nasagoddard-compliant-workersSchools that Work and Work (and Work): Creating Our Most Compliant Generation Of Works Yet

by Jeffrey Benson

A large part of our recent public discourse on education has focused on how well schools are preparing our children to be employable–to go from school to work.

An alternative imperative–to develop creative citizens ready to carry on our democracy–is not getting much press. So let’s drop that democracy burden completely out of the picture? Let’s see what our schools might look like if we really got down to the simple brass tacks of churning out the most compliant generation of workers yet.

First, let’s agree that we are not pouring money into public education without wanting a return for our investment. We need our kids to grow up to pay taxes–enough taxes to pay the government back for their schooling. To pay taxes they’ll need to work, so the purpose of schools is to make sure our students are employable. We need to teach them to behave like good employees. And that’s where we can really start saving some big bucks on educating these kids, and get an even bigger return on our tax dollars.

To make them good employees, schools need to reflect the world of work. We live in a capitalist economy and the kids need to learn right up front that we are all about competition. They can start learning this by competing for their teacher’s attention and competing for grades. This is why we keep class sizes big—but they could be even bigger and save us more money.

We could probably reduce the number of teachers if we hiked class sizes up to about 50 kids in a class—or maybe even 75, or 100. It’s said a lot that class size doesn’t matter, it’s the teacher that matters. So we can cull from the ranks of teachers the very best ones, put the best ones in the cafeteria with a lot of kids and let them go at it. Once we get class sizes over 20, we might as well jack the numbers way up. Big savings. Makes business sense.

This is why standardized tests are so important! Once you have enough kids in a class that competing for grades and the teacher’s attention is an important skill (which is happening already in most schools), you have to use tests—you can’t expect a teacher to know what every kid can do and then evaluate that in a personal way—that’s far too costly! The tests quickly divide up the class into those who are special and those who are just going to be your run-of-the-mill employees—and we need a lot more of those types of employees than we need bosses.

With standardized tests you can safely measure only what is important for most kids to be good employees, and really put an end to the illusion that many of them and their parents have that they are special. For years schools have been implicitly giving kids the message that we don’t need them all to be special, so let’s just be explicit it about it, because we don’t have the time or the money to play around. Keep it simple; keep it as big as we can; keep it uniform.

The special ones can come from the expensive private schools, which seem like great models of education—so many of their graduates go on to college and leadership roles! But those schools cost way too much to consider for every public school kid, and we don’t need every kid to be a leader. The private schools can keep churning out our leaders; we’ll save our bucks on the public schools, where we really need to stock pile our next generation of employees. It’s a good differentiated system of education—let’s keep it that way, as differentiated as we can.

Also, employees don’t read books on the job, so we can save a bunch of bucks by stopping the buying and reading of novels; the kids can do that on their own time. They should be reading manuals and instructions and guidelines, which exist by the thousands on the internet already. This is where technology is going to really help us. With our electronic whiteboards, we can project the owner’s manual of a toaster oven for all the students to see, and save on paper and shipping costs and deterioration of the books.

Along similar lines we can save money by cutting out most literature, and certainly any poetry, because poets don’t make enough money to pay taxes. And what are you going to test? Same for most of the arts, right? Humanities as well. Too little practical application here.

On paper, the move to the Common Core presents some risks to our hopes of developing good employees. It may actually lead to a bit of analytical thinking, but luckily not sustained critical thinking; students might actually learn to become self-aware and critical of their schooling. We are not going to have a stable workforce if kids learn to be critical of their conditions, and start asking “Why?”

Luckily, we are not letting students or teachers have any say in what is in what we teach and when, and either way, we’ll keep them all in check by tying any curriculum to our standardized tests. Don’t worry—no thinking, and certainly no acting, outside the box. Too difficult to assess. Murky. Costly in terms of time and money. 

So this is where teachers’ unions are a big problem for getting our kids ready to compete in a global economy. The type of manufacturing jobs good employees get have gone overseas, and not to Finland, by the way—a place many people are touting as a good example for our schools, but it’s not where the jobs are going. They’re going to China, where there are no independent unions! That’s why the Chinese work-to-school model is so effective: their kids don’t have any illusions about organizing for their rights because that would cost them their jobs!

If we are going to compete with the Chinese for jobs, unions are a problem; our students don’t need role models of adults thinking they know better than the bosses above them—that’s not the mark of a good employee. My proposals here don’t give kids any opportunities from day one to think they should do more than follow directions.

The teachers should be following the direction handed down by the companies that make the text books and standardized tests and the standards themselves, and the kids should be following their teacher’s directions, and then we’ll have the good employees we deserve. And it will all be so much cheaper.

What are the biggest threats to the above model of producing a competent workforce? What day-to-day sort of mistakes could we make in education to starve corporations of compliant labor mindlessly performing bad work?

  1. Support the creative ways students offer to do their work
  2. Develop morning meetings for primary students and advisory programs for secondary students
  3. Allow cooperative partnerships
  4. Group students in clusters that are alternately similar and different in skill sets
  5. Invite parents into the classroom culture
  6. Identify class rituals that the students manage
  7. Vote as a class on options after students have time to share their perspectives
  8. Build self-assessment into scoring rubrics
  9. Start and/or support diversity committees
  10. Invite local mentors to speak to the students

As long as we can keep these ten things from happening, the system of commerce and capitalism that we have grown to love should perpetuate existing conditions for decades to come.

Jeffrey Benson has worked in almost every school context in his 35 years as an educator, from elementary school through graduate programs. Benson’s new book, Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (ASCD, 2014), shows educators the value of tenacity and building connections when teaching the students who most need our help. You can learn more at www.jeffreybenson.org or follow him on Twitter at @JeffreyBenson61; image attribution flickr user nasagoddardspaceflightcenter; Creating Our Most Compliant Generation Of Workers Yet