Overreaching and Underthinking

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Recent reports, Commentaries, and debates appearing in these pages display helter-skelter and overreaching efforts to find quick fixes for educational problems, while also demonstrating an unwillingness to question simplistic myths of all sorts. A few examples can set the stage:

  • A rock-throwing debate on whether it makes sense to use the "positive reinforcement" techniques of behavioral psychology descends into trivia. Shall we pay students $2 to read a book, 25 cents to stop chewing gum, 50 cents for keeping quiet while the teacher is lecturing?
  • A major city is likely to develop a "teacher-effectiveness index" that will rate teachers on many factors. Students' test scores are one factor, but so are attendance rates and dropout statistics. The superintendent, doubtless responding to a breast-beating board of education, proudly proclaims, "This is a scary thing for some of our teachers because there isn't any place left to hide."
  • An industrialist proposes that employers study in detail the high school records of job applicants as a means of separating wheat from chaff, so to speak. This one can serve as a point of departure.

Employers cannot be faulted for trying to choose the best, but society as a whole, acting through its government, can be faulted for requiring that large numbers of young people be kept out of work, a situation that has now endured for two decades. The unemployment rate for white males in the 16- to 19-year-old age group is 18 percent; for females, the rate is 15 percent. Forty percent of young black males are jobless, 38 percent of young black females. The figures remain high through age 24, the period when young people should be establishing themselves as total participants in society.

The bipartisan public policy that causes this disaster proclaims that an overall unemployment rate of at least 6 percent is needed to control inflation by depressing wages, a policy with two measurable effects. Any policy to keep people out of work inevitably affects the young more than other groups, as already indicated. As a policy to depress wages, it also guarantees that those who do find jobs will find themselves living in poverty. The minimum wage has drastically declined in purchasing power for years, and there are no serious efforts to raise it. Half of all full-time minimum-wage workers are adults. The percentage of full-time workers earning "low pay" (too little to support a small family) has jumped from 12 percent to 18 percent since 1979.

While it is tragic that this country holds to such policies, the greater tragedy is that educational gurus are unaware of it. If they would carefully read their newspapers, they would learn what young people and many parents already know.

Policies to keep people out of the labor market are not new, but the earlier ones were connected with long-term promises and rewards. Child labor was prohibited because adults needed the available jobs. Compulsory high-schooling was not instituted because everyone needed 12 years or more education for every job in the country, but to preserve jobs for adults during the Great Depression. Only in those years did more than 50 percent of youngsters in the 14- to 17-year-old age group begin attending high school. After World War II, the GI Bill kept veterans in college at a time when they might not quickly have found jobs. In all these cases, the implicit "compact" or "contract," confirmed by the Employment ACT of 1946, promised that jobs would be available for those who stayed the course and graduated. Today's policies promise only poverty, misery, and no hope at all.

The old contract also extended to parents who, of course, were expected to support and nurture their offspring through high school and, in many cases, through college as well. This required steady jobs, decent incomes, and no unpredictable "downsizing" that would throw parents out of work, offer them training programs for nonexistent jobs, compel them to work for half their former wages, and disrupt the progress of their children.

Many young people know that for as long as they can remember, high school graduates in their communities have not been able to find decent jobs, and can attend college only if they pile up debts that cannot be repaid from the incomes available to many graduates. The parents whose lives have been torn apart can only sneer at the standard proclamations that this is an age of "full employment." Under such circumstances, why on earth should anyone be surprised that youngsters see no reason to work hard in school? Why be so amazed when parents, young people in their 20s, and many others feel tempted to join extremist organizations, a trend noticeable in a number of industrial countries?

Piling new systems of grading on top of old ones cannot accomplish anything under such conditions. Giving students cash bonuses or other item-by-item rewards will pose enormous bookkeeping problems for teachers, especially because the bonuses will have to be consistent with standard grading. As many observers know, some of these systems were initially set up to keep attendance figures high enough to guarantee state funding based on head counts. Yes, "reinforcement" programs have achieved interesting results in handling autistic children, but such systems also have found it necessary to include such punishments as pinching, uncomfortable face spraying, and solitary confinement ("time out").

All-out competition, moreover, provides enormous incentives for cheating, whether in the marketplace or in schools. Students, principals, and teachers have been caught cheating on test scores in connection with school ratings and bonuses for teachers, and even the brightest of students have cheated while trying to win national competitions. "Voucher" systems will encourage schools to make too many promises to parents who might be able to deliver cold cash, and will then try to prove that test scores are higher than they would have been if the students had not changed schools. And, if teachers must compete head to head in order to keep their "indexes" higher than those of their colleagues, dog-eat-dog struggles will ensue. In areas where the compulsory-unemployment policy has the greatest effect, student achievement must almost inevitably decline over time, and the outcomes will not be traceable to teacher deficiencies.

The only "reinforcements" that make sense are jobs for those who graduate from high school and do not go on to college, the ability to go on to college without acquiring back-breaking debt, and decent jobs for all the parents and graduates involved. If society and its government are going to ignore the spirit of their own laws (the Employment ACT of 1946; the Humphrey-Hawkins ACT of 1979), silly little in-school games are not going to overcome such rejections.

The problem is not lax moral standards, lousy teaching, inherited stupidity, or all the other attacks that are mounted for immediate political gain. A part of the problem is the old belief that if those in charge keep threatening their subordinates, all problems will be solved. This philosophy, a variation of "whip the slaves and they will work harder," will accomplish nothing unless jobs are promised and delivered. The first duty of educators, yet to be performed, is to learn about the policies they have overlooked, the policies that have so deeply affected the lives of students and their parents.

Regrettably, it also is necessary to face the real agendas of many who attack the public schools, an issue that is beyond lengthy exploration here. The objective of some of the most prominent critics is to "reclaim" or "recapture" the schools that, in their view, were incorrectly removed from sectarian control in the 19th century. Inasmuch as the "recapture" objective is not compatible with efforts to improve public schools, it is in the interest of these attackers that public schools not improve performance.

First things first. Anyone who doubts that an anti-jobs policy exists may look at an article in The New York Times of April 15, 1994, by chief presidential economist Laura D'Andrea Tyson, explicitly declaring that when the unemployment rate falls into the range of 5.9 percent to 6.3 percent, this constitutes an inflationary threat. While the idea that it is possible to have too many people productively employed seems nonsensical, it is nonetheless incorporated in basic economic policy. Interest-rate decisions by the Federal Reserve Board reflect such thinking, and are widely reported as so doing.

When educators learn this, they will be a bit more familiar with their real enemies, and may well choose to join in all demonstrations seeking jobs.

Vol. 15, Issue 05, Pages 36, 39

Published in Print: October 4, 1995, as Overreaching and Underthinking
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