task — a category that includes many white-collar, nonmanual jobs — is in the firing line. Conversely, jobs that can’t be carried out by following explicit rules — a category that includes many kinds of manual labor, from truck drivers to janitors — will tend to grow even in the face of technological progress.

And here’s the thing: Most of the manual labor still being done in our economy seems to be of the kind that’s hard to automate. Notably, with production workers in manufacturing down to about 6 percent of U.S. employment, there aren’t many assembly-line jobs left to lose. Meanwhile, quite a lot of white-collar work currently carried out by well-educated, relatively well-paid workers may soon be computerized. Roombas are cute, but robot janitors are a long way off; computerized legal research and computer-aided medical diagnosis are already here.

And then there’s globalization. Once, only manufacturing workers needed to worry about competition from overseas, but the combination of computers and telecommunications has made it possible to provide many services at long range. And research by my Princeton colleagues Alan Blinder and Alan Krueger suggests that high-wage jobs performed by highly educated workers are, if anything, more “offshorable” than jobs done by low-paid, less-educated workers. If they’re right, growing international trade in services will further hollow out the U.S. job market.

So what does all this say about policy?

Yes, we need to fix American education. In particular, the inequalities Americans face at the starting line — bright children from poor families are less likely to finish college than much less able children of the affluent — aren’t just an outrage; they represent a huge waste of the nation’s human potential.

But there are things education can’t do. In particular, the notion that putting more kids through college can restore the middle-class society we used to have is wishful thinking. It’s no longer true that having a college degree guarantees that you’ll get a good job, and it’s becoming less true with each passing decade.

So if we want a society of broadly shared prosperity, education isn’t the answer — we’ll have to go about building that society directly. We need to restore the bargaining power that labor has lost over the last 30 years, so that ordinary workers as well as superstars have the power to bargain for good wages. We need to guarantee the essentials, above all health care, to every citizen.

What we can’t do is get where we need to go just by giving workers college degrees, which may be no more than tickets to jobs that don’t exist or don’t pay middle-class wages.

Another one bites the dust…

In creativity, Education Policy on March 10, 2011 at 5:13 pm

“Hey Steph, I need some advice. I hope you can help.”

That’s how the phone conversation started with a long-time friend who teaches third grade in Florida.

“Sure, what’s up?” I ask, prepared for another of our hour+ long conversations about better meeting the needs of children and families, new books that might be of interest, new professional development opportunities, and – on the negative side – all the new requirements that are constantly bombarding him and keeping him from focusing on his teaching.

“I’m ready to get out of education. I can’t do this any more.”


He continued before I spoke, “I mean, look what they’re doing. They’re cutting our salaries, they are cutting our jobs, they are telling us to do more and more with less and less. I just don’t see how my future can be in public education.”

Tom – we’ll call my friend Tom here – came to education a little later than most. He graduated with a criminal justice degree, worked in retail and food service management (wildly successful at the kid-favorite Chuck E. Cheese), and decided in his late twenties that he would like to work with youth. It wasn’t the perfect time for heading back to school – he now had a wife and was thinking about a family – but he made the sacrifice of time and money to earn his teaching certification and never looked back.

Tom always worked in schools that have a hard time attracting the best talent, and that’s where he wanted to work. He made kids laugh (I’ve seen him in action), he made kids listen, and he inspired kids to share his passion of math and science and life.

“Boring” would never be a word used to describe his classroom.

Tom also organized exciting professional development events for himself and his colleagues. I was an honored “visiting author” to his school for one of my books they studied together – on their own time – and I had energizing virtual conversations with Tom and his colleagues around a second book of mine they studied. Again – organized by themselves and all on their own time.

Tom is a teacher we need. He is smart, engaged, motivated, and a motivator.

But he’s planning to leave education.

Folks who aren’t in the trenches of education every day have no idea what kind of crisis we are experiencing. Top-Down mandates, high-stakes testing, merit pay evaluations, and scripted pacing guides would bore even the most unmotivated person. But for teachers – most who joined the profession because they love to be creative, to continue to grow and change, to improvise their practice based on the interests and needs of students, and to inspire the next generation of citizens who might make a better world – these requirements and restrictions and reactions and punitive measures are worse than a bummer, they are depressing and anti-creative and anti-improvisational and in the end anti-teacher and anti-student.

No wonder they’re dropping like flies.

And then there are those who suck it up because they keep thinking it will get better.

I hope they are right.

When the Toms of the teaching world (and this includes dozens I know personally over the past few years) leave the profession, they are leaving children behind who will continue to be categorized and sorted through all kinds of measures that have nothing to do with real education.


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