Our education policies have been designed, particularly over the past few years, to manipulate the disenfranchised and the disadvantaged into supporting policies that are based on fantasy and result in generation of students ill prepared for success in life.
These include the abandonment of vocational education, the standards movement and the romantic embrace of STEM education. Each is based on what may be good for a small number of students into policy for all students. Each is also presented as a rejection of abuses of the past in a way that reduces opportunity for meeting the needs of a large swath of our population.
Educational lore is filled with examples of schools operating to “sell kids short”. We all have heard of stories where kids who were capable of succeeding in college being recommended for vocational training or others who were advised to attend community college who could have succeeded in a four year college. When the faculty at my former high school first met our Broad Academy trained superintendent, a teacher asked whether we would continue to offer vocational courses. Her answer: “Those jobs are gone. Even being a lineman for PSE&G requires advanced math skills.”
We should be training our students in a wide range of careers, from splitting genes to cutting hair, from running a corporation to running a corner store, from using an electron microscope to using tile cutter. Instead, we have abandoned, most noticeably in urban centers, training our graduates for the movement from a manufacturing to service economy. Our homeowners and businesses need plumbers, electricians, landscapers and carpenters. Our aging population will have a greater need for home health care aides and medical professionals from phlebotomists to medical imaging technicians. But our high schools are abandoning this training, leaving it to post-high school for-profit schools with little oversight or quality control.
Instead of promoting policies to increase the achievement of educationally and economically disadvantaged students, including early childhood education, increases in the minimum wage, fair housing opportunities, better teacher pay and funding for mentoring and tutoring, we are choosing to put our energy into the fantasy that merely higher standards will result in higher performance. Our politicians and superintendents spout terms like “closing the achievement gap”, “excellence”, “best practices” and “data driven decision” to justify a culture of fear and reprisal in our schools.
Though there is actually a surplus of STEM graduates, we are requiring all students who graduate from high school to have advanced math and science skills. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that “there are significantly more science and engineering graduates in the United States than attractive positions available in the workforce.” Similarly, researchers have pointed to the disproportionate percentage of bachelor’s degree STEM holders not employed in STEM occupations.10 This STEM training, with almost a magical aura, often comes at the expense of what many consider more vital things to graduate high school with, including civics, understanding politics and history, financial literacy, job skills and the giving students the ability to distinguish fact from fiction.
What is posited as a savior of public education, including higher “standards” and “teacher accountability”, as determined by test scores, is, in reality, a design for its destruction. Instead of providing for opportunities for all children to graduate from high school with the skills to contribute to the work force, we are pretending that only the most talented are deserving of our resources. We demean teachers as the bogie men who are selling our children short, while rarely holding administrators and school boards accountable. We are denying a high school degree to a large segment of our population for not demonstrating highly advanced math skills that they will never need or use.
We leave our ESL students, our learning disabled students, our economically disadvantaged students without skills or, in many cases, a high school degree, in a perverse game of natural selection. And, in a twist that should be familiar to those following presidential politics, have gotten many of these most damaged by these policies to support them.