It’s the economy, stupid!

The New York Times editorial on education from this morning’s paper is better than one might expect, insofar as it compares the US system to other more successful countries rather than postulating that completely untried systems such as vouchers and charter schools will automatically fix things, but there’s still a persistent blindspot, as illustrated in this paragraph:

Teachers in leading nations’ schools also teach much less than ours do. High school teachers provide 1,080 hours per year of instruction in America, compared with fewer than 600 in South Korea and Japan, where the balance of teachers’ time is spent collaboratively on developing and refining lesson plans. These countries also have much stronger welfare states; by providing more support for students’ social, psychological and physical needs, they make it easier for teachers to focus on their academic needs. These elements create a virtuous cycle: strong academic performance leads to schools with greater autonomy and more public financing, which in turn makes education an attractive profession for talented people.

Emphasis added. Of course, there is literally no follow-up on the highlighted sentence. Instead, we plunge into a bold plan to transform teaching into a “profession” more akin to medicine or law, even though the author had previously conceded that our school system has not fundamentally changed in approximately a century. I don’t know that Americans are really good at fighting institutional inertia, and they’re certainly not good at increasing professional autonomy nowadays. But I think that we as a society can handle the administrative burden of writing checks and mailing them to people. Maybe we should go for the low-hanging fruit of more robust support for poor children before diving into the radical reformation of one of the largest professions in the US?

I suppose we should be glad that the author even brought up the poverty issue, because another major difference between the US and, say, Japan or Finland jumps out at me — they don’t face anywhere near the same level of racial division that the US does! I’d further assume that even in high-achieving South Korea, some of the same disparities and problems would suddenly emerge were the two Koreas to reunify and the Korean school system had to absorb millions of impoverished and immiserated Northerners. Yet coincidentally, one of the tested and proven methods of improving educational outcomes, namely desegregation, is not “on the table” in this proposal, either.

Durkheim argues in Suicide that we should not look for education to reform society, because it reflects deeper social structures rather than changing them. In the American system, it seems hard to argue with Durkheim — the things that are broken about our schools are the same things that are broken about our society. Nevertheless, American education policy has always been an effort at base-superstructure inversion. This goes all the way back to Horace Mann in the 1830s, who observed that vast inequalities between workers and owners was causing a new form of feudalism and proposed to change that with… education! (The idea of making people more equal by, for instance, taking money from the rich people and giving it to the poor people was not considered.) Similarly, today we see a society riven by inequality and racism, and we can supposedly fix it with… education! If we give poor people the theoretical possibility of rising up the social ladder and make sure that high-achieving minority students get a chance at a quality education, then inequality and racism surely disappear!

I view education as an inherent good, so I take some comfort that we’re at least delivering that, at least to some degree. And I’m sure we’ll continue to deliver it, because this kind of magical thinking on education is apparently an essential element of the American social compact at this point, completely invulnerable to all evidence and reason.

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11 Responses to “It’s the economy, stupid!”

  1. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It also seems strangely disproportionate to skip straight to system-wide reforms on the level of teacher training, given that we have a radically decentralized teacher education system to match our radically decentralized education system. Those facts, combined with our intentionally unwieldy federal legislative apparatus, further distinguish the US situation from that of the other countries mentioned. But to return to my initial point — we do have a centralized Treasury and a centralized, nation-wide postal system, meaning that the infrastructure for my radical plan of writing checks and mailing them to people is already in place and ready to go!

  2. nonmanifestation Says:

    “If we give poor people the theoretical possibility of rising up the social ladder and make sure that high-achieving minority students get a chance at a quality education, then inequality and racism surely disappear! ” It seems like part of the point of this strategy is that once it fails, you can say that it’s their own fault for not taking advantage of their opportunities.

  3. ben Says:

    “It seems like part of the point of this strategy is that once it fails, you can say that it’s their own fault for not taking advantage of their opportunities.”

    One is reminded of a “tweet” from Adam not too long ago in which he observed that “We need to increase social mobility so that we can be sure all the poor people deserve to be poor.”

  4. Noah Says:

    Tracy Steffes’s 2012 School, Society, & State makes your point from an historical perspective. She explicitly connects the universalization of schooling earlier and to higher grades in the US to the choice not to develop an expansive welfare state in the Progressive Era. The central value we place on meritocracy in ordering our society is why we invested in schools – not equality, not justice, not for its own sake: so that we could call our caste system fair.

  5. Education and Institutionality | Gerry Canavan Says:

    [...] rather than changing them. In the American system, it seems hard to argue with Durkheim — the things that are broken about our schools are the same things that are broken about our society. Nevertheless, American education policy has always been an effort at base-superstructure inversion. [...]

  6. Craig McFarlane Says:

    Defending your take with reference to Durkheim was a surprise. His academic appointment was in “sociology and pedagogy.” Sociologists tend to forget that. They also frequently forget the post-humous publications “Education and Sociology” (1922) and “Moral Education” (1925). Oh, and “Socialism” (1928).

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Am I somehow misrepresenting what Durkheim says in Suicide?

  8. nydwracu Says:

    Is there still some social role of education, once its potential for economic change is ruled out?

  9. Craig McFarlane Says:

    No, it is accurate. I was just surprised to see Durkheim in this context.

  10. Jared Says:

    I feel like I should weigh in. I’m an English teacher in Korea (I’m from New Zealand) and the what the article says about Korean teacher is true to a point. They teach less hours. But the the rest of their time is spent on administrative busy-work, not ‘refining lesson plans’.

    The strength of Korea’s ‘education system’ is the fact that the students go to after school academies until as late as 10pm. The school system does it’s best, but I think they know that the real learning comes in the 2 hour classes (with much smaller class sizes) on any given subject the children are forced to sit through. They basically teach the test here too. Rote learning is the basis of education here, because it seems that outer appearances count for a large percentage of motivation. I feel Western education systems are going that way. Perhaps to try and compete with the Asian ones. I don’t think it’s real education however.


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