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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

Why School Reform Is Not Enough to Mend Our Civil Society

Suggestions for how schools should change to nurture a civil society are unlikely to succeed as long as we ignore the economic inequities that threaten our collective well-being.

Economic inequality in the United States is growing, and it threatens to tear the heart out of our civil society. Given the faith Americans have always placed in public education as an engine of material progress, schools will inevitably be asked to play a role in reversing this destructive trend. Sadly, the most visible education reforms now being offered—private school vouchers, for-profit schools, and, to a considerable extent, charter schools—are governance reforms that reflect the centrifugal power of economic inequality in the realm of public education. As such, these "market-based" reforms are likely to sharpen social divisions, not soften them. Unfortunately, many of the more prominent substantive suggestions for reforming public education do not offer much hope either.

The Problem with “New Basic Skills”

Education reformers Richard Murnane and Frank Levy want schools to address the disparity in American incomes by teaching what they call the "new basic skills." Armed with these skills, students will be able to find well-paying jobs and secure a place in the middle class, they believe.
Unfortunately, the "new basic skills" approach rests on highly suspect, conventional economic and educational wisdom. The idea that schools can prepare workers for the "high-skills - high-tech" economy of the future through school-to-work, youth apprenticeship, or other work-relevant curriculum efforts is based on the assumption that a lack of worker skills is a root cause of economic inequality in America. This in turn rests on a widely held half-truth—that a good education will get you a good job. The reality is that no education will get you no job or a very bad one.
These are two very different propositions. At the moment, and for the foreseeable future, the United States has more skilled workers than jobs for them to take. Further, except for a very small number of workers in highly specialized fields, high-tech training is no ticket to employment security.
Three New York Times articles help define the situation. In one front-page account (Fiske 1989), the Times reported that the CEOs of several major corporations feared that we are on the verge of turning the American dream into a nightmare and creating a third-world country within our borders. In another article (Lewin 1994), readers learned that young, qualified workers were finding only "McJobs" that paid about $6 an hour or less and offered no career path. Yet another front-page story (Bradsher 1995) reported that, in the new high-tech economy, while they were laying off highly skilled workers by the thousands in the United States, U.S. corporations were hiring highly skilled workers overseas because they were cheaper. The story went on to say that the high-tech tools of the Information Age, far from being the salvation of America's workers, were often used to reduce their wages.
Against this backdrop of antiworker policy, the simple truth is that no education system, no matter how reformed, can deliver on the promise of a full-employment economy—or even an economy that has a job for every highly qualified high school or college graduate.
Gerald Bracey (1996) illustrates the essential flaw in the "new basic skills" argument by recounting the story of Pacific Telesis executive Sam Ginn, who likes to tell audiences about the time his company tested 6,400 job applicants and only 2,800 passed—proof, according to Ginn, of the failure of American public education. The fact that Pacific Telesis had only 700 positions —paying $7 an hour— to fill does not find its way into Ginn's remarks. If all 6,400 applicants had passed the screening test, there still would have been only 700 jobs. It should be obvious from this example that no one, least of all our children, will be helped by adopting a supply-side education theory that might be called "Milton Friedman in a field of dreams" or "give them the skills and the jobs will appear."

Why the “Third Sector” Isn't the Answer

If successful graduates cannot find employment in the high-tech global economy of the future, perhaps they can, as Jeremy Rifkin proposes, create their own jobs in the nonprofit ("third") sector of the American economy. This is possible—but not very likely. Some graduates may find work with one of the firms gearing up to administer welfare and job training programs now that the United States has "ended welfare as we know it." As long as free market dogma reigns triumphant in Washington, however, there are not going to be enough jobs in any sector to do the work that surely needs doing to rebuild America's inner cities and impoverished rural communities. The private sector is unable to create well-paying jobs for all workers who need them, let alone underwrite the cost of adequate health insurance and pension benefits. And free market ideology prevents raising the taxes necessary for the government to do the job.
To be sure, there are enlightened models of community development, such as those advocated by the Rodale Institute, that involve and engage community members in volunteer projects through which they work to create better lives for themselves and improve their communities (Rodale 1987). Nevertheless, even the most dedicated volunteers can not take the place of public investment any more than private charity could eliminate poverty in Dickens's England.
The web of social life in modern communities is strung on a framework of government investment. Without sufficient public investment, the so-called "civil sector" will be little more than a few glimmering fragments of community effort in a sea of despair. Recognition of this reality has led William Julius Wilson (1996) to call for a government-funded jobs program modeled on the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. The program would provide employment for every person over 18 who wanted it.
So long as we continue to allow our government to retreat from our responsibilities to our fellow citizens, the market will continue to efficiently dismantle the civic infrastructure necessary to sustain the kind of voluntary organizations that are the hallmark of a healthy civil society. Since the federal government has abandoned programs designed to help impoverished urban and rural communities, voluntary organizations have, despite their best efforts, been buckling under the weight of responsibilities that go well beyond their ability to address. Organizations like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, for example, need adults with stable and secure enough circumstances to allow them to volunteer.
Educating children to participate in the life of their community in constructive ways is a good thing. Making sure that there is a context for the practice of these good works is an adult responsibility that is best discharged through political engagement.
At the moment, the United States is the world's richest country. Yet we have the greatest gap between rich and poor in the industrial world and the highest rate of childhood poverty. Some workers are being worked to death, while others die for lack of jobs. We can boast the most productive work force in the world, but gains in economic productivity have not been matched by gains in the quality of life of working people. According to Juliet Schor (1991), American workers work longer, not shorter, hours than they did two decades ago.
It is not surprising that many parents find they have less and less time to spend with their families or to devote to voluntary activities. Economic inequality is tearing our civil society apart. To imagine that this fundamental problem can be addressed through school governance reforms (vouchers, for-profit schools, charter schools) or curriculum changes (teaching the "new basic skills") or a new instructional focus (the civil sector) only diverts us from the political work that needs to be done. Unless and until we find the political will to redistribute the wealth and soften the inequality growing like a cancer on our civic culture, we will have a society that is ever less civil and ever more divided into warring camps, regardless of how public education is reorganized or curriculum and instruction programs changed.

What Role for Public Education?

The contribution that education could make to the redistribution of wealth and the improvement of civil society is considerable. However, adults need some new assumptions to guide them in thinking about how children and public education fit into the picture. A good place to begin would be to assume that every child has equal value and to embed that simple value in educational policy and practice. As a practical matter, grade levels for children of elementary and middle school age should be eliminated so that what children are taught better fits their development and interests. This would necessarily result in more active engagement of students.
Secondary education as we know it should be dismantled and replaced with educational activities much more closely integrated with the political, social, cultural, and economic activities of adults. Adolescents in great numbers are, in Paul Goodman's phrase, "growing up absurd" because they are isolated from the real world of adults. And the number of children each teacher is responsible for teaching should be drastically lowered—to no more than 15. There is more than enough evidence to show that lowering the pupil-teacher ratio improves student learning. No one could seriously suggest that more and more American children don't need the competent attention of caring adults.
All of this will take lots of money, lots of paid skilled workers, and countless volunteers. Taken together, these ideas would help make public education part of a framework for reconstructing civil society. The importance of public education to civil society is not primarily that schools are places where children are taught the lessons allegedly required for the jobs of the future or the needs of nonprofit organizations and voluntary associations. The importance of public education is in the role it can play in providing children and adults the opportunity to work out their collective future in a sustained, serious, and humane way in a democratic context.

Bracey, G. W. (October 1996). "The Sixth Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education." Phi Delta Kappan 78, 2:137.

Bradsher, K. (August 28, 1995). "Skilled Workers Watch Their Jobs Go Overseas." The New York Times, p. A1.

Fiske, E. (September 25, 1989). "Impending U.S. Jobs Disaster: Workforce Unqualified to Work." New York Times, p. A1.

Lewin, T. (March 10, 1994). "Low Pay and Closed Door Greet Young in Job Market." The New York Times.

Rodale, R. (1987). Hopeful Living: How to Put Regeneration to Work in Your Life. Emmaus, Pa.: Rodale Press.

Schor, J. B. (1991). The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure. New York: Basic Books.

Wilson, W.J. (August 18, 1996). "Work." The New York Times Magazine, p. 27.

Alex Molnar has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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