Education: is it job training, or preparation for democracy?

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – On the agenda of the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting here last month were issues of importance such as climate change, technology, and small businesses. One of these important issues was, and continues to be, education.

A presentation was sponsored by USA Funds, an educational non-profit, and the mayors of West Sacramento, Calif. (Chris Cabaldon), Denver (Michael Hancock), Long Beach, Calif. (Robert Garcia), and Grand Rapids, Mich.  (George Hartwell) all participated.

It is clear that the movement of the private sector into sectors previously thought to be entirely government-owned continues, education being no exception. The focus is now on how to address the high dropout rate of youth in low-income communities experiencing high rates of crime.

Because of public opposition to charter schools in many of these communities, various programs are being presented as solutions, such as the L.E.A.D program in Grand Rapids, which blends a combination of government sponsorship and private companies.  

These afterschool programs focus on preparing students for entry into the workforce through training on resume writing and interviewing. However, their most significant aspect is paid internships designed to provide students with relevant job experience prior to completing high school.

A major component of these internships is that the city will pick up half of the tab when it comes time to pay the student, meaning the business owner will effectively be able to pay less than minimum wage. The argument is that the students, equipped with “real world” job skills, will enter the workforce well prepared. 

The mayors were unanimous that these types of programs were a godsend to at-risk youth. Mr. Garcia was applauded for his successful creation and implementation of such a program in Long Beach.

True to form, politicians tend to focus on the individual problem rather than the causes and downstream effects of their solutions. The cheap labor these paid internships provide will inevitably push out the more expensive labor provided by adults, who require minimum wage and, potentially, health benefits.

The student job training could equal job loss to the adult workers who desperately need this income. Moreover, it is curious why anyone thinks that students who are at risk for not completing high school will somehow be benefitted by also taking on a part-time job. Rather than focusing exclusively on schooling they must now focus on work as well.

Given that many of these students come from families who live in poverty, it is likely that the immediate reward of an extra paycheck will carry more weight than the long-term payout of higher education.

This speaks to a larger ideological issue: the purpose of education in America.

Previously, the focus of universal education was to prepare students to be well-rounded critical thinkers who could effectively participate in a democracy. This was the great experiment of the United States: could the common people participate in running a nation? Universal education existed, in part, to prepare the people for this vital task.

This purpose was not mentioned at the Mayors’ Conference. Instead, the focus of education was said to be preparing students to enter the workforce. Internships are the solution in that they teach kids how to function in a work environment rather than how to function in a democracy.

The real shame is that there is somehow a conflict between these two goals at all.

The innovators and inventors in our history did not succeed because they had excellent on-the-job training. They did so because they were able to think critically about the world around them and observe the whole rather than a specialized part.

If we want our nation to create more of these types of people we would be wise to teach our children how to think like they did.

Photo: Students, parents, and teachers want well-rounded education and preparation for life, not just preparation for a specific job.   |  AP