[Gordon Lafer, Associate Professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center]
Jennifer Berkshire, educational investigative reporter extraordinaire and blogger under the moniker of “EduShyster,” has recently entered an exceptional, and exceptionally important, blog posting (see here).
It’s an interview with Gordon Lafer [decidedly NOT to be confused with economist Arthur Laffer), a political economist and an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center.
It’s the most important post I’ve read in our long and vexing non-debate about where our public schools should be heading in their efforts to improve the learning and future job prospects of all students.
Lafer provides a calm, common sensical, and fact-based assessment of the probable results of the attempt to close the “achievement gap” by focusing exclusively on school choice, national standards, standardized testing, and accountability for teachers and schools based on these tests. Why his clearly stated and palpably true observations are not broadly accepted by most thinking adults is beyond my comprehension.
This will change, gradually, if you take the time to re-post this important interview. I cannot think of anyone interested in the future of public education in this country who would not wish to do so.
Here are a few choice excerpts, but I urge you to use the link above to read through the interview in its entirety. It only takes about 5-7 minutes to read.
EduShyster: Now I know Black Friday is usually thought of as a day for bargain hunters to mob Walmart stores and their minimum-wage emulators, but can I just point out that by swelling the Walton family coffers, these shoppers are actually helping to create more opportunities for low-income youth?
Wait—why are you laughing?
Gordon Lafer: Because it’s preposterous—you can’t be an adult and say that with a straight face. First of all, the thing that correlates most clearly with educational performance in every study is poverty. So when you look at the agenda of the biggest and richest corporate lobbies in the country, it’s impossible to conclude that they want to see the full flowering of the potential of each little kid in every poor city. To say *I want to cut the minimum wage, I want to prevent cities from passing laws raising wages or requiring sick time, I want to cut food stamps, I want to cut the earned income tax credit, I want to cut home heating assistance. Oh but, by the way, I’m really concerned about the quality of the education that poor kids are getting*—it’s just not credible. . . .
EduShyster: There’s a long tradition of big corporations in the US trying to reshape public education in an effort to mold their future workers. Think Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Rockefeller. But does Walmart need vast numbers of college grads? Educate me.
Lafer: Walmart has no trouble filling positions and operating with very high turnover because what’s demanded of people who work there is so little. They’re certainly not asking *where are we going to find more people who can do algebra and craft well-written paragraphs?* In fact, the big problem with the *send every kid to college* argument is that there aren’t jobs for these kids after they graduate. You cannot find an economist who predicts that more than one-third of jobs in the US are going to require a college degree in our lifetime. The real question is not how can everybody be a college graduate, but how can people make a decent living. And here is where you see that the same corporate lobbies that are pushing education reform are doing everything possible to make making a decent living much, much harder.
[. . .]
Lafer: I think the direction that the most powerful forces in the country are pushing is a bleak and frankly scary one—that at some level they want us to forget the idea of having a right to a decent public education, which is one of the last remaining entitlements, and make it more like health care, which is increasingly seen as a privilege. What’s being done to schooling is, I think, devastating on its merits. It has ideological implications for lowering expectations for what you have a right to as a citizen or a resident. And it raises big, profound questions: How does your experience in school affect, not just your skill set for employment, but your sense of yourself as a person and what you think you deserve from life? I think that for the 1%, the big political challenge is *how do we pursue a policy agenda that makes the country ever more unequal and that makes life harder for the vast majority of people without provoking a populist backlash?* One of the ways of doing that is by lowering people’s expectations, and one of the key places to do that is in the school system.
EduShyster: I don’t know how much more of this I can take! Anything more positive you can send me back to the wassail bowl with?
Lafer: When people have a chance to vote on specific issues there seems to be very broad support for a better version of education, and I think that’s really hopeful. The best example of this is the 2010 vote in Florida on class size. Florida has class size caps written into its constitution. In 2010 the legislature wanted to raise the cap, but because it’s in the constitution it had to go to the voters. The voters voted 57% against raising the cap during a Tea Party wave election. I tried to do the math . . .and I figured that there were about 200,000 people who went to the polls thinking something like: “I hate Democrats, I hate government, I hate taxes, I hate unions, but I want my kids in small classes.”
I think the corporate education agenda is broadly really unpopular, and that all parents want roughly the same thing [emphasis mine]. All parents want their child to be taught small classes by a mature adult who will get to know their kid as a person, and understand their strengths and weaknesses and how they need to be supported. And that’s all the more true in poor cities. . . You know, despite all the things we’ve talked about, there’s tremendous public support for decent education. That gives me hope.