Every good citizen should understand that education is the bedrock of civilization. At the very least, it keeps the children occupied while their parents are outside earning a living. Politicians claim that education is a top priority. But when cornered, they usually admit that budgeting education comes a little further down the list.
Xi Jinping’s Tibetan Summer of Love
Funding, building and maintaining schools, paying administrators and teachers, all of that requires heavy investment in the nation’s youth. But because it concerns a population that will only be contributing to the economy in a distant future, there’s no urgency about addressing its real needs.
Material costs for the buildings and grounds cannot be compressed. The market sets the prices on these services. Achieving success means keeping expenses down. For the local authorities in the US that fund schools, the easiest path to success implies underpaying teachers, a policy most politicians generally approve. Administrators are often more munificently rewarded since they are saddled with the difficult task of preventing teachers from revolting.
Once the structure is in place, the question of the supplies required for classroom activities arises. That can easily be kept to a bureaucratic minimum by defining what is standard. But learning in a classroom guided by a competent teacher is complex and cannot be reduced to standards. Learning is too rich and complex a process to be reduced to the offering of a standard catalog.
Teachers realize that to achieve their pedagogical goals, they need items that the school’s or the district’s standard policy has not foreseen. Effective teachers are not robots who spew canned knowledge according to a predefined syllabus but function as pedagogical managers of the learning process for varied groups of people. This consists as much, and indeed more, of psychology and managing meaningful social interaction as it does the presentation of knowledge.
To be effective, teachers must be managers. Their goal is to optimize the work of a group of people. Like a manager in a commercial company, they should benefit from discretionary budgets that allow them to purchase the tools they need to attain their goals. But of course, unlike corporate managers, they are unable to point to the profit margin that will pay for it. Consequently, in today’s society, and particularly in the US, teachers end up spending a significant portion of their minimal salaries on the classroom supplies they need to make their teaching effective.
This week, Yahoo Lifestyle offered its readers the “uplifting” story of Courtney Jones, a Texas teacher who has single-handedly devised what the journalist, Kelly Matousek, presents as a creative solution to the problem. The article bears the title, “How a school teacher raised $1M for educators around the U.S. — with help from Khloe Kardashian, Lance Bass and Kamala Harris.”
Matousek reminds readers of the need teachers “have to dip into their own salaries to pay for classroom supplies, as it’s been estimated (pre-pandemic) that teachers spend an average of $479 per year out of pocket on their classrooms.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Objects and equipment required for effective teaching, in the United States, considered — much like education itself — unworthy of even minimal budgeting by the local politicians who fund schools
Here is the narrative in a nutshell. After spending $2,500 on supplies in her first year of teaching, Jones took the problem to social media. She created a community of teachers that blossomed quickly. She then realized “that there was a pervasive issue here across the country.” Her community rapidly morphed into a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to connect schools and teachers with corporations, organizations, and community members that are looking to contribute to the enhancement of learning opportunities for all students.”
The article tells the heartwarming story of a serendipitous quest resulting in the betterment of mankind through education. But it can also be read as a sad commentary on the failure of the nation’s political structures to cater to the needs of educators. And it highlights the depressing trend, in the face of any problem, of looking to celebrities and private corporations, whose focus is not on education but on branding.
The final result is that Jones and her #ClearTheList movement become brands in their own right. What is sacrificed in the process is the hope of a public solution to a persistent societal issue. While building awareness of the issue itself, it ends up taking it off the public agenda by reassuringly promoting the idea that individual actions and private initiative can solve any profound imbalance in the social fabric.
The media typically love narratives like this one that allows them to avoid exploring the nature of the problem. An attractive and enterprising young blonde teacher from Texas proves that an energetic individual with a sense of social purpose can create a trend that attracts celebrities, thanks to whose support the venture can vaunt its success.
One or more corporations may then notice the opportunity and use it to polish their brand in a show of supporting a worthy cause. In this case, in the midst of a pandemic in which disinfectants have become a permanent feature of everyone’s life, Clorox stepped up and offered to put in place a sweepstake for lucky winners. It thus turned a manifest failure of the political community to respond to the needs of education into a lottery promising a monetary reward. This tale of the combined impact of an enterprising individual, public celebrities and private corporations encapsulates the logic of the entire political and economic system of the US.
When Jones read Kardashian’s tweet announcing that she had made a contribution, she was overwhelmed with emotion. “I cannot believe my small movement from Texas has made it to your hands,” she tweeted back in gratitude. This was the equivalent of “America’s Got Talent.” Jones had attained the summit of glory within the celebrity culture that, for Americans, represents an ideal far more respectable than excellence in education.
And, of course, Jones is delighted with what she perceives as the disinterested generosity of the corporate world. “They get the issue, they understand how pervasive it is,” she said in reference to Clorox. She finds it “so amazing to see a company understand it.” She may need to enroll in a marketing 101 course in the nearest business school to understand exactly what Clorox understands.
It gets better. Not only a glamorous celebrity and a well-known commercial brand pitched in. None other than the current vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, lent her political celebrity to the cause when she tweeted: “The average teacher spends nearly $500 of their own money on school supplies for their students. It doesn’t have to be like this. We should provide teachers the tools and resources they need to educate our kids.” Everyone in the public eye knows how to play the branding game.
In the land of Milton Friedman, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” This also means that there’s no such thing as free education. For the past century, economists have been trying to work out a concept that makes sense of the idea of investing in education, but when studying the problem of inequities in funding, they can’t even agree on the principle that more funding beyond the basics serves any purpose at all. In 2002, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) concluded that “most of the studies reported by economists have involved serious methodological problems.”
For those who care about education, the real problem is not the one economists and politicians talk about. Their debates are always about amounts of money, but never about the quality of education. This leads to all kinds of acrimonious discussions but avoids the root problem: that developed nations consider education not as a crucial feature of their culture, but as a tool to stimulate the competitive spirit within an economy.
Politicians put a price tag on everything, including education. Then they compare the prices to increase efficiency and worry over whether their solution is perceived as equitable. That they fail is understandable, because figures lie. But more significantly, education has no monetary price. The role of education in any healthy society cannot be reduced to the idea of invoicing goods and services. But, as the American journalist Glenn Greenwald reminded us this past week, in very literal terms, this is not a healthy society.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.