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Teens as Political Scapegoats

Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed into law “what’s called one of the nation’s strictest public school curriculums” on April 20, 2006, claiming it would “help Michigan’s economic revival”. While it should obviously be patently absurd to link high school curriculum to the economic recovery of a thoroughly depressed state like Michigan, this action serves Governor Granholm quite well as she seeks re-election this year. It creates the illusion that poor high-school education is a key part of Michigan’s economic problems, as well as the illusion that her action will correct the problem. The reality is that she is running for re-election on the backs of a demonized minority, youth, just as her political role model Bill Clinton did in 1996, with his welfare reforms that screwed the country’s poor.

The educational bias in the new education guidelines for Michigan should be obvious by the new high-school graduation requirements that have “no opt outs”: four years of English, three years of math, three years of science, and two years of foreign language. The Social Studies, Phys Ed and Arts requirements all have “opt out” clauses. The bias against educating youth in history, civic government, humanities, creative arts, and physical activities isn’t anything new, as the emphasis on standardized testing in K-12 education has clearly illustrated. What the new Michigan high school graduation requirements do is force all students onto the college prep track, whether they like it or not.

We can’t provide decent jobs for most of our college/university graduates as it is (much less those with higher degrees), and yet we are mandating that this is the only possible track for high-school education for youth. As it stands, way less than half of U.S. high-school graduates go on to higher education, for any number of reasons, but future youth in Michigan are being forced into preparing for it, and our schools are going to be held responsible for making this fantasy a reality. It works as politics, but it’s a recipe for disaster in the real world for youth and teachers.

That’s not to say that the prep school model is awful. I met these requirements myself in high school, as did an overwhelming majority of the students I teach at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids and at Michigan State University. The problem lies in applying it to all high-school students, regardless of their future educational plans. This is the meat-grinder approach to education envisioned by Roger Waters in Pink Floyd’s The Wall, in the song Another Brick in the Wall (see the movie rendition for further illustration). This is the realization of a long-term goal to force all youth through the same experiences that was a key impetus behind making high-school ( education mandatory for all youth in 1935 (see for example Thomas Hine’s The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager).

Ask any junior high or high school teacher about these new graduation requirements, and they will tell you the obvious (devoid of political spin): more students will flunk out of high school before graduation. As it stands, a significant percentage of high school students flunk out before graduation. Why in the world do we want to increase this percentage by leaps and bounds?

Consider a recent Chicago Tribune lead article whose title put it succinctly, “Of 100 Chicago Public School Freshmen, Six will Get a College Degree.” Obviously Chicago isn’t in Michigan, but the message applies just as well to the equally troubled Detroit school system, among others. So our answer is to force all kids onto the prep school track. Even if the percentage of college grads increases by 100 per cent, a fantasy for sure, is it worth denying two or three times as many students (or more) access to a high school diploma, a basic requisite for any decent job?

This problem reaches far beyond the urban areas we’ve obviously decided to starve in terms of investment resources. Many districts on the edge of cities as well as small towns across the state will see a similar rise in students flunking out. Allegedly this problem will be accounted for, by “phasing in” the requirements, in the year 2011. It starts with today’s 8th graders, in other words. As if we can make them all prep schoolers in five years, as if by next year we can have them ready to pass math courses through geometry and algebra-2 by then (stated requirements), among the other requirements. What are the Michigan governor and the legislature smoking?

What we need to do is to get youth interested in their own education, to make them care about what they are doing in the K-12 experience. Yet we are clearly moving in the opposite direction. Governor Granholm claims this strict model will better prepare students by giving them the tools to be productive workers. At the same time, high-school programs that offer “hands on experiences” are being shut down as funding is redirected, like wood shop, metal shop, auto shop, etc. So book learnin’ and testing for all trump actually doing something concrete and learning practical skills for all students.

We have mandated constant testing, which forces educators to teach to the stupid tests (again, ask any jr. high/high school teacher), and now are mandating strict curriculum requirements that we know can’t be met. At the same time, we are cutting educational investment in the arts and extra-curricular activities, the things that actually keep youth interested in their own education. Outside observers would conclude that we want youth to fail in their education. And you know what? They’d be absolutely correct!

Why are we setting youth up to fail? Put another way, why would a Democrat governor of Michigan sign on to this agenda? Because it looks as though we’re doing something to help youth, even though we’re actually screwing them. As our corporate-profit dominated economy produces fewer and fewer decent occupational opportunities, as is obviously happening (Michigan: #1 in the U.S.A. in lost median income over the last 10 years), we must reinforce the illusion of meritocracy that decent opportunities only are afforded to those that deserve them. Simply put, the undeserving (those that can’t meet the prep school requirements) will have earned their sorry fate, as service workers, military sacrificial lambs, or prison residents. As opportunities become further stratified, we must justify harsh treatment of those with none.

Take it a step further, and you can clearly see social scapegoat being created here: public school teachers. We are mandating the impossible for them to achieve in their task. We have already decreed that they must teach to ridiculous standardized tests, which illustrate nothing substantive (but look like real results because, after all, they are numbers, which don’t lie, right?).

Now we expect achievement results, as if teachers can magically make students care about their least favorite courses. Guess who will be held up to public ridicule for rising drop-out rates? Not the legislative idiots who came up with the harsh requirements, not the governor running for re-election who signed it into law. Nope. It’ll be those lousy public school teachers. And the unions that protect them ­ yeah, those damn teacher unions!

So now comes Michigan Governor Granholm, signing this absurd high-school requirements bill into law. Like Bill Clinton, with his welfare reform act of 1996, she’s trashing a captive audience. After all, is it likely the teachers’ unions will support Amway heir Dick DeVos. It’s what Clinton did with people who believed in a social safety net but swallowed his destruction of welfare and any social safety net. Even worse, she’s selling out future youth, just as Clinton sold out future poor folks who might need help. At least we’ll have more reason to blame the poor for their own poverty, while congratulating ourselves on our own success. Hooray!

RAYMOND GARCIA teaches Sociology courses at Aquinas College, Grand Rapids, MI, and Michigan State U. He can be reached at garciara@msu.edu

 

 

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