Education is Not the Answer

Education is Not the Answer

by Dean Baker

Everyone deserves a great public education,
but better schools alone can’t fight inequality.

This article is from Class Action: An Activist Teacher’s Handbook, a joint project of Jacobin and the Chicago Teachers Union’s CORE. The booklet can be downloaded for free and print copies are still available.

It’s common in policy circles to claim that improving the quality of education in inner cities and impoverished rural areas is the answer to halting the growing gap between rich and poor. This view reflects not only illusions about the potential for substantially improving education for children from low- and moderate-income families without deeper economic and political shifts, but also a serious misunderstanding about the growth of inequality over the last three decades.

There should be no surprise, then, that the education reform movement has failed in its effort to boost educational outcomes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

At this point, education “reform” is hardly new; it is the establishment consensus, having led the national agenda on education for the last quarter century. The extent to which it has produced gains can be debated, but it has, without a doubt, not turned around struggling schools. The children in these schools still perform consistently worse on standardized tests and have much poorer career prospects than children attending wealthy suburban public schools or private ones.

But even if reform had improved education, it is unlikely to have done much about inequality. People with more education have, on average, done better than those with less education, but the growth in inequality over the last three decades has not been mainly a story of the more educated pulling away from the less educated. Rather, it has been a story in which a relatively small group of people (roughly the top one percent) have been able to garner the bulk of economic gains for reasons that have little direct connection to education.

The classic story of the education and inequality story is usually captured by the college/non-college premium: the ratio of the pay of those with college degrees to those without college degrees. This premium showed a substantial rise in the 1980s for both men and women. According to data from the Economic Policy Institute, the college premium for men rose from 20.2% at the 1979 business cycle peak to 34% at the business cycle peak in 1989. For women, the premium rose from 25% in 1979 to 40%  in 1989.

Interestingly, the sharpest rise, especially for men, was during the high unemployment years at the start of the decade. The rise in the college/non-college pay gap is often attributed to technology and the growing use of computers in the workplace, in particular. But the largest rise in the college premium occurred at a point in time when computers were just being introduced to the workplace.

If the timing of the rise in the pay gap in the 1980s doesn’t fit the technology story very well, the wage trend in the last two decades is even harder to square with this picture. There was a much smaller increase in the college premium in the 1990s than in the 1980s — even though this was the period of the tech boom, when information technology led to a marked acceleration in the rate of productivity growth. After having risen by almost fourteen percent in the 1980s business cycle, the college premium for men rose by just 8% from 1989 to the business cycle peak in 2000. For women, the premium increased by 7.9% points in the 1990s cycle after increasing 15% in the 1980s.

The 2000s don’t fit any better with the technology and inequality story, as even college grads could no longer count on sharing in the gains from growth. For men, the premium rose by 2.8% between 2000 and 2011. This corresponded to a 2.4% gain in wages for male college grads between 2000 and 2012. The college premium for women increased by just 0.8% points over this period, with the wages of female college grads rising by 0.7% between 2000 and 2012. This situation holds true even if we look at just the segments of the labor market where we might expect especially strong demand. The average hourly wage for college graduates working in computer and mathematical occupations increased by just 5.3% from 2000 to 2011 —less than one-third of the rate of productivity growth over this period.

The patterns in the data show that inequality is not a question of the more-educated gaining at the expense of the less-educated due to inevitable technological trends. Rather, it has been a story in which a small group of especially well-situated workers — for example, those in finance, doctors, and top-level corporate executives — have been able to gain at the expense of almost everyone else. This pattern of inequality will be little affected by improving the educational outcomes for the bottom quarter or even bottom half of income distribution.

Of course, this does not argue against efforts to improve education. It is almost always the case that workers with more education do better than workers with less education, both in terms of hourly wages and employment outcomes. Unemployment and non-employment rates are considerably higher for those with less education.

Education does provide a clear avenue for mobility. Certainly it is a positive development if children from low-income families have the opportunity to move into the middle class, even if this might imply that someone from a middle-class background will move in the opposite direction.

And education is tremendously valuable for reasons unrelated to work and income. Literacy, basic numeracy skills, and critical thinking are an essential part of a fulfilling life. Insofar as we have children going through school without developing these skills, it is an enormous failing of society. Any just society would place a top priority on ensuring that all children learn such basic skills before leaving school.

However, it clearly is not the case that plausible increases in education quality and attainment will have a substantial impact on inequality. This will require much deeper structural changes in the economy. As a practical matter, given the dismal track record of the education reformers, substantial improvement in outcomes for children from low- and moderate-income families is likely to require deep structural change in society as well.

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Award-winning teacher says teachers are ‘the decisive element’ in schools

Award-winning teacher says teachers
are ‘the decisive element’ in schools

By Joe Nathan

Sean McComb, recently named 2014 National Teacher of the Year, has given one of the best speeches I’ve ever read about what teachers can and often do accomplish.

As he told thousands of other educators gathered at the National Education Association conference: “When those children come through the school doors, teachers are the decisive element. You know it’s true, you know that we wield that power every day – to push passions, to help healing, to hand out hope, to empower inspiration.”

According to information supplied by the National Education Association, McComb is an English teacher at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Maryland. But as he points out, teachers who make a difference are doing “something more than teaching cell replication, European history or trig identities.”

“They were helping us believe in ourselves. They were creating an optimism for our future while giving us skills to trust that we could make it come to be. They were giving us hope,” he said. “I’m proud to be a teacher, a hope developer.”

Teachers who are “the decisive element” help young people discover that they can do far more than they think when they initially entered class.

“Like many of you I’ve spent my career changing what students can ‘conceive of’ for themselves,” he explained. “Read that entire book? Inconceivable. Write how many pages? Inconceivable. Enjoy learning? For some … inconceivable. … But then it happens. The book gets read (and enjoyed), the paper gets written (and revised), the discussion becomes delightful, the collaboration contagious, learning becomes loved.”

That’s what my finest teachers did. Yes, they helped me improve my writing, or helped me learn fascinating things about American history, or deepened my enjoyment of music. But equally important, they helped me believe I could accomplish more than I thought possible.

McComb recognizes the enormous importance of optimism. He continued: “Hope is such a good thing, in fact, that research from Gallup has found that students who are hopeful, who believe they have a bright future, that someone believes in them and that they have the skills to get there — this element of hope — is worth about a letter grade of higher achievement than students who are not hopeful. That it can even combine with other factors of well-being to predict college success better than SAT, ACT or GPA. Hope matters.”

McComb wisely urges more opportunities for teacher leadership.

“Let’s talk about teams of teachers analyzing school needs, researching and proposing solutions and leading the faculty and staff through the change process. Let’s have collaborative leadership in our schools,” he suggested.

In a future column, I’ll describe the growing interest in “teacher led” schools. Those can be an important option for educators, families and students.

McComb also talked money in his speech.

“The biggest question facing our nation today, the one that can lead to the answers for all the other questions, is whether we have the guts to invest in our children,” he said. “Do we have the will to give them the care, education and opportunity necessary so that each can contribute their unique gifts to our society — no matter where they start? Will we invest in schools where they can all become problem-solvers and innovators; become excellent communicators and collaborators in order to work together to mature our collective capacity to grapple with these issues?”

We’re posting the entire three-page speech on our website, www.centerforschoolchange.org. It’s one of the most eloquent explanations I’ve ever read about what great teachers do.

The following is a speech made by the 2014 National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb. This speech was delivered at the National Education Association (NEA) conference in Denver, July 2014.

“Teachers: The Decisive Element”

Good afternoon.  Thank you.  So proud to be here. So thankful for your work across this country.  As a career-long member of my Teacher’s Association your work gives me the peace of mind of knowing that you always have my back, that someone is defending my rights as a teacher, which so many have fought for, for so long.  Thank you for that.

A couple of weeks ago I was flying home to Baltimore, and I sat with a couple of children who were returning home from visiting their grandparents.  Naturally, I asked about school.  I asked them about their favorite part of the past year.  The 6th grader told me about her trip to Mt. Vernon, how she had learned all about George Washington, how he was such a great leader, and how she had tried to convince to guard to open the tomb, but he was “being stubborn.”  The 3rd grader told me about how each student in class adopted a caterpillar. That she kept hers in a cup on her desk, and she fed it, and eventually they all turned into beautiful butterflies.

And I asked them about their favorite teachers, and the elder told me about Mr. Hyde who had come to all of her theatre performances and encouraged her, and the younger about Ms. Esser, from when she was in first grade, who was so much fun and gave them dance breaks when their brains hurt from all their learning.  And throughout the flight I saw just how important these teachers had been for these two little girls.  The 6th grader spent much of the flight in her notebook, creating lists of characters and scene locations.  The 3rd grader, in perhaps the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen, decided to take a dance break in the aisle for a few minutes, mid-flight.

And their thoughts on school, the light in their eyes when they talked about their teachers…it reminded me of a truth that I see proven before my very eyes every day at Patapsco High School: when those children come through the school doors, teachers are the decisive element.  You know it’s true, you know that we wield that power every day–to push passions, to help healing, to hand out hope, to empower inspiration.

And it’s not just true for our younger students.  Our secondary teachers combine a passion for learning content with a talent for teenagers.  I think of some graduates from our school…

Like Kiran, whose fondness for science flourished under her AP Bio teacher and propelled her on a path to medical school.

Like Sarah, whose fascination with history became an insatiable curiosity when she was in high school, a curiosity she now imparts to her own students.

Like Travis, whose dedication to solve problems was encouraged by his math teacher, and he is now putting that to work for the National Security Administration.  (You hear that Travis!  Good job!)

And it was true for me too.  Mr. Schurtz showed me how great stories provided a window into the human condition.  How we could experience other lives, question motives, play out scenarios through literature.  And he did that for me when what I wanted most was a life other than the one I had.  And he convinced me, when I didn’t otherwise have much of a reason at all to believe it, that I truly had something to give to others.  That I had a voice to offer, and that it mattered that I share it.

These teachers were up to something more than teaching cell replication, European history, or trig identities.  They were helping us believe in ourselves.  They were creating an optimism for our future while giving us skills to trust that we could make it come to be.  They were giving us hope.

I’m proud to be a teacher, a hope developer.  Ever since I was a teenager I’ve had that beautiful line from Shawshank Redemption on my heart: hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.

Hope is such a good thing, in fact, that research from Gallup has found that students who are hopeful, who believe they have a bright future, that someone believes in them, and that they have the skills to get there—this element of hope—is worth about a letter grade of higher achievement than students who are not hopeful.  That it can even combine with other factors of well-being to predict college success better than SAT, ACT or GPA.  Hope, matters.

Across this country children look to their teachers to hold out hope.  To give students a belief in themselves.  To give them the skills to have agency to make it reality.  It is that exact effort that called me, like so many other teachers, into this field, to be that decisive element in the classroom.

——————-

In order to thrive in that work, we need to establish another arena, in addition to the classroom, in which teachers should be the decisive element—school culture.  I think one of the most pressing questions for any educator in this country is: “What are you doing to create a supportive, collaborative culture among teachers in your building?”  (And maybe, what are you doing to prevent it that should change).  When I get a new group of students I tell them that: “We’re a team now.  I’m on your team.  I’m YOUR teammate.  I am “team Thomas” and “team Qiana” and I’m going to do everything in my power to support you and help you to improve.  And, we’re all going to do that for each other, here.”

Isn’t this what we should hear from our administrators and colleagues as well–a culture of support, improvement and collaboration?  We know how learning can blossom, skills improve, and achievement grow in the rich soil of a supportive, collaborative culture.

Like you, I’ve worked hard throughout my career in an effort to make my classroom student-centered–to allow students to collaborate, to observe each other’s work as models and learn from each other’s perspectives.  Let’s all work to make this the norm in our professional learning as well. Let’s all work to create systems that encourage collaboration, opening classroom doors to colleagues, and allotting the time and support to learn from one another.  Because the expert to help us grow our practice doesn’t need to be the consultant from across the country—it might just be the colleague one classroom over.

And let’s have teachers take a decisive role in school leadership.  That doesn’t mean a teacher gets to do the annoying paperwork instead of an administrator, or a teacher gets to handle discipline issues during their planning period.  Let’s talk about teams of teachers analyzing school needs, researching and proposing solutions and leading the faculty and staff through the change process.  Let’s have collaborative leadership in our schools.

With teachers leading a supportive culture focused on improvement, with time to collaborate and opportunities to be catalysts for change, our schools can go from good to great.  Teachers can better move the hearts and minds of children, and, I’m sure, the almighty data point will follow.

—————-

But there’s still a larger arena, beyond our classrooms and our school cultures, where our profession can be the decisive element.

We are facing some massive challenges as a nation:

How do we give everyone a fair shot to make it in America?  How will we sustain this planet?  How do we balance a safety net and self-reliance?  How can we clean some of the toxic elements from our culture?  The list goes on…

These are some big, complex, challenging questions.  But I’ll tell you where we can find the answer to all of these questions.  They’re right in front of our faces in our classrooms every morning.  The answer is our students.  The answer is in how we will prepare them to be our next leaders, in what conditions their education to meet this challenge will take place, and in who we prepare and develop as the teachers entrusted to do this work.

A few weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times about some of the student who we will need to be part of that answer.  Two professors of economics claimed that our nation’s identity as the “land of opportunity” is a myth……..

Now, maybe I’m a romantic.  Maybe I’m just filled with the hope that comes from working with students, or maybe it’s because of my personal experience.  But I know there is still land in this country that holds the hope of opportunity.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  I’ve spent my career working in that land.  It’s even marked out with signs.  They’re yellow, and they say “school zone” in big black letters.

Our schools are the land of opportunity in this country.  They must be.  Our children depend on them and they deserve for them to be….

This article didn’t stop there…it went on to claim that “for many children at the bottom […] opportunity is not just out of reach.  It is inconceivable.”

Inconceivable.  It sounds like more than ever, children at the bottom need incredible schools and incredible teachers.  Like many of you I’ve spent my career changing what students can “conceive of” for themselves.  Read that entire book?  Inconceivable.  Write how many pages?  Inconceivable.  Enjoy learning? For some…inconceivable…

But then it happens.  The book gets read (and enjoyed), the paper gets written (and revised), the discussion becomes delightful, the collaboration contagious, learning becomes loved.

I’ll tell you what I can conceive of…

I can conceive that here, too, here in the heart of this massive challenge, at the very core of who we are as a country—as the land of opportunity–education and teachers, can be the decisive element.

Now we can’t do it alone—we need this nation to truly invest in its children.  We need to build up the profession, not break it down. We need our culture to value education more than it ever has before…

So, the biggest question facing our nation today, the one that can lead to the answers for all the other questions, is whether we have the guts to invest in our children.  Do we have the will to give them the care, education, and opportunity necessary, so that each can contribute their unique gifts to our society—no matter where they start?  Will we invest in schools where they can all become problem-solvers and innovators; become excellent communicators and collaborators in order to work, together, to mature our collective capacity to grapple with these issues?

While others deliberate and debate, we teachers have chosen to act.  We have chosen to dedicate our lives to nurturing our next visionary leaders, caring neighbors, brilliant researchers, and conscious consumers.

We are proud to be a part of that solution, a part of that investment.  We are proud to be a profession that takes up this call.  We are proud to call on the conscience of our country to give kids the education, and opportunity that has always been America’s promise.

Thank you all for your work.  Thank you for being the decisive element.  Thank you for being teachers.

UK Bans Teaching Creationism in State-Funded Schools

UK Bans Teaching Creationism in State-Funded Schools

by Janet Fang

Lo! Creationism cannot be taught as scientific fact in any state-funded school in the UK. That goes for all free schools as well as any existing and future academies.

“It is already the case that all state schools, including academies, are prohibited from teaching creationism as scientific fact. That has not changed,” says a Department of Education spokesperson. So what’s new exactly?

Academies are state-maintained but independently-run schools with some outside sponsorship. The Academies Act 2010 made it possible for all schools — such as church schools — to become an academy. This month, the government added new clauses to the funding agreements between the Secretary of State and any church school converting to an academy.

In what’s being hailed as a secular triumph, these clauses not only require that students at academies be taught evolution, but they also prevent teaching creationism as scientific fact.

The clauses define creationism as “any doctrine or theory which holds that natural biological processes cannot account for the history, diversity, and complexity of life on earth and therefore rejects the scientific theory of evolution.”

And furthermore, it goes on to say creationism is rejected by most mainstream churches, religious traditions, and the scientific community — that it doesn’t agree with the scientific consensus or the very large body of established scientific evidence.

Here are the exact words from the “Church of England and Catholic single academy model supplemental agreement,” which you can download as a Word document.

… the requirement on every academy and free school to provide a broad and balanced curriculum, in any case prevents the teaching of creationism as evidence based theory in any academy or free school.

And just to clarify, free schools are funded by the government, but they’re set up by parents and independent groups; they’re like charter schools in the U.S.

But all of that isn’t to say creationism can’t be taught in schools. The clauses don’t prevent the discussion of beliefs about the origins of our planet and living things, just as long as it’s not presented as a valid alternative to established scientific theory.

All the documents to help church schools convert to academies can be found here.