Yale Law Journal
In recent years, economic forces of global magnitude have placed the substance and value of education in the national spotlight. With jobs for college graduates in short supply, political pundits and news commentators have placed different estimates on the worth of a college degree and the continued utility of the liberal arts. Economists tie specific educational factors to future income. A high school diploma, we are told, can translate into an additional $300,000 in lifetime salary. A highly effective kindergarten teacher likewise carries a value-added benefit of $320,000, the additional income that a classroom of today’s students may earn over the course of their collective careers. This frenzy over outcomes has heightened public fears and influenced attitudes and behavior. Educated parents rush to enroll their preschoolers in Chinese immersion programs to enhance future career options. As the documentary film Waiting for “Superman” dramatically portrays, poor and working class parents agonize over lotteries that may or may not offer their children admission to academically challenging charter schools, run by private organizations with public funds.
Current federal and state policy initiatives, along with local practices, both mirror and energize this bottom-line mentality. States feverishly compete for federal funds that used to be allocated according to student need, buying into a strict regime of testing, standards, and accountability as they “race to the top.” The federal Secretary of Education assures us that “[i]nvesting in this new kind of education will sustain the country’s economy” and will even prevent a recurrence of the present economic crisis. Local school officials use all of the tools in their power to raise standardized test scores, the talisman of academic success. Parents worry that their children will be left behind. Teachers worry that their jobs are on the line.
To be sure, no one would deny the connection between education and economic success or the value of quality schooling. The fact that education is critical to the individual and to the nation is irrefutable. Holding schools accountable for student learning is unquestionable. Yet, listening to the constant drumbeat of quantitative outcomes and productivity, one senses that schooling has taken a definitive turn from the distant and not-so-distant past. Lost in this narrative is a concern for developing responsible citizens (the goal of early school reformers) and for providing equal opportunities based on individual student differences (the goal of modern-day civil rights activists).