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Gerald Coles: Why Bother Educating the Poor?

Guest post by Gerald Coles.

In 1970, Sidney Willhelm's book "Who Needs the Negro?" (the latter word had currency at the time) argued that with the rise of automation within a capitalist economic system, African-American workers were transformed from being exploited to becoming "useless" from the viewpoint of those who controlled the economy and the automated productive processes emerging within it. Because of the racism of U.S. business interests, the workforce that automation would require could and would be largely white. Yes, business would continue to hire a number of blacks, but as much as the cloaked face of racism within companies would allow, black workers would become productively "unneeded." If black people disappeared tomorrow, Willhelm maintained, for capital they "would hardly be missed."

Willhelm's assessment is now truer than ever for both poor blacks and many whites who constitute part of the potential U.S. workforce within global capitalism. Were he to update his book, the title would likely be "Who Needs the Poor and Much of What Had Been Called the Middle-Class?" Since overseas labor is less costly, fewer U.S. workers are needed for the jobs that are and will be available in this country. Why spend money to provide U.S. poor children with adequate food, clothing, healthcare and other basics of life, along with the full funding needed to educate them? For business needs it would be a waste of money.

Of course some unskilled, low paid workers will continue to be required as part of the U.S. labor force, but the remainder won't. This leaves the "1%" with a problem: what to do as more and more U.S. poor become extraneous for production and profit? Certainly the 1% will not redistribute wealth on their own and provide the full means for educating poor children or for creating socially useful work that could employ the poor. However, neither can the 1% appear wholly indifferent. Thus their answer: fall back on the one path that has a long historical record of "success": blame the fate of the poor on their weak education. Then, under the guise that the poor matter to them, the oh-so-concerned rich concoct educational "reforms" purportedly aimed at preventing poor children from becoming poor adults. However, the reforms invariably ensure that poor children will become poor adults.

Hence, whether today's educational "reform" consists of relentless standardized testing, common core standards, stricter teacher evaluations, No Child Left Behind, "scientifically-based reading instruction," "no excuses" schools, intensive phonics, Race to the Top competition, etc., these and similar policy measures are paraded as solutions. In reality, however, they are illusions that require minimum allocation of resources and by the damage they inflict both to teaching and learning, these illusions prevent the introduction of genuine solutions. Each seemingly well-intentioned but failed "reform" adds another monument to the row of monuments symbolizing the best of intentions: "we try and try but poor children continue to fail educationally and then grow into poor adults who have no place or minimal place in the productive economic system and can't find work that provides adequate income."

Meanwhile, along the way, business interests have realized that while pretending to create educational answers for poor children, profit could be accumulated by destroying public schools, privatizing education, and creating another version of "corporate socialism," i.e., public money going into private hands. However, while it is important to combat this additional funneling of money upward, Willhelm's insight explains the chief engine driving one educational charade after another: the poor have little economic value to the rich. If most of today's more than 15 million poor children were suddenly to disappear, business leaders and the politicians who serve them would respond with initial expressions of pain and sadness, then quickly add: "but doesn't this mean we can now further reduce domestic spending?"

Without social activism that will confront and change the economic system that has generated one educational reform charade after another, continued generations of poor children will be doomed to wretched adulthood.

What do you think? Are education reforms making a difference in the lives of poor students? Or are they a charade?

Gerald Coles is a full-time researcher, writer, and lecturer on the psychology and politics of literacy and education. He is the author of several books, including Reading the Naked Truth: Literacy, Legislation, and Lies, as well as numerous articles in education, psychology and psychiatry journals. Before devoting himself to full-time research and writing, he was on the faculties of the Department of Psychiatry at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and the Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the University of Rochester. His chapter, "Reading Policy: Evidence Vs. Power," will appear in the forthcoming Handbook of Early Childhood Literacy (Sage). He is an active member of the Coalition for Justice in Education in Rochester, NY. He can be reached at [email protected]

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