Bob Walden on Educational Leadership & Policy

January 27, 2013

Human Capital Ideology and the Global School System

Filed under: Education @ 6:04 pm and

Why has human capital ideology come to dominate global school systems including that of the United States?

Before being presented with this question I had unknowingly bought into the notion that, in most cases, more or better education increased the probability of enjoying a higher standard of living.  I often find irony in this idea since becoming a school administrator. One of my more memorable “aha” moments came a few years ago while serving as the principal of our alternative school. One of the procedures at the school was for the students to do most of the regular cleaning (sweeping, mopping, cafeteria clean-up, etc.). Although most of the high school age students were experienced with such high tech tools as a mop, broom and dustpan, many of the middle grade students had to be shown the proper order for cleaning the floor properly. I often used this time to get to know the students while I taught them how to use these highly sophisticated instruments. One particular sixth grade boy was sent to our school for some forgettable offense but, I knew academically, he had a lot of promise. During the training, I steered the conversation around to his future and what it would take for him to reach his goals. Of course, I emphasized the importance of a college degree so that his entire career wouldn’t be spent on menial tasks or manual labor.  The words left my mouth just as I finished rinse mopping the stairway to our cafeteria. I still hope he didn’t catch the obvious incongruity of the situation.

What is “human capital ideology?” A sort of nefarious description of this philosophy would be to say: those who advocate the idea of human capital in education view the knowledge gained through schooling as an economic asset and subsequently the people (aka: humans) who have acquired that knowledge as a means to an end. A more regarded explanation would be that a person who has a quality education increases their ability to improve the standard of living for themselves, their community and the world. Either way, the idea is that knowledge translates to some fiscal worth and if human beings are educated at some minimal level, then the economic value of human beings is increased.

How does the human capital ideology affect the educational system in the United States?

It seems to me that the United States’ public education system, through its policies and other mandates, expect some broadly disparate, almost schizoid, outcomes for schools and systems. Let’s take a quick stroll down the memory lane of “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). Although NCLB will always be associated with President George W. Bush, it was, in fact a liberal (or progressive if you prefer) bill that has changed the way schools and teachers are viewed by the media and public at large. NCLB was proposed by Sen. Ted Kennedy, and although signed by Bush, the two had completely different goals in mind. On the left, it was the idea that more taxpayer funds could be funneled into lower performing (i.e., “poor”) schools. On the right, the opportunity to prove that some schools were so pathetic that the only hope for the students who are forced to attend, would be to have the option to go a school of their choosing (school vouchers). Either way, it was a ludicrous plan to anyone with some common sense about education. The goals set by NCLB guaranteed, that eventually, every school would be a failing school. When you consider the political goals of the two sides, then you would have to succumb to the idea that it was a win-win for both.

Alas, as the absolutely unachievable goals deadline approached, the politicians in Washington, D.C. come to the realization that the egg would be on  their faces and there just wasn’t enough money to give more to every failing school. So, in a moment of genius, they change the plan and its name. Welcome to the lottery known as “Race to the Top.” What a catchy name. In this stroke of brilliance, the ivory tower set, decide to have state governments come up with “their own” plan to improve schools. If the state plan happens to completely agree with the federal government’s ideas, then the state will be awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to implement their proposal.

(Does anyone else see a problem here?)

Under both plans human capital is determined primarily by two standards: performance on high stakes tests and graduation. Under NCLB student performance was determined by a student’s ability to meeting an ever increasing standard from year to year. This process was called Adequate Yearly Progress or in the world of education acronyms, AYP. Under the new Race to the Top (RTTT), states set their own bar. Although the goals are still increased from year to year, there is at least the possibility of attainment. These new measurements are called Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs). The big difference in NCLB’s AYP and RTTT’s AMO’s is this: Under NCLB, all (100%) students were to be performing at the pre-determined level (although this too changed) by the year 2014. With RTTT schools and systems merely must show moderate improvement from one year to the next, with the schools making the most improvement (top 5%) receiving awards (to include additional funding) and the schools making the least improvement (bottom 5%) receiving admonishments and scrutiny (but also, additional funding).

After a year’s worth of data, the state department of education dropped the AMO bomb on local education agencies: All students in all sub-groups (economically disadvantaged, race, learning disabilities, gender, etc.) are to perform at the same level, and if a sub-group is performing below the average of the whole, then the school and system must present a plan to “close the gap”, which is the new, rarely if ever possible, goal.

There is so much to blog on about concerning the effect of the human capital ideology and education. I’ll close this blog here and hope to continue as topics relating to this arise over the next few months.

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