Conference
on the Right
Michael Barrett

Maintaining Momentum,
Sep 21-23, 1996


"Maintaining Momentum," gathered educators, industry leaders, and vendors of educational material to San Antonio. Organized by the National Tech Prep Network, the conference was designed to update members on changes in the Tech Prep and School-to-Work movement, and generate ideas for implementing these programs in secondary and postsecondary schools.

Tech Prep is an education program called for in the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technological Act of 1990 (Perkins II). Perkins II attempted to mandate educational reform in order to:

make the United States more competitive in the world economy by developing more fully the academic and occupational skills of all segments of the population...through concentrating resources on improving educational programs leading to academic and occupational skill competencies needed to work in a technologically advanced society.

Tech Prep is one of many programs developed in the history of federal vocational education legislation. It traces its genealogy to the first decade of the 20th century. At that time, labor unions and progressives like Jane Addams decried the generalist nature of public education and called for more resources to help students achieve gainful employment. That reform movement culminated in the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which set stringent guidelines for publicly funded vocational education (Greenwood 7-16). Since that time, vocational education has continued to be a lively site for educational reform.

In 1984 Congress passed the Carl Perkins Vocational Education Act (Perkins I), a descendent of the Smith-Hughes. This particular movement surfaced during the same time of the study A Nation at Risk, the damning critique of public education published in 1983. Perkins I specifically targeted disadvantaged populations and called for a reevaluation of vocational education in light of the restructuring of the American economy.

Perkins II reflected a more directive approach than Perkins I, with specific programs to be funded. Dale Parnell, in his foundational The Neglected Majority(the 75% of high school students who do not go on to baccalaureates) provided the rationale for Tech Prep: why educate all students as if they are preparing for college when most of them aren't?

Essentially, Parnell called for an education that would lead to the production of competent workers who had been educated contextually-that is through relevant, "real-life" contexts. Most often, these "real-life" contexts could be found in workplaces. Parnell called for, and the Perkins II attempted to encourage, an "application rich" (Parnell 11) education for those of the neglected majority.

The political orientation of such a movement, although characterized here as "the right," is tricky. There is a populist, anti-elitist tone to it. Parnell attacked the conservative back-to-basics battle cries of William Bennett as being elitist and ignorant of the plight of the majority of students. Daniel Hull, another leading proponent, calls Tech Prep "reform for working people" (33). Universities are seen as sites for the education of a privileged class, disconnected from the scene of "real work." Parnell notes, "More and more Americans have come to recognize that a Ph.D. in history or a master's in Art Appreciation will not necessarily result in a promising job in the future" (Politics 97).

On the other hand, the call for "applied academics"-academics led by the contexts of the marketplace-signify the movement's subservience to capitalism, which forms such privileged classes in the first place. Where the Horace Mann model of education would focus on "democracy" in a "capitalist democracy," the Tech Prep model would focus on "capitalist."

Parnell calls for a seamless web in education characterized by "context, connectedness, continuity" (15). Students help to produce their own education because they can see a connection between schoolwork and "real work." Parnell believes "we have allowed education to become disconnected from real life, real work, real citizenship" (13).

In the Tech Prep philosophy, the ideal context for learning is economically located. The quality of the "real" that Parnell calls for can be found at work. What counts for reality is what can be counted in an accountant's book.

At "Gaining Momentum," during a presentation, a teacher/consultant related that when his advocacy for applied academics meets with resistance, he replies, "Look, I'm trying to save your job here." In other words, educators will be evaluated in terms of the prevailing market standards-efficiency of their process and the quality of their product. Just as if they were manufacturers cranking out widgets.

The subtext is that teachers should fear downsizing in the name of innovation and efficiency as any middle manager would.

In manufacturing, quality is measured by the rate of defect, efficiency (in part) by productivity, inventory, and turnaround time. And even though these functions have analogues in education, business measures them statistically. To implement applied communications (read: English), for example, a quality, efficient education would be measured as the successful completion of a series of predetermined routines that could be tracked numerically.

Of course, if the educator is at the forefront of reform, a code writer, there is less fear of being re-engineered out of a job. And because there is money to be allocated for these programs, it is in the educator's best interest to meet the requirements of the grantor of money-in this case the federal government.

To be a member, then, of the reform-to feel secure in employment, is to speak the code-the phrases that signify allegiance with the program. At "Gaining Momentum" these phrases included:

The use of these phrases extended to the numerous merchants at the conference: purveyors of videotape series, textbooks, computer programs. The proliferation of commodities points to the fundamentally economic nature of educational reform-who gets the money this time and where will it be spent?

In its Foucauldian analysis of political power, the American Vocational Association's (AVA) book, The Politics of Vocational Education, relates that one of the goals of a reform movement is to "Create a class whose interest it is to continue the program" (13). The book provides a rhetoric for how to do this-from lobbying the federal government to building popular support.

The corporate will of those implementing the reform will work to gain support for the movement because it is in their self-interest to do so. But because educational reform is frequently enacted legislatively, politicians intervene. The corporate will, then, sets itself up in Washington as a lobbying effort.

Tech Prep was revised by President Bill Clinton, no doubt with the help of lobbyists, in the School-to-Work Opportunities Act of 1994. School-to-Work is based on the belief that:

The workplace in the United Sates is changing in response to heightened international competition and new technologies...which are shrinking the demand for and reducing the earning power of unskilled labor.

In response, the Act proposes to:

establish a national framework within which all states can create statewide school-to-work systems that are part of comprehensive educational reform...to facilitate the creation of a universal, high quality, school-to-work transition system...to identify and navigate paths to productive and progressively more rewarding roles in the work force...to utilize workplaces as active learning environments in the educational process by making employers joint partners with educators...

School-to-Work is run jointly by the Secretaries of Labor and Education and augments Tech Prep with systems to help students better prepare for the workforce. It calls for career awareness to begin as early as possible and no later than 7th grade. In addition, it mandates market analysis which would enable educators to determine which skills students should acquire in order to gain local employment.

Whereas Tech Prep contained an implicit critique of Bill Bennett's anachronistic education philosophy, Phyllis Schlafley's ultra-conservative group, The Eagle Forum, vociferously attacks School-to-Work. To the Eagle Forum, School-to-Work represents unprecedented federal intrusion in public education-while bemoaning the fact that the Act doesn't mandate learning how to read through phonics.

Although the Eagle Forum's view lacks consistency (and one gets the impression the members of the Forum desire a theocracy rather than a corporate oligarchy), there ought to be concern about such programs.

When education is shaped by market demands, "Instead of being subjects for the objects, we become subjects to the objects" (qtd. in Perloff Wittgenstein). Students are taught under the sign of the dollar.

Of course, business-education partnerships do not include the promulgation of workers' rights or techniques for organizing unions-employers help make curriculum and employers seek compliant workers. A businessman puts it succinctly in a recent edition of Tech Directions, in an article on business/education partnerships, "we look for people who know how to behave."

What is best for employers, though, might not be best for the employees, or the economy. School-to-Work/Tech Prep ignores what's necessary to keep the economy growing-creativity, risk-taking, independent thinking. These qualities move the entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurship is the only way to be a progressive capitalist-you leap, momentarily, out of the system by creating what the system lacks. The monad shakes loose from the calculus of already existing market structures.

The writing practices encouraged in Tech Prep and School-to-Work assume that there is no way out of these structures. Reality is not a Borgesian library; it is a corporate flow chart. In applied communications, careers provide the hermeneutics for literature: "Write a memo from Beowulf to Hrothgar detailing how he will solve the Grendel Problem"; "Write a want ad that Willie Loman would respond to"; "Write a Crimestoppers script for the murder of an Algerian in The Stranger."

The irony is that the left is often criticized for its materialist analysis of literature. But where the left reads literature as a way to criticize the economic system, applied communications lets the economic system set up a franchise on the literature's site. Literature's apologia is only the way it can be related to work. This again illustrates the belief that reality is constituted economically. Period. The period in which we live.

In repressing the ability of literature to disrupt and challenge, applied communications reduces English Instruction to a series of rhetorical exercises written on the commonplaces of business. Texts become sites where the student's imagination is given its market function.

The idea of universal career-oriented education renders agency as an economic function. The students' purpose is to fill a preexisting economic slot that is identified through counseling, testing, and market analysis. The seamless web begins in elementary school when students begin to choose and then train for a career, and doesn't end until they retire some 60 years later.

This is an acquiescence to market forces that would have us believe there is no agency outside of the economic, no potential outside of wage-earning. The student is thematized as a worker and work is the theme of education.

To be sure, it is bad history to assume that School-to-Work and Tech Prep represent the final victory of base capitalism over the ideals of imagination and creation. These programs frequently expand, entrench, then become extinct.

Nor can we deny that education ought to lead to satisfying work. All beings must labor in order to continue being. And education should be able to effectively reach the 75% of students who do not go on to college. (Although the quality of life would probably improve if all competent plumbers were adequate philosophers.)

Social programs like School-to-Work and Tech Prep are necessary, but there is no necessity in being myopic mimics of an assembly of business practices that are often themselves questionable.

Perhaps education ought to not only supply students with the skills necessary to succeed in the job market, but also provide students with the tools that would enable them to re-program the market in such a way as to bypass the circuits of greed and oppression that produce so much human waste. Instead of preparing students to step out of the classroom into the economy, students would be able to step out of the economy, into a class of their own production.


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