Monday, April 16, 2007

Does Education Create Jobs? The Difference Between "Education" and "Empowerment"

One of the key assumptions behind investments in education is that educated people somehow create jobs, so that improving education will improve the economic situation for everyone. However, there is a great deal of evidence indicating that having an educated population doesn’t actually lead to a significant increase in employment.

Ralph Gomory (cited by William Greider), for example, argues that it wasn’t the education of individuals that made America wealthy, it was the investment in technology that made these workers more productive.
We invested alongside our workers. Our workers dug trenches with backhoes. The workers in underdeveloped countries dug ditches with shovels. We had great big plants with few people in them, which is the same thing. We knew how, through technology and investment, to make our workers highly productive. It wasn’t that they went to better schools, then or now, and I don’t know how much schooling it takes to run a backhoe [italics added].
“Free-trade believers insist US workers can defend themselves by getting better educated,” Greider reports, “but Gomory suggests these believers simply just don’t understand the economics.”

In other words, Gomory and others argue that education, by itself, is unlikely to have a significant impact on the state of the economy. And if this is true, it means that better educating those on the economic “bottom” won’t have much impact on a broad scale. Those who can compete best will still be the ones who get the best jobs.

Jean Anyon has come to much the same conclusion. In an article appearing in the Spring 2007 issue of Teacher Education Quarterly (PDF), for example, she and Kiersten Greene argue that education policies (like NCLB) would not be effective anti-poverty programs even if they actually improved education. They “demonstrate that there are significant economic realities, and existing public policies, that severely curtail the power of education to function as a route out of poverty for poor people.” For example, they note that “an increasing number of college graduates—about one in ten—is employed at poverty wages,” and that “more than two-thirds” of welfare recipients in 1999 had high school degrees."

They focus on NCLB and argue that this program is really
a federal legislative substitute for policies that would actually lower poverty—legislation that would create jobs with decent wages for those who do not have them. Our critique has been that an assumption underlying NCLB, that increased educational achievement will ultimately reduce poverty, does not prove valid for large segments of the population.
The terrible truth seems to be not only that we don’t know how to significantly improve inner-city schools, but that even if we did know how, it wouldn’t make that much difference for the vast majority of students who attend them.

What does this mean for educators and educational scholars? Is this our problem? And if it isn’t, then exactly what do we think we are doing when we expend so much effort to improve schools for impoverished students and their families? Are we just being "used" to some extent by powerful people who don't really want
to invest in the areas that would actually make a difference for the poor?

More broadly, what, exactly, do we expect educators and educational scholars to do when they hear these arguments?

I believe that to respond to these challenges, we must rethink what it means to be an “educator” in the 21st Century. I doubt if we will really do this. But if we are serious about contributing to real social change, it seems absolutely vital. And this will require institutional changes in what schools of education "do."

As long as “education” is only about traditional forms of “schooling,” “education” won’t have much to do with empowerment.

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