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School Woes Rooted in Boardrooms, Not Classrooms

Michael Schwalbe

Champions of public education often claim that student achievement drives the economy. Economic innovation and competitiveness supposedly depend on how much students learn in school. Investing in public education is thus wise policy because it ensures our collective prosperity.

This conventional defense of schooling goes wrong in three ways: it misstates the relationship between learning and economic growth; it attributes too much power to schools and teachers; and it limits our understanding of what education is for.

True, our economy couldn’t function if students didn’t learn anything in school. Most jobs in our society require literacy and numeracy, and it’s crucial that schools impart these skills. For this reason alone, we would be foolish not to invest in public education.

But we should understand that student achievement -- how much students actually learn in school -- is less the cause of economic growth than its consequence. It is not student achievement that drives the economy but the economy that drives student achievement.

Consider what we know about student motivation. We know that students strive to learn when they feel respected by their teachers, when they are confident in their ability to learn, and, most importantly, when they believe their efforts will pay off.

It is the latter factor -- belief in a payoff -- that links student learning to the state of the economy. When students know that there are good jobs waiting for them, provided they get the required knowledge and skills, they work hard at learning. When the effort seems unlikely to pay off, they don’t.

Recognizing the link between effort and reward helps makes sense of the so-called achievement gap. Students of color who believe that racial discrimination in the job market will negate the benefits of schooling may invest less effort in learning. When racism leads students to doubt their abilities or to dread school, the demotivation effect is even stronger.

Yes, parental encouragement is important. But sermons and pep talks don’t create jobs. And when students can see for themselves that there aren’t enough good jobs to go around, they aren’t likely to be inspired to great effort by platitudes about success in school being the key to success in life.

Student achievement thus depends as much or more on the relationship between students and the economy as between students and teachers. Once we acknowledge this, it becomes clear that teachers do not deserve the blame heaped on them by critics seeking easy targets. The real culprits are far more powerful political and economic actors.

Teachers did not send U.S. manufacturing jobs to Mexico, India, and China. Nor did they lose billions of dollars of other people’s money by gambling in deregulated financial markets. They did not deplete the public coffers by cutting taxes on corporations and the rich. Teachers did not drag us into two unending wars that are draining our national treasury.

As our economy has suffered because of these ruinous policies, so have our schools.

Cutting resources to schools makes it harder for good teachers to do their jobs. Bleak economic prospects sap student motivation. Misguided attacks on teachers further dishearten both teachers and students.

The implicit message students are getting -- mainly from budget-cutters and those who scapegoat teachers -- is that school isn’t valued by society at large and probably isn’t worth their time. No wonder students learn less than they could. No wonder about half of all new teachers quit within five years.

Defenders of public education are right to tout the potential economic value of what students learn in school. But overplaying the economic argument can make us forget what else schooling should accomplish. Students need to be educated, not merely trained.

Our economy needs skilled workers. It needs creative scientists and entrepreneurs. It needs versatile managers. And it needs good public schools to produce such people.

But democracy needs more. It needs citizens who can think critically, assess facts and arguments, and engage in civil discourse. Education is what produces citizens, and public schools are the places we have created to make this happen. We may not always succeed, but to give up on public schools is to give up on democracy.

Ideally, teachers and schools would receive every possible support needed to impart not only job-related skills but also the qualities of mind needed for participation in a democracy. The main threat, were schools to do this, would be to those who want us to look for the source of our troubles in classrooms rather than corporate boardrooms.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is "Making a Difference: Using Sociology to Create a Better World" (Oxford, 2020).

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