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The Business Class and Talent Production

November 13, 2009

One way to understand the business class is to read the business press. Quite often the reporting is more honest in the sense that they are more up front about what they are doing since their audience is primarily the business community.

In the most recent issue of the Grand Rapids Business Journal there was a short interview with Frey Foundation President Milt Rohwer. Rohwer was asked what he thinks needs to happen in order for Michigan’s economy to thrive. Rohwer thinks that people need to support “education to generate the high-quality talent needed for the economies and jobs of the future.”

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Rohwer goes on to say, “To me it’s really an issue of understanding the globally competitive nature of the economy and the extent to which prosperity is related to jobs that require a very high degree of skill and education.”

In the Business Journal interview Rohwer says that he is trying to improve education in Michigan, particularly education that would create economic talent. Rowher does this work through mainly through an organization called Michigan Future Inc. According to the website, “Michigan Future, Inc. is a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Our mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy.”

Education, through the lens of Rohwer and Michigan Future Inc., is really about creating future talent for the business community throughout the state. This is reflected in who sits on the board of Michigan Future Inc. Some of the notable board members are from DTE Energy, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, Crain’s Detroit Business and the New Economy Initiative. In addition, Michigan Future Inc. has people from the Detroit Public Schools, the business law firm of Jaffe, Raitt, Heuer & Weiss, and several Michigan Foundations, including the Frey Foundation.

In the interview Milt Rohwer affirms this notion of education serving the interests of the business class when he states, “I’m hopeful employers will make their voice known in terms of their needs for very well trained people coming out of higher education and K-12 school systems.”

People will argue that this is a good thing if it provides people with good paying jobs, but what is usually not included in this discussion is that only a small percentage of people will get high paying jobs, even though taxpayers subsidize the public education system that provides the “talent” for these businesses. In this sense the business community only sees our educational system merely as a mechanism to groom new and talented employees that will help create the profits they seek to remain “competitive in the global economy.”

8 Comments leave one →
  1. stelle slootmaker permalink
    November 14, 2009 5:16 pm

    Thank you for this. As those in power continue to squeeze funding away from education, more of the little that’s left is paid to high salaried administrative staff; pricey text books and technology from highly profitable “educational” companies; maitaining and fueling a high-cost fleet of busses; and as your story demonstrates, to educational programs focused on grooming workers for both sides of the class divide–the few for the “brain” talent end of business and the “many” for the underpaid service professions.

    I believe its time for communities to take back their local schools, with parents and staff of each building setting its educational course… and kids walking to school… yes, even a mile uphill in the snow. What this country needs is more critical thinkers who can find ways to make democracy work rather than another generation of wage slaves.

  2. Kate Wheeler permalink
    November 14, 2009 8:42 pm

    Stelle, I feel that some of the details in your post sound inaccurate, and your connection of the school system itself to the special-interest group that the Business Journal article describes is unclear to me.

    The biggest expense for any public school goes to the salaries and benefits of teachers. The second-largest expense is facility costs, particularly heating. Teachers and heating seem to me to be crucial elements in running a school.

    Buses also are expensive (which is why Grand Rapids switched over part of its busing program to the Rapid), but not by any means at the top of the list. And while you make a statement that kids can walk to school, in many cases, that’s impossible. You seem to be forgetting that with all the school closures, some children would have to walk literally across several neighborhoods to get to their schools. And some children simply cannot walk, because of physical disabilities, asthma, or other health issues. Some buses are always going to be a necessity in running a school system.

    As for those “highly profitable educational companies,” are you aware that in the last five years, four of the largest educational publishers in the US have gone out of business? Even McGraw-Hill, which is the largest educational publisher in the *world*, is reporting yet another loss of 14 percent just for this past quarter, and has had to shut down whole divisions of its operations in order to stay afloat. The fact is that educational publishing traditionally has had very, very small profit margins. A lion’s share of the expense of any textbook or resource book goes to the author, who is often a teacher who has tested the materials in his/her own classroom. It is possible, of course, to turn a profit on textbook sales, but profit is greatly reduced by how much work–such as writing, fact-checking, editing, illustration, layout, educational testing, and field testing–goes into the creation of those materials. The costs are huge.

    I am in complete agreement that it’s disturbing to read of special interest groups whose goal it is to create a new generation of obedient workers rather than to encourage students to explore their own talents regardless of what kind of “job” might be related to them. But I don’t feel you can connect that so closely with what’s going on in schools themselves. There are a lot of flaws, and definititely abuses in the dispersement of funds in public schools. But I also think you’ll find that a majority of teachers are not conspiring to turn out noncritical thinkers who will be sucked into the capitalist machine as wage slaves. Educators don’t seem to me to be the real enemies in this scenario. And while I’m a believer in local control, I think that such control has to be well informed and accurate in order to be effective.

  3. stelle slootmaker permalink
    November 15, 2009 3:24 am

    I don’t claim to be an expert on education. Mine was a gut response based on having had five children in public schools over a span of more than 20 years and serving on the board of an alternative high school for ten years–those experiences have led me to believe that the contemporary American way of education is broken.

    I did not say that the goal of teachers is to create wage slaves… some of the most caring, dedicated folks I know have been the teachers I have met as a parent and a board member. Might I mention, the very best teachers I had the honor of working with were chewed up and spit out by the district they worked in.

    I realize that teacher salaries take the biggest share of budget–as well they should. These are the folks doing the work. And thank you for mentioning facility costs. While shiny new buildings are nice, I wonder who they truly benefit–the kids or the construction companies? The best elementary school any of my children attended was a private school housed in a rarely renovated 128-year-old building. Again, it was the teachers who made school work.

    I understand that no urban school district could pass a resolution next week to get rid of all of its busses. (I do not live in the GR district.) But think how revisiting the concept of neighborhood schools within walkable distances could cut costs, reduce energy consumption and get kids active.

    Year after year, I have heard schools emphasize how important parental involvement is for student success. However, the current system rarely allows parental engagement except as fund raisers, party hosts, field trip chaperones, etc. Parents have no real power in the public school heirarchy. As one who has tried hard to effect change and stand up for my children, in all public schools except one alternative school, I came away feeling like I had been hitting my head against the proverbial wall. If we had small local schools that engaged parents as true partners in the process of education, I think we might be surprised at how parental involvement would increase.

    I don’t pretend to keep up on the Dow Jones scores of textbook manufacturers. But I do know there’s lots of money to be made off our public schools… money that I think could be put to better use. Which brings us back to groups like Michigan Future, which are looking for ways to “cash in” on the current educational system.

  4. Kate Wheeler permalink
    November 15, 2009 4:37 am

    Stelle, forgive me–I seem to have taken some of your statements too literally. I completely understand your frustration with the current school system. And you’re right; parents are shut out and held at a distance, when they should be allowed to engage as much as they wish in their children’s educations. I have a friend who had an experience very similar to yours–she pulled one of her children out of a public school and put him in an alternative school, and the experience of how she was treated was night and day. She consequently put her other children into that school as well.

    As far as facilities go, I wasn’t speaking to the cost of new buildings, just operating the old ones and keeping the lights on. I agree there’s too much emphasis on new facilities when better programs and a stronger emphasis on areas such as the arts go begging for lack of funding. That’s why I said that I thought there was considerable mishandling of funds in public schools. On the other hand, those same utility and operating costs make it impossible to keep partially populated schools open when students can be grouped together to make one full school building.

    As students get to high school, there can be a lot of “what are you going to be, how are you going to make a living” discussion coming from various sectors of education–counseling, visiting speakers, and some teachers as well. It would be wonderful if programs could be introduced to help students see a wider range of choices. For example, in Vermont there are some alternative schools that offer classes in sustainable living. Students are taught how to plan and plant gardens, recycle rainwater, find alternative heat sources to public utilities, etc. This gives students the means to start thinking about how they can lessen their dependence on a traditional wage and provides more options to bypass the corporate world.

    It’s discouraging to think how much can be done, and isn’t. On the other hand, public schools are the only chance that many people have at an education. And there are some expenses–heat, teacher salaries, transportation, educational materials–that are unavoidable in offering that education to those who can’t afford alternative choices.

    And I’m afraid I’m still unclear on the connection you’re making between how schools are run and the goal that Michigan Future has–which seems to be to use the publically funded educational system in order to gain the workers they need for a knowledge-based, capitalist economy. This group is not looking to “make money off” the public school system in the way you say that textbook publishers are–but to benefit from the school system by attempting to co-opt its “product” of educated students for their business-oriented agenda.

  5. Kristi Arbogast permalink
    November 16, 2009 5:43 pm

    Reading this post and the previous comments made me think of this quote from Wendell Berry’s essay “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear”:
    “The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or “accessing” what we now call “information”–which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it mean putting first things first.”

    Based on this, it seems that the alternative school in Vermont is heading down the right road, making sure children are taught to engage in the world and to critically approach it in a new, insightful way rather than pushing children through the K-12 system focusing primarily on test scores and making them fit into this business model “product” that Michigan Future Inc. and Rohwer seek to capitalize on.

  6. Kate Wheeler permalink
    November 16, 2009 9:27 pm

    Kristi, that’s a cogent and beautiful quote. Thanks for posting it.

  7. stelle slootmaker permalink
    November 16, 2009 10:45 pm

    Yes indeedy!

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