Society is a matrix of public, private, and social sectors, connected by supporting institutions including education and the media. If any one sector fails, everyone suffers. When money is tight, as it is now and forever more will be, or when leaders turn their backs as is the trend, those at the margins suffer most.
It can be argued that all of our institutions are near failure. We just experienced another financial disaster. Our governing bodies are gridlocked. Cash flow in the third sector is weak and funders often bicker over impact and strategy rather than focus on accepting the job at hand. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Much of it, unjustly in this writer’s opinion, has fallen recently on our educators. Education is the cornerstone of a healthy society but education cannot be blamed for every ill.
If students cannot find work, let’s do something about that. If public, private and social sectors are unable or unwilling to hire, let’s find out why. Wages have been stagnant or falling for decades while our legislators have spent us into frailty. We’ve nearly given up on manufacturing, preferring short-term shareholder profit taking. Education is not the reason we are in jeopardy, but it may yet become the leading factor in our recovery.
What’s the purpose of an education? Education should prepare each of us for full and meaningful participation in a civilized democratic diverse society. Intrinsic to that notion is gainful employment and full participation.
There is general consensus that our system needs comprehensive reform if we are to remain competitive in an increasingly unrestrained and aggressive global economy. Some statisticians say we must double or even triple the number of college graduates proficient in math and science. Jobs in the future demand it. Some recruiters say jobs are out there right now and employers are ready to fill them, if only our educational systems were producing proper talent. That may well be the case in some situations, but there are other factors.
At the time of this writing, there is a compelling ad on television, created for and presented by Exxon Mobil Corporation. The ‘Let’s solve this!’ campaign reports that, “American students rank 17th in the world in science, 25th in the world in math.” These are startling statistics for a proud nation apparently intent on exporting most jobs that don’t rely on math and science. It’s exciting that Exxon and other major corporations are stepping up to make a difference. Much more can be, and hopefully will be done, but it’s a start.
According to Source Watch, “Exxon is the world’s largest oil company and one of the world’s largest publicly traded companies.” Exxon shareholders enjoy profits of around 12% annually. By contrast Bankrate.com reports the average money market account to pay only 0.46% in annual interest. The average interest-bearing checking account pays 0.56%. Municipal bond rates are low (3.35%-4%). Apparently Exxon is doing very well. Those who started savings accounts for their kids college funds at the local bank or credit union, not as well. When social investigators follow the money trail, they don’t have to look long to understand our nation’s priorities.
In one quarter of 2012, Exxon reported nearly $16 billion in profits (CNN Fortune and Money). Having all that capital to invest, and publically championing the cause for qualified college graduates, they should be a leader in job creation and more than willing to invest in our communities. They do, in part.
Again, according to CNN Money, “Exxon said it spent $5 billion buying back shares in the second quarter (2012), and noted the dividend increased 21% from the same time last year.” Buying back shares is a corporate trend toward less transparency and higher profitability for the wealthiest shareholders.
According to Exxon, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, as reported by Rachael Maddow on MSNBC, Exxon’s income rose by 9.1 percent from 2005 to 2008 but the number of employees fell from 83,700 to 79,900. Studying balance sheets of major corporations can be telling.
Exxon spends incredible amounts on it’s “Energy Outlook” campaigns targeting college campuses, high schools, and academics with messages designed to, “educate consumers and media about the inner workings of the oil industry, and the costs of producing, shipping, and refining crude.” Another campaign says that retrieving natural gas by fracking is totally safe. It seems that no matter how diligently government and educators are in training kids to be critical about the onslaught of advertising, capital controls message.
Exxon’s philanthropic arm, the Exxon Foundation, posts on its web site that, “In 2012, together with its employees and retirees, Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM), its divisions and affiliates … provided $256 million in contributions worldwide, of which $116 million was dedicated to education.” It’s a welcome gesture and smart social marketing. But spending $116 million worldwide on education, much of that overseas, compared with earning $16 billion in profits in one quarter of the same year − much of that from imposing high prices at the pump − brings into question a commitment to corporate social responsibility. In fairness other capital may have been allocated to philanthropy directly from the corporation but the math remains relevant. $116 million spent on education worldwide in all of 2012, is 0.00725 percent of the $16 billion profit for one quarter in that same year.
Priorities are also worth mentioning (SourceWatch), “The company [Exxon] spent $14,520,000 for lobbying in 2006 ($12.5 million in 2010).” Their CEO, according to Reuters, earned $34.9 million in 2011.
Exxon is listed here, perhaps unfairly. They should not be singled out among oil companies, or even among corporations. The point is that corporate America today, in particular the wealthiest corporations, could do more. In 1913 big oil began receiving tax breaks for each barrel of oil they produce. This year is the 100th anniversary of that commitment, which totals about $4 billion per year. Our oil companies consistently make over $100 billion every year.
This series is on innovation in education but the reader must remain mindful that education is not an isolated institution. We don’t only train our children for the jobs of tomorrow. Improving educational outcomes is only one aspect of adjusting priorities and policies that lead to a robust economy.
I do agree with Exxon on one thing, however. Let’s solve this.
Where are the jobs?
Remember the financial collapse of 2007-2008? We’re still in trouble. According to the World Debt Clock and data provided by The Economist Intelligence Unit, our current global public debt is over $50 trillion dollars. That’s simply unsustainable.
What is most curious in a time when millions remain unemployed, is that the wealthiest among us, the top 1% as we now know them, control over 40% of the nations wealth and they are sitting on the cash. Vanity Fair in an article titled, Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%, put it like this:
“… [the top] 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top.”
“While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.”
For those in the margins the job forecast is worsening. The gap is widening between those with and without degrees. Obtaining a suitable degree, and the job that is supposed to come with it, is increasingly difficult.
The Atlantic recently published “The Insourcing Boom.” We’ve bemoaned the practice of ‘outsourcing’ for decades, sending American jobs overseas in the millions. Now this new trend is suddenly upon us, bringing talent from all over the world to fill jobs here.
“Manufacturing jobs peaked in 1979 at 19.6 million. They drifted down slowly for the next 20 years—over that span, the impact of offshoring and the steady adoption of labor-saving technologies was nearly offset by rising demand and the continual introduction of new goods made in America. But since 2000, these jobs have fallen precipitously. The country lost factory jobs seven times faster between 2000 and 2010 than it did between 1980 and 2000.”
Today there is a move to bring these jobs back to the states, but often the people who fill them are imported as well. Why? Yes, they are the best and brightest. But in many cases, they will also work for less. What America invests, in preparing its children to become adults and join the work force, is being undercut daily by corporations who have lost touch with that unspoken contract.
According to the American Public Radio Marketplace, Future-Jobs-O-Matic! calculator, a job in information systems management should pay on average $115,780 per year. By their calculation 55,800 positions of this type began opening up in 2008 and the balance will come online through 2018.
If kids entering college today want to compete for IT management jobs, they will have to work diligently, rise to the top of their classes, and continue training until they have advanced degrees. Anything less, even advanced certifications, may not cut it. Unfortunately, for kids in the margins, becoming qualified can be financially challenging.
According to a new study and editorial (New York Times), student debt almost tripled between 2004 and 2012, and is approaching $1 trillion. The percentage of borrowers who were more than 90 days delinquent has risen to 17 percent, from 10 percent in 2004. “The Federal Reserve study estimates that nearly 18 percent of borrowers now have student loan debts of $25,000 to $50,000, and nearly 4 percent have balances greater than $100,000.” For the first time in decades, even gifted students are hunting for alternatives to a formal education. Beginning a career at $75,000 to $100,000 in debt seriously impacts the ability of these young adults to purchase homes, save for their own children’s education, and participate fully in a robust economy.
Ironically, while the cost of an education is rising precipitously, the value of that education is falling.
Degree inflation and up-credentialing
The New York Times has posted an article whose title says it all. It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk. In past decades, going to college really meant something. Graduates of universities and colleges, even English majors and anthropologists, were virtually assured of finding a job and joining the middle class. Not any longer. Today, a BS or BA is the entry point for many low-level and even menial careers. Not by choice, many truck drivers, receptionists, and mechanics have four-year degrees.
“About 1.5 million, or 53.6 percent, of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 last year  were jobless or underemployed, the highest share in at least 11 years. In 2000, the share was at a low of 41 percent, before the dot-com bust erased job gains for college graduates in the telecommunications and IT fields,” according to the Huffington Post.
When businessmen say they would hire tomorrow if only our students had the right degrees, no one seems to question their assertions. But is it really the degree or is it the cost of the employee that carries the day? Big business has access to the best minds in the world whether by outsourcing or insourcing. Today, they purchase neurons like everything else, at market rates.
Reliable Technology, the Veiled Competitor
People get tired, machines do not. That’s long been the mantra in manufacturing. Robots and algorithms are displacing real people, in all kinds of positions, across sectors. In an NBC posting on careers titled, “Nine jobs that humans may lose to robots”, business insider Judith Aquino observes that in addition to more than 1.2 million industrial robots in the manufacturing sector, automation is quickly advancing in many other sectors as well. She illustrates her point by discussing the future for pharmacists, lawyers and paralegals, automobile drivers, astronauts, store clerks, soldiers, babysitters, rescuers, sportswriters and other reporters. Every job on the planet will at some point be augmented or supplanted by technology.
“And we ain’t seen nothing yet,” says Andrew McAfee in his TED Conference talk, Are droids taking our jobs? In particular, McAfee demonstrates the incredible advances of ‘automated everything’. Hope comes with innovation and innovation today comes from everywhere. Says McAfee, “innovation doesn’t care where the next best ideas are coming from.” Age, gender, ethnicity, geographical location – none of it matters when it comes to great ideas. But it’s also true that robotics, and ever-better data-driving algorithms, are replacing humans in the workplace at alarming rates.
Whether capitalist, socialist, or governed by a hybrid of assumptions, economies are based upon people earning through labor and then recycling those earnings. Among human beings there are winners and losers. So be it. But no contemporary economy will survive long with an inordinate number of losers, and we have reached the tipping point. The 1% are not recycling capital. Robots don’t get a paycheck to spend at the local grocery store. It isn’t difficult to imagine a future where fewer humans have jobs that pay well.
The contemporary roadblocks to healthy life-sustaining careers are many. Highest on the list is affordable access to higher learning. Close behind are insourcing, degree inflation, and the pressure of technology. The obstacles are significant, growing, and we haven’t yet addressed the impact of greed.
According to the Economic Policy Institute: “From 1978–2011, CEO compensation grew more than 725 percent, substantially more than the stock market and exponentially more than the annual compensation of a typical private-sector worker, which grew a meager 5.7 percent.” The Global Post writes that, “The distance between rich and poor is greater in America than nearly all other developed countries, making the US a leader in a trend that economists warn has dire consequences.”
What it means to live and learn in the margins
Whether isolated by rural poverty, discrimination, or urban blight; life in the margins provides fewer opportunities than at any other time in American history. In the margins people often feel powerless, strapped, and stressed out. Social mobility has ground to a standstill. At the margins, career options are limited to those few who, often against great odds, somehow manage to obtain advanced degrees.
An article in the Economist discusses how the top 1% are becoming increasingly privileged and entrenched. Repairing the rungs on the ladder: How to prevent a virtuous meritocracy entrenching itself at the top. “This phenomenon—call it the paradox of virtuous meritocracy—undermines equality of opportunity … One study suggests that the gap in test scores between the children of America’s richest 10% and its poorest has risen by 30-40% over the past 25 years … Whereas most Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries spend more on the education of poor children than rich ones, in America the opposite is true.”
Social mobility is based more in privilege than in effort. “… even in famously mobile Sweden, some 70-80% of a family’s social status is transmitted from generation to generation across a span of centuries.” Nomencracy: Surnames offer depressing clues to the extent of social mobility over generations. In America it’s worse. Here, we have long heard that we can be anything we want. We are Americans and the dream is for everyone. But statistically, if we are born into the margins that is where we will live, struggle, and die.
“The Washingtonian posted a book review written by Rob Blair on The Working Poor: Invisible in America that starts like this:
The stories are, by now, familiar. “The man who washes cars,” David Shipler writes, “does not own one. The clerk who files canceled checks at the bank has $2.02 in her own account. The woman who copyedits medical textbooks has not been to a dentist in a decade.”
The Stanford News says, “Inequality in schools threatens U.S. prosperity …” It is a scathing indictment of equality in our educational system:
“… America has become an outlier in the way it funds, governs and administers K-12 schools.
“No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children.”
Cuéllar, who co-chaired the Equity and Excellence Commission for U.S Dept. Education, says, “We have a staggering achievement gap at home …. The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier.”
According to USA today, “The national graduation rate (high school) was 78.2% (3.1 million graduates), meaning 78.2% of students who were freshmen graduated as seniors in the 2009-10 school year. That’s up from 75.5% the previous year and is the highest it’s been since 1974, study organizers said.” Well done. But that’s the national average of all students. In contrast, the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s “Urgency Now” research shows the high school graduation rate for young black males is only 52%. This means that 22% (privileged) and 48% (underprivileged) of high school students don’t graduate at all. They enter the job market at a severe deficit, one known to their parents and grandparents. It’s these kids at the margins, many now adults, that this Transforming Education at the Margins series cares most about.
The state of Minnesota was long heralded as a leader in education. Today, the stated does very well (6th internationally) in fourth and eighth grade student math and science scores. At the very same time it ranks poorly in closing the achievement gap.
Kids in the margins face difficulties the privileged simply don’t comprehend. Minnesota Public Radio reports that, “Nearly 14 percent of African American students in the (Minneapolis school) district were suspended last year, according to district data obtained by MPR News. That compares to just 2 percent of white students.” One mother observed that there is a difference between being assertive and being disrespectful. No matter the cause, it’s difficult to learn when barred from the classroom.
Learning is difficult enough without also carrying the burden of poverty. Nutrition in poor communities is statistically abysmal. Lack of access to fresh produce in some urban areas, always the lack of funds, multi-generational poor eating habits, are contributing factors to success in school. Joel Berger, in a post for Moyers and Company called Going to Bed Hungry, reports that “Fifty million Americans, including nearly 17 million children, now live in food insecure homes.” These families are skipping meals, rationing, and purchasing the least expensive proteins and carbohydrates available. In essence, we are raising malnourished children. In neurological terms these children go through the educational system with impeded cognitive functionality.
Read data provided by the USDA on the Role of Nutrition in Learning and Behavior and it is impossible not to come to the conclusion that diet impacts success from pre-school onward. Here are various conclusions from USDA studies:
- School-based (dietary) interventions can improve health and academic performance among low-income schoolchildren.
- Holistic school-based obesity prevention interventions can improve health outcomes and academic performance, in particular among high-risk populations.
- There is evidence that a poor diet associated with high fat, sugar and processed food content in early childhood may be associated with small reductions in IQ in later childhood, while a healthy diet, associated with high intakes of nutrient rich foods described at about the time of IQ assessment may be associated with small increases in IQ.
When it comes to diet, says Mark Bittman in this TED Conference talk on nutrition, “even when government tries to do well by us, they fail. Either they are outvoted by puppets of agribusiness, or they are puppets of agribusiness.”
Jamie Oliver, in his talk, Teach every child about food, uses a statistic that is staggering. Every 18 minutes four of us die because of the food we eat. Two-thirds of our population is obese. Statistically, our children will have a “lifespan ten years shorter” than their parents “because of the landscape of food we’ve built around them.” Oliver points out that not only are many children getting highly processed foods at home, saturated with fat, salt, and sugar, they are getting poor nutrition at school as well. Cognition requires proper nutrition.
The Food Research and Action Center reports this:
- Obesity rates increased by 10 percent for all U.S. children 10- to 17-years old between 2003 and 2007, but by 23 percent during the same time period for low-income children (Singh et al., 2010a).
- Rates of severe obesity were approximately 1.7 times higher among poor children and adolescents in a nationally representative sample of more than 12,000 children aged 2 to 19 years (Skelton et al., 2009).
- In California, higher community poverty rates were strongly associated with higher childhood overweight rates (Drewnowski et al., 2009).
There are those in congress who want to do away with food assistance all together, as with Pell Grants and other educational funding. Education is under attack. It is struggling to perform while budgets shrink and distractors multiply. In state after state, budgets have been slashed.
In 2011 politicians hoping to solicit help from their conservative bases decried public education in conspiratorial language. The Washington Monthly reported that “CNSNews’ Terry Jeffrey, reflecting on the labor dispute in Wisconsin, argued, “It is time to drive public schools out of business.” The sentiment is often voiced in ultra conservative circles which consider schools to be run by, and for, the government. “[Rick] Santorum added that the Head Start program is a Democratic conspiracy to bring “more children out of the household” in order to brainwash and “socialize” them. His family chooses homeschool in place of a public education. Not only is social mobility increasingly difficult but there remain voices near the top posts in our government that want nothing to do with, and apparently despise, the margins.
Minnesota Minority Education Partnership (MMEP) annually publishes a State of Students of Color and American Indian Students Executive Summary. The findings are unique to their state but will resonate with researchers across the nation:
“… Minnesota’s Students of Color and American Indian students disproportionately come from low-income families, often are in need of English language support, and American Indian, Black and Latino students are more likely to receive special education services than White or Asian/Pacific Islander students.” “African American, Latino, and Native American students are in households classified as poor at over three times the percentage rate compared to White students.”
When it comes to college preparedness, “Minnesota’s Students of Color and American Indian students initial testing passing rates trail White students in [multiple] content areas. Greater ranges of disparities are found in mathematics; Black/African-American students’ passing rates are one-third that of Whites and the passing rate for American Indians and Hispanic/Latinos are about one-half of the White passing rate. For reading, Black/African-American and Hispanic/Latino student pass at about two-thirds the rate of White students.”
If success requires a stellar education, then the future is bleak for the underprivileged. Disadvantaged students face innumerable challenges at home, on the streets, and in the classroom. A four-year degree costs more than the poor can afford. Many kids attend school with English as their second language. Nutrition is an issue as is safety. Rural schools and blighted neighborhoods simply cannot afford to offer diversity in programs. Parents who have never received a college education are less likely to demand it of their children and far less able, as a group, to afford it if they do.
More should be said about inequity, disparity and the poisons of greed, ignorance and intolerance, but it’s here that Transforming Education at the Margins moves on to a series of inspirational videos that dig deeper into re-imagining education.