Education Opinion

The Race to the Bottom Line

By Anthony Cody — December 03, 2009 4 min read
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Our Earth is in crisis. Though some prefer to close their eyes and plug their ears, those of us willing to look are observing the greatest mass extinction of species the Earth has seen for millions of years. We are exhausting the Earth’s resources at a fast rate, and our emissions threaten to wreak havoc with global climate and weather.

What has driven us here?
And what is it about our economic system that makes it so hard to shift our course even slightly? It feels as if we are on a train heading down a track and the engineer’s only instruction is to go as fast as you can.

The central problem is that we have an economic system that has a single bottom line.
All economic activity has as its exclusive goal the generation of monetary profit. No other values are allowed to intrude. This greatly simplifies the world of business, and allows people who work there great clarity of purpose. It is easy to determine the success and failure of a venture. Just tell me how much money you made.

If I choose to open a donut shop, my success will be judged by how much I sell. The fact that the money was made by selling a product that makes people unhealthily obese is not germane. We know that society will eventually pay for obesity through higher health care costs, but when I seek out a small business loan to get started, no lender is going to factor that into the lending equation. All that matters is my profitability.

My impact on the environment might be a minor moral concern to me, but that too is an “externality,” a spillover effect not directly connected to the business at hand. We have a huge problem in that we have yet to figure out a way to strongly connect business activities to the sometimes very negative impacts they may have on the world, or on the humans and other species that live here. This problem has gotten so severe that it actually threatens our stable existence on this planet. We can see our species struggling to try to respond, but our economic system, with its simplistic rules, makes this very difficult to do.

Our schools have traditionally been allowed a bit more latitude in measuring our work. In decades past our society recognized that there were a variety of goals for the educational system. We were expected to train children to be good citizens in our democratic system, so we taught citizenship, and students elected class officers. We wanted children to be healthy, so we taught them about nutrition and gave them exercise in PE class. We wanted them to be able to find a job, so they had the option of taking classes that taught useful skills. We wanted them to get along with others, so they learned to cooperate and work in groups.

But business people saw a shocking flaw in our system. There was no bottom line. Unlike a business, schools had no balance sheet at the end of the year - no “metrics,” no way to directly compare one school to another. No way to tell which school was a good return on our investment, and which was wasting the public’s money.

Thus was born the concept of “A Nation at Risk” and ultimately a profit-minded “accountability movement.” Where before we had fuzzy values and no ability to measure success, now we have clear standards and, most important of all, a bottom line. Just as in business, we have a way to see if our efforts have yielded the desired result.

And just as in business we have created a system in which there are externalities that must be disregarded for the sake of creating an uncluttered balance sheet.

Our profits are measured in test scores pure and simple. Just as our business balance sheets exclude trees cut down, or air polluted, our test score results exclude:

Creative and critical thinking

The mental health or happiness of a child

A sense of humor

A strong connection between the life of the student and what they are learning

Physical health

An awareness of the student’s relationship to the democratic society in which he or she lives.

Compassion for others

The ability to cooperate and collaborate as part of a team

The ability to ask really great questions

A sense of beauty and harmony

All of these things have become externalities in our public schools. And with the narrow emphasis on reading and math in No Child Left Behind, even academic subjects like science and history have become external to the bottom line, and as a result have been marginalized in many schools.

We are approaching a paradigm shift in human thought and behavior.
Our planet cannot sustain a system that defines its own basic needs as “externalities.” Change will come because change must come - and the sooner, the better for all of us. When revolutions of this sort approach, defenders become desperate and seek hegemony for their model so that its flaws can be concealed and they can remain secure in its illusion of stability.

But it will not work. As a culture and a species, we have too many problems that cannot be solved by a one-dimensional view of profit and loss. Our society is not in a Race to the Top, but a race for survival. No Child Left Behind was an attempt to enforce these failed values on our schools, but as is evidenced by the outpouring of teacher sentiment in the recent Teachers’ Letters to Obama project, it has failed.

Our students and parents continue to bring their own hopes and ideals to school, and insist that they count. As teachers, our personal ethics and values are not external to school - they are the reason we choose to teach. We must not trade our judgment and our students’ fundamental human needs for a single-minded focus on test scores, any more than we should allow life on our planet to continue to suffer from a single-minded focus on profit.

What do you think?

Creative Commons image by aussiegall

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