Why the Drive to Prepare Students to 'Compete Globally' Entirely Misses the Point

On the list of empty rhetoric that's thrown into the ring for the reformster dog and pony show, we should include "compete globally."

This phrase is frequently used as the bottom line for the reformster argument: We need standards so we can raise test scores so we can prove that students are career and college ready. Why? So they can compete globally.

What does that even mean? Compete with which parts of the globe? Compete at what?

There are many areas in which we are not winning global competitions. While Americans go hungry and tons of tons of edible food end up in landfills, France has made it illegal for stores to throw food away. While Americans (and their government) get rich off young people trying to get a college education, many countries recognize the benefits of making it easy to home-grow educated adults with no-cost colleges. And the U.S. remains one of the absolute worst countries in the world for child-care leave. Anything for the children, except letting them have their mothers handy during the first months of life.

And Estonia? That country we're worried about catching up to? I learned this week that it is the leader in free wifi for everybody (instead of preserving it as a private source of corporate profit).

Nevertheless, isn't the U.S. still a major world power? Isn't China still trying to imitate us economically? Are we not among the world's leaders, economically and politically? Also, our women just won the World Cup, so in your face, global competition.

So what do our students need to be doing about competing globally?

When reformsters talk about competing globally, they're generally talking about jobs and economics. Like this sentence that leads off a White House essay about competing globally: "To create true middle-class security, we must out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world, positioning American companies to thrive in a 21st-century economy."

There are two problems here.

The first is the use of the term "American companies." I'm not sure that anybody even knows what that means anymore. GE is a quintessential American company; we can all remember various GE products being advertised no matter how old or young we are. But of GE's roughly 300,000 employees, fewer than half (about 134,000) are in the US. "American" automaker Chrysler barely employs more Americans than "Japanese" Toyota.

Five years ago, when McKinsey was beating the drum at the front of the reformy parade, they weren't even bothering to talk about "American companies" as much as "multinational companies headquartered in the US."

Multinationals owe no allegiance to a particular country, nor to a particular way of life. Robert Reich included this quote in a 2012 look at the issue: An Apple executive says, “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.” 

Nor, for that matter, is Apple obliged to solve China's problems either, and so Apple, like many companies, benefits from a culture in which people sacrifice their lives for a meager paycheck. China's working conditions suck, but that's not the multinational's problem. It is, in fact, to its benefit. 

And that brings us to the second problem with the White House statement. 

Reformsters repeatedly talk about this global competition as if it's just a matter of education instead of controlling costs. This paper by the Center for American Progress gives exactly one sentence to the issue:

"We are quite familiar with what economists call 'global labor arbitrage,' the substitution of high-wage workers in advanced economy countries with low-wage workers in developing economies."

Having noted their familiarity, the writers spend the rest of the paper speaking as if competitiveness is strictly a matter of education and training, and not a willingness to provide labor at the lowest possible costs.

The examples are endless. GE is sitting on a mountain of money. Yet even as GE has moved jobs to cheaper overseas locations, it has slashed benefits and created a two-tier pay system for its American workers. Does the recent kerfluffle about Microsoft laying off workers while pressing Congress for more guest worker visas seem familiar? That's because we went through the same kerfluffle a year ago. Google "do we need more STEM workers" and watch the arguments line up.

We aren't losing jobs because we can't "out-innovate, out-educate or out-build" the rest of the world, but because we don't have enough people willing to work for far less money in far crappier conditions. (Even if we were, you don't raise people who can out-innovate anyone by forcing students through a one-size-fits-all, test-driven straightjacket of an education program; even China understands that.)

It is true that American students are poorly equipped to compete in a marketplace when they've been told, "I've got 10 Chinese workers willing to live in a dorm away from home and work 80-hour weeks for peanuts. Can you beat that?" But it's not entirely clear how college and career-ready standards, backed up by high-stakes testing fueling a big stick threat-heavy approach to public schools will help.

I can find plenty of writing about the issues in big broad terms, but try as I might, I can't find somebody who lays out the direct connection. I'm 18 and I've proven I can pass a test about literature taught the David Coleman way — what will that allow me to say in a job interview that will make a potential employer say, "Yes, I definitely want to hire you, and not that guy in China."

Exactly what is the connection between passing PARCC and scoring a good middle-class job?

Reformsters keep trying to frame the issue as one of worker worthiness. Surely our American workers would be better paid at better jobs if they deserved to be. The fact that they aren't is proof that they don't deserve to be. I have no doubt that when Jeb Bush says American workers should work more hours, he's displaying the reformster disconnect, not even noticing that 1) vast number of employers won't hire people for more than part-time jobs; and 2) employers just fought hard for their right to screw workers out of overtime pay.

In other words, we have somehow taken a broad economic problem — the human costs of corporations that want to pay absolute bottom dollar for labor — and turned it into the workers' fault. Don't whine to me, Mr. Smith: if you had gotten a better education, working part-time at the widget store would pay better.

The global competition is to scour the globe to find the cheapest good-enough labor to be found so corporate coffers can be crammed full. Multinationals are on their way to reducing national governments to the role of human resources departments — get us a good applicant pool for jobs, take care of healthcare costs and any other maintenance costs for keeping the human capital in working order. And so nations are in a global competition to see which can bring the most good-enough human capital under budget.

Who's going to compete for the job of looking out for the interests of the human capital? Turns out there is no global competition to be best at that job.

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