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Eggs or Eggheads: Which does the U.S. Economy Really Need?

Posted: 2009-07-28

Michael T. Marton is Research Analyst for the Arizona School Boards Association. This article ran in their 2009 Winter Journal.

Many in the business community are critical of education for not providing students with an education that makes them a highly skilled workforce suitable for employment by corporations. They call for national standards and national tests to correct this. But step back and think about it rationally for just a moment.

Believing that public schools should focus on providing workers for industrial corporations is very much to believe that children are nothing more than commodities to be developed for harvesting. It views children much as chicken eggs, to be taken from parents and standardized for commercial consumption. And that is not the slightest exaggeration of what is occurring to public schools.

William Greider, a nationally renowned reporter and PBS documentarian, wrote a 2003 book titled The Soul of Capitalism of which a Financial Times review noted "Greider knows his economics and his markets. He is not an anti-capitalist. This makes his book persuasive." Near the end of this book Greider writes:

"What, for instance, is the narrative of children in our society? -- At present, it seems, children are put on an assembly line, quite early in their lives, and 'managed' toward economic goals of production and income. Their performance will be 'tested' regularly along the way as the measurable 'output' of the education system."

Greider suggests a different narrative is possible:

"A broader understanding of education’s purpose exists: nurturing children so they will feel at home in the world; equipping them to experience the fullness of their own lives, the joys of doing honest work. That perspective has been marginalized by the business model and will not be restored easily. A new narrative might start from the premise that commodifying children's lives is not good for them and, in the long run, not for society."

The inescapable reality is that this corporate "commodification" of children requires the elimination of locally elected governing boards. In the recent debate over President-Elect Obama's choice for Secretary of Education, the so-called "reformers" were identified as Michael Bloomberg, Joel Klein, Paul Vallas, and Michelle Rhee. None has any record of improving public education and perhaps their only noteworthy characteristic is that they displaced locally elected governing boards, the new definition of "reform" in the modern political realm.

In 2005, a book titled Besieged was published by the Brookings Institute with the jacket proclaiming "School boards are fighting for their survival." Simply put, the ability of parents to decide through locally elected leadership what is best for their children is being pushed aside by those who view children as eggs to be harvested.

A "reform" of public education that eliminates locally elected governing boards and commodifies children very likely does not reflect the best interests of children. Louis Gerstner, the former CEO of R.J. Reynolds Nabisco back when it promoted Joe Camel to poison children with tobacco wrote a Wall Street Journal essay (12/1/2008) subtitled "Let’s abolish local school districts and finally adopt national standards." Gerstner is co-founder and chairman emeritus of the organization ACHIEVE whose homepage (www.achieve.org) states:

"Created in 1996 by the nation's governors and corporate leaders, Achieve is an independent, bipartisan, non-profit education reform organization â€Â¦. In 2006, Achieve was named by Education Week as one of the most influential education groups in the nation.”"

Corporate leaders fraudulently complain of the need for greater Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates. Fortune magazine recently published an article on the vast number of engineers being graduated in China compared to the United States. Subsequent investigation found they were counting Chinese graduates of two year technician programs as “engineers” and that the U.S. graduates far more four-year engineers per capita than China. Yet corporate leaders still continue to quote the Fortune statistics regardless of the facts.

The reality is that American schools actually produce more STEM graduates than U.S. industry can absorb and a large percentage of them end up working in other fields. But U.S. workers are competing with less competent foreign workers with lower wages. U.S. industry offers these foreign workers the chance at U.S. citizenship if they will come to America. The chance to become U.S. citizens by working at lower salaries is something industry cannot offer to American graduates.

America's economic power exists because we haven't produced commodified students. American schools have long been blamed for the rebellious youth of the past half century. Instead of docile industrial workers, public schools have produced creative and challenging citizens who have produced highly skilled workforces in newly invented industrial realms.

American public schools prepare students to enter a world of future endeavors rather than prepare highly skilled workers for a past world. It is precisely this facility of public schools to produce creative and rebellious workers that has empowered the U.S. economy. Perhaps the classic example is Steve Wozniak whose rebellious misbehavior in high school included mis-wiring other students’ science projects, and producing fake class schedules that misdirected students.

In his spare time while working as a technician out of high school at electronics giant Hewlett-Packard he built the microcomputer motherboard that helped launch the microcomputer revolution in America. H-P was not interested in it, so he and Steve Jobs created the Apple computer company.

Apple's revolutionary Macintosh computer was developed by a small rebellious group of creative young technicians rather than by Apple’s corporate endeavors. In a 1984 Byte magazine interview Jeff Raskin, the father of the Macintosh, said:

"And nobody, especially Steve Jobs, believed that we could do anything useful. Maybe a few clever ideas may come out of this group but certainly not a product. They were not going to get a product out of Raskin. Tribble and Howard... people who play music."

The corporate lament that American schools do not produce a "highly skilled workforce" ignores that American schools produce students who graduate with generic skills that allow them to adapt rapidly to economic changes. In each of the massive industrial developments of the past quarter century, from cellphones, to lasers, to the internet, to microcomputers, to medical technology, it was creative rebellious young people who not only staffed these complex emerging industries but in many cases led their development.

American public schools did not produce a "highly skilled workforce" for this modern transformation because the skills that were needed were not yet known. Instead, American public schools produced highly creative and rebellious workers who developed and implemented the necessary skills.

That American schools do not produce standardized commodified children for harvesting by industrial corporations represents the strength and magic of American public schools. Anyone who seriously looks at the economic development of the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century has to marvel at the widespread innovation and development that occurred, employing entirely new realms of knowledge created largely by young people just completing their public schooling.

With the ever more rapid increase in technological development worldwide, attempts to focus public schools on creating a "highly skilled workforce" will essentially focus schools on teaching obsolete skills to rebellious students who will rightly thwart them. In essence, American schools have been successful by producing students who are eggheads rather than eggs.

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