The Lonely Poverty of America’s White Working Class – The Atlantic

Powerful reporting on the many ways in which the working class has faced devastating change, against a background of growing individualism and social isolation.
Continuing to believe that we can educate our way into more equitable opportunity without acknowledging these much broader social changes seems almost cruel in these contexts.

As organized labor in this country has withered, an extreme individualism has stepped in as the alternative—a go-it-alone perspective narrowly focused on getting an education and becoming successful on one’s own merit. This works well for some, but for others—especially the two-thirds of Americans over the age of 25 who don’t have a bachelor’s degree—it often means getting mired in an economy of contract work, low pay, and few, if any, benefits.


via The Lonely Poverty of America’s White Working Class – The Atlantic.

The Disconnect

As we reduce schooling to reading and math and if there’s time, a little science;  as teachers march through scripted curricula; as poor and working-class children come to understand that school is about in intractability of their failure (and as their communities are told that this failure is the fault of their teachers who either can’t or work hard enough);  and as my state and the federal government both insist that we need to get more kids to college if we are to remain economically competitive, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ data on areas of projected job growth through 2o20 makes clear that if all kids aced those precious tests from now until adulthood, most would still  be heading for low-wage, low skill jobs.

There is always a moment of stunned silence when we look at data like this in my courses.   We talk about broader purposes of schooling — for citizenship, for building strong communities, for the hope of raising a generation that will do better at all of this than we have.
But my students — many of whom are themselves going deeply into debt to become teachers or to eek out a minimal raise with a graduate degree — understand at some fundamental level how vulnerable their students are and how fundamentally misguided  the efforts are to solve deep economic inequalities through test-driven schools.

Thanks to Sociological Images for making the BLS data so readily available.

Bringing the Walmart Workers Out from Under Wraps

In today’s New York Times, Christopher Caldwell writes that

The economy as politicians present it is a folkloric thing.

While candidates go out of their way to be photographed with factory workers to show their concern for “the people”, many more Americans now work in casinos, in retail, or as security guards than work in manufacturing. The “jobs of the future” that candidates promised 20 years ago are now here, Caldwell writes, and the news is not good:

Choreographers, blackjack dealers and security guards have replaced factory workers as the economy’s backbone, if not yet its symbol.

While candidates steer clear of being photographed with the cashiers at Walmart, educational policy makers seem also to be living in folkloric times, promising us that high test scores will sustain the nation’s economic competitiveness in new global markets and enable individuals to live lives of material comfort.

Indeed, recently, I’ve seen any number of bloggers and pundits (such as this recent post) argue that we’re putting too much emphasis on preparing kids for college, not enough on encouraging kids to pursue lucrative career paths that don’t require college degrees.

I fear that they’re missing the point.

Like the politicians who want us to see the hard harts but not the ill-fitting uniforms of the minimum-wage earning, night-shift security guards, educators seldom talk about the Walmart and call center jobs for which so many of our young people are heading, with or without vocational training or college.

In campaigns, Caldwell argues, the hypothetical needs of the employers of the future have superseded “the real needs of today’s dental hygienists and landscape gardeners”.

In educational policy making, the life circumstances of today’s low-wage workers are rendered invisible when our deliberations go no further than wondering whether their children should go to college or into a high-paying trade.

The trouble is that in today’s economy, most kids will able to do neither.

At least until we’re willing to bring the Walmart workers out from under wraps and talk frankly about how people like them have come to be the backbone of the U.S. economy.

Keeping Kids Ignorant about Worker Rights

Though mired in side arguments about whether curriculum should be controlled at the state or local level (a fascinating objection, given state level standards and testing), I’m intrigued by a proposal in Wisconsin to mandate the teaching of collective bargaining an labor history. I’m particularly intrigued by how much support the proposed legislation has among teacher unions and the State Department of Education.

Taking the high road of advocacy for local control, rather than directly opposing the legislation, a spokesperson for a Republican legislator argues:

In a time when we’re having trouble teaching our kids the basic of history, is this really the time to be putting another mandate on when we’re not even doing the current stuff well?

In this volatile economy, teaching the history of the labor movement and about worker rights is something other than “basic”?

Educating for [Policy Making within] a New Economy

Today, the Eduwonk, citing data on the growth in demand for skilled blue-collar labor, writes about the apparent contradiction of placing schools under so much pressure to raise academic rigor when labor market projections show substantive growth in jobs that have traditionally required little schooling. He suggests, though, that in these high-tech times, even many blue-collar jobs require advanced skills and education, so the college-prep curriculum should become the default curriculum for all.


I essentially agree with goal.

But not with the justification.

And not in its exact form.

As I’ve written before the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports labor market projections in two ways:

The data linked from The Eduwonk’s post seem be drawing from the “fastest growing” reports, in which the rate of job growth may appear impressive, even while the actual number of jobs created might be quite small (100% growth in a field with only 1,000 workers creates very few new jobs).

But a quick skim of the two right columns of the alternate way of reporting labor market projections — the actual number of new jobs in a given field — suggests that hundreds of thousands of people are finding themselves in low wage jobs that require neither skill nor education.

So, what if our education policy choices can no longer be limited to whether we educate more young people to a) start work right after high school or b) four years later?

What if even the traditional college-prep curriculum is now woefully inadequate for educating kids to find their way — as workers, and as citizens — within the seismic shifts of this new global economy? What if education was also understood to be about educating all young people to do exactly the kind of analysis, critique and advocacy of public policy that The Eduwonk himself engages in with this post, regardless of the jobs they happen to hold?

How, when too few jobs provide workers with the ability to pay the rent and the medical bills, might we educate all young people about how badly their minds are needed in public deliberation about the common good in these new economic times, even if their minds not required on their jobs?

What would that curriculum look like?