'New Economy,' Old Injustices - And School Reform

poor, sad little child girl sitting against the concrete wall
poor, sad little child girl sitting against the concrete wall

Toni Wagner sees an economy in shambles and calls for innovators. Yong Zhao sees a nation at risk and calls for entrepreneurs. Tom Van der Ark sees competition and complexity and calls for project based learning.

I nod my head. I endorse the pedagogy.

School reformers often champion progressive teaching practice as the path for student to success in the "new economy" - which is also called the "innovation economy," the "knowledge economy," the "information economy," the "idea-based economy," the "21st century economy."

The reformers tell us that the world is globalized, fast and competitive; information is at our fingertips; robots and foreign labor do what Americans once did - and if we're going to compete to win, our schools must prepare children for the expanding high-skill sectors of the new economy.

But this "new economy" is troubled by very old injustices. Why is there so little acknowledgement of this? We don't just need graduates who will succeed in today's economy. We need graduates who will make it more fair.

Last year I met with a student, David, and his mom. David's a tough guy, but this morning his eyes were glassy - because even a tough guy can tear-up when his mom cries. She says it is difficult to find time to spend with him. Working afternoons and evenings now in a low pay service sector of the healthcare industry, her schedule also makes it hard to arrange time to meet with us at school. Week to week, her manager keeps her guessing about her shifts.

This working-poor family is part of the "new economy." And so are the homeless kids and their moms. This is an economy, says Richard Kirsch, "where even workers with a good education are barely making it and most Americans don't have a prayer of living the American Dream."

That our economy crushes so many people is a reality too often left out of the school reform conversation. Rather, it's not left out, it's acknowledged complacently, taken for granted: the low-wage fate and unfair odds that you try to help a few kids beat.

It's certainly exciting to envision our graduates joining the ranks of the high-skill labor force. But it's sobering to be told that if a student like David doesn't get to college and persist he just won't make it. He'll struggle to find work, or he'll ending up in low-pay job like his mom. As Tony Wagner puts it in The Global Achievement Gap, "In order to earn a decent wage in today's economy, most students will need at least some postsecondary education."

Yes, we want our graduates to earn a decent wage, to live with decency. The reformers call for a paradigm shift in schools. We must graduate critical-thinking entrepreneurs - and masses of them. The reformers believe that if schools can graduate more people with entrepreneurial dispositions, these job creators will cultivate enough living-wage opportunities to pull masses into the middle class.

I appreciate the emphasis on creativity, collaboration and critical thinking - but there are major problems with this narrative.

First, it's unrealistic to think that if schools could only graduate more entrepreneurs, we'd substantially shift the percentage of working people in our country who are struggling. According to The New York Times, "48 percent of home health care workers are on public assistance... as are 46 percent of child care workers and 52 percent of fast-food workers." These are big percentages - and these are expanding sectors of our economy. Simply graduating more entrepreneurial thinkers is not going to lift enough boats in a society that accumulates and shares wealth in such flawed fashion.

Second, even if most of our kids could get in and graduate from college, there simply aren't enough high-skill jobs to go around. Despite school reformer giddiness about growth in such sectors, these jobs are not growing that much. This is important. We mustn't be fooled into thinking that everyone who goes to college is going to graduate and find a knowledge-sector job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 2/3 of jobs in our country do not require post-secondary schooling, and this is not projected to change any time soon. In the current economy, to prepare all students for career pathways that lead to high-skilled work and living wages is an impossible task.

Yes, one can rightly argue that even impossible tasks are worth the effort. However, in putting our nose to the grindstone of this impossible task, educators sometimes become complacent about the conditions that make the task impossible in the first place.

When it comes to the dog-eat-dog world of the current economy, schools have a more profound role to play than just getting kids career ready. It's not enough to implore them to get grit, get creative, work harder. We also have a responsibility to graduate young citizens who will address the core problem, which is that so many millions and millions of jobs in our country don't pay a decent wage at all.

Our economy needs entrepreneurs who care about the lives of their employees, who value the power of collective bargaining, and the importance of fair taxation and a living wage. We need citizens at the local ballot box aware of how structural racism and class divisions are based on choices: pre-mediated, not pre-ordained. We need an empathic ownership class and a politicized working class who can together shape a society where there is decency of wage and healthcare in every home.

If we are to truly do right for our economy and our future generations, students like David need to graduate with the skills and dispositions to not only beat the odds, but to change them.