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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 09/21/2010

The danger of blaming schools for economic woes

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is George Wood, principal of Federal Hocking High School in Stewart, Ohio, and executive director of the non-profit Forum for Education and Democracy, a collaboration of educators from around the country.

By George Wood
It’s funny how the start of school also marks the unofficial start of the fall campaign season. What isn’t funny is how so many politicians running for office blame kids for our faltering economy.

It’s an all too familiar story—when America has a problem, we blame often choose the blame the victim. That seems to be exactly what is being done in the rhetoric on the campaign trail these days. If only our schools would improve, the economy would too. If kids study harder and get better grades and test scores, somehow this will make everything all right.

Nonsense.

We have heard this blather before. Remember “A Nation At Risk” and the rising tide of mediocrity that threatened the American way of life? That was 1983 and the National Commission on Excellence in Education wanted schools and teachers to buckle down and work harder. If not, it was claimed, the economy would crash.

Of course, when the economy turned around in the early 1990s there were no parades and celebrations to honor the hard work of our kids and teachers. There was just more bleating about how bad schools are and the beginnings of the press for more standards, testing, and "accountability."

I am thinking about this as the school year starts as we begin to see the effects of the souring economy at our doorstep. Several families with parents who have lost their jobs have asked us to take in their children, though we are having a difficult time proving residency in the district because they have moved in with sisters, aunts, parents, or whoever has room. The Gulf oil spill brought us a child as well, who came all the way from Lousiania to southern Ohio.

I am happy to have these children. Their parents have come to us hoping that we can shelter them from the turbulence of their changed conditions and that we can provide them with an education that will turn things around.

But I am unhappy that so much seems to rest with us.

In case you have not noticed, the welfare of our children is not well these days. The recent report by the Casey Foundation points out that nearly 20% of children live in poverty, over 10% live in a home with and unemployed parent, and over 16 million were ‘food insecure’ (as in hungry) during the past year. What is important to note is that on the 10 indicators of childhood welfare the Casey Foundation tracks, there has been little improvement since 2000; as compared with drastic improvement from 1996 to 2000.

It is not a stretch to point out that when the economy catches a cold, many kids are headed for the emergency room. But what is a stretch is to blame it on the kids.

I visited Detroit last month; I grew up near there and make an annual pilgrimage to see a Tigers’ game and wander the streets. It broke my heart. Woodward Avenue, the route we would take with our parents to buy school clothes in the big city, is lined with empty and abandoned buildings. Houses are boarded up and dilapidated. The only vibrant businesses seem to be the check cashing services, six of which I counted in one block.

I wondered: "How do you convince a child to do more math or read more books when s/he walks past a shuttered and burned out public library every day? And why do we put it all on the shoulders of these children and their teachers?" Clearly they are not to blame for the abandonment of Detroit, or New Orleans, or our rural areas.

Our economy did not collapse under the weight of under performing schools or kids. Industry did not flee the country, first to Mexico and then to Asia, for better-educated workers. No, they went for cheaper labor.

And the mythology of the Asian ‘miracle’, how many engineers they educate, etc., simply collapses under the evidence. Evidence of grotesque working and environmental conditions in China and the so called engineering graduates in the developing world who would not qualify in this country to fix your car.

As long as we keep blaming kids and schools for our economic woes, we will refrain from actually doing something about them. What? Things like fixing trade policies that allow jobs to flee to low-wage, anti-union countries; things like investing in renewable energy and infrastructure jobs; things like actually asking the rich in this nation to pay their taxes.

That may be too much to ask. But I know what I will not ask. I will not ask the teachers and kids I work with every day to take the blame for the unethical and immoral acts of the investment bankers, mortgage brokers, and industrialists who brought this nation to its economic knees.

Instead I will try to help them do their best to stand up to the half-truths and shaky logic that blames them for a world they did not create.

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By Valerie Strauss  | September 21, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  George Wood, Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  a nation at risk, blaming schools, blaming teachers, george wood, gulf oil spill, public schools, schools and economy  
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Comments

This has needed to be said for a long, long time.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 21, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Yes, George. The truth of this was brought home to me this year by the huge leap in the weight of my son's backpack, from 6th grade last year to 7th grade this year. It's literally backbreaking this year, was merely heavy last year.

I decided it was a metaphor for the weight of responsibility placed on his relatively slim pre-adolescent shoulders: keep those test scores up, do better than the rest of the state, help MA stay on top of the other states and the U.S. get and stay on top of other nations.

The thought occurred to me, though, is all this state, national and world domination really the best economic strategy? If only MA students are equipped to compete and perform at a high level--to hell with the rest of the country (and the world)--who's going to be able to make enough money to buy our products and services? Don't we want others to do well too?

It's probably blasphemy in the age of the Race to the Top and waiting for Superman to build more schools for a narrow slice of all the deserving kids and families, I know, but I was just thinking.

Anyway, well said, George, well said.

Best,
Lisa
Citizens for Public Schools
http://www.citizensforpublicschools.org

Posted by: guisbond | September 21, 2010 10:01 AM | Report abuse

George Wood,

What a refreshing article! I wish I could move to southern Ohio and work at your school. Not only do you sound pleasant, but you are actually telling the truth.

I know exactly what you mean about Detroit, as I am from around there as well. It is sad and I even wondered when Mrs. Obama showed up and gave the Detroit kids a motivational speech, because they clearly have everything stacked against them. ( I was thrilled that Mrs. Obama went there, it is usually a place completely ignored by the federal government, but as optimistic as I am, I sometimes despair about all those kids). Added to the social and economic problems is the fact that it seems to be popular currently to say things like "No excuses" and not be willing to help out with the real issues that families face. I am saddened that somehow, educational success is measured only by numbers and little attention is paid to if the students are benefiting.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 21, 2010 10:04 AM | Report abuse

@guisbonde
I also have a middle school student and have felt that one school he was at really impressed upon him the importance of his doing well on a standardized test for the school's sake, which I think is o.k. as far as community spirit, but sort of not the reason that the test is given.

The standardized tests were supposed to measure how much a student has learned in order to help that student continue to learn. The scores could be used along with teacher input for placement in classes, the scores can tell an individual what they need to improve on and what they do well in comparison to others taking the test.

Now these tests seem to have turned into the purpose of education. In DC, for example, much is made of a 4% drop up or down on the tests, and they hire people who say they will improve test scores, with no regard for the student as a person.

The general public appears to agree that test scores equal success. It is all very misleading.

Posted by: celestun100 | September 21, 2010 10:17 AM | Report abuse

On election day in 2009 President Obama at a school in Wisconsin “lectured teachers, students and parents on the need to “step up their games” if the United States wants to compete with India and China in the global economy.

Time for Democrats to recognize the need for a new candidate for President in 2012.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/04/AR2009110403864_2.html

Posted by: bsallamack | September 21, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

"we blame often choose the blame the victim." Do these pieces even get read by an editor before you hit the "publish" button?

Your argument about keeping jobs from fleeing to other countries is saddening. What right do Americans have to jobs over those in India, China, and elsewhere? If someone in those countries can work for half our wages and STILL achieve a higher standard of living than they would otherwise, then what right do you have to prevent that from happening? Are Americans inherently more worthy of opportunity, happiness, and growth than our fellow global citizens in poorer countries? It seems awfully callous to me.

Posted by: nasjunk | September 21, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

teachers, students and parents need to “step up their games” if the United States wants to compete with India and China in the global economy. President Obama

Mr. Mandvekar earns a salary of 36,000 rupees, or about $765 a month. Mr. Mandvekar is an Indian doing software development work for an American company that has offshored American jobs. His wage is $4.78 per hour.

An American would have to spend $50,000 to $100,000 for a Bachelor of Science degree to do software development work.

American enrollments in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics have all dropped since all of the jobs in these areas can be offshored.

The reality is that if political leaders do not take action there will be no need to educate Americans in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Members of Congress have actually introduced legislation in regard to this problem.
H.R.5622 -- Stop Outsourcing and Create American Jobs Act of 2010

Posted by: bsallamack | September 21, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Your argument about keeping jobs from fleeing to other countries is saddening. What right do Americans have to jobs over those in India, China, and elsewhere?
Posted by: nasjunk
.........................
Because these are American jobs and American companies that are offshoring American jobs.

In a world wide famine would we simply allow American companies to ship out all the food that was needed by Americans?

In a world wide epidemic would we simply allow American companies to ship out all the vaccines that was needed by Americans?

American companies should not be allowed to ship out American jobs to cheap foreign labor and create continued massive unemployment in the United States.

And yes to your question, to the American government and American political leaders, Americans should be inherently more worthy of opportunity than those of other nations.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 21, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

So Dr. Wood,
No doubt you will be on Oprah on Friday as I'm sure she'll decide to be less biased as she was on Monday?

Posted by: tutucker | September 21, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

Why is the American federal government so schizoid?

According to Education Week:

... the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, looks broadly at the need to improve STEM education for all K-12 students, with a focus on new federal actions to better prepare and inspire them in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

...the National Science Board, raises an alarm about what it sees as the failure of the U.S. education system to identify and nurture the next generation of high-achieving STEM innovators, and proposes steps for both the federal government and the nation as a whole to reverse the situation.

The American federal government fully accepts the idea of American companies sending offshore all American jobs involving computer technology and telecommunication in offices or laboratories.

The reality is that these are almost all of the jobs in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

The only area not affected by this are jobs in civil engineering and enrollments of Americans in civil engineering are high.

A worker in India doing software development work is paid $4.78 per hour.

American enrollments in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics have all dropped since all of the jobs in these areas can be offshored and it is recognized that these fields are not for Americans.

The reality is that the federal government should not be concerned about education in areas that it has already accepted as no longer relevant to Americans.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 21, 2010 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Better enforcement in this country would stop some jobs from going overseas. Don't forget, Fisher-Price produces toys in China not only because Chinese workers will work for less, but because they will not sue when they are injured by inhaling toxins and because the American government didn't notice when Fisher-Price import products containing lead-based paint. If companies couldn't skirt health and safety regulations by going abroad, and once foreign workers get used to earning more money and start demanding jobs that don't kill them and clean drinking water at the plant and all the things that labor unions worked for in the early 1900s, these companies will see their expenses rise in foreign countries also. It's already happening in Mexico--companies that moved across the border are finding their expenses increasing as workers can afford more education for themselves and their children and are reading about the safe workplaces and sanitary facilities in this country.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 22, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

Better enforcement in this country would stop some jobs from going overseas. Don't forget, Fisher-Price produces toys in China not only because Chinese workers will work for less, but because they will not sue when they are injured by inhaling toxins and because the American government didn't notice when Fisher-Price import products containing lead-based paint. If companies couldn't skirt health and safety regulations by going abroad, and once foreign workers get used to earning more money and start demanding jobs that don't kill them and clean drinking water at the plant and all the things that labor unions worked for in the early 1900s, these companies will see their expenses rise in foreign countries also. It's already happening in Mexico--companies that moved across the border are finding their expenses increasing as workers can afford more education for themselves and their children and are reading about the safe workplaces and sanitary facilities in this country. It's not better-educated students that will keep jobs in this country, it's more government enforcement here and a better standard of living in foreign countries.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 22, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

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