“It’s the economy, stupid.” This slogan from Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign could just as easily be today’s school reform mantra. It is incessantly invoked—in spirit, if not the word—by reformers, philanthropists, and politicians. “The children sitting in classrooms today are going to grow up and compete for jobs with people in India and China and Europe, not just with people in the state next door,” Michelle Rhee, reform advocate and former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, tells us. “Either our schools will get better,” Bill Gates says, “or our economic position will get worse.” “Together,” President Obama declares, “I promise you we can outeducate and outcompete any nation on earth.”
Vocational training has historically reinforced economic and racial inequalities across society.
I applaud Danielle Allen for drawing attention to this narrow “vocational paradigm,” which, over the past several decades, has become the “sole guide to educational policy-making.” She identifies the Soviet launch of Sputnik as the original impetus behind the rise and ultimate triumph of human capital arguments. Cold War fears fueled anxiety about “what Ivan knows that Johnny doesn’t,” prodding the American public to look at education through a competitive, international lens. These worries have only intensified since the early 1980s, with rapid economic globalization and an international testing bonanza that generates perennial “U.S. students are falling behind” headlines. But a strong vocational impulse actually emerged much earlier, at the turn of the twentieth century. Indeed, instruction designed to prepare students for the job market is part of the basic architecture of the modern high school.
Between 1890 and 1920, more than one new high school was constructed for every day of the year, totaling more than eleven thousand buildings. This era saw the advent of academic tracking, designed to address pupils’ “widely varying capacities, aptitudes, social heredity and destinies in life.” Students were divided into two basic categories: college prep and vocational. For the latter, Progressive Era school administrators—steeped in the gospel of social efficiency—envisioned a conveyor belt that would run directly from the school to the labor market, with students slotted as future secretaries, as accountants, in the automobile industry, etc.
This conveyor belt did not run as smoothly as expected. Vocational education in the twentieth century, historian of education David Labaree concludes, was “notoriously ineffective,” training “students for yesterday’s jobs.” Some education scholars might say this assessment is too harsh, but virtually all agree that tracking has historically reinforced economic and racial inequalities across society. The most important predictor of a student’s tracking status is, and always has been, the social status of her parents.
Like Allen, I am gravely concerned that our vision of education has been reduced to bottom-line concerns, and I am strongly sympathetic to her call for a rejuvenated civic education oriented around the humanities and social sciences. To Allen’s basic question—what skills and knowledge do we need to carry out the work of citizenship?—I would add: What intellectual resources do we need to convince the public that “empowering all to participate capably in the life of a polity” is as vital to the purpose of schooling as is preparation for the work force?
In spite of its checkered track record, vocational education remains an integral part of schooling in the United States. The insistent call for more STEM education reflects a vocational training ideal, forecasting that enhanced coursework in these fields will allow students to plug into the new digital economy after they graduate. While we have reason to be skeptical about tidy claims such as these, the human-capital approach to education is hard to resist in light of today’s economic and political landscape. There are nearly 47 million Americans living in poverty, just under 15 percent of the population. There are, of course, stark racial disparities in play here as well, with the poverty rate for Latinos and African Americans higher than 20 percent. Recent polling shows Americans consider the economy the most important problem facing the country. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump tap into a deep vein of “economic populism,” calling for a rollback of global free trade agreements as a path to job creation.
Proponents of Allen’s vision of participatory readiness will need to summon powerful ideas and evidence to challenge the preeminence of the economic rationale for education. In an age of staggering economic inequality, how does Allen suggest we turn the public’s attention to political equality?