As I See It: Education–the Other Dysfunction
May 7, 2007 Victor Rozek
“For the cost of 15 B-2 bombers, we can give three million teachers real incentives to raise student achievement and stay in the classroom.” Now hold on. Before our more hawkish readers get their knickers in a bunch and accuse me of a commie liberal, weak on defense, America hating bias, it wasn’t Jane Fonda who made that observation, it was Louis Gerstner.
Remember him? Former chairman, chief executive officer, and savior of IBM; the second coming of The Iacocca. On the surface, it was an odd thing for Gerstner to say seeing as how he now peddles more swords than plowshares. After saving IBM, Gerstner got a gig directing the Carlyle Group notorious for trafficking in weaponry around the globe. Nonetheless, in his spare time when he’s not ensuring that American children will eventually have to go to war, he’s expressed a desire to educate them. Gerstner is one of the architects of the School Standards Movement and several years ago he huddled with other heavy hitters from business, government, and education to draft recommendations on how to fix American schools.
Over at Intel, head honcho Craig Barrett is–if not actually giving up on American education–certainly taking up a broader challenge: educating most of the entire planet. He has instituted the Intel World Ahead Program which, as best as I can ascertain, trains teachers worldwide to be enthusiastic Intel technology users. The program reaches just about everywhere except Canada and Greenland. Ignoring Greenland is understandable; it has been ignored since the Vikings left. But what Canada did to offend Intel, I don’t know. In 2006, Intel sponsored a conference in Washington, D.C., organized by The Conference Board and the Academy for Educational Development on Global Public Private Partnerships in Education. Good thing they want to improve literacy because it takes an advanced degree just to make sense of the sponsors.
Moving on to Microsoft, not long ago, Bill Gates, the world’s most successful dropout, moved from trying to dominate the world to trying to save it. Armed with a $33 billion foundation, he too turned his considerable focus to education. Apparently Gerstner’s efforts had produced marginal results because just two months ago, Gates was testifying before Congress pitching his own education reforms. About midway through his presentation, Gates finally got to the heart of his discontent: “The percentage of college freshman planning to major in computer science dropped by 70 percent between 2000 and 2005,” he lamented. Gates attributed that to substandard curricula in math and science, but amazingly makes no connection between the decline and the fact that he and his CEO buddies have been offshoring IT jobs as fast as they can.
OK. Education is the dog everyone likes to kick. As far back as I can remember, people have been complaining about the educational system. When the economy is thriving, no one gives credit to the educators; when the economy tanks, kick the dog and blame the teachers. What’s new is that some of the biggest players in the IT industry are booting the pooch and investing mountains of shekels in an attempt to force this doggie to heel.
As the world’s largest if not most beloved software provider, Gates’ interest in education is not wholly disconnected from his business concerns. “Indeed,” he observes, “it would not be an exaggeration to say that every significant technological innovation in the 21st century will require new software to make it happen.” And where, oh where, will Microsoft find the talent?
Gerstner and Barrett may well have had the same concern for their companies. But reduced interest in computer science is more accurately the effect, not the cause, of corporate job divestment. Now, like men who have deliberately spurned the offer of friendship, they are forecasting loneliness. It’s hard to feel their pain.
Maybe if the IT industry offered students the prospect of secure jobs with six-figure salaries and full benefits they would be more motivated to study computer science. Gee, let me see . . . do I want to study four years for a job that has a good chance of being outsourced 24 months later? Nah. Absent the availability of jobs that can reasonably be expected to survive for the long term, perhaps student disinterest is a sign of elevated intelligence.
Regardless, Gates et al want to insure that the scholastic pipeline that produces technically skilled workers is full and flowing, and Gates is bright enough to understand that change is glacially slow and that Congress is the glacier. So he is taking matters into his own hands and, in partnership with another uber-wealthy philanthropist, Eli Broad, announced a $60 million ad campaign to force prospective 2008 presidential candidates to take the issue seriously.
For the skeptics, that figure should give you reason to pause. Sixty million! That, by far, represents the biggest single-issue lobbying effort in the history of purchasable government. And that’s on top of the $1.5 billion the Gates foundation has already invested in numerous education projects; plus the four think tanks he funds–The Education Trust, The Education Sector, The Aspen Institute, and Strong American Schools– which all dutifully spout the Gates party line: schools bad, teachers bad, standards low, curriculum inadequate.
So what does Gates expect to achieve with his herculean investment? A government commitment to tougher standards, “highly extra-super-qualified teachers” compensated for being highly extra-super-qualified, longer school days, a longer school year, and a national curriculum with an emphasis on math and science.
Although his motives may be questionable (you can’t take the CEO out of the philanthropist), his reasoning is hard to fault. “Our current expectations for what our students should learn in school,” Gates says, “were set fifty years ago to meet the needs of an economy based on manufacturing and agriculture. We now have an economy based on knowledge and technology.” Nor can his desire to elevate standards be faulted. “If high standards encourage young people to make the most of their talents,” he says, “then low standards discourage them from doing so.” Too many kids, Gates has determined, “end up bored, unchallenged, and disengaged.”
Perhaps, but was anybody not bored in high school? Being young, with the attention span of a gnat, and a body full of raging hormones, makes the process of education challenging under the best of circumstances. Philip Kovacs, chairman of the Education Roundtable, cites a recent UNICEF report that “ranked the United States the second worst industrialized country for a child to grow up in. That rating,” he says, “had nothing to do with public education and everything to do with a lack of healthcare, an incarceration industry, and a growing poverty rate. One out of five children comes to school hungry. Tougher standards will do nothing to help them learn.” Besides, he argues, does the stock market operate outside the influence of the educational system? If the stock market is at an all time high, how bad can the system be?
Well, pretty bad, actually. Visit any number of poor rural or inner-city schools and you’ll find a great many kids can barely speak English properly, much less ever hope to enter college. For that matter, when you have a greater chance of being shot in the classroom than graduating, there is something profoundly wrong.
As Gates is finding out, however, even for a man of his considerable means, saving the world is slow, frustrating, and incremental work. If he were to apply the full force of the $33 billion his foundation commands it would only educate half of California’s children for one year. The challenge is vast, and the need is indeed urgent.
The question, however, is not whether schools need assistance, but who ultimately controls the curriculum?
Corporate America has taken a unprecedented interest in education. Big business may have legitimate concerns about the readiness of its future workforce, but it is also eager to tell its story. In addition to offering training and financial support, corporations provide schools with “learning” materials in order to mold the minds of future consumers and decision makers. Such largess frequently has little to do with education; rather it is often an exercise in threat management. It is an attempt to manufacture an alternate reality, one in which regulation is unnecessary, monopolies are beneficial, and changes in corporate behavior are not required. Already, for example, oil companies provide “science” curriculums that teach children that concern about global warming is unnecessary; and logging companies offer “forest ecology” courses that champion unfettered clear-cutting. After years of work and billions in investment, would Microsoft, Intel, and IBM not wish to bend school curriculums to their own agendas? They’d be foolish not to.
The problem many have with corporate intrusion into education is that it often resembles propaganda designed to mold the perfect, obedient corporate citizen. Critics are afraid that excessive corporate influence on education will produce corporatized, sanitized, super-sized, steel-belted, RFID-wearing, genetically engineered, malleable automatons–albeit ones with good communication and problem-solving skills.
The inimitable Ambrose Bierce defined corporations as: “An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.” And he described education as “that which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.” Before we turn over education to the will of corporate interests, let us ensure we are not among the foolish who are being manipulated to disguise our lack of understanding.