The Politics of American Education: My take on Joel Spring’s Book


By: Shaaban Fundi
Growing up in the East African country of Tanzania, attending school was the only way I knew to escape poverty. My parents and teachers emphasized to me from an early age the importance of remaining in school so that I could gain the skills necessary to get a high-paying job.  In my view, the main socio-cultural factor driving this belief was the lack of a social safety net for the elderly.  This was especially true for individuals working in informal sectors like agriculture and day labor.  Since 70% of Tanzanians are subsistence farmers, including my parents, there was a strong belief that you had to earn as much money as you could during your prime working life to have the money and resources you needed when you could no longer work.  Culturally, children were also expected to help take care of their elderly parents.  Therefore, educating your child was seen as an investment not only for the child’s future, but also for the parents’ golden years.

Moreover, as a child, the only people I knew who were not subsistence farmers, and who appeared to be “rich” to me, were those who went to school and were able to secure lucrative positions with the government. Thus, when I read the quote from Spring (2011, p 141) that “schools can help people escape from poverty by teaching the knowledge and skills needed for employment and instilling values of hard work and discipline”, I knew it to be true from my own life experience. What was interesting to me after reading Spring’s book (2011) was that since my early childhood, I had been indoctrinated to embrace a conservative view regarding the human capital ideology of education.

Human capital ideology is very appealing to parents, politicians, and business leaders. It assumes without question that teaching students the skills they need to be competitive in the world market is the primary reason for education. However, Spring (2011, p 11) posits that education has many objectives including “nationalism and patriotism; active democratic citizenship; progressive education; social justice; environmental education; human rights; arts education; cultural studies; consumer and critical media studies; and the social reconstruction of society.  I agree with Spring’s argument and would further state that if we center the purpose of education and schooling only on the human capital ideology, we miss the opportunity to raise the next generation to be well-rounded with strong grounding in ethical, moral, cultural, and patriotic values.

Other criticisms of the human capital ideology center on the fact that there are “not enough jobs in the knowledge economy to absorb school graduates into skilled labor presently” (Brown & Lauder, p 320; as cited in Spring, 2011).  In addition, Hacker (p.38; as cited in Spring, 2011) argues that capital education ideology has been oversold, and that “the number of jobs operating high-tech instruments will outnumber jobs requiring college trained scientists and engineers in the future.” These jobs require only a high school graduation diploma or associate’s degree.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001 introduced data-driven decision management.  The NCLB legislation “sought to close the achievement gap between the rich and the poor students by creating common curriculum standards, closing failing schools, and introducing the public reporting of student test scores” (Spring, 2011, p 36). In my 8 years as an educator, I have witnessed the pendulum shift introduced by the NCLB.  Before the Act was introduced, educators had the ability to choose instructional strategies for their classroom, to create their own lesson plans, and to design appropriate evaluations to test student knowledge and understanding.  While teacher accountability may have been difficult to measure under that system, the pendulum has swung so far over that I now feel, like Spring, that the current model of teaching consists of “scripted lessons created by some outside agency” and that teachers are increasingly forced to teach to the requirements of standardized tests (Spring, 2011, p 11).

This is what I refer to as the “standardization of the curriculum”.  In my view this standardization has narrowed the focus from educating students to be thoughtful, productive citizens with the skills necessary to successfully compete in the global marketplace to teachers concentrating on “teaching to the test”.  The consequences for teachers who fail to reach the targets outlined in NCLB are dire including job loss or failure to receive a pay raise under the newly proposed teacher merit pay system that ties students’ scores to teachers’ salary. I fear that one unintended consequence of NCLB may be that teachers will lose the ability to utilize alternative teaching styles and strategies that actively engage students in the learning process and that are fundamental to the development of skills that students need to be successful in the 21st century (i.e., critical thinking, analytical, problem solving, etc.).  America may then lose its historical advantage in producing the world’s technological entrepreneurs and innovations.   

Another issue that Spring (2011) discusses in his book is the idea of brain gain, brain drain, and brain recirculation. Before reading this book, I was unaware of how the human capital ideology had impacted the relationship between developed and developing countries.  I did not know, for example, that the World Bank – an organization that provides loans to resource limited countries from capital provided by resource rich countries – was supporting education in poor countries to create a skilled labor force.  This is known as “brain gain”.  Unfortunately, the motive behind these loans was not entirely altruistic as this skilled labor force was meant to help supplement the dwindling workforce seen in many resource rich countries due to declining birth rates. The resulting “brain drain” has led many of the brightest, most highly educated citizens from resource limited countries to seek opportunities in resource rich settings, leaving behind indebted nations unable to compete in the global workplace without their skilled laborers.

Countries hit hard by the brain drain phenomenon in sub Saharan Africa include Sierra Leone (52.5%), Ghana (46.9%), Mozambique (45.1%), Kenya (38.4%), Uganda (35.6%), Angola (33.0%), and Somalia (32.7%). These are countries from “a region that is struggling with poverty, health problems, and wars” that have lost most of their educated population to resource rich countries including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and Canada (Spring, 2011, p 233). However, there is evidence that instead of a “brain drain” there may be a “brain recirculation” as many migrants are beginning to travel back and forth between the richer countries and their countries of origin as the economies of their home countries grow.  Upon their return, these migrants pass the knowledge and wealth they gained during their years abroad with their fellow citizens. 

The “brain drain” discussion hit especially close to home for me since I was educated in both Tanzania and the United States and I currently live and work in the United States.  I see myself as a “brain gain” for the United State and a “brain drain” for Tanzania. I received my undergraduate education in Tanzania free of charge since the government pays all college tuition.  I then immigrated to the United States and have lived and worked here for over a decade while pursuing three graduate degrees.  Eventually, I would like to be part of the “brain recirculation” by returning to Tanzania and sharing the knowledge and skills I have acquired during my time in the United States.  In the meantime, I have already started a program in my home village called the Kibogoji Experiential Learning Center.  Each summer, I go back to Tanzania and provide seminars for teachers on the latest evidence-based teaching and learning strategies (e.g. experiential learning and project based learning) so that they can utilize this information to teach the next generation of Tanzanians.

In his book, Spring (2011) also discusses how local education standards are increasingly being supplanted by global standards, leading to the rise of multinational companies seeking to exploit this burgeoning market.  Moreover, in developing countries like Tanzania, the ability to speak and write English is viewed as essential for securing high paying employment.  In many former British colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, the primary language of instruction and of commerce is English.  As a result, students learn math and science and all other subjects in English.   The local language is taught as a subject.  Parents support their children learning English as they view it to be a necessary skill to help their child compete successfully in school and in the marketplace, a view based on human capital ideology.

Many multinational corporations have seized on this demand for English as a Second Language to develop curricula, computer-based instruction, and resource books that are marketed globally.  According to Spring (2011) global testing producers such as “Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Educational Testing Services benefit from educational systems that rely on standardized testing for promotion, graduation, and college entrance, and on English as a Second Language commerce”. Multinational Corporations promote the idea of human capital ideology and the standardization of curricula and standards so that they can create and market textbooks, tests, and other resources not only to American schools but also to education systems throughout the World.  In my view, these for-profit educational companies are contributing to the over-emphasis on “teaching to the test” as it benefits them financially.  However, unless the pendulum begins to swing towards a balance between accountability through standardized testing and utilization of teaching strategies that provide students with the high level skills necessary to compete in the global marketplace (e.g. synthesis, analysis, problem solving), I fear that the options for teachers will continue to be limited and our students will be increasingly unprepared to be true global citizens.

In summary, my take home messages from reading the “Politics of American Education” (Spring, 2001) are that: (1) education is very complex; (2) politics and commerce play a major role in our current education system; (3) human capital ideology is flawed; and (4) multinational for-profit corporations have an interest in maintaining and even increasing the use of standardized curricula and testing both in the United States and globally. As an educator, I now realize that I will have to plan and develop curricula that meet the needs of diverse stakeholders including students, teachers, administrators, politicians, parents, and Multinational Corporations.  I also realize that I will have to continue to advocate for student-focused teaching strategies (e.g.  experiential and project based learning) in my lecture hall and in other classrooms across the country to ensure my students leave my classroom with a love of learning and with the skills they need to be productive global citizens.  I will end with words of wisdom from Freire and Macedo, 1987 (as cited by Wink, 2011) “reading the world is as important and more so as reading the word.”

 

Reference

American Psychological Association. (2010). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (6th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

 

Spring, J. (2011). The Politics of American Education. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

 

Wink, J. (2011). Critical Pedagogy: Notes from the Real World (4th ed). New Jersey, PA: Pearson Education, Inc.

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