Zeus Yiamouyiannis is an Oakland-based learning consultant and former professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Carroll College. He gives us his take on education reform in general and “Waiting for Superman” in particular — and the film-maker’s assertion that 120 million new high-paying jobs await us in 2020.
American Education has a reality problem and a vision problem. If you listen to policy leaders, rescuing U.S. education simply requires closing the ethnic/social class academic achievement gap and becoming first in the world in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). This ostensibly will allow millions of young people to be channeled into the 120+ million future “high skill, high pay jobs” according to the controversial new education reform documentary, Waiting for Superman.
Anticipating this, the Obama administration is funding a “Race to the Top” focusing heavily on STEM education. KIPP charter schools spend three times as much classroom time as average schools on math and science. The more comprehensive charter schools are likewise working to ensure their students both get into college and graduate. All this is laudable on some level, but whose purposes does this serve, and does it reflect lasting actual (or even desirable) trends in the job market?
The Reality Problem
So all you need as a ticket to the good life is a four-year college degree? Tell this rosy myth to all the current, rightfully skeptical twenty-something graduates, saddled with tens, even hundreds, of thousands of dollars of college debt. They are dealing with the so-called “new normal,” waiting for diploma-relevant careers to materialize behind a wall of unemployed or retirement-delaying baby-boomers. This oversupply has caused wages to fall, not increase, compounded by a generational flood of women entering the market as well as an increasing number of minorities.
In the global economy, even fairly high skill jobs like computer programming, x-ray interpretation, graphic design, web design, and accounting, have been outsourced by the millions to countries like India that pay their workers much less. Productivity among American workers has skyrocketed as corporations “downsize” workforces, dumping the extra work on the remaining employees. However, this money has not been shared with workers but rather funneled toward profits. Average wages have remained flat or fallen adjusted for inflation over the last decade. Separation of wealth has skyrocketed. For decades American “growth” and family survival has been fueled not by jobs or education, but by debt. That option is ending.
This is a set-up waiting to happen. As with promises that the housing market will always go up and homeownership is a ticket to riches and a comfortable American Dream (a dream now crashed and turned into a nightmare for many), so too can promising minorities their dream job once they pay their educational dues. Education is not a guarantee or a ticket, especially if you are a first-generation college grad minority without connections. If it is done right, education provides an opportunity to better navigate the world and one’s own life in a more thoughtful, effective, and fulfilling way. Good education provides the empowered, democratic, entrepreneurial skills of creativity, critical thinking, and adaptation, along with rigorous understanding of academic subjects.
The Vision Problem
Putting all your education eggs in the high tech job basket is economically dangerous as well as culturally, morally, and democratically objectionable. A healthy economy requires an inventive, diversified, initiative-oriented workforce. This is best served by learning that produces employers as much as employees, learning over training, democratically supported small businesses and customized education over corporate armies and standardized curricula. Our current obsolete industrial education system is structured to produce the opposite: employees not employers, training rather than learning, and compliant workers rather than engaged citizens. Even with all its broken promises and failed results, we still have not shaken industrial education’s social engineering legacy and its image of our future.
Why would we agree to become a nation by, for, and of a ruling elite? Why would we allow one of the youngest, most creatively and ideologically diverse countries to become a monolithic slave to top-down agendas? What would we be without our communities—our artists, musicians, inventors, hippies, old school conservatives, entrepreneurs, progressive activists, social justice advocates—tirelessly working, without fanfare, together from the ground up to make the world our children enter a better and more engaging one?
A New Vision and Reality
An administrative elite, including policy makers, Hollywood film producers, the mainstream media, and private foundations run by what educational researcher, Diane Ravitch, calls the “billionaire boys club,” continue to insist on telling us where to go and what to be through our education system. They love to tell the redemptive story of the individual hero—the student, teacher, or school— fighting against the very odds these billionaires both created and profited from. Words like “saved” and phrases like “escape from desperation” are frequently employed to give us a gauzy narrative of progress. These same elites are petrified of communities banding together to set their own agendas, to call out the injustice not only of inadequate schooling and exploitative social structures but also the status quo’s consistent neglect and disrespect of the vital original experience and wisdom of diverse learners.
Underneath the fanfare and selective controversy of films like Waiting for Superman, however, a true quiet grass-roots revolution is gaining steam. Homeschooling, “unschooling,” community vs. corporate-friendly charter schools, alternative schooling, and a myriad of other experiments and resistances are springing up and gaining momentum. These are vanguards of the next wave of American society, the one we must embrace if we are to truly and effectively address the intractable, comprehensive problems spawned by industrial management of our lives: environmental degradation and catastrophe, cultural imperialism, economic exploitation, and political hypocrisy.
Online communities like “Future of Education” and “Classroom 2.0,” on-the-ground student, parent, and community groups, advocates for marginalized learners, small non-profit organizations, and host of others are beginning to identify, communicate, and construct the framework, values, and practices for a new vision of education based in a simple conviction: education is meant to “lead out” (educe) rather than “cram in.” The purpose of learning is to honor, unleash, and connect the unique power and contribution of each heart, spirit, body, and mind to every heart, spirit, body, and mind. Only this way will we have the adequate network of linked intelligence, what I call the “social mind,” to meet our collective problems and transform ourselves and our world.
This growing vision and its successes may not be televised, but they will not be stopped.