It’s no secret that former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich has some misgivings about the direction of the American economy. But the prolific writer, radio commentator and longtime University of California, Berkeley professor isn’t thrilled about how we are educating our kids, either.
As part of a new project with the activist group MoveOn.org, Reich recently released a video that described our education system as “squashing passion for learning, eroding the love of teaching and grinding up generations of young people.” The critique is accompanied by a set of proposals to reinvent American education – one of 10 planks in a broader agenda titled “10 Ideas to Save the Economy.”
Reich has addressed the nation’s education challenges in his books, including 2011’s Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future, as well as in his 2013 film Inequality for All (available on NetFlix, iTunes and DVD). But rarely has he been so blunt in his assessment or his prescriptions.
Capital & Main spoke last week with Reich about his views on how the country has failed its kids, and what it must do to right the ship.
Capital & Main: Have we bought into a collective myth that the answer to economic inequality is better education, when in fact there may be more immediate solutions that could help tens of millions Americans struggling today?
Robert Reich: Education is not the only answer and it’s certainly not the immediate solution. At best, it’s a necessary, but not sufficient response to widening inequality.
C&M: How would you grade President Obama and his education czar, Arne Duncan?
Reich: They’ve certainly brought a lot of attention to education — in terms of attention I’d give them an A. Unfortunately, the emphasis has been on standards and on testing. This is not unique to the Obama administration [and] as much as I understand the importance of setting benchmarks and having tests to assess whether students are learning, we have gone way overboard on testing. Many students now are learning to take a test rather than to think. Teachers are being promoted or given raises based upon their ability to teach students to succeed on the test rather than to teach students how to solve problems and to come up with new ways of
C&M: Many of the recommendations you make in the MoveOn video seem relatively non-controversial: increasing federal funding, limiting class size, boosting pay of teachers, offering high school students technical training. Who’s opposing ideas like these?
Reich: Well unfortunately many do not want to increase federal funding at all. They are afraid of the federal government, they hate the federal government. These are the same state officials who don’t want to accept federal funding to expand Medicaid. In terms of limiting class size, some education officials pay lip service to this but if you actually look at class sizes, they are getting larger. That’s hardly because there’s not enough federal funding to overcome the fiscal drag of local property tax revenues that are very low in poor districts. Some states have to tried to overcome this fiscal drag by providing more funding to poor districts, but politically it’s difficult for these states. The rich districts don’t want to share. So the federal government really does have to come to the rescue.