********************** From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record], September 19, 2007, Volume 27, Number 4, p. 32, 26. See http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2007/09/19/04kohn.h27.html?print=1 ********************** COMMENTARY Against 'Competitiveness' Why good teachers aren't thinking about the global economy.
By Alfie KohnHere are some phrases that might reassure us if they were used to defend a particular education policy: "excitement about learning" ... "deeper thinking about questions that matter" ... "promoting social and moral development" ... "democratic society." And here's a phrase that ought to make us wince and back away slowly: "competitiveness in a 21st-century global economy."
For years, champions of high-stakes testing and mandatory curriculum standards have invoked a need to ratchet up the skills of future employees and, by extension, the revenues of U.S. corporations. Now, though, opponents of such policies are using the identical argument. In recent months, two prominent critics of the federal No Child Left Behind Act have argued in separate articles that the law's effect on instruction isn't consistent with what's needed to produce successful workers.
I'm sure they're right. But just as we shouldn't justify a wonderful curriculum by claiming it will raise standardized-test scores-first, because such tests measure what matters least, and second, because claims of this sort serve to legitimate these tests-so we should hesitate to defend or criticize educational practices on economic grounds.
Various strands of evidence have converged to challenge the claim that the state of our economy is a function of how good our schools are at preparing tomorrow's workers. For individual students, school achievement is only weakly related to subsequent workplace performance. And for nations, there's little correlation between average test scores and economic vigor.
Schools make a tempting scapegoat when a company's financial results are disappointing or when the economy as a whole falters. But an employee's educational background is only one of many factors that determine his or her productivity. Worker productivity, in turn, is only one of many factors that determine corporate profitability. And corporate profitability is only one of many factors that determine the state of the economy-particularly the employment picture. Does anyone seriously believe, for example, that the main reason U.S. companies are shipping jobs by the millions to Mexico and Asia is that they believe those countries' schools are better?
But let's talk about values, not just facts. Is the main mission of schools really to prepare children to be productive workers who will do their part to increase the profitability of their future employers? Every time education is described as an "investment," or schools are discussed in the context of the "global economy," a loud alarm ought to go off, reminding us of the moral and practical implications of giving an answer in dollars to a question about schools. As Jonathan Kozol recently reminded us, good teachers "refuse to see their pupils as Š pint-sized deficits or assets for America's economy into whom they are expected to pump 'added value.' "
Lending an even more noxious twist to the habit of seeing education in purely economic terms is the use of the word "competitiveness," which implies that our goals should be framed in terms of beating others rather than doing well. When the topic is globalization, it's commonly assumed that competition is unavoidable: For one enterprise (or country) to succeed, another must fail. But even if this were true-and economists Paul Krugman and the late David Gordon have separately argued it probably isn't-why in the world would we accept the same zero-sum mentality with respect to learning?
Consider the sport of ranking the United States against other nations on standardized tests. Once we've debunked the myth that test scores predict economic success, why would we worry about our country's standing as measured by those scores? To say that our students are first, or 10th, on a list provides no useful information about how much they know or how good our schools are. If all the countries did reasonably well in absolute terms, there would be no shame in (and, perhaps, no statistical significance to) being at the bottom. If all the countries did poorly, there would be no glory in being at the top. Exclamatory headlines about how "our" schools are doing compared to "theirs" suggest that we're less concerned with the quality of education than with whether we can chant, "We're number one!"
------------------------- SIDEBAR: Does anyone seriously believe that the reason U.S. companies are shipping jobs to Mexico and Asia is that they believe those countries' schools are better? -------------------------
An essay published in these pages last year reported that U.S. students are doing better in mathematics than earlier generations did [http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2006/02/15/23daro.h25.html ]. Was the author moved by this fact to express delight, or at least relief? On the contrary, he pronounced the current state of affairs "disturbing" because children in other countries are also doing well-and that, by definition, is considered bad news.
Likewise, The New York Times warned in the late 1990s that "American high school graduation rates, for generations the highest in the world, have slipped below those of most industrialized countries." Actually, on most measures, the United States is doing better than ever in terms of the proportion of our adults who finish school. But again we were invited to fret because progress had been made by other countries, too, meaning we were no longer king of the mountain.What if we just ignored the status of students in other countries? That wouldn't be especially neighborly, but at least we wouldn't be viewing the gains of children in other lands as a troubling development. Better yet, rather than defending whatever policies will ostensibly help our graduates "compete," we could make decisions on the basis of what will help them collaborate effectively. Educators, too, might think in terms of working with-and learning from-their counterparts in other countries.
Even beyond the moral justification for transcending reflexive rivalry, Janet Swenson at Michigan State University points out that "we'll all benefit from the best education we can provide to every child on the face of this planet." She asks: "Do you care if it's a child in Africa who finds a cure for cancer rather than a child in your country?"
It took me a while to realize that at the core of the current "tougher standards" movement is a worldview characterized by artificial scarcity-along with the assumption that schooling is ultimately about economic outcomes. A more reasonable and humane perspective is always hard to come by when we're told that we're in a race. The prospects for critical thought are particularly bleak if the race never ends.
Sadder still, the same competitive mind-set shows up as district is pitted against district, school against school, student against student. Several years ago, one superintendent in the Northeast vowed that his city's test scores would "never be last again" in his state. Like so many others, he was confusing higher scores with better learning. But this appalling statement also implied that his students didn't have to improve; as long as kids in another community fared even more poorly, he would be satisfied. Such a position is not only intellectually indefensible (because of its focus on relative performance) but also morally bankrupt (because of its indifference to the welfare of children in other places).
Almost any policy, it seems, no matter how harmful, can be rationalized in the name of "competitiveness" by politicians and corporate executives, or by journalists whose imaginations are flatter than the world about which they write. But educators ought to aim higher. Our loyalty, after all, is not to corporations but to children. Our chief concern-our "bottom line," if you must-is not victory for some but learning for all.
CSU REFORM AND EXECUTIVE SALARIES· CFA PRESIDENT TAIZ CHALLENGES CSU CHANCELLOR TO DEBATE ON EXECUTIVE PERKS
On Tuesday CFA President Lillian Taiz formally challenged California State University Chancellor Charles Reed to a debate over the merits of pay increases and other perks given to CSU executives.The Chancellor and CSU Administration have hired a lobbying firm – paid for with taxpayer dollars – to fight CSU reform legislation Assembly Bill 1413 that would set limits on executive perks and protect taxpayers. The debate would provide taxpayers, lawmakers, the media, students, faculty and the Governor with the opportunity to fully understand the positions of Taiz and Reed on this bill.“What is he so afraid of?” asked Taiz. “The Chancellor is spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to fight AB 1413, a bill that would curb the sweetheart deals that the CSU Administration has been handing out behind closed doors. The Chancellor is obviously passionate about killing the bill, which would mean that the CSU Administration could continue going about their business as usual – with no limits on perks and no public discussion prior to voting on executive pay.”“Today, I challenge him to a public debate. He can name date, time, and place – and I will be there. Faculty, students and lawmakers are perplexed by the Chancellor’s aggressive fight to kill a bill that would protect taxpayers from wasting money on back-room deals. Let’s get together for a debate so that the public understands why these perks are so important to the Chancellor.”·
ACTION ALERT: FAXES TO GOV. NEEDED ON CSU REFORM LEGISLATION Less than two weeks remain before the governor must decide whether to sign or veto two critical pieces of legislation that would reform the way the CSU Board of Trustees do business.CFA is urging all faculty members, students, staff and supporters to take a moment out of their day and send the governor a message about the importance of signing these bills. “Please join me and the rest of your colleagues in CFA by asking the governor to sign these bills,” said CFA President Lillian Taiz. “AB 1413 and SB 190 are crucial pieces of legislation that will go a long way toward curbing the waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars that currently endanger our great university system.” SEND THE GOVERNOR A MESSAGE NOW!Go to, http://capwiz.com/calfac/state/main/?state=CA and send a fax via the internet asking the governor to sign AB 1413. This takes less than a minute and lets the governor know that the public supports this crucial bill. ∙
FACULTY, STAFF, STUDENTS AND LAWMAKERS COME TOGETHER TO SUPPORT CSU REFORM BILLSOn Tuesday students, faculty, and staff from the California State University joined Senator Leland Yee and Assemblyman Anthony Portantino to urge Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign two bills aimed at reforming the governing boards of the systems and ending the executive pay hikes that have recently tarnished the institutions.“The Governor needs to join us in sending a very clear message to the CSU and UC: it is time to end the culture of secrecy and arrogance,” said Yee. “No longer should the students, faculty and staff – the backbone of our public universities – be left to bear the burden, while top execs live high on the hog. As a graduate of both the UC and CSU, I want to make sure our higher education systems succeed by investing in instruction, not creating a get-rich factory for executives. SB 190 will bring much needed sunshine to executive compensation discussions, provide members of the media the democratic access they deserve, and help restore the public’s trust.”“At a time when many legislators and educators want desperately to increase education funding for our public schools and universities, the California State University Board of Trustees is making that effort much more difficult,” said Portantino. “The openness and accountability that most Californians have come to expect from state government is simply not present at one of the nation's most prestigious public universities, as evident by their recent vote to increase executive pay by nearly 12 percent across-the-board. AB 1413 is about shining the light on closed-door decision making and holding the CSU to account for how they choose to spend taxpayer dollars.”Portantino and Yee were joined by CFA statewide leaders as well as representatives from the California Teachers Association (CTA), California State Student Association (CSSA), State Employees International Union (SEIU), California Newspaper Publishers Association, State Employees’ Trades Council, CSU Employees Union (CSUEU), University of California Student Association, UC Faculty Association and Greenlining Institute in calling for the governor to sign the bill.
We all had a good laugh about your latest blog entry. Thanks you for sharing this and thank you for the lighthearted point of view regarding this whole matter. I am happy that we could address this issue in a more timely fashion than previously arranged and that you had something positive to note in your latest entry.
Please have a great week and feel free to let me know if I can be of additional assistance in the future.
The folks from Surewest called me (on my deluxe new Palm Treo 680 that replaced the Palm Treo 600 that died so valiantly on Friday see the post on Sept. 29th) during my class this morning. The esteemed readership will be most glad to know that I did not pull a Giuliani . While hoping to serve a a proper role model, I waited instead to respond to the call when it was appropriate ( I had them work in small groups and stepped outside for a moment). So after class, I ran right home and the Surewest guys came and found that the f$##^g squirrels had gnawed into the fiber optic cable line out on the pole… the box is right on the local inter-squirrel-state "high"way.
Since they are extremely busy with the acorns, I cannot understand why they had time to try and patch into the cable... the email from Rick at Surewest indicates that they are finding stuff for their winter nests... hmmm I had no idea that they need highspeed digital, I thought they only listened to FM... but I digress... at any rate we now are back on line here at the Ponderosa thanks to the brave men from Surewest (they were roundly scolded by a large and very angry squrrel as they were working).
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