Monday, March 7, 2011

Das Klassenraum

I have not been terribly prolific this March; part of the reason is that I was fairly stressed last week, but mostly it is due to how much mental wrangling this post entailed. Whenever a post tries to tie together wide ranging concepts, I struggle to get my thoughts into a linear form suitable for communication. As to how well I have succeeded in this case, I will let you be the judge.

A while ago I shared this link, on Facebook, to a wonderful, but heartbreaking, post from an Oregonian elementary school teacher. The author clearly feels called to teach, and apparently was quite good at her job. Her love of teaching survived the overwork and underfunding of Oregon's early years cutting the education budget. However, the trend toward larger class sizes and increasingly varied competency in her students have robbed teaching of its joy for her. Pupils with special needs which would previously have been met in supplementary programs such as English as a Second Language or Special Education curriculum began overwhelming her ability to meet each student at their own level, simultaneously homogenization of desired outcomes, signified by scores on standardized tests and rankings for No Child Left Behind and related legislation, leaving her with the sad realization that she no longer wishes to be a teacher

That alone saddens me immeasurably, that someone who clearly loved teaching, and devoted her professional life to its craft, has lost their passion for it. But that is her story, and one she tells, far better than I could, in the linked article. What I want to explore in the rest of this post are the structural changes she talks about, specifically in relation to Marx's theorization of capitalism. If you are having an adverse reaction to Marx's name, I ask that you bear with me, I do not advocate a teacher revolution to solve these problems, I merely intend to explain how these problems fit almost eerily well into a Marxist view of capitalism.

While the battle in Wisconsin has the traditional image of Marxist class struggle, you might be wondering why I would invoke Marx in relation to the linked article. In his work Capital (Das Kapital) Volume I, Marx examines the structure of capitalism. He theorizes that the ability of the capitalist to invest money and somehow end up with more money than originally invested can solely be explained by the capitalist buying labor power (hiring workers) for less pay than the value of the work they did in their time. Since he placed capitalism on this foundation, Marx concluded that it was greatly in the interest of the capitalist to keep labor costs as low as possible, two major tools in this undertaking were keeping labor unskilled and interchangeable.

While related, these are separate concepts. Unskilled labor is easier to produce, which means unskilled laborers have fewer costs which their wages must repay (think student loans for those who have gone to college). Because there are fewer expenses involved in creating unskilled laborers, they are able to be paid lower wages. Furthermore, their lack of skill limits their marketability, inclining them to remain in a position once they are hired. Interchangeability refers to the ease with which a worker can be replaced, or the cost of replacing a worker. If there is a high cost to replacing a worker, then that worker has greater leverage to obtain higher wages, so the capitalist strives to keep interchangeability high. Certainly the less skilled labor is, the easier it is to replace, so interchangeability and unskilled labor are related, but they are not the same. For example, one can increase the interchangeability of skilled labor without reducing its skill level by creating a pool of individuals certified to be skilled laborers from which to choose.

In Marx's day, during the Industrial Revolution, the metaphor of an industrial factory for capitalism was of immediate saliency (obvious relevance). In this metaphor, the recent idea of replaceable parts represents interchangeability while how easy a specific part was to produce correlates with how skilled the labor is. The industrial factory represented the pinnacle of capitalism to Marx for another reason. Once most of the work was being performed by machines, and human laborers were reduced to the tenders of said machines, the jobs humans were called upon to perform were both unskilled and easy to be filled.

If we take this model and examine modern education, I believe that an unsettling trend becomes apparent. Centralized curriculum planning, as represented by standardized tests and the mandate to teach to the tests (teach the material of the test in the manner it is presented on the test), serves to reduce the skill needed to function as a teacher which, of course, also makes teachers more easily replaced. In fact, as noted in the article, this race to the bottom also serves to drive out experienced, highly skilled teachers, so much the better to keep costs down! It seems a little amazing to me that a nation which so soundly rejects any notion of economic central planning, which I agree is a disaster, is so complacent about the rise of educational central planning, also a disaster in my opinion. Perhaps this is because one is bad for the capitalist, while the other seems quite favorable.

A still more horrifying picture is revealed if we look at the effects of capitalizing education on the students rather than the teachers. In addition to providing a set of standardized certifications so capitalists know they have a ready labor pool for even skilled labor, I think that our modern educational philosophy serves to beat a love of learning out of many students. Students of a capitalist education come out of their schools with the specific set of skills for their vocation, limiting their flexibly in the job market. As an undergraduate, I had to take Baccalaureate Core courses, which were courses representing a wide array of subjects from Systems of Power and Dominance to Western Culture to Science, Technology, and Society. I absolutely adored being exposed to this stunning breadth of thoughts and information, but some students complained that it had nothing to do with their program, or wasn't useful to their job. This is also related to the common complaint about mathematics, "when will I ever use this?" which I have addressed previously in my "Three 'R's" post and my sister has also wonderfully argued against.

Lumping all students together in ever larger classes, then holding them to draconian inflexible standards in no way seems like the ideal of education. But it does seem like an efficient way to produce a fresh batch of workers, and if some students are incapable of meeting the standards, such is life, in production there will always be a certain percentage of defective goods. Furthermore, by including students with high levels of need in the standard classroom, and by adding task after task to the teacher's job, we can simultaneously free parents from child raising responsibilities, enabling them to be more efficient workers themselves, and systematically demoralize educators, to keep them from feeling as though they deserve better wages and conditions. All in all, a rather bleak picture of education.

So then, how might one attempt to effect a solution? Smaller class sizes, restoration of special needs programs, and localizing control of curriculum are obviously going to be on my list of positive steps. This may not entail increased educational spending so much as re-prioritized educational spending. A recent examination of Oregon State University's finances, and the Oregon University System's in general, by a third party economist (from Michigan!) produced the recommendation that administrative costs were ballooning at the expense of academic budgets and students' tuition costs. The recommendation was to curtail administrative budgets and focus on the core mission, academics and research. I believe the education system as a whole could benefit from that mentality. I would, of course, also like to see teachers given the type of respect and compensation required to pull some of the brightest in the field into education. Of course, if one feels called to teach, one will probably go into that profession as long as it is a viable life choice, the question is what kind of teacher do we want to make up the gap between the number called to it and the larger number that we need to educate our children?

As always, I welcome further questions, alternate proposals, related thoughts, rebuttals, and any other thoughtful responses that may not be covered by those categories.

Note: For you German speakers, I apologize for the quite intentional grammatical error in the title. Since Raum is a masculine word, it should, of course, be "Der Klassenraum," but this loses some of the desired analogy with "Das Kapital." I could have switched to "Das Klassenzimmer," but that is no longer an obvious English cognate, so I took some artistic liberty with the language.


elfarmy17 said...

I said I was looking forward to this post. I was not disappointed-- by a long shot.

I have had experiences with both brilliant, passionate teachers who focused more on concepts and life lessons than "memorization and regurgitation," as one put it. I have also known several who take the "teach to the test" idea to the max (most of these were in middle school-- the worst three years of my life).
I was in the "advanced" language arts class. I'm still not sure what was so advanced about it, considering we had the same daily agenda and same homework as the other two classes. The similarities between it and my high school honors English courses end with the subject matter.
Even though it's not "taught" to us, kids learn to say what the teacher wants, get their A, and go home to so they can play Black Ops. That's not good, of course. But if the teachers are being affected in a similar manner...that's not good at all.

While I loathe standardized tests, your mention of the localization of curriculum bothers me, although I don't think you meant it in the way that produced my reaction. If individual school districts can teach whatever they want...that leaves a lot of space for dangerous levels of sheltering and ignorance. I think it's good to have a breadth of things that it's safe to assume most people understand (or at least vaguely remember it being taught to them). It gives us common ground on which to interact, as well as saving time explaining things we find simple to those who never learned them.

Karen said...

@elfarmy: In your last paragraph, you hit on the only good things about standardized tests -- standards. Perhaps you are already aware of this, but there actually is a list of standards for most subjects both nationally and by state. They are separated by grade and then subject, and they are just brief bulleted points that educators have decided all students should really hear about. An important thing is that how the teacher goes about it is really supposed to be up to him or her. Of course, these really have nothing to do with the tests except for the fact that the test supposedly checks to see if a teacher actually hit upon each standard effectively. Whatever that means.

I think that standards are a great idea. I guess the question really is, "How do we make sure that students are getting a fair, appropriate chance to learn these things?" I honestly don't know the answer to this question. However, I think that money would probably be better spent supporting teachers in their efforts to teach to the standards than by testing ad nauseam and then pointing fingers without understanding all of the issues that lead to "low test scores."

@Kenny- I don't think you explicitly said it, but it feels like you might agree that schools these days are like factories. We like to make sure we produced a quality product (student) so we give them tests and label them with numbers. However, students aren't products. They are people. They are unpredictable and awesome. We cannot put numbers on students and then use the numbers judge them and their teachers because nobody knows what the numbers mean. It's nonsensical.

elfarmy17 said...

@Karen Heck yes.

Kenny said...

@Elfarmy17: Thank you! I am glad to hear the post resonated with someone dealing with the situation more immediately.

You make an excellent point. I tend to be a bit idealistic, and want to think the best of everyone; which basically means assuming that they'd agree with me if they had all the facts ;). So your reminder that there are those out there who might try to teach, for example, creation INSTEAD of, rather than in addition to, evolution, comes as a necessary reminder. On the other hand, I don't think the current system does a terribly wonderful job at avoiding parochial beliefs, so I'm not sure that localizing the curriculum would be terribly harmful. It seems like most people believe what they are raised (which is not necessarily the same thing as told) to believe, and the public education system has very little to do with that.

@Karen: If I didn't explicitly make the school:assembly line metaphor, I certainly strongly implied it when I compared students to products with certain acceptable defect proportions. So, to be explicit, yes, this post can be understood in terms of attempts to "mechanize" education and turn educators into factory workers. Marx would probably argue that this is the goal of capitalism in all spheres of life.

Karen said...

Kenny, it might be interesting if you did a post solely on the factory/school metaphor if the mood ever strikes. :)

Kenny said...

Karen, isn't that the post I just did? I was just editing my blog post ideas list (instead of sleeping) and I noticed that my reminder to write this post was the prompt, "the industrialization of education."

Karen said...

Yes, you did, but I guess I meant in a different way. It would be interesting to look at many specific things inside the school that show us how industrialized it is. Maybe even just looking at a day in the life of a teacher and/or student to see if it can be compared? Just ideas. You did a good job, I just can imagine even more about this, I guess. :)