Once dominant, now America is just average when it comes to education. Its public solution, recently communicated by Microsoft mogul Bill Gates? Increased class sizes, decreased teacher counts, fewer advanced degrees, and probably more mediocrity.
It’s the type of technocratic cure-all one would expect Gates to champion, and it will doubtless perform as lamely as Microsoft, which currently hobbles at $30 a share while its more intuitive tech rivals like Apple and Google respectively hover around $200 to $600. But Gates’ short-changing of the nation’s education system is just another strain of neoconservative austerity going viral in our global village. And it’s just as short-sighted as the disaster capitalism that destroyed America’s economic integrity: Increasing America’s class sizes and downsizing its teachers could cost us more than it could save us.
“Bringing the United States up to the average performance of Finland, the best-performing education system, could result in gains in the order of 103 trillion dollars,” claimed the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s three-year Programme for International Student Assessment report released in December. Of course, those are just the numbers. The hypocrisy stings worse.
“The oligarchy making decisions for public-school kids — like Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates — send their own children to private schools with comparatively tiny class sizes of 15 or less, while many of the kids in the schools they impose their policies on have classes of 25, 30 or more,” Leonie Haimson, executive director for the nonprofit educational watchdog Class Size Matters, told AlterNet. “New York City children are now suffering from the largest class sizes in early grades since 1999, despite billions more spent on education. And class sizes are expected to increase again next year.”
Let them, Gates has argued. According to the New York Times and the Associated Press, both Gates and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s CEO Jeff Raikes have floated the theory that teachers trump class size when it comes to educational excellence. The jackpot comes when you reward effective teachers with higher pay, they argue, regardless of their seniority or advanced degrees. Which means, in the real world outside of the fuzzy jargon, rewarding those who can pass their students and satisfy technocrats hypnotized by what the American Federation of Teachers called “quickie observations or crude test-score calculations masquerading as teacher evaluations.”
“For those of us who represent teachers on the frontlines, the issue is how this translates to the day-to-day realities of teaching kids,” explained an AFT statement targeted at Gates’ sales pitch, which has also been parroted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in an ironically titled speech called “Bang for the Buck in Schooling.” “What kind of future are we creating for our kids if education policies, however well-intentioned, result in larger classes and in teachers with less experience?”
One that is similar to the educational present, one would argue, only worse. According to the OECD, the United States is simply average in reading and science but below-average in math, not a good show for a declining empire convinced of its economic policies. With tax-cut compromises hammering Americans already besieged by a worsening unemployment nightmare, arguments over class size are trending toward class warfare. The United States already boasts the largest average class sizes outside of Asia, and those classes are inequitably distributed among the poor and people of color. Not a good show for the first African-American president in U.S. history, whose administration is looking to increase schools’ storage capacity and hoping on a return on investment.