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The Race to the Bottom Line


Our Earth is in crisis. Though some prefer to close their eyes and plug their ears, those of us willing to look are observing the greatest mass extinction of species the Earth has seen for millions of years. We are exhausting the Earth's resources at a fast rate, and our emissions threaten to wreak havoc with global climate and weather.


What has driven us here?
And what is it about our economic system that makes it so hard to shift our course even slightly? It feels as if we are on a train heading down a track and the engineer's only instruction is to go as fast as you can.

The central problem is that we have an economic system that has a single bottom line.
All economic activity has as its exclusive goal the generation of monetary profit. No other values are allowed to intrude. This greatly simplifies the world of business, and allows people who work there great clarity of purpose. It is easy to determine the success and failure of a venture. Just tell me how much money you made.

If I choose to open a donut shop, my success will be judged by how much I sell. The fact that the money was made by selling a product that makes people unhealthily obese is not germane. We know that society will eventually pay for obesity through higher health care costs, but when I seek out a small business loan to get started, no lender is going to factor that into the lending equation. All that matters is my profitability.

My impact on the environment might be a minor moral concern to me, but that too is an "externality," a spillover effect not directly connected to the business at hand. We have a huge problem in that we have yet to figure out a way to strongly connect business activities to the sometimes very negative impacts they may have on the world, or on the humans and other species that live here. This problem has gotten so severe that it actually threatens our stable existence on this planet. We can see our species struggling to try to respond, but our economic system, with its simplistic rules, makes this very difficult to do.

Our schools have traditionally been allowed a bit more latitude in measuring our work. In decades past our society recognized that there were a variety of goals for the educational system. We were expected to train children to be good citizens in our democratic system, so we taught citizenship, and students elected class officers. We wanted children to be healthy, so we taught them about nutrition and gave them exercise in PE class. We wanted them to be able to find a job, so they had the option of taking classes that taught useful skills. We wanted them to get along with others, so they learned to cooperate and work in groups.

But business people saw a shocking flaw in our system. There was no bottom line. Unlike a business, schools had no balance sheet at the end of the year - no "metrics," no way to directly compare one school to another. No way to tell which school was a good return on our investment, and which was wasting the public's money.

Thus was born the concept of "A Nation at Risk" and ultimately a profit-minded "accountability movement." Where before we had fuzzy values and no ability to measure success, now we have clear standards and, most important of all, a bottom line. Just as in business, we have a way to see if our efforts have yielded the desired result.

And just as in business we have created a system in which there are externalities that must be disregarded for the sake of creating an uncluttered balance sheet.

Our profits are measured in test scores pure and simple. Just as our business balance sheets exclude trees cut down, or air polluted, our test score results exclude:

Creative and critical thinking

The mental health or happiness of a child

A sense of humor

A strong connection between the life of the student and what they are learning

Physical health

An awareness of the student's relationship to the democratic society in which he or she lives.

Compassion for others

The ability to cooperate and collaborate as part of a team

The ability to ask really great questions

A sense of beauty and harmony

All of these things have become externalities in our public schools. And with the narrow emphasis on reading and math in No Child Left Behind, even academic subjects like science and history have become external to the bottom line, and as a result have been marginalized in many schools.

We are approaching a paradigm shift in human thought and behavior.
Our planet cannot sustain a system that defines its own basic needs as "externalities." Change will come because change must come - and the sooner, the better for all of us. When revolutions of this sort approach, defenders become desperate and seek hegemony for their model so that its flaws can be concealed and they can remain secure in its illusion of stability.

But it will not work. As a culture and a species, we have too many problems that cannot be solved by a one-dimensional view of profit and loss. Our society is not in a Race to the Top, but a race for survival. No Child Left Behind was an attempt to enforce these failed values on our schools, but as is evidenced by the outpouring of teacher sentiment in the recent Teachers' Letters to Obama project, it has failed.

Our students and parents continue to bring their own hopes and ideals to school, and insist that they count. As teachers, our personal ethics and values are not external to school - they are the reason we choose to teach. We must not trade our judgment and our students' fundamental human needs for a single-minded focus on test scores, any more than we should allow life on our planet to continue to suffer from a single-minded focus on profit.

What do you think?

Creative Commons image by aussiegall



One might, also, use the term "radical objectivism" when describing the intentionally destructive accountability system of NCLB. "Objectivism" because the status of children and teachers is reduced from that of human and deserving respectful treatment, to that of object (score) and deserving nothing humane. This inhumane treatment of children and teachers is radical and fundamentally destroys schools.

"Oh, how convenient," we might say when realizing our NCLB pencil has an eraser on one end. It is this gifted tool that enables teachers to erase others and self, each other, systematically. What remains are empty digits, zeros mostly.

President, cabinet, and corporate elites bow, smile wooden, exit. Next.

Hope? Read:

Thursday, November 19, 2009
On 19 November at approximately 12:30 students occupied Campbell Hall at UCLA. The time has come for us to make a statement and issue our demands. In response to this injunction we say: we will ask nothing. We will demand nothing. We will take, we will occupy. We have to learn not to tip toe through a space which ought by right to belong to everyone.

We are under no illusions. The UC Regents will vote the budget cuts and raise student fees. The profoundly undemocratic nature of their decision making process, and their indifference to the plight of those who struggle to afford an education or keep their jobs, can come as no surprise.

We know the crisis is systemic - and that it reaches beyond the Regents, beyond the criminal budget cuts in Sacremento, beyond the economic crisis, to the very foundations of our society. But we also know that the enormity of the problem is just as often an excuse for doing nothing.

We choose to fight back, to resist, where we find ourselves, the place where we live and work, our university.

We therefore ask that those who share in our struggle lend us not only their sympathy but their active support. For those students who work two or three jobs while going to school, to those parents for whom the violation of the UC charter means the prospect of affordable education remains out of reach, to laid off teachers, lecturers, to students turned away, to workers who've seen the value of their diplomas evaporate in an economy that 'grows' without producing jobs - to all these people and more besides, we say that our struggle is your struggle, that an alternative is possible if you have the courage to seize it.

We are determined that the struggle should spread. That is the condition in which the realization of our demands becomes possible.

To our peaceful demonstration, to our occupation of our own university, we know the Univeristy will respond with the full force of the police at its command. We hear the helicoptors circle above us. We intend to learn and to teach through our occupation, humbly but with determination. We are not afraid. We are not going anywhere.

In the spirit of comity, given your description, Anthony, I'm guessing you have something that you think public school educators should do differently. When and where will you be describing that action and what results you think it will yield?

I wonder why and how you as a public school teacher on a blog mostly about public schooling think your call to arms will result in a different final solution?

I'm interested, because we all know that others have fought and died over variations of this passion for millenia. I hope you anticipate less drama for your results.

(You're a good writer, a credit to the academy. Thanks for making your points clear.)

Bob asks:
When and where will you be describing that action and what results you think it will yield?

You could start with this post I wrote last May: "Five Good Assumptions about School Change," available here: http://bit.ly/8tD13i

What results will it yield? That all depends on each and every one of us, and what we choose to do from this point forward.

"I wonder why and how you as a public school teacher on a blog mostly about public schooling think your call to arms will result in a different final solution?"

I have not issued a "call to arms" so far as I know. A call to conscience, perhaps. The "final solution" is a phrase with a rather odious past, and I do not think there really is one, in any case. Just successive generations of flawed and occasionally heroic humans trying to learn from our mistakes as best we can, and leave the world a bit better than we found it -- a tall order these days.

I anticipate drama.

Thanks for the response, Anthony. I agree that people should read your assumptions. I remember them from an earlier reading and just reread them. They're thoughtful and appear based in how you view public schools.

It still remains unclear, at least to me, what you are asking teachers to do now within the contracted authority for serving in a public school classroom. Perhaps you can list those actions in another post.

I believe teachers should follow their consciences and do what they think is best for their students. Under some circumstances that may bring them into conflict with directives from above. It might even create drama, but maybe a bit of drama is called for once in a while.

What do you think teachers should do?

Thank you for clarifying your point further.

Since you asked, I think teachers should consider their conscience issues before signing any employment (teaching) contract. Leave politics off of public school campuses and for personal time.

Then, fulfill these contracts. That's why teachers receive pay. Today, that means use instructional procedures that result in all students meeting or exceeding minimum academic performance standards. That's more difficult for some teachers than for others, but that's why taxpayers underwrite public schools. Beyond those standards, fulfill whatever other expectations the school contractor has for student performance.

That's enough about my thoughts. I look forward to reading your future posts. Keep up the good work.

Thanks for clarifying. I must say that as a taxpayer and the parent of a child in a public school, I have a different vision for how I would like my child's teachers to behave. I would wish that they be active agents of learning, and consciously evaluate the curriculum and instructional approaches they think will work best with their students. I want them to be professionals who take an active and creative role in this process. I want them to exercise their consciences actively every day in making these decisions, not abandon this process once they have signed a contract.

Are we not all just "human capital"? Adults and children?

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